Before the NBA season started, many experts predicted the Sacramento Kings would be near the bottom of the league after finishing with a 17-65 record last season.
This prediction came before star guard Kevin Martin and last season’s top bench scorer Francisco García went down with wrist injuries. Many also criticized the pick of rookie guard Tyreke Evans, citing that he was not the point guard that the Kings needed in a point guard-heavy draft. The Kings were bashed for hiring Paul Westphal as head coach, many critics saying that he hasn’t coached an NBA game since 2000, when he coached the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder).
It was supposed to be the perfect recipe for a team destined to be the league’s worst. But that’s not what happened.
With 48 games left the Kings have a record of 14-20, Evans has become an NBA star and a favorite for rookie of the year and Westphal has been mentioned as a coach of the year candidate.
The team overhauled the entire coaching staff, with the exception of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Pete Carril, and hired four new assistant coaches: Jim Eyen, Bryan Gates, Mario Elie and Truck Robinson.
"They’re brilliant," Martin said about the coaching staff before the season began. "They have coaches that have been there. (We) got a coach (Robinson) that led the league in rebounding who can teach Jason (Thompson) and (Spencer Hawes) how to do things like that."
"We have a very knowledgeable head coach that can teach even players like myself how to make the game a lot easier and lead this team," he said.
The Kings did not make a blockbuster trade or sign a big-name free agent over the summer. They traded the draft rights of Jeff Pendergraph to the Portland Trail Blazers for point guard Sergio Rodriguez and the draft rights of forward Jon Brockman.
The Kings also signed swingman Desmond Mason and big man Sean May. Mason was waived in favor of signing another swingman, Ime Udoka. May, after starting his first five games, hasn’t played since Dec. 12.
They have been the surprise team of the season so far. They overcame a 35-point deficit in a game against the Chicago Bulls and have competed whole-heartedly against the league’s elite instead of giving up.
The Kings enjoyed early success in the season because of the rookies’ immediate contribution, the development of the young frontline of Hawes, Thompson and Donté Greene, Andres Nocioni’s steady production and the re-emergence of veterans Beno Udrih and Kenny Thomas.
The Kings have played well at home and established themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA with an 11-8 record at ARCO Arena.
But the team still has improvements to make. The Kings’ road record is 3-12 and they still needs to learn how to close out games against the league’s elite teams.
"We want to get to the place the Lakers are," Westphal said after an emotional double-overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 26. "Where somehow, some way, you find a way to win those games, and we’re working hard on it."
The Kings suffered another emotional loss to the same team in Los Angeles when superstar Kobe Bryant hit the game-winning three-point basket as time expired. The Kings blew a 20-point lead that game.
The emotions from the loss carried over to Sacramento the next night, when the Kings lost to a rested Dallas Mavericks team 99-91.
"We’re going through some adversity right now," Thompson said after the loss to Dallas. "We’ve just got to learn from these games and go in and play better."
Even though the team is going through a rough patch right now, it has many positive things to look at early in the season.
The Kings top draft pick, Evans, has been spectacular for the whole season, averaging 20.3 points, 5.1 rebounds 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game.
He’s impressed many players in the league and Bryant is no exception.
"Tyreke Evans is going to be a hell of a player," Bryant said after a 112-103 victory over the Kings. "I really love that pick-up. He was my sleeper in the draft. (The Kings start) with him, so he has a really bright future."
Evans has had help from fellow rookies Brockman and Omri Casspi.
Casspi, the first Israeli-born player in the NBA, has become one of the best three-point shooters in the league. Brockman, a former University of Washington teammate of Kings center Spencer Hawes, grabs four rebounds per game in 11 minutes per game.
Casspi has become one of the best shooters in the league while Brockman’s work ethic and tenacity has frustrated opposing players. Both players aren’t pushovers.
"When everyone’s playing as tough as we are, it changes the rhythm of the game," Brockman said.
Last season, the Kings were seen around the league as a soft team, but the entire mentality of the team has changed. The toughness that the team plays with enables them to stay in games.
This season, they have been competitive to the end of games against the league’s top teams, despite losing most of those games.
With Martin, the Kings’ top scorer from last season, coming back next week and García returning after the all-star break in February, the Kings are looking to get better as the season approaches its midpoint.