Sunday Musings: Changing a losing culture

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins smiles at head coach Michael Malone. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Losing is brutal.

No one likes to struggle through an 82-game schedule, dropping 50-plus games a year.  Most players come into the NBA from winning programs, and the losses can destroy even the toughest of competitors.  Losing breaks your spirit.  It ruins chemistry and shakes the foundation of a franchise.

The Sacramento Kings know what losing can do to a ball club.  They have lived through nearly a decade of horrible win percentages, and rarely has there been a glimmer of hope of recovery.

After going 35-3 (.921 percent) in his lone season at Kentucky, DeMarcus Cousins has compiled a record of 131-263 (.332 percent) as a professional player.

For a player who hates to lose above all else, joining the Kings was the worst-case scenario for the star big.

But that is the reality for college stars going in the lottery.  Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein went 88-24 in his three years at Kentucky, including 38-1 last season.  He is guaranteed to lose more games this season in Sacramento than he did in his entire college career, whether the Kings are good or not.  That is a harsh reality.

The Kings are riding a long drought.  Nine straight lottery-bound seasons have the Kings in panic mode.  They desperately want to build a winner before they move into a new arena next fall, and they have done their best to assemble a winner.

Sacramento paid a premium to add veterans with winning pedigrees this offseason.  Rajon Rondo has a ring from his days with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with the Celtics.  He is a proven winner, but one with a history of injuries and personality issues.

After a stretch at Kentucky, like Cousins and Cauley-Stein, Rondo has played in 94 playoff games in his nine years in the league.  If he can get back to his All-Star form, Sacramento has a chance.

Rondo isn’t the only winner brought in by Vlade Divac.  There’s 29-year-old gunner Marco Belinelli, who spent the last two seasons playing for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.  The Italian-born wing has a ring and 48 games of playoff experience under his belt.  He understands the grind of the NBA and how an elite organization is run.

The same can be said for center Kosta Koufos.  The 7-footer has logged playoff minutes for the Jazz, Nuggets and Grizzlies over his seven-year career.  He hasn’t won a championship, but he’s won 50 games or more the last three seasons and didn’t come to Sacramento to snap that streak.

Caron Butler won’t be asked to play a huge role on the floor, but his 864 regular-season games and 65 career playoff appearances add the type of experience the Kings need.  Butler is a pro’s pro and a winner.

Divac clearly had an objective when building the 2015-16 Sacramento Kings.  To change the fate of his perennial losing club, the 7-foot Serb has turned to players who know what it feels like to win at the NBA level.  They also know what type of commitment it takes to be great players and how much sacrifice it takes to win.

The Kings’ culture has been awful for nearly a decade.  It has been the epitome of a losing franchise.  Over the last two years, all but Cousins has been sent packing, but the losses have continued to accumulate.  Change wasn’t an option; it was a necessity.

Divac isn’t the first who has tried to rebuild the Kings, but he certainly is the first to recruit winners in an attempt to change the trajectory of his club.  If he can get head coach George Karl — and his 1,142 wins — to buy into the process, the Kings have a chance to improve on their 29-win total from last season.

There was a time when Cousins couldn’t envision losing more than a handful of games.  Divac wants to return his young star to that mindset.  After nine years without a sniff of the playoffs, players, coaches, management and ownership are convinced they are on the right path.  Only time will tell how this group will mesh, but there is a plan in place and a hope for a brighter future.

Vlade Divac has turned to winners to change his team’s fortunes.  Worse ideas have come through Sacramento.

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James Ham

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