SANTA BARBARA — Ocean breezes drifted through the open gym doors while the Sacramento Kings ran the final wind sprints of their first practice Tuesday.
The tranquility of a seaside training camp provides one more breath of fresh air for the Kings, who are hoping their outstanding summer off the court is a prelude to bigger breakthroughs this season.
“This is a great opportunity for us to get together as a team, away from everything and everybody,” new coach Mike Malone said.
The Kings are spending the week several hours from Sacramento at UC Santa Barbara, putting down the foundation for a rebuilding project that’s likely years from completion. Judging from Malone’s happiness and the players’ satisfied looks after the first workout, everybody is grateful for the long-struggling Kings’ new beginning.
“It starts from the top,” forward Jason Thompson said. “Having different owners, not having guys ask me if we’re going to stay next year, that’s good for us. It’s great to just focus on basketball.”
While the Kings have spent seven straight losing seasons out of the playoffs, Sacramento is on an undeniable roll off the court.
After several seasons of comical instability under the Maloof brothers’ ownership, the Kings were revitalized this summer by their sale to Vivek Ranadive. The software mogul’s purchase culminated the triumphant fight to keep the club in California’s capital city after Sacramento fended off a final purchase attempt from a Seattle-based group.
The Kings also have concrete plans for a beautiful new arena after years of playing in one of the NBA’s least impressive barns. Ranadive overhauled almost everything else about the Kings, installing a new front office headed by general manager Pete D’Alessandro and hiring a savvy new coaching staff for Malone, the longtime assistant running his first NBA team.
When asked why he brought the Kings to the picturesque city on the Southern California coast for his first practices, Malone deadpanned: “Look outside.”
“This is a great setup for us,” Malone added. “We wanted to get out of Sacramento. We have a new staff, a new front office, two new rookies, three new free agents. With so many new faces, we have a chance to get away and build a team. … You can teach all the X’s and O’s that you want, but it comes down to chemistry and trust and building relationships.”
Malone became a believer in remote training camps during his tenure with the New York Knicks, who made annual trips to Charleston, S.C., to get away from the spotlight. The Kings held camp in Colorado Springs last year under coach Keith Smart.
“You’re with each other 24-7,” guard Jimmer Fredette said. “You’re getting here at the same time, eating in the same places, sleeping in the same hotel. You bond and really get to know the guys.”
Malone and his coaches have plenty of work to do on this trip. Four starting spots are likely up for grabs in camp, with the only certainty being center DeMarcus Cousins, who got a four-year, $62 million contract extension Monday.
“We’ve got a great group of guys, and if we keep working hard together, we can do great things,” said new guard Greivis Vasquez, who went through his first full workout since offseason surgery on his right ankle.
Vasquez’s competition with Isaiah Thomas for the starting job at point guard kicked off with a lively first workout. The Venezuelan newcomer already is impressed by Cousins.
“I love Cuz,” Vasquez said. “I’m going to have so much fun playing with him. I’m going to find him all the time. I’m playing with a great center, an All Star-caliber player, and we’re going to win.”
Lottery pick Ben McLemore could be the Kings’ starting shooting guard immediately, while Thompson and Carl Landry are competing at power forward. But starting spots and offensive decisions aren’t Malone’s top priority in this reclamation project.
Malone is focusing most of his training camp energy on improving the Kings’ defense, which ranked near the bottom of the league in most categories last season. If the Kings plant the seeds of defensive competency in Santa Barbara through better chemistry and effort, Malone will consider the trip a success.
“I want to defend, and from our defense, everything else will come,” Malone said. “We still want to run, but we want to run with discipline, but none of that will happen if we don’t commit to defending and rebounding at a high level.”