After witnessing year after year go by only to see the length of their playoff drought increase again and again, Kings fans are justifiably wary of getting excited at this time of year.
This season is not the same old thing for those fans, though. Things are simply different.
The build up to tonight began in February when Sacramento acquired Domantas Sabonis. A change in culture does not occur with the flip of a switch, but there did appear to be a switch turned regarding the competitive level of the team.
Throughout last winter, the Kings had looked like they’d given up on themselves, but with the addition of Sabonis–the injection of a two-time all-star, a proven on-court leader, and a passing big man through whom they could run the offense–a charge was sent through this team.
Adding to that, there was clarity and rejuvenation for De’Aaron Fox, who had looked slow and even disengaged up until the big trade.
There was little chance the Kings of then could have feasibly made the play-in tournament. They’d essentially replaced half their team with new guys, forcing themselves to learn about each other on the fly. In spite of the improved talent, time was just never in their favor.
Sure, they may not have actually been able to achieve what they claimed was the objective for that season, but it would be impossible to tell judging by the way they played.
Even in those first four games after the trade and before the all-star break, the discernible shift had emerged.
“For us, we gotta make sure we’re eliminating some of the mistakes, but I think the effort was there,” interim head coach Alvin Gentry said at the time after his team’s loss in Chicago in the final game before the break.
Call it effort like Gentry did, or call it competing as Mike Brown does. Either way was the first residual effect of laying a foundation: establishing the core in Fox and Sabonis as well as a clear direction for the organization.
Since then, GM Monte McNair has hired Mike Brown, drafted Keegan Murray, added legitimate talent like Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, and filled the roster with guys on the cusp of their prime.
And since the time following the NBA Finals, Brown got his guys on the same page regarding their roles, emphasized positivity and “joy,” formulated a set of core principles, and set his team up for success. From four preseason games alone, the process of building upward is gaining traction.
Obviously, his job as head coach will be a ceaseless grind, but he has situated things so that much of the task at hand is on the execution of the players.
On Tuesday, Mike Brown described something he learned from his former chief about .
“I’ve taken a lot from Steve Kerr, and one of the things he always tells his guys is, ‘Hey, I want to play fast, I want to play loose, but disciplined,'” Brown said, going on to detail that with the talent, he trusts that his group can stay disciplined.
That element of trust is imperative. With winning principles in place, disciplined execution from the players is required, and that can only be cultivated from the nourishment of trust.
It’s embedded in the very way the Kings plan to play. It’s the idea of “conceptual basketball” that Brown mentioned. That is, not having very many plays, but doing a few different things that open the door to a multitude of different reads and opportunities.
Fox described it a little on Monday.
“For the most part, in the preseason, we had two things that we ran and you have a billion reads out of those two things,” he told the media.
Not only is that an offense where the coach has to have plenty of trust, it’s one that relies on being able to trust their teammates to make the right pass or cut, hit their jump shots, and ultimately make the right play.
It really comes down to execution. With all the legitimate promise–and such promise exists because this roster is deeper and apparently more connected than any Kings team in recent memory–these guys know they can only fulfill it if they put in the work.
Sabonis was asked this week about the urgency to start the season knowing his team could be in a tight race, and in response, the big man kind of brushed off the idea of thinking too far ahead.
“No one knows — might be in it, might not be in it, we might be in it as a lock — so we just got to do our job starting tomorrow and we gotta get the first one,” he said.
Harrison Barnes had the same idea on the responsibility to execute, but put it another way, highlighting the confidence in being able to carry it out.
“In general, I think it comes back to what we do on an every night basis,” the veteran forward noted. “It’s not like we want to look at two or three teams and say, ‘Oh, well, if they’re playing good then we got to play to that level.’ It’s like, no, every single night, we feel like, in this group, we can compete with anybody. So that’s our mentality and that’s what we’re focused on.”
They know they have work to do, but they are equally aware that they can do it.
Of course, while their diligence has been focused on what’s in front of them, the question of the playoff drought can’t be ignored. It’s been 16 years, and as such, with the season set to star, several questions came from the media centered on that very fact.
Back in June, Mike Brown had been asked about it at his introductory press conference, having it referred to as “the elephant in the room,” and the head coach dismissed the characterization, saying that anyone, in fact, “can speak on it.”
Brown maintains that sort of openness, saying just the other day that ending the drought is directly tied to “the reality” of why he was brought in, claiming that ending it is “what we’re here to do.”
Everyone’s certainly aware of it, but to them, what’s done is done. You can’t alter the tracks you leave in the dirt, but you can steer things in the right direction.
In the same light, Harrison Barnes, when asked about the 16 years, typically reverts focus to the now, to this team and not teams of the past.
“I feel like a broken record saying this, but it’s mostly just about this year, and the energy’s been great,” Barnes responded following a question about the difference in mood at this training camp compared to the previous ones.
In regards to the palpable gloom of a 16-year playoff drought hanging overhead, the guys know they can only disperse it with the work they do, not the focus they give it.
“We don’t talk about it because we know about it,” Malik Monk said Tuesday in reference to the drought. “I don’t think we need to talk about something that’s already out there.”
Instead, the team wants to create something else, something new to talk about.
“Like I said, if we just do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll make it to the postseason,” Monk concluded.
It’s all about getting the job done. By doing that, only good things will follow.