Johnny Salmons isn't the longest tenured King on the roster, but he's been around long enough to have a good grasp on the toxic environment surrounding the franchise in recent years.
Salmons is on his second go-around with the Kings (2006-09, 2011 to present) and has seen a lot of bad team basketball over his four-and-half seasons in Sacramento. He's been a part of all of those Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Paul Westphal and Keith Smart-led Kings teams that occupied the cellar of the Western Conference for the better half of a decade.
Next up for Salmons is head coach Michael Malone, and things just may be different this time around. Under Malone and new owner Vivek Ranadive, the franchise is riding a wave of local support and a mentality entrenched in defense and teamwork. Every coach in the league preaches these things, including the ghosts of Kings coaches past. But as the regular season is set to kick off next week, Salmons can already see the change.
"It's definitely a different vibe," said Salmons, who is pleased with the fact that the Kings brought in more veterans in the offseason (Luc Mbah a Moute and Carl Landry). "I think everything they are trying to do, they're just trying to move in the right direction."
The youth, combined with a lack of direction from past ownership and management, has left the team in disarray for the majority of Salmons' tenure with the Kings. It fueled poor chemistry on the floor and produced a negative locker room environment. Last November, things reached a boiling point that pushed the not-always-vocal Salmons to lead a player-only meeting.
When asked if he thought the team is now moving beyond the days when meetings like this are necessary, Salmons directed his comments to the progress of DeMarcus Cousins.
"I feel like his development is helping as well ... DeMarcus has taken another step with leadership and taking a leadership role, I feel like that is helping the team a lot," Salmons told Sactown Royalty. "He's definitely a lot better this year than he has been in the past as far as leadership. We feed off of that."
Cousins' frontcourt mate Jason Thompson is the longest tenured King, entering his sixth season. Like Salmons, he also acknowledges Cousins' development.
"He's definitely being more vocal and helping the young guys out," Thompson told Sactown Royalty.
Cousins did foul out of Wednesday's game against the Golden State Warriors, but he has managed to keep a cool head and play under control in the preseason. He even stepped in to break up some verbal sparring between Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas in the win over the Warriors.
If the Kings are going to break through and end this season with positive momentum moving forward, Cousins will have to keep up the progress. It probably hasn't hurt that the new ownership group went all in on him, giving the sometimes tumultuous center a four-year deal worth an estimated $62 million. Shortly after the deal was announced, Cousins said it was a "relief" that there is finally some stability for the franchise and acknowledged that he has to stop getting kicked out of games and suspended.
Another thing Cousins and this team is working on doing is ratcheting things up on defensive side of the ball. Malone has had his squad on a short leash so far this preseason, calling quick timeouts as soon as serious lapses occur.
Defense is being hammered home in practice.
"There's times where it could be 30 minutes to an hour where we're not touching the ball -- it's all about defense," Thompson said about team practices. "Definitely the structure and trying to have winning basketball on the defensive end first, finish with the rebound and then worry about scoring on offense later."
Eight-year veteran Chuck Hayes is entering his third season with the Kings and says that unlike last year, words are being backed up by actions.
"We said we wanted to be a defensive team last year, but we weren't fully committed. It wasn't really drilled into us like it is this year," said Hayes, who referred to Malone as "almost a perfectionist." "He has a vision of how he wants us to play on defense, and it has to be that way ... we go over defense every day."
Through five preseason games, the Kings are holding opponents to 92.8 points per game. They beat the Warriors on Wednesday thanks to a game-winning shot by Salmons. But they first got to that point by overcoming a 17-point deficit, using defense to restrict Curry, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Warriors' starters to just 9 points in the fourth quarter. Malone said they accomplished this by guarding the three-point line better and taking care of the ball, which forced the Warriors to play against a set defense rather than being able to score in transition off turnovers.
"A win like that shows character, a win like that shows a team that didn't drop their heads and stop believing," Malone told reporters. "Now, we don't want to get into the habit of getting down 19 in Portland, getting down 17 tonight and having to rely on comebacks because that's not a good situation for you to be in every night. But I love the fact that our guys never stopped believing in themselves and each other, they supported each other."
Supporting each other and winning is something Thompson is ready for after what his last five seasons in Sacramento have been like.
"I've been through a lot of things man," Thompson said. "Pretty much a circus in a way - different coaches, I've seen the different players, owners ... so it's good to see things change, definitely, we're going in the right direction."
It's not quite clear yet how many minutes the often-subdued Salmons will get this season, but he's not the type to worry about that. In fact, he's got nothing bad to say about his previous coaches in Sacramento, even if the results were less than satisfactory.
"All the coaches that I have played with here, I mean, they were all trying to do the right thing, they were all trying to teach us the right things, so I'm not going to throw the other coaches under the bus," Salmons said. "It's just a different situation going on here, it's different ownership, different management and all that stuff has a big part in what happens on the court, people don't realize that, but it does."
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