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Defining the chemistry of the Sacramento Kings

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The trade deadline might have shaken up the roster, but the new Kings culture is here to stay.

Kimani Okearah

The Sacramento Kings were coming off their third win in a row, in the thick of the race for the 8th seed, and coming into a big matchup against James Harden and the surging Houston Rockets. On Feb. 6, the players were ready, and so were the fans.

Not long before tipoff, news broke that Iman Shumpert had been traded to the Rockets and Alec Burks was on his way to Sacramento as part of a three-team deal. A few hours later, Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph were shipped to the Dallas Mavericks for Harrison Barnes. The energy of the game was zapped out of the Golden 1 Center and the minds of the players were spinning. A game was to be played and their friends who they have been to battle with since October were packing up their things and leaving the arena.

The trade deadline was upon us.

As the Rockets were completing their 127-101 beat down of the distracted Kings in the fourth quarter, Shumpert spoke to the media in the hallways of the Golden 1 Center. The veteran guard has often been regarded as a key to the chemistry of the surprise 2018-19 Kings. Now in his eighth year in the NBA, and having been traded twice already in his career, the move wasn’t much of a surprise to him.

Shumpert, who coined the nickname the “Scores” for the Kings this season and referenced any positive talk about the team as “Purple Talk,” thanked the franchise for the opportunity to turn his career around. He graciously acknowledged that the only reason the Kings traded him was to move in a direction they felt was better for them, and that the move also helped him because he is going into a contract year. Shumpert after all was headed to one of the best teams in the league that is expected to make a deep playoff run.

At the time though, he was more focused on encouraging his friends he helped mentor this season in the Sacramento locker room. He said it feels good to have been part of something that is growing and heading in the right direction.

For the rest of the team that night, things weren’t feeling so good. Buddy Hield, whose locker was next to Shumpert’s, said the air was negative and Willie Cauley-Stein said the energy that Jackson and Shumpert brought to the team was gone. Rookie Marvin Bagley had the guy who was consistently lifting him up and teaching him about the NBA taken away from him in the blink of an eye. There’s no other way to say it: The players were pretty devastated last Wednesday.

Shumpert, who got a lot of credit for helping build the chemistry that this team has had this season, knew the chemistry was much bigger than him though.

”I knew they had enough in that locker room from the jump, I just encouraged them,” he said.

Hield was certainly still encouraged, declaring how excited he was to meet the new guys and continue the playoff push. He also said they trusted general manager Vlade Divac and what he was doing. What Divac was doing was making moves to make the team better without sacrificing any core pieces for the future. Divac would later thank the guys who were traded away for helping the team get to where it is today, and declared that everything was going to be fine with the chemistry.

“I talked to them, told them about the experience I had when I was in that situation so it is what it is. It’s a tough business and I’m sure it’s going to be just fine moving forward,” he said.

Divac is likely correct in that assessment.

Chemistry is an ambiguous term. In a team sense, it can be defined as the interaction of players working together in a harmonious or effective way. Shumpert hinted that the chemistry of this Kings team isn’t about one player(s) and that the energy would continue. It is about their identity.

The fast, fun style of play is their chemistry.

The unselfishness is their chemistry.

The way they dig in during fourth quarters to put themselves in a position to win is their chemistry.

The playoff race is their chemistry.

Winning is their chemistry.

All of this leads to positive interaction and the players working together in an effective way.

Enter Harrison Barnes, a well-rounded, veteran small forward the Kings have needed since Rudy Gay left. Barnes could see the chemistry from the outside looking in as a member of the Mavericks. His approach to how he plans to fit in to what the players already have in place in Sacramento seems that it will only benefit the blossoming squad.

”When I heard the news, I was excited to be with this group, you know we’ve got a lot of young players. Definitely looking forward to helping them grow, helping them develop, helping this franchise win games, and I’m excited to compete,” Barnes said.

“The biggest thing is seeing the culture that’s already here. You know, these guys, they play hard. And that’s rare for young guys as a collective to do that.”

Barnes continued:

”When you are winning games and you are a part of something that is bigger than yourself, I think that is what makes everybody excited about being a part of it, excited about coming to work every day. Excited about putting the work in and sacrificing for the guy next to you knowing that you’re playing for something,” Barnes said at his introductory press conference as Alec Burks nodded along next to him to these sentiments.

In their first game as Kings, Barnes and Burks didn’t try to overstep, and head coach Dave Joerger didn’t make a big deal of Barnes entering the starting lineup. Joerger made a casual nod to Barnes about starting with the matchups against the Miami Heat: “Harrison, you’ve got [Josh] Richardson …” Barnes recalled Joerger saying. Burks made some nice plays off the bench going to the basket and Barnes made some baskets when they needed them, while his defense was a bonus in the fourth quarter, helping the Kings pull off a 102-96 comeback win. It wasn’t easy though as the Heat were the aggressors most of the game and the Kings were trying to figure out where the new guys would be on the floor.

Barnes picked his spots cautiously in the game, saying he just tried to get out of the way, and “let these guys go.” He declared that hard-fought wins like that are good learning experiences in terms of gelling, and could even speed up the chemistry as the new players are mixed in.

De’Aaron Fox liked the way Barnes and Burks fit in.

“They definitely both played well. I just told them just go out there and be yourself. It’s definitely kind of uncomfortable playing with a team that you haven’t practiced with, but I told them if you have a shot, take it, just play defense, play with energy, have fun and we’re going to play the way that we play,” he said.

Their style of play, check. Playing with energy, check. Unselfishness, check. A win, check.

If you ask Joerger, a disruption in chemistry because of the trades isn’t a problem.

“There’s no concerns from within … We have a very conscientious group and they want to help each other and get in the right spots. I think we’re attracting attention throughout the league of we play a fun style to play, and so now you’ve got a couple of new guys coming in and they’re fired up to be a part of it,” he said.

On Sunday, the Kings got their second win in a row since the trades happened, defeating the Phoenix Suns 117-104. The win puts them at 30-26 on the season and 0.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Joerger admitted he is still trying to figure out how much he wants to play Barnes at the small forward, and how much to play him at power forward, and knows he needs to figure it out sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the energy from the players is still there.

“Everything that is going on here, the core that we have here … I think we bring a good energy, a positive energy and that’s what everyone likes, trying to make everyone happy to be a part of the family and that is what is most important,” Bogdan Bogdanovic said.

We hear it all the time – it’s a business, guys get traded, it is tough, but everyone has to move on. We also hear, and rightfully so, how NBA players are humans with feelings and you can’t expect them not to be phased by abrupt moves like we just saw. Both thoughts are true. What is also true is that the Sacramento Kings are going to be fine, most likely in the immediate future, and certainly over the long-term because they have a core and a proven starting small forward who could be a part of the future. That isn’t to take anything away from Shumpert, Justin Jackson, Zach Randolph, Skal Labissiere (who was traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Caleb Swanigan) and Ben McLemore (who was waived). They were all pieces of this surprise season and deserve credit for doing their part, small or large, but what is happening in Sacramento right now is going to take care of itself because there is a culture of winning developing.

Iman Shumpert probably said it best, in his parting words for his now ex-teammates.

”They are still the Scores, I can’t go do the Scores thing over there [Houston], but it’s still some purple talk over here and they know that. It’s a chemistry that was birthed here that I don’t think leaves now that I leave.”