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Wednesday, April 16
 
Kings still have one thing left to prove

By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com

So how many double wides do you suppose you can put in a victory parade?

Yes, we're going to have fun making light of Phil Jackson's favorite rednecks in the NBA Finals. But the Sacramento Kings figure to have the last laugh when they win their first NBA title in two months.

They're not just the best team in the NBA. They're way, way the best team in the NBA. They haven't won anything yet because they don't know it. Which is a bigger part of it all than it seems.

Sometimes teams suspect it, and sometimes they believe it. But you never really know it until it happens. Because you've never won before. Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s believed they could beat the Boston Celtics and then win an NBA title. They just didn't know it. And there can be a lot of pain finding out.

Thomas likes to tell the story of that blown inbounds pass in the 1987 conference finals that probably cost the Pistons a chance to finally beat the Celtics. It was an astonishing gaffe for such a great player, one that could haunt a player's career forever. Thomas remembers no one spoke to him. No "hang in there," or "we'll get 'em next time." No back slaps or comforting words. It was like he was quarantined. No one looked at him, no one talked to him. In the locker room or on the bus. Finally, on the plane, rookie John Salley walked up to Thomas and said it would be all right. Thomas cursed him out and told him to get away.

Which is the other thing the Kings don't have going for them yet. Their star isn't a jerk, at least not to federal prosecutors. Sure, Chris Webber can be, but not that kind of winning jerk you need.

Like Thomas, or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. They'd let everyone know in the big games just what they thought of their play. They were demanding, though not in a nice way. They were mocking and rude. They'd embarrass you. They were first about winning, not friendship.

One gets the feeling the Kings' players like Webber. This is not necessarily a good thing. Your best player has to be a bit of a jerk (even on the web we don't want to use that other language the players use). Much has been discussed over the years of Webber's apparent unwillingness to take big shots or make big plays to win games. It does hold a team back. Its best player has to court failure -- and defy it.

It was like that with Jordan as well. Everyone knows he wasn't afraid of taking the last shot. However, part of the problem is he wanted all the other shots as well. And his team, like Thomas', had to learn the hard way. They had no idea they could win a title in 1991. They were still trying to figure out how to beat the Pistons. It was the goal. They didn't hate anyone out West like they hated Detroit. They'd come so close, a Scottie Pippen migrane in 1990 taking them out in Game 7 of the conference finals when they knew -- were sure -- they were better. Portland was the dominant team in 1990-91. They bolted off ahead of the league and sustained it most of the way. But the Bulls got there and Portland was gone, so what the heck, they figured they'd try to win it.

The Kings have had their heartbreaks, but that alone doesn't qualify a team. Portland had heartbreaks in 1992 and again in 2000. The Blazers are still searching. The Jazz were crestfallen in 1997 and 1998. They don't figure to see the Finals in the near future.

This Sacramento team is better than those teams. In this NBA era, they're probably the best. They now have to avoid being the best team ever without a championship.

Look at that roster, especially in this pre-expansion era of the NBA when the new Charlotte team will have the personnel to compete for fourth in the NBDL. There's only one player on the Spurs who would start for the Kings. There are two on the Lakers. Of course, those two are better than anyone the Kings have. But it's questionable whether anyone on the Lakers beyond Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant could even make the Kings.

Hedo Turkoglu and Scot Pollard are ninth and 10th men. If the Lakers had either of them, they'd win the title easily. If the Spurs had Keon Clark, they'd win. The Mavs, too. It's really unfair how much talent the Kings have accumulated.

And they are the best team in the NBA to watch. No team moves and passes the ball like the Kings. Princeton could learn their back-cutting techniques. Their big men, Webber and Vlade Divac, are some of the best passers in the NBA. Peja Stojakovic might be the league's best shooter. Doug Christie is one of the best defenders. Divac is the league's best actor trying to defend Shaq. They're a joy to watch with the ball movement, player movement, shooting ability and someone to teach your dog to flop down and play dead. What team is more fun?

The notion has been the Lakers are cruising through this season, but it appears more to be the Kings. They believed they were better than the Lakers last season, just a bad call here and there and an air ball and bricked shot here and there in Game 7 of the West finals. Just like Thomas knew they were better in 1987 and Jordan knew they were better in 1990. You've got to just do it. To get a sneaker commercial as well.

Webber has missed his regular 15 games. Stojakovic missed 10. Bibby missed 27. Bobby Jackson missed 24. No top team has missed as many games from crucial players. Divac hasn't missed many games but takes a lot of smoking breaks. You get the feeling they're just waiting for the playoffs. That they need to play those games again because they know they're better. Still, they have to prove it.

Even with players in and out of the lineup, they're still among the league leaders in virtually every major category.

They're not supposed to defend, but they rank first in opponents' field-goal percentage and are tops in defending the 3-point line. The Lakers are last defending the three as no one ever comes out on a pick-and-roll. The Kings are second in the league in steals and in the top 10 in ratio of turnovers committed to forced. The Kings are one of three teams averaging more than 100 points per game and rank in the top five in shooting, rebounding and assists. Their free-throw percentage isn't great, but the Spurs and Lakers are worse from the line. They're in the top three in most close wins and tops in blowout wins. What can't they do?

Win the big one?

So far, but all it takes is one time.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

 



 

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