They used to say defense wins championships. That may or may not hold true in this new hyper space-and-pace era in the NBA, but it’s clear that chemistry and culture can change fortunes in the time it takes teammates to applaud or utter expletives at each other.
Around the league, the efforts of bona fide playoff contenders have been undermined by contentious locker-room dynamics and melodramas involving star players. The Minnesota Timberwolves endured it with Jimmy Butler, the Houston Rockets are experiencing it with Carmelo Anthony, and now the Golden State Warriors face a profanity-laden feud between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green that threatens to weaken the fabric of their dynasty.
The Kings? They’re fast. They’re fun. They couldn’t be happier and they’ll probably thank you for asking.
“We’ve got a fun bunch of guys,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “It’s fun to come to the gym. It’s fun to watch them work and they like each other.”
None of this happened overnight. Kings general manager Vlade Divac laid out this bold new plan nearly two years ago when he traded brooding All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins in order to rebuild around a bunch of smiling youngsters.
“Winning begins with culture and character matters,” Divac said.
The Kings (8-6) are emerging as one of the NBA’s nicest surprises this season as they set out to play four of their next five games on the road, including stops in Memphis on Friday and Houston on Saturday.
The Grizzlies (8-5) have won three of their last four and six of nine since suffering a 97-92 loss to the Kings on Oct. 24 in Sacramento. The Rockets (6-7) had won five of seven going into Thursday’s game against Golden State, but they lost five of six to start the season while struggling to integrate Anthony into a team that reached the Western Conference finals last season.
Anthony, a 10-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer, has not played since being held to two points on 1-of-11 shooting in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 8. The Rockets have said Anthony is out due to “illness,” but coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters in Houston he doesn’t know if Anthony will return to the team, referring further questions to general manager Daryl Morey.
“(Anthony) doesn’t fit anything they do,” a Western Conference scout told ESPN. “He can’t defend and he loves taking midrange jumpers. That was a step in the wrong direction.”
The Kings, meanwhile, seem to be making all the right moves. They have won seven of their last 10 games, losing only to the Milwaukee Bucks (10-4), Toronto Raptors (12-3) and Los Angeles Lakers (8-6).
Much of Sacramento’s success has been attributed to its new run-and-gun style. The Kings are second in the NBA in pace, third in 3-point shooting and ninth in scoring. Their defense seems to be improving, too. Over the past 10 games, they are second in 3-point percentage defense, third in field-goal percentage defense, fourth in defensive rating and ninth in steals.
“Everybody’s cool with each other and everybody gets along,” rookie forward Marvin Bagley III said. “It’s a good vibe going on right now and I think it’s carrying onto the court in the way we play. When we play together, we feel like we can beat anybody. We have a lot of guys playing really well right now and we just want to keep that going. We don’t want anybody to veer off and start doing their own thing because what we’re doing has definitely been working.”
Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein expressed similar sentiments following a victory over San Antonio earlier this week after Spurs coach Gregg Popovich noticed how the culture in Sacramento has “changed drastically.”
“The culture was changed before our first game through the guys,” Cauley-Stein said. “I’ve been here for four years and this is the first time that everybody is on one page and everybody likes playing with each other. Everybody really cares if you do well.
“In the past, it was like these two dudes need to get their numbers and we might win, and if we win it’s cool. Now, it’s like we’re playing for everybody else to play good. We’re helping each other play good and it’s more fun that way. Everybody is getting touches and everybody is getting to make plays, and that’s how you keep everyone engaged and happy.”
The Kings have assembled a collection of charismatic and personable young players such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harry Giles, Bagley and Cauley-Stein.
“It’s about how we play and creating a culture here,” Bogdanovic said. “You can tell that Fox is one of the guys who leads us. We trust him and we know how much he can do on the court. He’s a super talented guy and now it’s on us to follow him and help him — and help each other.”
They like each other.
It’s all about chemistry and culture.
“This is what we wanted,” Divac said. “We wanted to change the culture. The most important thing for me and everyone here is to have fun and just enjoy each other. This is supposed to be an enjoyable time for them. They like to play with each other. They like to practice. They like to work. This is what we’re trying to create and we don’t want anybody to mess that up.”