One of the few black marks on an otherwise splendid regular season have been the Nuggets two losses to the lowly Sacramento Kings (both games were played at Sacramento). The first time the Nuggets played Sacramento, they caught a peaking Kings team. Tonight? They catch a squad spiraling downward.
In one of those bizarre scheduling oddities that we see in the NBA from time-to-time, the Nuggets recently played the Kings twice at Sacramento within a two-week span, losing both games by a combined total of seven points. Looking at the Kings current record of 16-30, you almost forget that when these two teams first met on December 28th, the Kings had become the surprise darlings of the NBA and were threatening to sneak into the playoffs. Before beating Denver 106-101 that night (sans Tyreke Evans for Sacramento, sans Chauncey Billups for Denver), the Kings were playing near .500 ball, had overcome a 35-point deficit to beat the Bulls in Chicago and had taken the Cavaliers to overtime and the Lakers to double overtime (both were losses). At the time, I even suggested that Paul Westphal was doing the best job of any NBA coach to that point (right now I'd say it's George Karl, hands down...is there any dispute?).
Since then, the wheels have come off the Kings bandwagon. The Kings have won just twice in 16 games with the first of those two wins coming against - you guessed it - our Nuggets on January 9th. In that game, the Kings needed an Evans' buzzer beater to sink a Carmelo Anthony-less Nuggets squad that had pulled off a thrilling victory over the Cavaliers in Denver the night before. In fact, Evans torched the Nuggets all night in that Kings victory en route to 27 points off 10-15 shooting, unheard of for a rookie. Meanwhile for the Nuggets, Billups and Kenyon Martin once again picked up the slack in Melo's absence and were almost good enough to bring home a win for Denver.
So what's gone wrong in Sacramento? A lot of the blame may land on the shoulders of the "other K-Mart"; Kevin Martin. Martin, the team's best player before Evans arrived, rejoined the team from injury nine games ago and they've dropped eight of nine, including six straight during a recent Eastern Conference road trip. Since returning to the team he was once the de facto leader of, Martin has shot 50% from the field just once and has had a number of J.R. Smith circa two weeks ago type performances. Check out some of Martin's recent shooting nights: 4-10, 6-17, 3-9, 8-18, 1-7, 1-7, 1-9...egads!
Beyond the numbers, Martin has disrupted the rhythm of the team and Westphal hasn't figured out how to mesh Martin with Evans, both of whom are shooting guards with Evans being a better all-around player. We saw the same problem in Milwaukee when the Bucks imploded while rookie sensation Brandon Jennings and veteran Michael Redd didn't play well together, before Redd's season was shut down with yet another knee injury. And like Milwaukee, Sacramento has a huge problem when it comes to Martin: he makes too much money. Martin is due to make $13 million three seasons from now. Good luck finding a buyer for Martin.
(It must be noted, however, that Martin has picked up the pace in his last two outings combining for 64 points and shooting 50% from three-point range. He may not produce W's, but you always have to keep an eye on Kevin Martin.)
But the Kings being in a state of disarray should only benefit our Nuggets, winners of 12 of 15 games (could easily be 14 of 15 if they hadn't lost at Sacramento and at home to the lowly 76ers soon after the New Year). Quite simply, the Nuggets are the hottest team in the NBA right now and demonstrated as much by confidently beating the Spurs at San Antonio yesterday. And while most of the Nuggets players might be a bit weary tonight, the rumors are swirling that Carmelo Anthony will make his return from a sprained ankle. If the Nuggets can get a fresh Melo back tonight, we'll be looking at 13 wins in 16 games while the rest of the Western Conference continues to cannibalize itself. That's the homecoming we're looking for!
-Kevin Martin: When you're supposedly the best player on your team but after rejoining them they lose eight of nine, something is wrong.
-Sean May: I saw May by the pool at the Palms Hotel in Vegas two summers ago and was convinced that if he dove in, the entire pool would overflow. Generously listed at 266 pounds, the perpetually overweight and out-of-shape May (uncharacteristic for a UNC guy) might go down in NBA history as another forgotten fat guy a la Robert "Tractor" Traylor and Oliver Miller.
-Hilton Armstrong: It's too bad Shelden Williams isn't on the Kings anymore, because by having Williams, May and Armstrong, the Kings would lead the league in guys-who-came-from-great-college-programs-and-were-drafted-early-in-the-first-round-but-are-completely-useless-in-the-NBA.
-Jon Brockman: I've been pimping Brockman all season and will do it again here. Brockman epitomizes my theory that if you have a second round pick, you should always take a bruising power forward from a major league college program (even if he's undersized by NBA standards). While the Nuggets played penny-wise/pound-foolish with their 2009 second round pick, they passed on DeJuan Blair and Brockman, both of whom have panned out nicely as NBA role players.
-Tryeke Evans: When you're mentioned with LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as only the third rookie ever to average over 20 points, five rebounds and five assists, you know you're a non-stiff. Unfortunately, Evans' rebounding has dipped a bit to 4.6 and he may miss being a part of that illustrious company. And unfortunately for Nuggets fans, Evans has a bruised left hip and may not play tonight...taking away the only real reason to watch the Kings play.
-Jason Thompson: The 6'11", 250-pound Thompson seems to have hit a sophomore slump of sorts during this recent losing stretch for the Kings, but he's still an effective big man and a ball hawk, evident by the 16 rebounds (five offensive) he grabbed against the Bobcats on Saturday night.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Aaron J. Latham