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NBA Sunday: Future Looks Bright in Sacramento

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Future Looks Bright in Sacramento

The Sacramento Kings have been one of the more perplexing teams in the NBA in recent years. Since the decline of the core group that made them contenders in the early 2000s, the Kings have been through enough head coaches to populate an entire division and wasted enough draft picks to give Kings fans nightmares thinking about what might have been. Now, however, the Kings believe they are headed in the right direction. Mike Malone is at the helm of the team and he feels he has some important pieces in place to think about winning long-term.

“I’m a huge fan of Isaiah [Thomas],” Malone told Basketball Insiders. “It’s funny, with him not playing the last couple of games you see the importance that he has on this team and the effect he has on this team. He’s not John Stockton, he’s not a true point guard, [but] I think a lot of people get caught up in what he’s not instead of really valuing him for what he is. He has a huge heart and he has a mindset of never going to quit. Last pick in the draft, he’s a gym rat and he loves the game. I think we’re lucky to have him and obviously we’ll be looking forward to having him back as soon as possible. He’s had a tremendous year. Before the trade [for Rudy Gay that sent out Greivis Vasquez], he was our scoring off of the bench and he would have been in Sixth Man of the Year contention if he would have stayed in that role. He was forced to be a starter and he’s done a good job with that, trying to understand the difference between scorer off of the bench and starting point guard facilitator, getting everyone else involved while also making sure that he stays true to himself. I think he’s had an outstanding year and I’m really proud of the success that he’s had on an individual basis. I know in the future it’ll translate into more team wins if we can keep him.”

When Thomas isn’t running the offense, or when he’s in scoring mode, Malone has the utmost confidence in the other two pieces around which the Kings are building – DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay – and trusts that they’ll make plays.

“[Isaiah]’s shown that he’s willing and capable of being that guy,” Malone explained. “He’s always going to be a scorer, but I think he’s shown the willingness to be a facilitator and to be more of a point guard than just a scorer. He’s always looking to try to get better and be the best player that he can be and that’s the passion that he has. Aside from him, we have a big man in DeMarcus Cousins who is a willing and capable play-maker, as well. He can do it out of the post and he can also make plays off of the dribble. He’s shown that he can be a guy that could potentially average around five assists per game. Then Rudy has got the ball in his hands quite a bit as well. Both he and DeMarcus attract a crowd and they command a double-team some nights. I think they’re doing a better job on making the right play against those double-teams and I think we’ll be facilitating by committee.”

The Kings may be one of the worst teams in the NBA, but since the arrival of Gay, Coach Malone believes he has a vision of what it will take to win big in the future. Gay can opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, but Malone hopes to see Gay in the mix with Cousins and Thomas going forward.

“I’m not even sure of the exact record, but I know we’ve shown the ability to be a great competitor and beat a lot of the best teams in the NBA when those guys are all playing,” Malone said of Cousins, Gay and Thomas. “When they play at a high level, three 20-point scorers, we become very hard to guard because you have a low-post force, a wing with the versatility and athleticism that Rudy has and a point guard in Isaiah who can score, get to the foul line and make plays for his teammates. Not that many teams have that three-headed attack. It’s great to have and hopefully we’ll be able to keep those together because with that core you add some pieces to that and you allow Ray [McCallum] and Ben [McLemore] to continue to mature and get better and I think we have a solid foundation. Those guys, offensively, are terrific and they’re getting better defensively.”

One big issue the Kings have had, of course, is that with the playoffs out of the question players can fall into the mindset of getting their own touches and their own shots and forgetting about team goals.

“That’s something that we talk a lot about,” Malone admitted. “I knew going into this year that playoffs weren’t going to be in our season, so it was all about trying to change the culture, getting this team to play the right way and become a team that bought into playing defense. Since the New Year, our defense has been a lot better. It’s just really pounding that rock every day and not allowing it to happen and when it does happen nip it in the bud, watching it on film and holding guys accountable and then practicing it. When you look at our assists and turnovers they are not where we want them to be, but my whole thing is everyday let’s play it the right way and make a play for your teammate on offense and cover for you teammate on defense. It’s easier said than done, but give our guys credit because, for the most part, they are trying to go out there and do that every night.”

The Kings might be far removed from the playoff picture, but Malone is working to instill some habits that will yield positive long-term results as the 2013-14 season winds down.

“It’s one thing that we’ve been talking about probably for the last 15 games or so is, ‘Alright we’re not in the playoff race but every night that we play, every game that we go into, obviously we prepare to win,’” Malone said. “It’s an opportunity for us to establish the Kings’ identity and who we want to be moving forward. We don’t take those opportunities lightly. Just because we are out of the playoff race, we don’t want to just be a team that goes out there and plays recreational ball. Every night we need to try to become the team that defends, rebounds, values the ball and get set in runs with discipline. I think how we finish this season is important for us going into next season, not necessarily with the wins and losses, but as long as we are playing the right way and competing at a high level then those are things that we can build on going forward.”

The Kings certainly have their work cut out for them, but they have a great deal of talent in their locker room and a potentially franchise-changing draft pick ahead in this summer’s NBA draft. A team whose future has been murky, to say the least, could become both clear and positive if they have the kind of summer they need to have to move their rebuilding project aggressively forward.

Marvin Williams Finds His Niche

Being drafted high in the NBA draft can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, it means that some team thought enough of you to use a highly-coveted lottery pick to acquire you. On the other hand, it sets sky-high expectations for you from the team and the fans alike. In the case of Marvin Williams, the second overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, the unconventional path has helped him extend his NBA career even though he never lived up to those lottery pick expectations.

Now with the Utah Jazz (and lately a reserve), Williams has made himself an invaluable member of a rebuilding team that has some important core pieces already in place.

“It’s part of being a professional,” Williams told Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune recently. “You’ve got to be ready for adjustments. In this game, changes happen — quarter to quarter, game to game, week to week. It means more to some players than others. Some guys care about starting. They feel more comfortable starting. I don’t care at all, man. As long as I’m playing, I’m fine.”

Williams has made a career out of contributing more than just stats and averages to his teams, something Jazz head coach Ty Corbin absolutely recognizes.

“[He's] invaluable,” Corbin said. “You see and recognize numbers, but the little things he does with this group — his presence, his voice in the locker room — those things are invaluable when you look at the overall scope of trying to keep the guys on the same page and trying to get better.”

Williams will be a free agent this summer, and while he is not one of the heralded names, he is a valuable commodity to the Jazz. They reportedly had the opportunity to trade him for a first-round pick in this summer’s deep and talented draft but they turned it down, hoping to keep Williams in town long-term.

“I think it would be great [to bring Williams back],” Corbin said. “Who knows what will happen, but he’s a great guy to have on the squad.”

As difficult as it is to live up to being a lottery pick, it is also difficult to find a niche in the NBA and have a long and fruitful career. It’s a tribute to Williams’ hard work and dedication that he has been able to overcome those initial expectations and find his place in the NBA.

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About Bill Ingram

Bill Ingram

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.