Old age, injuries and a series of bad personnel moves sent the Sacramento Kings spiraling from the team with the NBA’s best record to the one with the worst during a seven-year slide.
The days of raucous crowds at packed Arco Arena, a wide-open offense that delighted fans everywhere and a perennial championship contender are things of the past in Sacramento.
In their place is a young team with little star power trying to turn it around under Paul Westphal, the team’s fifth coach in five seasons. Westphal has spent enough time in the NBA as a coach and player to know how difficult the process is.
“With our young team, I think the challenge is to remain patient and positive through the inevitable rough spots,” Westphal said. “Not so much for the coaching staff, but for the players. They want instant success. We want instant success too, but we realize it might take longer than some of their timetables and be a little harder than they think it will be.”
The only franchise in the past 35 seasons to go from best to worst faster than the Kings did was the post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls, who fell off in three years. But the Bulls won six titles during their heyday with Jordan, while the Kings never made it as far as the NBA finals.
They came close in 2002 when they posted the league’s best record (61-21) in the regular season and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. That was part of a run of eight straight playoff appearances. But Sacramento has gone three straight years without making it to the postseason, capped by last season’s disaster.
The Kings went 17-65 in the worst season ever for the franchise. Reggie Theus was fired after a 6-18 start to his second season as coach and things didn’t get any better after Kenny Natt took over on an interim basis. That led to Westphal’s hiring.
“It feels good to have everything behind you, know what last year felt like, and work to not have something like that happen again,” star Kevin Martin said. “We have a very knowledgeable head coach who can teach players like myself how to make the game a lot more easier. This is a new era, new beginning, and the players are excited.”
Martin is one of three players to have made it to the postseason with the Kings, with none of them having ever won a series. About the only tie left to the glory days in Sacramento is president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie, who is in the final year of his contract.
After being hailed for bringing Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic to Sacramento, Petrie has not had the same type of success in recent seasons.
He hasn’t drafted an All-Star since Stojakovic in 1996, and has not had the same success in trades that he had when he acquired Webber and Bibby in lopsided deals, or made any impact through free agency.
While Sacramento got no luck in the lottery and ended up with the fourth pick in the draft, the Kings are excited about rookie point guard Tyreke Evans, who has impressed during the preseason.
“He doesn’t even seem like a rookie,” Westphal said. “He just has a feel for the game that inspires confidence. He’s going to be a really fine player.”
Evans and fellow first-rounder Omri Casspi are among the young players the Kings are counting on to spur their turnaround, along with Martin, last year’s first-round pick Jason Thompson and 2007 first-rounder Spencer Hawes. Sacramento has only two players on its current roster who have played more than five seasons in the NBA.
“It’s tough when you don’t have the veterans like Orlando or the Lakers,” Thompson said. “I look at it as two or three years ago those teams were in our same situation. You have to go through ups and downs. You have to start somewhere. We’re at that level and we have a lot of potential.”
The struggles on the court in recent years and the fight for a new arena has alienated many fans in Sacramento. The Kings had a streak of 354 consecutive home sellouts end in their home opener in 2007 and Arco Arena was several thousand fans short of capacity for most games last season.
“I think whenever a city has been as basketball crazy as Sacramento has been, there’s a hunger to return to that kind of feel,” Westphal said. “I see us in a very similar situation to where the Blazers were a couple of years ago. There was a lot of negativity, the crowds weren’t coming but the people still cared. They were just looking for something to hang on to so they could get that enthusiasm back. That’s what it’s like here.”