The Sacramento Kings appeared to be on cruise control. They were 43-15 before Chris Webber played his first game of the season on March 2 and recorded 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 113-106 win over the Clippers. Then, after a convincing 120-02 defeat of Dallas on March 11 -- in which Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie and Brad Miller all scored 20 or more points -- the Kings were 48-16 and tied with Indiana for the NBA's best record.
The Kings were playing their typical brand of offensive basketball with excellent ball and player movement, pinpoint passing and high-percentage shooting. They have ranked either first or second in the league for most of the season in points scored, field-goal, free-throw and 3-point shooting percentages and and number of assists per game. That offense was good enough to carry them to their gaudy record even though their team defense was soft and penetrable.
Then, with Bobby Jackson and Miller injured and Webber not playing at the top of his game, the bottom dropped out on the Kings. They lost four out of five games -- in which their opponents averaged 115 points a game -- and seven of their last 11 to fall to 52-23.
There was no joy in Sactown as a kind of panic hit the area. Kings fans, unaccustomed to losing and failing to look logically for reasons why it was happening, vented most of their anger at coach Rick Adelman and Webber. Local talk radio "experts" fanned the flames of unrest with their opinions, and team owners Joe and Gavin Maloof called a team meeting to give the players a motivational talk.
Consecutive wins over Houston and (with Miller back) over New Orleans have eased the tension somewhat. But Webber is still struggling with his game and it's uncertain when Jackson will be back. Also, the Kings have two big home games ahead this week -- Minnesota on Thursday and the Lakers on Sunday -- and play at Phoenix on Friday.
I love the Kings' offense. The system is sound. It is well-taught by Adelman and his staff, the players are unselfish, and the execution is at a high level. Stojakovic, a great shooter, uses multiple screens in the offense to get open and is having a career season (about 25 points and six rebounds per game). Bibby, Christie and Jackson handle the guard spots with an excellent combination of playmaking, scoring and defending.
Adelman has done his usual masterful job of filling gaps in his playing rotation. Before Webber returned to action, Miller played a double high post with Vlade Divac and made deft passes. He knocked down jumpers and led the team in rebounds. Divac also scored inside and the pair combined for more than 10 assists a game during that stretch. Adelman also got productive minutes from impressive rookie Darius Songaila and veteran Tony Massenburg while C-Webb was out. Utility guard Anthony Peeler filled in for Jackson, who returned Thursday after missing 24 games with a strained abdominal muscle.
However, I had doubts about the Kings' defense and asked Adelman about it before the season began. He said that he too was uncertain about how good they could be in that area. The Kings had not replaced three key defenders from last season's team -- Hedo Turkoglu, Jim Jackson and Keon Clark -- which led the league in field-goal percentage defense (.420). Adelman said then that he was counting on the basketball intelligence of his players to compensate for their lack of individual defensive skills ... and felt that would be especially true in the playoffs, when teams have more time to focus on one opponent.
I asked Adelman again about his team's defense before last Sunday's game with Houston. (The Kings allow 98 points a game and .455 field-goal percentage shooting -- which rank 25th and 26th, respectively, in the league). Adelman said that, although he didn't like the way his team was defending, he was uncertain what he could do about it with the personnel he has. He said that of greater concern to him was to get the offense running efficiently again. He felt that if his players were more patient with its execution, they would get better quality shots and make a higher percentage of them. That in turn would keep opponents from running out on fastbreaks after missed quick shots. He proposed that improved execution of offense would also improve his team's defense.
The Kings' most recent results against Houston and New Orleans bear out Adelman's premise. In both games, the Kings shot 50 percent or better from the field and averaged 102 points. The Rockets and Hornets averaged 92.5 points -- neither team scored 100 -- and they shot a combined .448 from the field. The Rockets had two fastbreak points and the Hornets had eight.
In those two victories, Sacramento's execution of offense had a positive effect on the quality of its defense. The Kings needed those wins to restore their confidence. Now stronger tests come against Minnesota and L.A.
The Kings don't have a deep roster and need all of their key players available and playing their best. They badly need a healthy Bobby Jackson. He's a great catalyst off the bench, is a pesky defender who can guard end line to end line, has 3-point range and is a surprising offensive rebounder.
They need Webber's complete game. They need for him to defend, rebound, block shots, pass and score from inside and out. That's a large order, but C-Webb has that kind of ability. He has not defended well this season but indicated after the New Orleans game that his legs are getting stronger and that his game is coming around. The Kings need all he can give them.
Assuming the bursa sac in Miller's elbow is healed, he needs to do what he's done all season -- bang the boards, muscle his matchup, make open jumpers and hit teammates with passes. Divac needs to use all of his skill and guile to battle a variety of big men, and he must finesse scoring plays of his own in the paint.
Stojakovic must be mentally ready for the league's best defenders. He's adept at using his teammates to get open shots -- and that's all he needs to put valuable points on the board. Bibby and Christie must play with the same intensity and effectiveness they showed last Sunday at Houston and bring it to every game. Peeler, Songaila and Massenburg must be ready if called on.
Coach Adelman's quest for a high-performance offense as a method to keep opponents' scoring under control is valid, but it will never replace a hard-nosed, in-your-face, down-and-dirty defense. A combination of the two could make the Kings a playoff winner.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.