(Eds: Clarifies Evans' contract status. With AP Photos.)
By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The Sacramento Kings are planning to play in California's capital city next year.
That statement alone might be enough to label the 2011-12 campaign a success for Sacramento fans considering the relocation fears that surrounded the franchise entering the season. When it comes to the Kings, things are never that simple.
Sacramento is saddled with all the same problems and uncertainty as a year ago.
A new arena is still needed to keep the Kings from leaving town. A talented young core has yet to blend together, and the roster still needs significant upgrades.
Kings coach Keith Smart, who replaced the fired Paul Westphal after a 2-5 start, had his contract extended for next season. Little else about the future - on and off the court - is that clear.
"I want to be in the playoffs with the best of them," Smart said. "I want to be there, this team wants to be there, this organization wants to be there. But we've got to be realistic. Are we a playoff team? No, not today."
Not even close.
The Kings were horrible for most of the season and had more drama than any NBA team playing in the serene setting of California's Central Valley ever should.
Westphal was fired two weeks into the season following a dispute with big man DeMarcus Cousins. Hyped rookie Jimmer Fredette flopped - his brother even oddly criticized Smart on Twitter before apologizing - and the emotional highs and lows of relocation chatter constantly swirled in a shortened season that never felt so long in Sacramento.
"This year, everybody wasn't really on the same page," said rookie Isaiah Thomas, one of the team's few bright spots. "The lockout, new coach, arena talk, all things like that. It was tough."
Thomas should know.
On the night of March 6, after the City Council passed an arena deal brokered by the NBA for the Kings, he stood by the side of a gleeful Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson - a former NBA All-Star - and spoke on behalf of the team. He thanked the scores of fans and media in attendance and expressed how happy players were to see the situation settled.
What a joke that news conference turned out to be.
The Maloof family that owns the Kings backed out of the tentative $391 million deal for a new downtown arena with the city, reigniting fears that the franchise could leave for Anaheim or consider Seattle's latest push. Johnson and the owners broke off talks again Friday after meeting at City Hall, and the two sides are sounding more and more like a couple headed for divorce.
Johnson declared an already dead deal dead again. He cited "differences irreconcilable" on the core issues, and a Maloof family spokesman said there are no further plans to meet with the city.
"I'm disappointed for Sacramento," Johnson said. "When you do all that you can, normally the reward is a victory, and I think our community was planning to win."
On the court, everything is also murky.
Sacramento went 22-44 and missed the playoffs for the sixth straight year. An up-and-coming group continues to show promise; however, such has been the case for years without taking that next leap forward.
This one was no different.
Cousins controlled his emotions better under Smart and is developing into one of the NBA's best young big men, Thomas - the 60th and final pick of the draft - went from roster hopeful to starting point guard to a candidate for the All-Rookie team, and roster flexibility remains one of the franchise's strengths.
That is, if it ever decides to spend big again.
Tyreke Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year, stayed healthy for the first time but his transition from point guard to wing player did nothing to help Sacramento win - or improve a league-worst defense that allowed 104.4 points per game. Evans, ending the third year of his four-year rookie deal, is eligible for an extension this summer.
Whether he - or the Kings - reach an agreement is another story.
All hope is not lost.
A year ago, it certainly seemed so. At the Lakers-Kings season finale last season, the franchise appeared ready to move to Anaheim, and tears flowed everywhere in what felt like the final Kings home game ever in Sacramento.
The Maloofs, unable to generate enough support from the NBA's Relocation Committee, decided to give the city another shot to approve a plan to help finance a new arena. While the Kings balked on the approved deal, fans at the Lakers-Kings finale "this year were like, `We're disappointed, we hope it works, but we're not going to cry,"' Johnson said. "There was just a different mindset.
"We've been through this before."
At the beginning of Thursday night's win over the resting Lakers, Cousins took the microphone and addressed the crowd, thanking fans for their support and promising the team will improve over the summer. He ended with, "See you next season."
Nothing is promised after that.
Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP