Throughout this seemingly never-ending rebuilding process, there's been one question that's served as the foundation for all other questions about the Kings: "What will it take for Sacramento to be good again?"
We answered one half of that question this past summer as we added a committed ownership group and new management in the front office. Now that that's taken care of, we can focus on the on-court part of the question where there are two big factors: DeMarcus Cousins and Defense.
The Kings haven't been a good defensive team (or shall I say above-average) team since 2005-06, the last year Sacramento made the playoffs. That year they were 12th in the NBA in Defensive Rating at 105.0 thanks to the Ron Artest acquisition. Even in the glory years when the Kings had a reputation for offense, they were still a good defensive team: In 2002-03, the Kings actually had a better defense (2nd) than offense (6th).
The Kings also haven't really had a franchise player since Chris Webber's knee blew out. Ron Artest wasn't it. Kevin Martin wasn't it. Tyreke Evans wasn't it.
That's changed this year with the play of DeMarcus Cousins.
Last night the Kings showed how they can be good. DeMarcus Cousins came back after not playing for almost two weeks and dominated against one of the stingiest defenses in the NBA. He nearly had a double-double in the first quarter alone, finishing with 25 points, 16 rebounds and 4 assists while just frustrating the crap out of Joakim Noah, who has been named to two All-Defensive teams and an All-Star game in his career.
It wasn't just Cousins' offense that carried this team though; he also set an impressive example with his defense. He got matched up against Noah, Boozer and Taj Gibson at times, and those three guys combined to shoot just 9-32 from the field. It wasn't all Cousins of course, but he stepped up and played smart, setting the tone for his team. Defense is easily the area where Cousins needs the most improvement, and games like last night give me hope that one day Cousins can become a consistently good defender. Given his already impressive offensive talent, Cousins has the potential to become not just the best player on the Kings, but one of the best players in the league.
Cousins did all this despite proclaiming after the game that he shouldn't have been playing, that his ankle was not yet 100%. He's the first true franchise player the Kings have had in a long time, and that wasn't so certain the last three years he was here. There were good statistical arguments the last few years that the Kings were actually better those last three years with DeMarcus off the floor; The same cannot be said this year, even with the addition of an efficient Rudy Gay and improving Isaiah Thomas. Just look at Sacramento's seven-game losing streak without him.
The Kings aren't good yet, and they probably won't become good this year. But for once, it finally feels they're on the right path with DeMarcus Cousins leading the way.
- With the return of DeMarcus Cousins, we also saw the return of efficient Isaiah Thomas, who carved up Chicago for 19 points on 7-9 from the field. Notably, Thomas didn't even attempt a three after shooting 29 in his last three games alone (making just 9). I also thought Isaiah did a good job of running the offense and while he only had 3 assists, he had at least five passes that led to trips to the line for Sacramento.
- Marcus Thornton still doesn't seem to know how to be a complementary rather than featured player. He went 1-6 tonight.
- Quincy Acy was phenomenal off the bench, especially on the defensive end. He also hit a short corner three at the end of the first quarter. If he can hit that shot consistently, his value as a roleplayer jumps up considerably.
- Ray McCallum got the first call as backup PG tonight after his excellent effort against San Antonio (and the fact that Jimmer was still not 100%). He didn't look nearly as good. He bricked one of his shots, then whiffed on a fast break layup that led to a rare Chicago field goal. Jimmer Fredette came in late in the 3rd quarter and had one of his best stints of the season. Fredette didn't miss from the field, and both he and Cousins had an excellent two-man pick-and-roll game going.
- Oh Derrick. That dunk attempt in the 4th quarter was unfortunate. Yes, it would have been amazing, but when you're up 30 points you don't need to do stuff like that so it was some kind of karma that he messed it up so bad. I agreed with Malone's benching of him after, but I also thought it was cool that Derrick made fun of himself on Twitter after the game.
- Make sure to check out Jason Thompson's answers to Blake Ellington's Questions of the Game.