SACRAMENTO -- A little over two weeks ago, the Sacramento Kings beat the Denver Nuggets to draw within a half game of the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race. After Saturday’s 105-92 loss to those same Nuggets, Sacramento has dropped eight straight and their playoff dreams have been put to bed.
“It was one of those games,” coach Dave Joerger said. “We looked heavy legged, made some mental mistakes and some physical mistakes but Denver is playing very, very well. They cut well, they pass well, they’ve got some good, young ball players.”
These two teams could have been fighting all the way down the stretch, but the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans hit a hard reset button in Sacramento. The focus now is on the transition to younger players.
Joerger has been slow to turn to his young core, relying heavily on veterans for most of the season. But over the last two weeks, he has loosened the reigns on Willie Cauley-Stein and rookies Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere.
“These guys are playing good,” Joerger said of the three. “I played Buddy Hield 30 minutes. I played Willie Cauley-Stein 35 and a half. I played Skal 20. I could play them 48, but I don’t think that’s what’s best for them.”
Hield picked up his second straight start for the Kings and played well. Like Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein, he is a work in progress and will require patience. He finished the night with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed six rebounds.
“He really shoots it,” Joerger added. “If he gets a window and gets a clean look, he can really shoot it. I think that’s fantastic.”
Cauley-Stein aggressively attacked the Nuggets front line, which is a positive step. He finished the night just 3-of-11 from the field, but he shot 7-of-8 from the line. His 13-point, five-rebound, five-assist game doesn’t jump off the page, but the fact that he is becoming a consistent threat on the offensive end is a major step forward.
After playing sparingly throughout the first two-thirds of the season, Labissiere is turning heads with his recent play. The 20-year-old big man scored a modest seven points in 19 minutes of action, but that’s because he went an uncharacteristic 1-of-5 from the free throw line.
Labissiere came into the league with a reputation as a player who doesn’t like contact. Since getting minutes he’s shown flashes of brilliance, be it as a rebounder or with his highlight reel dunks in traffic. He needs to get stronger, but the 6-foot-11 big has quickly moved well beyond his reputation and is showing star potential.
“When I go out the on the court, I try to leave it all out there,” Labissiere said. “I love the game so much and I don’t try to cheat it at all. I’m blessed to even be here playing this game.”
The Kings remain competitive, despite the youth movement and the extended losing streak. They are in almost every game, but the season is now about development and not a chase for the postseason.
“The young guys are playing hard, the vets are trying to teach the younger guys some things,” Kosta Koufos said. “Everybody is playing their role.”
It’s a tough pill to swallow for the veterans, but the Kings locker room is filled with quality character guys. The season began with so much promise and now the change in focus is to prepare for next year. While the veterans may see a reduction in minutes, their value on the team is just as high as it’s even been.
“We’ve got a young team now, but we’ve got some guys that have been in this situation,” Garrett Temple said. “For those guys who have been in this situation, we’ve got to continue to explain to [the younger players] why we have to stay positive and keep chipping away.”
The Kings finish their three-game homestand Monday when the 24-43 Orlando Magic roll through Golden 1 Center.