Music blared from a small boom box just inside the Sacramento Kings locker room Sunday night. The vibe was good. Why wouldn't it be? The team had just beat the Toronto Raptors for its third win in a row only a week after a team meeting was held to hash out the frustrations of the season. The meeting, which included players, coaches and the front office, was called after the Kings had piled up a 1-7 record.
Injuries and some disjointed play had hit a team that was still getting to know each other.
Drake wasn't mingling with the players in the locker room Sunday like he was last Monday. On Sunday, it was just the sounds of the small speakers set up front and center that set the tone. The players were in high spirits and hinted at a switch in the team's morale. That is what can happen when you play defense, take quality shots and play together. "Together" is the most common phrase the players used when asked to describe what they have learned about themselves since the team meeting.
"We're just playing together," Rudy Gay said. "I don't think any of us in this locker room in our careers want to just throw a season away so we're just working hard, playing hard, playing together."
And while Gay said he thinks the Kings would have found this gear even without a team meeting (which could be the case since more than half of the roster is new this season and there was naturally going to be an adjustment period), the team appears to be communicating better on the floor. DeMarcus Cousins, who was announced Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday, said the Kings are playing better on defense, passing the ball better and talking on the floor. Above all else, the chemistry is taking shape. And like Cousins said when he initially called for a "players meeting," he still has faith in all the guys in the locker room.
"I never doubted this team from day one. I said I believe in every guy in this locker room and my feelings still remain the same," Cousins said after the team's public relations team turned down the music slightly for his interview.
Cousins' teammates have taken notice of his leadership in recent weeks. Guard Marco Belinelli, who joined the Kings this offseason after winning a championship in 2014 with some team called the San Antonio Spurs, has been impressed with his big man.
"Incredible talent, but everybody knows that. In the last couple of weeks I saw him really focus in his job and our job to be be on the court and try to help the team to win so I'm really happy for him, he's a great guy," Belinelli said.
The team has been focused and the defense is noticeably better with fewer wide-open shots being allowed and passing lanes being cut off. The Kings last three opponents averaged 43 percent from the field. This would put them just outside of the top 10 in the league when compared to the leaders in the NBA this season in opponent field goal percentage. For the whole season, however, the Kings are dead last in opponent field goal percentage (47 percent), which is a reflection of the poor start. They have been playing better in transition as well, and switching more frequently. Another aspect of the game the Kings were failing miserably at early this season was shooting free throws - they only eclipsed 70 percent from the free throw stripe in three of their first eight games. In the last three games, the Kings are averaging 77 percent.
When asked what he has learned about his team since the team meeting, George Karl said he wants his players to have frustration and passion for losing. He continued by commenting on the number of new players the Kings have this season.
"You maybe want to have a team togetherness first, but this is 10 new guys and it's too early to come to decisions, in my mind. Again, we had an unbelievably difficult schedule," Karl said.
In other words, there was no need to panic. And the Kings didn't - no one got suspended, fined or fired. Instead, everyone stayed the course and at the moment that is turning out to be the right move. Kings forward Quincy Acy said the sense of togetherness has been more noticeable since the team meeting.
"I think we came together and we're holding each other accountable. We're doing a better job of, I mean we look like we're just playing for one another out there and it took us a little minute," Acy said. "This is a whole new roster ... it's not going to work overnight so it's taking time and that meeting helped us come together."
The Kings now sit at 4-7, which means they have two fewer wins than the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. They now head out on a five-game road trip hoping that the past is the past. This has been a common hope in Sacramento over the years, but with Cousins back to dominating his opponents; Gay surging out of his early season slump; Rajon Rondo showing he has complete control over the flow of the offense on his way to multiple triple doubles; Ben McLemore suddenly successfully proving himself to Karl and a team finally playing as a cohesive unit, there is some reason for optimism.
"We have the potential to do it. We have the talent to do it, it's just about us going out there and doing it," Cousins said.
They have to go out and do it starting on Wednesday against the second best team in the Eastern Conference - the Atlanta Hawks. Let's see if the boom box is still around when the Kings return to Sacramento on Nov. 27.