What will the season hold for the Sacramento Kings? It’s unclear, but a few observations were gleaned from their season-opening 100-91 victory over the Lakers on Monday:
1. Cousins grew up: If this game is any indication, DeMarcus Cousins is a dramatically different player than he was last season. He has matured physically and mentally.
He looks leaner and faster on court. It showed in more than the 12 points and 11 rebounds he contributed. He was pesky toward the Lakers’ big men, poking the ball away if he couldn’t haul down a rebound, and hard to get by, drawing a crucial charging foul by Kobe Bryant with 57 seconds left.
Cousins also kept his cool in situations he might have lost it last year. He still pouted after not drawing a foul on a few possessions, but when he was called for his third foul late in the first half, he bent over, talked to the ref and patted him on the butt when their discussion was over. He didn’t go nuts when he drew a double-technical with Lakers center Pau Gasol after the two got tangled up; he took a seat on the bench when coach Paul Westphal pulled him and cheered his team on.
Possibly the biggest change in Cousins’ game was the clever way he played with the Lakers in the paint. That included a key turnover he caused in the final minutes. He was falling out of bounds and was smart enough to bounce the ball off Gasol’s leg, knocking it out of bounds. Possession Kings.
There were times last season when we saw flashes of how good Cousins could be. This might the season where he becomes a dominating big man in the NBA.
2. Front line got deeper: It says a lot about the Kings that Jason Thompson and Donte Greene played a combined 7:59.
In the past, Thompson especially was the first big man to sub for Cousins or other big men got into foul trouble. Now, sorry to say, the Goon Squad is an afterthought on the bench.
That’s because the Kings are so much deeper at center and forward than they have been since Vlade Divac played in Sacramento. Cousins and newcomers Chuck Hayes and John Salmons started. They were relieved by J.J. Hickson and Travis Outlaw.
Thompson and Greene have been good soldiers for the Kings, but the team has upgraded its inside presence so much that it shows how bad the Kings were when they were the first option. And it showed Monday night how much upside the team has.
3. Three’s no crowd: Westphal proved that the three-guard offense that he tested during the preseason games was no bluff. He frequently used a rotation of three guards Monday night that included Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas.
In fact during the end of the first half, Westphal was using a combination of Thornton, Fredette and Thomas. That’s three players that weren’t here at the beginning of last season. And two of them were rookies playing in their first NBA regular-season game.
Westphal made the adjustments when necessary, like having John Salmons cover Kobe Bryant late in the game. But he also kept the Lakers off-guard by frequently having the 5-foot-9 Thomas man-up on Bryant in the first half, drawing a loose ball foul on the Laker guard as well as a few laughs.
Regardless of Bryant’s reaction, it’s a good bet that Westphal will frequently use a three-guard offense. It’s hard to argue when that quartet combined for 58 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and six turnovers against the Lakers.
4. Foul shooting stinks: There is no excuse for the Kings missing 14 of 35 free throws. For all of the good that this victory did for the Kings, bad free-throw shooting nearly threw it away.
Consider that Evans missed five of 12 free throws, including four in a row. Hickson clanged three of his four attempts. And Salmons blew both of his foul shots.
This is nothing new. The Kings’ 60 percent from the line Monday night is a step back from last season when they were 28th in the league in making 73.4 percent of their foul shots.
A dramatic win over the Lakers could have a blowout had the Kings made half of their 14 misses from the line. Most of all, Evans has to improve on his .771 career free-throw shooting or teams like the Lakers will continue to confidently foul him with the game on the line.
5. Calling long distance: It’s no surprise that the Kings took 18 three-pointers Monday. After all, they averaged 15 a game last season.
However, the shocking part is they made 9 of 18 three-pointers. Last season, they made 33.5 percent of their three-pointers and ranked 26th in the league.
Again, this team is deeper than it has been in at least five seasons. That showed when Thornton made four three-pointers and Salmons added three more.
By the way, the last time the Kings were in the league’s top 10 for three-pointers was during the 2004-05 season, Peja Stojakovic’s last full season in Sacramento.
6. Kobe and the excuses: A little cold water on this Kings victory is necessary for a reality check. This is not the same Lakers team that won the NBA title just two years ago.
The factors add up fast: Bryant non-shooting hand has a muscle tear that requires surgery. Lamar Odom, who was last season’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year, was traded to Dallas earlier this month. Center Andrew Bynum was serving the second game of a four-game suspension. The Lakers came off a loss the previous afternoon to Chicago. Mike Brown is in his second game as Lakers coach. And Pau Gasol looked as if he had little motivation after he was all but traded to New Orleans in the Chris Paul trade that was denied by the league.
Yeah, the Lakers had more than their share of excuses. But they also have a target on their backs every game because they are the Lakers, winners of 11 titles since moving to L.A.
Bill Bradley can be reached at billbradley@27×7.com.