- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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A week away from the start of the season, it's easier to say what the Sacramento Kings are not, than what they are. They are not deep and versatile. They are not one happy, tight-knit family. They are not, once again, injury-free.
So what they are, then, is kidding themselves -- if they believe none of that matters.
Peja Stojakovic, for one, knows it does. That's why the All-Star small forward suggested both he and the Kings would be best served if they moved him. Stojakovic said he's committed to playing hard, but with his close friend and mentor Vlade Divac going to the Lakers, the distance between him and the rest of his teammates was palpable during the Kings' week-long, two-game tour of the People's Republic of China with the Houston Rockets.
"It would be a fresh start for everybody," he said during the trip. "They could get new blood and I would get a new challenge to energize me."
The Kings already have added some new blood that, on paper, would appear to address their weaknesses from a year ago. Rookie Kevin Martin, while not having the length of Doug Christie, displayed similar quickness, instinct and tenacity to slow down Tracy McGrady in the two games against the Rockets. Center Greg Ostertag averaged 1.8 blocked shots last season, which is nearly twice what Divac produced. David Bluthenthal, a dead-eye long-range shooter with all the mental toughness acquired from winning the 2004 Euroleague Championship with Maccabi Tel Aviv last spring, replaced the athletic-but-erratic Gerald Wallace.
And yet the Kings were one buzzer-beating behind-the-backboard baseline jumper by Bobby Jackson in Beijing from starting the exhibition season 0-5. Martin has to be Christie, who has been out all preseason with plantar fascitis and won't be ready for the season opener. Ostertag broke his hand and could be out until mid-November. Bluthenthal has shot a miserable 30 percent overall and 18 percent from behind the three-point arc. As a whole, the Kings' vaunted offense has scored only 86 points a game and shot 38 percent, second-worst only to Atlanta.
Then there's Chris Webber, who has been an absolute master of mixed messages. In an August Q&A with the Sacramento Bee, he seemed to indicate that Stojakovic wasn't mentally tough, Divac didn't work hard enough and that he planned to personally instill a no-nonsense attitude, even if it meant upsetting certain teammates. But once he arrived at training camp he said he just wanted "to have fun" and did just that in China, goofing on reporters at the post-game press conferences by turning his video camera on them. Despite looking completely recovered from the knee surgery that still hobbled him after his return last season, he had only one blocked shot in his first 97 preseason minutes.
And as one sports psychologist told the Bee about Webber's attempts to be the team drill sergeant: "If you're trying to be something you're not, it seems not to hold up. Things like chemistry can suffer."
It's hard to completely dismiss the Kings because they still have a load of talent. Mike Bibby and Jackson remain a lethal one-two punch at point guard. Brad Miller played Yao Ming even up in two games. Darius Songaila, awarded minutes with Ostertag out, ticks off at least one opposing big man per game and provides the toughness Webber insists has been missing. Webber is taking and making more shots in the post and still fills a box score with the best of them.
But the malaise around this team is obvious. They had more talent and better chemistry the last two years and couldn't seal the deal on a championship. They're $20 million over the salary cap and still waiting for approval to replace bandbox Arco Arena. While everyone isn't as direct as Peja, the window on their title chances seems to get a little smaller every year. And there's no slope slipperier than contending for a title, falling short, and then having to train your sights on some lesser goal. How motivated is any team shooting for a lesser target?
Granted, preseason records can be misleading because a lot of coaches use players on the bubble in the final deciding minutes to see what they can do. Coach Rick Adelman has done his share of that. But he's also well aware that the Kings are fragile right now and open the regular season with five of their first six games on the road, including a three-game swing through Texas. He's on shaky ground as well, being in the last year of his contract and having had his attempts to nail down an extension before the season starts rebuffed.
"There are just a lot of things about us up in the air right now," he said, "but I think we'll be OK."
There was a time when "OK" wasn't nearly good enough for the Kings. But that's something else they're not -- those Kings.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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