Get an in-depth look at six Kings storylines to follow as Sacramento prepares to tip-off the regular season.
After finishing sixth in the League in scoring but near the bottom in points allowed and defensive rating in 2011-12, Kings Head Coach Keith Smart entered training camp with the goal of revamping Sacramento’s all-around defense, emphasizing continuous effort and communication.
The Kings leader, pleased to see concepts the coaching staff has focused on implementing since early October translate to preseason action, praises his squad for the amount of additional work it’s put in learning new offensive sets and defensive schemes.
“It’s been a coach’s dream to have these guys following what we want them to do,” says Smart. “What’s been important and has been great is seeing the principles we started in training camp made it back here in our (preseason) games … Hopefully when we tip the ball off on our first (regular season) game, everything we’ve been doing is going to make it forward.”
Players have noticed a significant difference in mentality, composure and preparation from the previous season to 2012-13.
“You see that our togetherness has really made strides from last year,” said Chuck Hayes after a recent contest. “We’re holding each other accountable, we’re relying on the next man and we’re trusting each other.”
Newcomer James Johnson immediately noticed the way his teammates encourage each other to succeed rather than concentrate on personal accolades.
“Nobody cares who gets the shot, nobody cares who’s in (a game),” says Johnson. “When you hear that coming (from) guys like Tyreke (Evans) or DeMarcus (Cousins), you just figure, ‘All we want to do is win.’”
Even more so than supporting each other on the court, forging a close bond away from the hardwood – beginning with voluntary offseason workouts and extending to team-building exercises in Colorado Springs, Colo. – has been instrumental in Sacramento’s development.
“We’re tired of losing and (what) we have to do is treat each other as a family, inside and outside of the basketball court,” says eighth-year veteran Francisco Garcia. “And that’s what we’re doing.”
The tight-knit Kings finished preseason with a 5-2 record while holding opponents to a collective 44 percent shooting from the field.
“Everyday we’re coming in knowing we have to play defense, (while) last year … we were out there trying score the most points,” says Isaiah Thomas. “We know that in order to win, we have to get stops.
“This year, it’s just a different vibe – you come into practice (and) you know if you don’t work hard, you’re going to be the one looking bad.”
As Sacramento prepares to begin the regular season on Oct. 31 – returning for its “Blackout” Home Opener on Nov. 5 – in addition to improved defense, Kings.com explores intriguing storylines to watch throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
Lineup Versatility: Sporting a 14-man roster with a host of players capable of playing multiple positions, Smart utilized six different starting lineups in seven preseason contests, searching for the most effective combinations.
“Everything I’ve done is in preparation for the regular season with different lineups, different guys in the course of the game,” says Smart. “That’s all we care about – who’s on the floor at the moment for us to win.”
Although the Kings leader discloses he’s already decided which five players will start the regular season opener in Chicago, he has kept the group under wraps.
Smart also says he may alter his rotations and exploit Sacramento’s versatility based on its opponents throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
“It could be a game situation where there’s a matchup,” he says. “Look at some of the really, really good teams – sometimes, a guy just can’t play against a particular opponent. Rather than beating (myself) up just to have a guy on the floor playing, I have to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the matchup for that particular night.”
Johnson believes each player’s multidimensional skill set further bolsters Sacramento’s lineup flexibility.
“All five guys who go out there and play can do it all – from (Jason Thompson) to DeMarcus Cousins,” says Johnson. “Everybody can push the ball on the break, everybody can drive and kick – that’s why the offense we run is so interchangeable for everybody’s position.”
“We have a loaded hand,” adds Aaron Brooks. “It’s like, ‘What cards do you want to play?’
Cousins’ All-Star Bid: In his sophomore campaign, Cousins joined Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as only the third player in NBA history to average over 21 points (21.4), 12 rebounds (13.0), 1.5 steals (1.7) and one block (1.4) per 36 minutes.
No. 15 – who led the League in offensive rebounds (265) and ranked third in offensive rebound percentage (14.2) and total rebound percentage (19.8) in 2011-12 – has racked up the most boards by any Kings player over his first two seasons in the Sacramento era (1,402), ahead of Chris Webber (1,332), Lionel Simmons (1,331), Brad Miller (1,264) and Vlade Divac (1,157).
Witnessing an offseason commitment to conditioning from his center and continued all-around improvement as a weakside shot-blocker and pick-and-roll defender, Smart expects Cousins to compete for an NBA All-Defensive Team honorable mention.
“It’s not about defending a guy one-on-one in the post, but it’s about being active when you’re away from the ball, and he’s shown really good flashes of that,” says Smart. “People are talking about it – other coaches around the League are saying this guy is getting up on pick-and-rolls and seeing what he’s doing.”
Offensively, with another year of experience and added range to his multifaceted game, the Kentucky product could take another step forward, scoring more efficiently and setting new career-highs across the board.
“If he plays well and our team is winning at that time, I think he’ll have a chance (of being an All-Star),” says Smart, adding the goal is for Cousins to become a complete player over the coming seasons. “The focus for him is not so much to make an All-Star team – let’s move beyond that. Let’s put you on track to try and become an (All-NBA Team Member), because All-Pro is all about merit and what you do, and not about you trying to be popular at that particular time.”
Cousins led all Western Conference centers in scoring (15.9 points per game) and steals (1.7) in addition to recording 8.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 23.9 minutes of action during the preseason, putting him on track to become the first Kings player since No. 4 to record over 20 points, 10 boards and one block per contest during the regular season.
“DeMarcus Cousins, in my opinion, will be the best big man in this game in four years,” said Webber, a five-time All-Star, on NBA TV’s Kings Season Preview Show.
“I was talking to Charles Barkley – I don’t know if I’ve seen all the gifts this guy (has) in one (player).”
As the regular season opener approaches, No. 15 says he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m going to have to be consistent,” he says. “I’m going to have to play my game and do my job on a nightly basis.”
T-Rob for ROY: Already ahead of the learning curve as an NBA defender according to Smart, Robinson’s life-long philosophy on the court has been to outhustle his opponent on every possession.
“I think it’s my whole job to annoy the other guy to the point where he just doesn’t want to check me (anymore),” said No. 0 after a recent practice.
“I think the motor has always been there, so it’s definitely been something that helped me get to this point.”
The Kansas product stated he anticipates taking home 2012-13 Rookie of the Year hardware, and judging by his relentless motor, energy and unyielding work ethic, Robinson shouldn’t be taken lightly in his quest for the award.
The Kings forward has frequently been the last player to leave the practice court while working with assistant coaches to improve his shooting and learn new plays. The big man also made his presence felt all over the court in the preseason opener against Phoenix – recording 12 points, eight rebounds, two steals and one block in 29 minutes of action – and tallied a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds against the Suns on Oct. 22, while guarding both small and power forwards.
“He goes with tremendous energy – he plays hard and that’s really all you can ask for,” says Johnson. “When he and I switch (on defense), you feel comfortable about it.”
In one of the most spectacular plays of October, “T-Rob” threw down an incredible put-back dunk over All-Star Dwight Howard in a win over the L.A. Lakers.
“I think he’s growing,” said Smart last week. “The energy and the effort is there, and he brings it every single night.”
Forming one of the League dynamic young frontline tandems with Cousins, Robinson provides Sacramento with an aggressive, explosive and strong big man ready to make an immediate impact on the NBA level.
“One thing about Thomas, and some of the guys who come out of college, they still have more of an aggressive, defensive post-up area of how they play,” adds Smart. “I want to maximize that.”
Johnson’s Impact: After playing for defensive-minded coaches in Chicago and Toronto, Johnson arrived in Sacramento with awareness and talent to further develop into one of the top defenders at his position.
“The guy has defense written on his chest – that’s what he’s going to play and how he’s going to play,” says Smart. “What he brings to our team is completely different – we have no one else on our roster that can do the things he does, and it’s a huge plus for us. I think (his ability) to guard (multiple) positions – a big (point guard), all the way down to a (power forward) in certain situations (is) a very good, versatile position to have.”
No. 52 made a noticeable impact on both ends each time he’s stepped on the floor, averaging 6.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 blocks and 0.6 steals in 20.6 minutes per game in preseason action, at times frustrating perennial All-Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant.
“I’m just trying to contest every shot when he lifts up,” explains Johnson. “(Bryant) has a tremendous amount of tools in his bag and when you’re guarding him, you don’t want him to go middle – you want to play the same defensive concepts we have going into the game and make sure you do all that night.”
A proficient ball-handler, using his quickness to drive to the hoop or spot up for midrange jumpers, Johnson has also found open teammates with excellent court vision.
“He’s a good passer – I want him to utilize what he sees on the floor,” says Smart. “He has a fantastic first step. I’ve been very impressed with everything he’s done from the moment he got here.”
At 25, the fourth-year forward is young enough to fit in with the Kings up-and-coming nucleus, but experienced enough to impart wisdom on the team’s emerging stars.
Rebounding Edge: In addition to improvement on the defensive end, Sacramento, after ranking 10th in the NBA in rebounds last season (42.9 per game) and seventh in offensive rebound percentage (.291), is in position to once again find itself among the League leaders in the category.
With the additions of Johnson and Robinson – one of the best glass cleaners in the nation in 2011-12 – to a frontcourt led by Cousins, Jason Thompson (6.9 boards per game) and Chuck Hayes (4.3), as well as some of the top rebounders at their respective positions in Tyreke Evans (4.6) and Marcus Thornton (3.7), the quick and versatile Kings a unlikely to be out-rebounded on most nights.
PG Tandem: In seven preseason contests Smart started Thomas and Brooks, four and three times, respectively, at point guard.
“They both bring something good to the table. They have a partnership – they’ve known each other for a while and that’s what’s been good about our group,” says Smart. “You get into a nice competitive relationship … I’ve encouraged those guys to be supportive of each other, because both of them will give us something on the floor to help us win a game on that particular night.”
From the start of training camp, the pair of lightning quick guards stated scrimmaging against each other during practices would push them to improve on both ends of the court.
“You have that sense of feeling you do have to step it up a little bit, because there is somebody behind your back,” said Thomas in Colorado Springs. “I just use that as motivation.”
“I think the fact that you have (teammates) you can lean on as far point guards, and guys that can actually play the position, you go out there and exert yourself more,” affirms Brooks.
“I feel it’s a long season, and you’re going to need (multiple) good point guards to win – and we plan on winning.”
No. 22 – who tallied 10 assists and just one turnover, in addition to eight points and two steals, in 25 minutes against the Lakers on Oct. 19. – averaged 16.7 points and 6.6 assists per 36 minutes during the preseason.
Thomas explains he’s picked up countless lessons by playing for two coaches who were former point guards themselves – Smart and Bobby Jackson.
“(Coach Smart) told me he’s trying to get me to the top and become one of the best point guards in the NBA,” says Thomas. “And I need all the help I can.”
The Kings leader has noticed a more comfortable and confident player who’s ready to take on a larger leadership role. Following the preseason finale, in which Thomas scored a team-high-tying 20 points, the head coach praised the way the second-year point guard set the tone while matched up against two-time MVP Steve Nash.
“Taking shots at the (proper) areas, getting to the elbows offensively and just managing the team – that’s all he has to do,” said Smart. “We have so many guys who can make plays and score, (so he has to) just defend, be a pest on the floor – he and Aaron both have to be pests – and then take the shots when they’re there.”
Providing instant offense, Brooks, explosive off the dribble and a deadly from long range, notched 16 points twice in five preseason appearances. No. 3 – a fifth-year NBA veteran with postseason experience – brings a high basketball IQ and keen understanding of opposing defensive schemes to Sacramento.
“Aaron Brooks is going to be a big benefit for us because of his knowhow of situations of the games (such as) looking to the bench, saying, ‘Get this guy in,’” said Smart during recent pregame media availability. “I think that right there is the growth our team has because we have a veteran guy there now who can see situations prior to them happening.”
No matter which player draws the start on a given night, Sacramento’s backcourt won’t be short on outside accuracy and elite playmaking during a season in which the Kings hope to move up in the standings and make a postseason push.
“Don’t get caught up on who’s starting or (who’s the) backup,” says Smart. “All we want to is play well and get out of the building with a win.”
How many wins do you think the Kings will tally in 2012-13?