- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Sacramento Kings.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- When they come up in conversation these days, which surprisingly isn't too often, the Kings usually generate the same reaction. They know what people are saying about the proverbial Window Of Opportunity, and how theirs is suddenly slipping shut.
Put the premise to Vlade Divac and he actually agrees with it.
To a degree.
"Yeah," Divac said with a laugh. "Not for the other guys, but maybe for me."
Tell Rick Adelman that his team no longer ranks as the NBA's automatic co-favorite with the Lakers, or that the Kings might not even be L.A.'s most hated rival anymore, and there is even less of a protest.
"There's probably good reasons for that," Adelman said. "People aren't talking about us much, but that's OK. It doesn't bother me that there isn't a lot of expectations right now, because I don't think that's true in our locker room. We still have expectations."
Brad Miller, meanwhile, doesn't dispute that he is just starting several years of mammoth expectations, no matter where his new team ranks, because of the free-agent dollars he was guaranteed in the offseason. Miller knows that, from now on, he's the Sixty-Eight Million Dollar Man. Unless he consistently produces like one.
"That's what everybody does in this league," Miller said. "As soon as you get a contract that's not the minimum, everybody focuses on it."
In their formative years, they were Kings of the highlight reel. Over the past couple seasons, they were widely seen as the team most likely to knock the Lakers off the NBA throne, as well as the undisputed Kings of playing hurt.
Now they're philosophy Kings. They concede that, around the country, the new reflex reaction to a discussion about the Lakers is to bring up San Antonio. They understand how and why, in a short span, their reputation has changed somewhat, but that's it's only a reputation. So they're not too worried about it, mainly because the Kings also understand that they have the power to change it back.
"One thing I've learned about this team: They're very resilient," Adelman said. "They have the ability to bounce back all the time. I had no doubt they were going to come back in a good frame of mind mentally, and they have done that.
"I think health is the main thing. I don't think there's anybody we can't play if we get there and we're healthy."
Of course, until they do get to next spring, the Kings face 82 games as a Prove It To Me team. That's because Chris Webber is expected to miss the first month of the regular season after knee surgery ... and because many of Sacramento's other top players (Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson) have suffered long-term injuries in the past 12 months ... and because the Kings' bench has been weakened while the rest of the West's elite got stronger.
Let's look at the Prove It To Me personalities, one by one:
Nothing can compare to the hurt of the 2002 playoffs, when the Kings failed to close out a 3-2 lead over the Lakers in the conference finals. There is no dispute among the Kings' leading men that losing to Dallas in the second round last spring, after Webber's knee collapsed in Game 2, was easier to take.
That said ...
No one in the league was playing better basketball when Webber went down, which made Webber's absence plenty hurtful. Especially since the Lakers ultimately proved as vulnerable as they appeared during the regular season.
To compound the pain, it was later discovered that Webber's injury was more serious than originally feared, meaning that he'd have to miss the start of this season, even though he had his operation reasonably quickly after last season. That means Webber will again play less than 70 games, with durability questions sure to greet him upon his return.
"I just assume we will not have him the first part of the year," Adelman said. "We're saying he's probably going to miss November. If he comes back before that, terrific, but I want him to come back healthy.
"If we don't have Webb, we could start the season with six new people. That's a lot. Five of our top 10 guys from last year would not be with us. I don't think people really understand that.
"I knew the other team. I knew what we had. If we had all those guys back, I knew we were going to be very good. Right now we're going to find out about this team."
No King suffered more without Webber than Bibby. The year before, he riddled the Lakers with jumpers in the conference finals and was widely hailed as the clutchest of the Kings. Stripped of his pick-and-roll partner, and now carrying an $80 million contract after his star turn in the '02 playoffs, Bibby got the bulk of the blame for Sacramento's earlier exit.
The criticism swelled to the point that Bibby's whole season was considered a washout, even though the numbers (15.9 points on 47-percent shooting, and 41-percent shooting from 3-point range) suggest his play wasn't nearly as lackluster as it's described.
Shrugging like he always does, Bibby doesn't have a lot to say about the pressure he brings into the new season. "I just have to play better," he says. Adelman, for one, doesn't doubt that Bibby will, suggesting that a summer with Team USA was a handy exercise for reinforcing Bibby's confidence.
"After the Dallas series, that was a good thing to get involved in," Adelman said. "There were some people talking like he shouldn't be there. I think he showed he did belong there.
"I think what happened to Mike is people made so much of what happened in the Dallas series that it was like he had a totally bad year. And it's not true. He came into camp last year on top of his game and broke his foot and missed (27) games. Even in the Utah series, he had one tough game, but the rest of the series he really played well. It just happened that (Steve) Nash and (Nick) Van Exel turned it around on us. The year before, Mike and Bobby (Jackson) really took it to them. They came back at us last year."
The Kings admitted the window was closing on Divac even before anyone had a chance to ask the venerable center what he thinks. Divac's uncertain future, at 35, is what prompted Kings president Geoff Petrie and owners Joe and Gavin Maloof to extend a $68 million offer to Miller in a sign-and-trade with Indiana that also cost them Hedo Turkoglu and Scot Pollard.
The problem with that, as Adelman notes, is that Divac "is still the guy who keeps this together" with his selflessness. The Kings want to reduce his regular-season minutes load, now that Miller has arrived and once Webber returns, but they have to have Divac in a role of prominence to be successful.
The good news? Divac, never known for his conditioning, looks reasonably sharp for October. He took the summer off, declining to play for his native Serbia and Montenegro in the European Championships, and seems a little fresher as a result.
"I'm realistic," Divac said. "I know I can't last forever. I know it's there. It could be this year, it could be two years. They wanted to (protect) themselves and that's fine.
"When I look around at my position, with my capabilities, I think I could play another 10 years. Five more years for sure. But it's up to what my body says."
When all three of his big men are healthy, Adelman plans to bring the new guy off the bench behind Webber and Divac. "Vlade is going to start," he said. "Simple as that."
Thing is, Webber isn't healthy, which puts Miller right on display. The Kings are pleased with his start -- "He's a better passer than I thought he was," Adelman said -- but Miller doesn't deny that it has been a major adjustment.
Not only has Miller come to the mighty West, where he'll potentially have to stand in front of Shaquille O'Neal's haymakers 11 times a season, he has come to a team as a total outsider. Miller has never played previously with anyone on the Kings.
Divac, though, insists that the famously tight-knit Kings will make Miller feel welcome ... and that the incumbents are already impressed.
"Brad Miller," Divac said, "is pretty good.
Said Miller: "I put more pressure on myself than I worry about anything else. It's a great group of guys. It's great to see the possibilities already."
The coach himself? Adelman might have received a contract extension in the offseason, but he knows what that guarantees. Nada.
After a summer in which 10 of the league's 29 teams changed coaches, who has security? Not even Adelman. Not even after 120 wins the past two seasons. Not in Sacramento, home to maybe the league's most demanding fans. Fans who don't hesitate to question the freedom Adelman gives his players, even though the freedom has generally served the Kings so well.
"A championship is what I hope and expect," Adelman said. "But I can't control perception. A lot of people (in Sacramento) were saying that we should have beaten Dallas without Webber. I would love to beat Dallas without Webber.
"I've really enjoyed this team. I just look at it like I've been fortunate to have two great situations. I was in Portland for a long time. I've been in Sacramento for six years. It doesn't happen very often in this league to have it one time. I've had it twice."
Two different opportunity windows.
"I hear that (window talk), but I don't think you can even talk about it because you don't know what the year's going to bring," Adelman said. "I still remember that one year (1995) that Houston came out of nowhere to win it. I don't think people even thought a window was open for them, and Houston won it two years in a row.
"We still think we have a good group. If the new guys can fit in and we can do well until Chris gets back, we think we can compete with anybody. You just hope maybe it's our time to get through (injuries) this year."
6dEthan Sherwood Strauss
7dMatt Walks, ESPN.com