LAS VEGAS -- When the Sacramento Kings' summer league team took the court for its game against the Warriors, it was greeted by a vocal contingent of fans who had made the trek from Sacramento. For so long, the Kings' story was about survival, but you can feel the energy that surrounds the team with new owner Vivek Ranadivé, general manager Pete D'Alessandro and coach Mike Malone all in place.
It's quite literally a brand new day for the Kings, and now that the franchise has been saved, it's time to turn things around on the court. Way past time, actually. It's been seven years since they were in the playoffs and at least a half-decade since they were competitive. Even in a league where long rebuilding projects are the norm, that's still an eternity. It's difficult to be around Malone for any length of time and not feel the urgency of the task at hand.
"I felt it when Vivek hired me," Malone told SB Nation on Monday. "The passion that the fans showed to keep the team in Sacramento. The fight that Kevin Johnson, our mayor, showed to keep the team there. When I first got in the NBA, ARCO Arena was the toughest place to play in the NBA. You definitely feel the excitement from the ownership group, the fans, the front office and I think the players, more importantly, have got a sense of that excitement."
Ah yes, the players. Several of them were at the Thomas & Mack Center, including Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette and newly signed free agent Carl Landry, whom Malone is counting on to help spread the gospel of defense and ball movement.
"You definitely feel more confident about the organization," Fredette told SB Nation. "You feel more stable. You feel like we're going to progress and move forward. These guys really have a vision for what they want to do and are going to try to put together the team that they want to put together. Sometimes, it takes change to make moves and become better as a team."
Malone has definite ideas about how to turn things around, and it has less to do with the talent on hand then it does with a distinct change in attitude. All new coaches preach defense and ball movement, but in the case of the Kings, it's so painfully obvious that that's where Malone needs to start for a team that ranked No. 29 in defensive rating the past two seasons and near the bottom in assist rate.
"They've been allergic to defense for a while and they haven't defended," Malone said. "A lot of guys don't want to buy into that end of the floor because it's hard work. What they'll realize is if they buy into that end of the floor their jobs will be so much easier on offense. When you get stops, you run. They can score; they've shown they can score. It's defense and offensively sharing the ball. They have to be a little bit more unselfish."
As always, there's help on the way in the form of young talent. Top pick Ben McLemore has struggled in summer league, but there's time for him to grow on a team that has NBA talent ahead of him. Second-rounder Ray McCallum is more advanced at this stage, and his toughness and floor leadership have been one of the summer's bright spots.
Malone is also counting on point guard Greivis Vasquez, who was acquired from New Orleans in the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade, and hard-nosed defender Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to help lead the change in direction. Landry, the Kings' one big free agent investment, also comes with the knowledge of having played for Malone in New Orleans and Golden State.
But as with most things with the Kings, it comes back to talented center DeMarcus Cousins. The new coach reached out to Cousins and told him they were starting with a clean slate.
"I wasn't here in the past. I wasn't a part of all that," Malone said. "I told him, ‘I'm going into this with an open heart, an open mind and we're going to form our own history together. We'll go through our own experiences. I'm going to challenge you. I want you to be the leader of this team. I want you to buy in. If you buy in, all the other guys will follow and fall in line. This is going to be a relationship. We have to be willing and able to work together to turn this around."
For his part, Cousins told Malone that he hates to lose, and that's exactly what Malone wanted to hear.
"We have a lot in common because I hate to lose," Malone said. "If that's the case, you have to be willing whatever it takes to win. I'm going to challenge you on the defensive end of the floor, the offensive end of the floor to fulfill his potential as a player, because he has a chance to be one of the most talented bigs in the NBA. The challenge is for him to show that talent every night. Not just once in a while, but 82 games to be our guy, to be our foundation, to be our anchor to be a guy we can play through every night."
All of this sounds great in July when the season is still months away and everyone is still energized by the dramatic moves to keep the team in Sacramento. After years of stagnation, the challenge is immense, but finally everyone involved with the Kings is headed in the same direction.