SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Here's a statement that seemed unlikely just a few months ago: the Sacramento Kings are about to begin the 2013-14 season.
Just the fact that California's capital still has an NBA team might make this season a success already. The city won its fight to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle in May, and the franchise finally appears to be on firm footing again.
"It's a new era," owner Vivek Ranadive has declared over and over since buying the Kings from the Maloof family.
The TIBCO software chairman has delivered on that promise so far. He hired a new coach (Mike Malone), new general manager (Pete D'Alessandro) and a Hall of Fame consultant (Chris Mullin) along with bringing in a flashy new minority investor (Shaquille O'Neal) that will surely bring more attention to Sacramento.
On the court, the Kings are still a long way from being a winning organization.
The Kings are coming off their seventh straight losing season and are just beginning a rebuilding project that's likely years away from completion. Ranadive is trying to lay a solid foundation first — right down to fixing all the potholes in the parking lot of Sacramento's suburban arena.
The new owner's first major move was making center DeMarcus Cousins the franchise player by signing him to a four-year, $62 million extension. The Kings are counting on Cousins, who has drawn multiple suspensions from the NBA and the team for his behavior, to keep his cool and show he can lead the franchise's new era.
"I've got big shoulders, so I can handle that," said Cousins, drafted fifth overall in 2010 after one season at Kentucky. "I consider myself a leader on this team, so I take all the responsibility that comes with it. I've had pressure from the beginning, so I don't have a problem with it. I was doing it in the beginning, so I definitely don't have a problem doing it now."
Here are five things to watch with the Kings this season:
CONTROLLING COUSINS: Nobody disputes Cousins' talent. He averaged 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game last season and, at times, looked dominant against the NBA's best big men. But he has struggled with defense and discipline, and he couldn't co-exist with coaches Keith Smart or Paul Westphal. If Cousins can control his emotions and channel his talent, he could be the key cog in Sacramento's resurrection.
DEFENSIVE MINDSET: Malone has engineered defensive turnarounds in previous stops as an assistant with Golden State, New Orleans and Cleveland, and that will be his first order of business in Sacramento. The Kings allowed a league-most 105.1 points per game last season. Opponents also shot 47.1 percent, ranking 28th in the league.
NEW KINGS: The Kings traded Tyreke Evans — the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year — to New Orleans for point guard Greivis Vasquez in a three-team deal with Portland this summer. They also signed power forward Carl Landry as a free agent from Golden State and acquired forward Luc Mbah a Moute from Milwaukee for two second-round picks. How healthy the trio can stay — not to mention how they play — will be pivotal. Landry is expected to miss three or four months recovering from hip surgery. Vasquez had offseason surgery on his right ankle and was limited early in the preseason. And Mbah a Moute missed time in training camp with a sore right knee.
ROOKIE JOLT: Sacramento is hoping its latest lottery pick will provide an immediate spark. Seventh-overall pick Ben McLemore averaged 15.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and two assists as a freshman on a Kansas team that went 31-6 and won a share of its ninth straight Big 12 title last season. McLemore will get a chance to shine whether he starts at shooting guard or comes off the bench.
ARENA PROJECT: While the Kings have an owner committed to keeping the team in Sacramento, the relocation drama is not completely over yet. Outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern has said Sacramento needs to build a new arena by 2017 or the league could seize control of the team and move it to another city. The Sacramento City Council's planned $258 million subsidy for a downtown arena — a project now estimated at $448 million — is facing opposition from groups gathering signatures hoping to force a ballot initiative, which could delay the project — or even scrap it entirely. So until those shovels hit the ground, the Kings' future in Sacramento isn't set in stone.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP