When Michael Malone was hired as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings he, along with new owner Vivek Ranadive, said this season would not be judged by wins or losses, but by how much the culture changes.
"Changing the culture" is a tired cliché in sports, but it is something that has needed to happen in Sacramento for a long time. And after 15 games, a couple of lineup changes and a trade, we are beginning to see bits of progress.
Despite having one of the toughest schedules in the NBA (they are tied with the Clippers for the toughest), the Kings have lost by 10 or less in eight of their 11 losses this season. Three of their losses have been decided by five points or less.
They play hard, they play with passion and fans are typically leaving the old barn disappointed, but entertained.
In fact, there have only been a few occasions this season where the Kings from start to finish have looked like the lost puppy Kings of old (the losses to Portland Trail Blazers are an example). But the bulk of the losses and the handful of wins have had Malone's stamp of defense and competitiveness all over them.
"Our guys have most nights kind of no quit, and I challenge them a lot and I don't ever want to be a team that rolls over," Malone said after the 115-113 loss to the Golden State Warriors Sunday.
Isaiah Thomas says he has noticed improvements this season.
"It's definitely progress, we're definitely there. A lot of times last year we were getting blown out," Thomas told Sactown Royalty. "We're in games we just gotta figure out how to win, I mean that's what it comes down to; execution, getting stops and scoring. I mean we're learning. It's a process and we're going to get there because we're fighting and we're working hard."
DeMarcus Cousins seems to be working hard on his leadership role that he's been asked to take on as the high-priced franchise player on a roster full of B players. It's shown this season like it did on Sunday when the big fella found himself in foul trouble but hit a couple of back-to-back jump hooks over Andrew Bogut that kept the Kings in the game.
Malone has taken notice.
"DeMarcus I was impressed with down the stretch," Malone told reporters. "We went to DeMarcus and he delivered and I think that's part of his maturity as well as becoming a go-to guy."
It shouldn't be ignored that Cousins has picked up his fair share of technical fouls (five on the season) and doesn't like shaking hands with the Clippers, but he has remained in games when the team has needed him. He also has some stellar averages so far: 21.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.6 steals.
But despite the numbers and Malone's positive comments, Cousins is not satisfied with the general improvements of the team - he wants wins.
"We could talk about progress every day, but with that progress we're still making some of the same mistakes, so when we stop making those mistakes, then we'll get over that hump," Cousins told Sactown Royalty.
Marcus Thornton, who is currently fighting off Jimmer Fredette for the backup shooting guard spot, agrees with Cousins.
"One day we have to get over this hump man, you know, it's all good and dandy that we staying in games and fighting hard, but we're always on the losing end of it," Thornton told Sactown Royalty.
You like to see the passion to win in a locker room that has become accustomed to losing in recent years - in a way it shows progress in and of itself. And Cousins is right, the mistakes that have plagued this team for years - lack of passing, failure to execute called plays, careless inopportune turnovers - still do rear their head when it matters most. But learning to fix these things are growing pains a rebuilding team in an incredibly deep Western Conference is going to have to go through, and everything points to it actually turning around this time.
The losses are a tough pill for Kings fans to swallow, but it was hardly unexpected. Malone and Pete D'Alessandro seem to be making the most out of what they have - an All-Star caliber center; a slow, facilitating point guard; an athletic, but raw rookie; and a talented, but streaky point guard for a sixth man.
Overall, Malone has come in and got this group of guys to play with passion, has improved the defense (the Kings are currently allowing opponents to score 100 points per game, down from 105 last season) and is beginning to cultivate a more entertaining brand of basketball.
On to the next one.