SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When the Sacramento Kings scattered for the All-Star break, the players were looking forward to the fresh start that would come Thursday with the start of the season’s unofficial second half, as well as the possibility of trying to end the franchise’s 10-year playoff drought.
They had no idea they’d be christening a new era.
Life without foward DeMarcus Cousins begins for the Kings on Thursday when they host the Denver Nuggets at the Golden 1 Center. The Kings ended their nearly seven-year relationship with the big man Sunday, trading him to the New Orleans Pelicans for guards Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans.
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The Nuggets (25-31) are 1 1/2 games ahead of the ninth-place Kings in the Western Conference standings for the final Western Conference playoff spot. Portland, New Orleans, Dallas and Minnesota all are within 3 1/2 games of that spot.
“To try to go to the playoffs, that’s our goal,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic told the Denver Post. “We are the eighth seed, so we’re in a good spot to do that.
The Kings (24-33), who won four straight before getting blasted by Golden State to close the first half, are taking on an optimistic view, too, at least publicly.
“I think we’ve got enough guys that’s in it for the right reasons that I don’t see why we couldn’t make the eighth seed,” center Willie Cauley-Stein told the Sacramento Bee. “For me, that’s my mission, the next 25 games.”
Cauley-Stein figures to get a heavy share of the 34 minutes per game the Kings must replace with Cousins is gone. It won’t be so easy replacing Cousins’ 27.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, even if the Kings won’t miss his NBA-leading 17 technical fouls. With Rudy Gay gone for the season, guard Darren Collison leads Sacramento in scoring (13.7 points per game) and center Kosta Koufos is its leading rebounder (5.4).
Sacramento, which also waived forward Matt Barnes over the break, won its final three home games before the break, one of them a 108-92 dusting of the Boston Celtics without Cousins on Feb. 8. Boston closed the first half with the East’s second-best record.
“I think with us, we have to literally play team basketball,” Collison told the Bee. “It sounds like such a generic statement, but that’s how we have to try to win games.”
The Nuggets, who closed the pre-break schedule with an 11-8 stretch, may be getting healthy. Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (17.2 points, groin injury), fellow forward Kenneth Faried (ankle) and point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (back) may return after missing the final four games before the break, and forward Wilson Chandler (illness) also should be back.
“I think everybody’s available to play,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told the Denver Post. “All those guys were able to participate” in a Tuesday night practice.
Malone also said the Nuggets must improve their defense in the second half. Denver was eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency in the first half but last in defensive efficiency.
Jokic, averaging 16.3 points and a team-best 9.0 rebounds, scored 99 points and tallied 57 rebounds in his final four games before the break.