SACRAMENTO -- (AP) Paul Westphal glanced around the Sacramento Kings practice facility on the first day of training camp, smiling with his eyes wide open in awe of his surroundings.
"It just feels great to be back," he said. "It's hard to believe that we're even here, but we're here."
Westphal was referring to the NBA lockout being lifted and the season starting. Of course, the coach's words also might describe the past and present situation of the franchise.
On the verge of moving to Anaheim last summer for a fancier arena, the Kings are back in California's capital city -- for now -- and ready for one of the most important seasons in team history. There is newfound optimism with an emerging roster of young and athletic playmakers and around the city that the 2011-12 campaign will be the start of Sacramento's return to glory.
"I think it's going to be an interesting season," said point guard Tyreke Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year. "We're going to try to run teams out of the gym."
Maybe even start the process to move into a new gym, too.
The focus will be as much off the court as on the court this season. City efforts to help finance a new arena are on pace to meet NBA Commissioner David Stern's March 1 deadline, or at the very least show enough progress for an extension before the Kings again explore relocation.
The Sacramento City Council has approved several preliminary measures for an arena project led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star. A final vote is not expected until at least February on the entire financing plan that will ultimately decide the fate of the town's only major professional sports franchise.
"We're optimistic guys, always have been. We look at the positive parts," Kings co-owner Joe Maloof said. "We think as long as the mayor continues on with his ideas, we'll see if they can come to fruition."
Until that time, Kings players will do their part to build momentum.
The Kings were horrible for most of last season, owning the Western Conference's worst record for a few weeks and finishing 24-58. Evans missed 25 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and he often looked injured when he played.
A late-season surge behind a healthy Evans gave hope that the Kings might not be that far off from returning to the playoffs. Sacramento should certainly be better this season, if for no other reason than it's hard to be any worse, and a winning record is not out of the question if the Kings can overcome a stretch of having 22 of their first 33 games on the road.
Only time will tell whether they're ready to make a major leap.
"Pretty much everybody has improved, so we've got to try to jump over several of those teams. And we think we can," Westphal said. "I know we're going to be better, but who are we going to jump over? That's why they play the games. We'll find out."
The roster has only matured since last season.
Evans and second-year center DeMarcus Cousins anchor a talented core that is still searching for consistency in the professional ranks. The Kings re-signed scorer Marcus Thornton and rookie Jimmer Fredette has dazzled in training camp in the fashion that turned him into a BYU sensation.
The Kings believe the 6-foot-2 Fredette will work well in a backcourt with Evans and Thornton, although the rotation is still unclear, Fredette will likely come off the bench and see starter's minutes. The 6-foot-6 Evans has the ability to match up with bigger guards defensively and move to shooting guard, where he might be an even stronger scoring threat.
Sacramento also added veteran forwards John Salmons and Travis Outlaw, and rookies Isaiah Thomas and Tyler Honeycutt will also be expected to contribute. With nothing guaranteed next season, the Kings are all-in for 2011-12.
"We know this is the year we got to get it," Cousins said. "You're going to see a big difference this year."