Knowing I'd be covering the Kings game tonight, I made it a point to watch Sacramento's last four games. Having watched these evolving Kings closely, all I can say is: uh-oh.
The Nuggets, playing sub-.500 ball over their last 10 games and owners of a five-game road losing streak - picked the wrong team and the wrong time to attempt to right their ship.
The Nuggets have struggled a bit against the Kings in season's past, losing at least once each season when the Kings were a helluva lot worse than they are now. When we last saw the Kings play our Nuggets, it was at Pepsi Center in the second-to-last-game of the 2008-09 season, when J.R. Smith erupted for 11 three-point makes in a walkover victory for the Nuggets. The look on George Karl's face that night was priceless as J.R. desperately tried to go for a 12th three-pointer, but the Kings defenders would have none of it.
But five of the nine Kings who played in that game won't be playing tonight as the Kings have undergone a metamorphosis of sorts due to injuries and some shrewd management decisions, notably snagging rookie Tyreke Evans with the fourth overall pick and not being duped into drafting Spaniard Ricky Rubio. The Evans selection combined with stealing center Jason Thompson with the 12th overall pick last year and possibly stealing Omri Casspi (still too early to tell) with the 23rd overall pick this year, Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie is showing that he still knows how to assemble a good team in a small market with limited financial resources.
Playing without their presumably two best players - Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia - due to injury, the Kings have managed to amass a surprisingly good 13-16 record. In the four games I just saw them play, I watched the Kings beat the Bucks in Milwaukee on an Evans' last-second reverse layup, watched them overcome a 35-point deficit to embarrass the Bulls in Chicago, and then watched them blow two overtime games at home against the Cavaliers and the Lakers, who needed double overtime, some dumb luck and a few very favorable non-calls to beat the pesky Kings (sound familiar, Kings fans?).
Is it too early to hand Paul Westphal the Coach of the Year Award?
(On a side note, Westphal - like the man he often gets confused with, Paul Westhead - has had a "Benjamin Button" coaching career of sorts. Meaning, the two coaches with "West" to kick off their last names saw their coaching careers progress in reverse. Westhead began his NBA coaching career with the Lakers, won a ring, got fired, then coached the lowly Bulls, got fired, coached the unheard of Loyola Marymount, got fired, embarrassed NBA coaching as we know it with our Nuggets, got fired, and then coached at George Mason University, was an assistant in Orlando, coached the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, then was an assistant with the Sonics/Thunder and is now coaching Oregon University women's basketball. How many guys start out with the Lakers and end up with Oregon women's basketball? Meanwhile, Westphal also kicked off his NBA career with a bang, guiding the Phoenix Suns to an NBA Finals in his first season, eventually getting fired, taking over the Sonics for George Karl, got fired, coached at Pepperdine University and then found himself as an assistant with the Mavericks before the Kings gave him another head coaching shot this year. So for now, Westphal seems to have gotten back on track. For a great recap of Westhead's career and an in-depth look at the guy, I encourage you to read Chris Tomasson's recent article on the Nuggets ex-coach for AOL Fanhouse.)
The bottom line is the once dormant ARCO Arena is back to its raucous self in a way we haven't seen since Chris Webber wore a Kings jersey. For the opposition, a Kings home game can feel like you're playing five-on-six. And with the Nuggets playing without Chauncey Billups again tonight, it's going to feel like four-on-six (at least, when Anthony Carter is on the floor). As I mentioned in my recap of the Blazers loss the other day, if Carmelo Anthony (or any of us for that matter) is serious about this MVP talk, he needs to prove that the Nuggets can win even when Billups is wearing street clothes. Melo has been unable to do so thus far, but a major opportunity awaits in Sacramento tonight. Suddenly one of the toughest places to play in the NBA again.
-Jon Brockman: A 6'7", 255 pound white guy from Washington state with visible mounds of hair on his shoulders is the very definition of a Stiff in the Doug Moe sense of the word. But Brockman is a banger who uses his fouls wisely and painfully. We have to get this guy on the Nuggets!
-Spencer Hawes: Why have one Stiff white guy from Washington when you can have two? Hawes preceded Brockman in Sacramento and thus deserves credit for starting the trend. Even though he's (listed at) 7'1", Hawes can only make 46.7% of his shot attempts.
-Kenny Thomas: I always joke that Kenyon Martin has the best agent in basketball, but maybe it's Kenny Thomas. Thomas is in the final year of a five-year, $36 million contract that pays him an astounding $8.5 million this season. Don't blame the Kings for that contract, though. That one's squarely on ex-Sixers GM Billy King, one of the great Stiff GMs of all time.
-Tyreke Evans: While the national media (and me included) was quick to anoint Brandon Jennings as the Rookie of the Year, Evans was quietly having the best rookie season of them all. He still makes stupid rookie mistakes (evident by his over-dribbling against Kobe Bryant which led to no shot attempt at the end of regulation on Saturday night), but 20.3/5.1/4.9 and 1.5 steals for a rookie is remarkable. Throw in the Kings playing almost .500 ball with Evans in charge, it's even more remarkable. (Note that the Sacramento Bee is reporting that Evans is "doubtful" for tonight's game. If Evans doesn't play, the Nuggets have NO excuse not to win, no Chauncey or not.)
-Jason Thompson: Out of unheard-of Rider University, Thompson is having a superb sophomore season, averaging 15.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 50.6% shooting. He's a big dude, too, at 6'11" and 250 pounds. What makes Thompson additionally scary is that he has great hands and can dribble and pass like a smaller forward.
-Omri Casspi: The first Israeli-born player in NBA history, Casspi has shrugged off a rough start and is putting together games. He has an awkward jump shot, but makes 49.2% of his attempts which is impressive considering he shoots from the outside often. Casspi isn't afraid to take the ball hard to the rack, as well.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Rich Pendroncelli