Not long ago, ARCO Arena was one of the most unique and hostile environments in the NBA. The Kings are a long way from recreating those glory days, but it’s time to notice their surprisingly good start.
Sacramento improved to 13-14 Monday night with a truly amazing comeback from a 35-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Bulls 102-98. Caveat No. 1: This outcome said more about how dysfunctional the Bulls than how good the Kings are. Caveat No. 2: It’s ridiculously early to start talking about a playoff race, but the Kings are only 2 1-2 games out of the eighth spot with 55 games to go. Just saying.
What are the keys to the Kings’ early success? Where do they go from here? Let’s break down the team from Sac-Town:
• Tyreke Evans: Brandon Jennings got much of the early buzz in the rookie of the year race, but Evans is fashioning a death grip on the award lately. Even if Blake Griffin comes back after the New Year, puts up consistent numbers, and single-handedly saves the Clippers, he will be hard-pressed to overtake Evans. This kid’s the real deal.
• Paul Westphal: Some thought the former Suns coach was coming back simply to go through the motions and cash a paycheck. Think again. Westphal, who hadn’t drawn up an NBA play since 2001, was the perfect coach for this team. He’s always excelled at coaching young players, and more importantly, he enjoys it. That kind of coaching is infectious.
• Jason Thompson: After showing flashes as a rookie, Thompson is taking full advantage of an expanded role, more minutes, and increased confidence. His averages have increased in every major offensive category, starting with scoring (from 11.1 ppg to 15.4). What’s interesting is that the Kings’ brass aren’t necessarily surprised by Thompson’s progress. Sources say he’s improved about as much as the team expected.
• Omri Casspi: While Evans, Jennings, DeJuan Blair, James Harden, Ty Lawson, and others have stood out in a surprisingly strong rookie class, no team has two rookies performing as well as Evans and Casspi. The first Israeli-born player in NBA history has exceeded the team’s expectations, emerging as a reliable starter with three 20-point games in the Kings’ last seven – two of them on the road.
• Beno Udrih: As with Luke Ridnour in Milwaukee, most people assumed Udrih would fade into the background with a talented lottery pick starting from Day 1 in the backcourt. But just as Ridnour has with Jennings, Udrih has settled into a key support role for Evans. Not only can Udrih’s ball-moving abilities allow Evans concentrate on penetrating and scoring, he’s also shooting 53 percent from the field and 45 percent from point range, both career highs.
• Kevin Martin: All of this is happening with the Kings’ best player out since early November with a wrist injury. Martin has begun shooting before games and is inching closer to his projected January return.
Disclaimer: The Kings understand that unexpected success can easily revert to expected mediocrity. GM Geoff Petrie and assistant GM Jason Levien also understand that Sacramento has enjoyed the third-easiest scheduled in the league thus far, with an opponent winning percentage of .452. Only the Nuggets and Celtics have had it easier. But the Kings’ rapid progress with this young group has changed the game for the front office as the trade deadline looms in February.
Having believed that this was probably going to be a non-playoff/development year, the team had every intention of letting Kenny Thomas’ $8.6 million expiring contract come off the books next summer and then explore at most a mid-level free agent. But if the Kings keep winning once Martin returns, Petrie is expected to be more open to dealing Thomas as part of a package that would bring back a solid front-line player with an eye toward transforming this lightning-in-a bottle start into a playoff berth.
Stranger things have happened. And at a time when the NBA is dominated by the haves at the expense of the have-nots, it’s good for the game when a plucky team from the hinterlands authors a surprising success story.