SACRAMENTO — First-year Sacramento Kings coach Michael Malone gathered his players following a two-day Christmas break last week and asked them one question: What type of season do they want to have?
On one hand, the Kings (9-20) own the second-worst record in the Western Conference entering Tuesday’s game at Houston. They are headed for an eighth straight losing season and are teetering on the brink of irrelevance on the national landscape again.
On the other, the Kings are trying to lay a solid foundation for a rebuilding project that’s likely years away from completion. Malone wants his players to focus more on the process than the results — a difficult challenge considering his team’s record — and establish a work ethic that breeds success.
“The challenge in the NBA is to do it every night. If we can start maintaining and create a proper work habit, we’ll have a chance to do that,” said Malone, who helped engineer turnarounds as an assistant at Golden State, New Orleans and Cleveland previously.
If there’s anything Malone has learned about his team so far, it’s that he can’t quite figure out his team just yet.
Sacramento looked sharp in a home win against Houston (21-12) earlier this month before losing four of its next five. The skid, capped by a home defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans in which the Kings allowed 39 points in the fourth quarter, prompted Malone to publicly acknowledge that “we’re a bad basketball team right now.”
The Kings came back from the Christmas break to stun LeBron James and the undermanned Miami Heat in overtime, rallying from an early 17-point deficit to beat the two-time defending NBA champions. Sacramento also played solid in a 112-104 loss at the reigning Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
Just as it was entering training camp, Sacramento is a relatively new team.
The seven-player trade that brought Rudy Gay from Toronto earlier this month reshaped the roster and reshuffled roles. In many ways, that hit the reset button on Sacramento’s reclamation project — which is likely to happen again before the trade deadline on Feb. 20.
The deal for Gay was the second major one since opening night under new owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Pete D’Alessandro, who said they owed it to fans to be aggressive after years of relocation talk and cost-cutting moves under the Maloof family. Sacramento also sent Luc Mbah a Moute to Minnesota for Derrick Williams on Nov. 26.
“This team still isn’t really together,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “Everybody’s new to one another. We’re still trying to figure each other out. That’s not something that just happens in two or three practices.”
Sacramento has packed a potent scoring punch behind the trio of Cousins, Gay and point guard Isaiah Thomas. More than anything, though, Malone has preached defense.
The Kings are allowing 103.9 point per game, the second most in the NBA. Sacramento also ranks 29th in opponents’ shooting percentage (47.2 percent) and last in opponents’ 3-point shooting percentage (39.7 percent), following a similar trend under previous coaches Keith Smart and Paul Westphal.
“Offensively, I think we’ve done a pretty good job this year, especially of sharing the ball, which was a major point of emphasis,” Malone said. “Defensively, right now, I can’t give you much on the positive side.”
Signs of progress have been subtle.
After games, players are talking more about defense than offense. There has been no public bickering on the court or in the locker room, either, which ripped apart previous teams before January.
There also has been a commitment to invest in the team, and most fans are buying into the hope of a better future after the franchise nearly moved to Seattle in May. The Kings are averaging 16,023 people per game at their 17,317-seat arena.
The support comes after Cousins received a four-year, $62 million contract extension before the season. He has turned in performances worthy of All-Star consideration ever since, averaging career highs of 22.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shooting a career-best 49.4 percent.
Getting Gay put an even heftier burden on Sacramento’s salary cap. Gay is making $17.8 million this season and holds a $19.3 million player option for the 2014-15 season.
Both are just the kind of financial risks Ranadive had said he would be willing to take to avoid another lost season, which is the kind of mindset Sacramento wants to avoid during the remainder of its schedule, regardless of its record.
“You’ve just got to roll with it,” Gay said. “And we’ve got to be patient.”