Preview: Can the Sacramento Kings Overcome Distraction in Philadelphia?

December 30, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins (15) is defended by Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) during the fourth quarter at Sleep Train Arena. The 76ers defeated the Kings 110-105. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
December 30, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins (15) is defended by Philadelphia 76ers guard Ish Smith (1) during the fourth quarter at Sleep Train Arena. The 76ers defeated the Kings 110-105. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

Some 16 days ago, in a Monday night game against the visiting Charlotte Hornets, the 20-23 Sacramento Kings held a 15-point first quarter lead, and the No. 8 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference. Sacramento, on the back of a five-game winning streak, had snuck its way into the eighth and final playoff spot, and at this point, a sixth consecutive win looked likely.

Then, in what has been the theme of the Kings’ 2015-16 season, the team reversed course. The Hornets would take the lead scoring 42 third quarter points (making nine of 12 attempted third quarter threes), the Kings would lose the game after two overtimes, and the team that was the West’s eighth seed would lose seven of its next eight contests to move five games outside the playoff picture.

But it sure doesn’t feel that close now. Since the Charlotte game, eight teams have combined to outscore Sacramento 934 to 870, an average advantage of eight points per game. In that 1-7 span, the best defensive performance the Kings could muster came against Milwaukee, when the offensively challenged Bucks scored 104 in a Sacramento win. The defense has been terrible, and the results haven’t been close.

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So horribly not close, in fact, that head coach George Karl’s firing seemed to be a matter of when, not if. (Conceding 128 points to the Brooklyn Nets never helped any coach’s job security.)

After each loss by the same humiliating means, with each post-game presser featuring DeMarcus Cousins not-so-subtly blaming Karl for the team’s state of suckitude, George’s place on the Kings seemed to be a ticking time bomb.

But then, in what has been the theme of Sacramento’s season, the team reversed course again. Yesterday, VP Vlade Divac announced that “George will remain our coach and we are collectively working through our issues.”

It’s an amiable decision, in theory. Instead of divorce, George and the Kings can work through their issues, learn from their mistakes, and forge a healthier relationship moving forward—for the better of the themselves, the franchise, the team, and its fans.

You could commend the Kings for its decision if that was all there was to it. But there’s much more to consider.

Per USA Today’s Sam Amick:

"There is a financial component here that is coming into play as well, as Karl is known to be owed approximately $10 million on his contract. A move with that large of a price tag means the team’s minority owners would have to be involved in the decision, as it would potentially require a capital call from investors beyond Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive. Yet despite an report on Monday night indicating that a decision had been made, those discussions had not taken place. By the next morning, Divac was telling the basketball world that Karl would not be fired. Not yet, anyways."

Clearly, there are politics at play. The decision to fire or not fire Karl goes beyond basketball.

Because, if it didn’t, he’d be gone. Karl and his coaching staff have consistently misused Cousins offensively (namely, positioning him around the perimeter to take jumpers and not in the post where his skill and size is best leveraged), prioritizing the integrity of the system over their commitment to the best possible outcome (you know, winning). As a result, DeMarcus has naturally taken exception to Karl’s repeated inability to do what’s best for Cuz and the Kings—creating an environment of toxic mistrust between the head coach and his best player, and spreading to other teammates who’ve combined to play poorly and therefore lose games.

Surely, if keeping Karl was a basketball decision, it would be the wrong one.

That being said, issues have been worked through before. This time last year, Cousins’s concerns over playing for a coach of Karl’s style were temporarily soothed. Last summer, a coach-player relationship that could best be described as non-existent was transformed into a working one. And in the early stretches of this season, when losing stressed the strength of their bond, temporary solutions remedied the problem.

But the fact that every solution is only temporary doesn’t bode well for the relationship’s long-term viability. Inevitably, questions — warranted or not, but probably warranted — about their relationship will arise, serving as a constant distraction to the entire team.

How does Vivek, Vlade, and company foster a healthy culture if, at a moment’s notice, their head coach and their All-Star might jump down each other’s throats? They don’t.

It will only get worse if, after tonight’s 4 p.m. matchup in Philly, the now 21-31 Sacramento King find themselves on the losing end of its second game of the season against the 8-44 Philadelphia 76ers. The Kings fell in the season’s first meeting, at home, 105 to 110.

Tonight, for Sacramento, DeMarcus Cousins is probable with ankle and shoulder ailments, Rajon Rondo is probable with turf toe, and Rudy Gay is probable with an ankle injury. Ben McLemore, who played in each of his first 211 NBA games but has missed three of his last five, is doubtful with a right wrist injury.

For Philadelphia, Elton Brand has a conditioning issue.

Should Cousins play (which looks likely), it will be interesting to see how often the offense runs through him in the post. Philadelphia lacks a defender of comparable size and strength to consistently keep DeMarcus from scoring down there, so we shall see if Karl and the Kings take advantage of this.

Likewise, Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor is an inside presence worth mentioning. The rookie center averages 17 points per game on 49 percent shooting, and tallied 14 points and nine rebounds in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.

In addition, point guard Ish Smith, while he is an inefficient scorer, still has the ability to get inside the Kings’ defense and break them down off the dribble. Considering the trouble Sacramento has had at keeping opposing guards contained, Smith’s speed could be a big factor.