When Pete D’Alessandro got off a plane in Sacramento for his introductory press conference as the new Kings general manager last June, he was amazed by all the people who already knew his name.
"I’m walking through the airport and people are saying, ‘Welcome, Pete,’" D’Alessandro said. "I knew the enthusiasm the people had, but for the fans to have that much knowledge, to know the face of a guy who’s been behind the scenes. I’m walking through a mall and a 60-year-old woman says, ‘Pete we’re so happy to have you here.’"
Recalling the memory from a courtside seat at TD Garden an hour before the Kings played the Celtics, D’Alessandro paused for a moment and smiled.
"It makes you want to win," he said. "It’s a great fanbase. It’s a phenomenal fanbase. When the arena’s here. When the team’s where it needs to be. I’m just so excited about that. Those are big thoughts. Those are fun thoughts."
Everyone in Sacramento is thinking big thoughts these days. From D’Alessandro to coach Mike Malone and all the way up to owner Vivek Ranadive, the Kings have undergone a rapid transformation. There’s a new downtown arena on the horizon and a freshness to the franchise that had grown stale under years of Maloofery.
Since taking over, the new braintrust has made a number of significant moves, including parting ways with former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and extending DeMarcus Cousins, but that was only the beginning. In November, the Kings traded veteran Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Minnesota for Derrick Williams, the one-time second overall draft choice who never clicked with the Timberwolves. That was the kind of deal rebuilding teams should make.
But in early December, D’Alessandro made an altogether different kind of move when he traded Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez to the Raptors for Aaron Gray, Quincy Acy and Rudy Gay. The general reaction to the trade was one of puzzled bewilderment. It’s not as if D’Alessandro gave up too much for Gay; it’s that he gave up anything at all. Why would anyone want a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer with an $19.3 million player option, clogging up the offense and muddying the cap sheet?
That the Raptors immediately took off and started playing good to very good basketball without Gay only validated the appraisal. This, after all, is the pattern that was established in Memphis when he was traded the year before.
But D’Alessandro saw something different. He had long admired Gay’s game and he saw a player who had played well in his time with the Grizzlies when he was able to work off a low-post threat like Zach Randolph. He imagined him playing with Cousins, the Kings’ emerging beast in the middle, and he thought that it was an obvious move to make.
"Frankly, I think a lot of teams did see it," D’Alessandro said. "The guy is just a really talented basketball player, as we see him on the court now. When he played his best basketball he played with strong low post threats and we’re seeing that naturally synergy between he and DeMarcus. That’s something. We did expect that."
Not only has Gay played spectacularly well, posting the best numbers of his career, but the Kings have been a .500 team whenever he and Cousins have been healthy enough to share the court. In addition, the trade opened up playing time for Isaiah Thomas and everyone’s favorite little man is looking like a franchise point guard.
On top of all that, a very interesting phenomenon has developed. With Marcus Thornton and Jason Thompson in the starting lineup along with Gay, Thomas and Cousins, the Kings have won seven of 11 games and that five-man unit is a rather incredible 18.8 points better than their opponents in about 186 minutes of work, per nba.com/stats.
Small sample size caveats abound, but no other five-man group has posted such a significant spread in as many minutes. Ideally, Williams and rookie Ben McLemore will be occupying those supporting roles, but there are signs of significant progress in Sacramento.
"When you make a trade of that magnitude, you have to feel pretty confident in your gut," D’Alessandro said. "These decisions are business decisions and basketball decisions. When you’re willing to make a big trade like that you have to feel strongly about it. The first day on the floor together you could see it. We feel very encouraged about what we’re seeing and we look forward to seeing it for many years to come."
Ah, and there’s the rub. If Gay decides to stay for the final year of his deal then the Kings will be right up against the luxury tax line before adding another lottery pick and addressing Thomas’ impending restricted free agency. It also should be mentioned that there are still hurdles to clear for the Kings’ new downtown arena and the new franchise caretakers are wary about sending the wrong signals to the city and its fanbase.
"One of the great things about being in Sacramento is the enthusiasm of our ownership group," D’Alessandro said. "The group is very invested in turning this around for the city of Sacramento to the point where I think the city of Sacramento sees it. To walk in in your first year and say, ‘Yes, we’re right there financially.’ That’s a credit to our owners and their commitment to the city. The city can see it now. It’s not just talk. That also means that we have Rudy Gay. And I say that with a smile on my face."
But let’s leave all that be for a moment, because for the first time in years the Kings’ focus is on the court and particularly their odd big three of Cousins, Gay and Thomas. How odd have they been? Really, really odd.
Still just 23 years old, Cousins is posting career highs across the boards in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. Boogie is one of nine NBA players who have averaged 22 points, 11 boards and 3 assists by his age. We’re talking Wilt/Kareem/Duncan territory.
"He’s got All-Star numbers," D’Alessandro said pointedly. "I’m personally so proud of him. The day I met him and we were in our gym looking eye to eye, to see his growth from that day. He didn’t know who we were. You could tell the anxiety. And to have him just flourish like this, it just makes me proud as a general manager. Now, where can he go? At some point people will take note and he’ll get the credit that he so deserves. The sky’s the limit."
No matter how high the internal expectations, Gay has enjoyed nothing short of a stunning revival. He’s averaging better than 20 points a game with a .608 True Shooting Percentage and a 22.2 Player Efficiency Rating with the Kings. There are only three other healthy players putting up lines like that this season: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Goran Dragic.
"The great thing about Rudy is -- we all heard it -- the knock on him was his inefficient play as a Toronto Raptor," Malone said. "But you look at his stats for us, I don’t know how many other perimeter players are going to average over 20 points a night, shoot 53 percent, 37 percent from three, get you five rebounds, three assists on a consistent basis. He’s really impressed me with how efficient he’s been, and he’s a willing playmaker."
Then there’s Thomas, the 5-9 dynamo who is averaging 20 points and 6.2 assists per game. The number of players shorter than 6-feet who have done that? Four: Dana Barros, Calvin Murphy, Damon Stoudamire and Michael Adams.
Those three represent the future, along with McLemore and Williams who are not nearly as far along in their development. McLemore has had his share of rookie struggles, but the Kings love his talent. Williams was miscast in Minnesota and never really fit into Rick Adelman’s system, but again, the Kings see upside in a player who’s still only 22 years old.
"Derrick’s one of the youngest players on our team," D’Alessandro said. "When we acquired him we thought, ‘What great potential.’ Derrick’s figuring the game out day by day. We love what we see from him. When you see him and Ben McLemore running the wings together that’s exciting. Our fans enjoy watching that. We’re very encouraged by Derrick."
It hasn’t been anything close to a straight line for the Kings. When Gay arrived, they were in the middle of a stretch with four games in five nights and practice time was scarce. Losses predictably followed. Then they won six of 10, including victories over the Heat, Rockets and Blazers. Then came the injuries. Cousins and Gay both missed a stretch of games and a seven-game losing streak halted the progress.
After a two-point loss to San Antonio last weekend, Malone told his team to forget the record and focus on the big picture. They responded with wins over the Bulls and Raptors before a tough loss in Boston on Friday without Gay and Thornton.
"We’re really close to being a team that can not only compete but win on a consistent basis because we’re starting to play the right way," Malone said. "We have three guys in Isaiah, Rudy and DeMarcus who can carry us offensively. The key is we’re starting to get it because we’re defending at a much higher level. I’ve seen enough. I know when we’re healthy, we’re a pretty good team."
The son of longtime NBA coaching fixture Brendan Malone, Mike Malone made his rep as an assistant working with solid defensive outfits in Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State. He’s an old-school, defensive-minded coach in some respects, but he’s also a numbers maven who casually works in phrases like usage rate and efficiency. The number that makes him happiest? Over the last month, the Kings are sixth in field goal percentage defense.
"We’re not going to waver," Malone said. "This is who we need to be. We’re trusting each other more. We’re playing harder. We’re communicating. They realize, when we defend at a high level we win games. When we don’t defend at a high level we usually get our butts kicked. It’s evident in the stats."
At the moment, the Kings remain an intriguing work in progress. The talent on hand is obvious, but no one is under any illusion that the hard work is even close to completion.
"We don’t have enough wins to say I’m locked into any one thing," D’Alessandro said. "I see things I really like. You try to figure it out because it’s a big puzzle. I look at our roster from the beginning of the year to now that our fans seem more excited about. It’s a more exciting brand of basketball. We’ll continue to build with that method in mind. It’s a step by step process. First, acquire pieces and then turn it into a team, and it’s not quite a team yet."
Not yet, but the Sacramento Kings are finally headed in a positive direction.