SACRAMENTO -- A season without expectations. That is what everyone, from Dave Joerger to Vlade Divac, has said entering the 2016-17 Sacramento Kings season. But on the eve of opening night, DeMarcus Cousins wants no part of that.
“I have one goal, that’s playoffs,” Cousins told media members on Tuesday before the team boarded a plane for Phoenix. “That’s success for me right now.”
Cousins has never tasted the playoffs in his first six seasons in the NBA. In fact, the Kings are trying to snap a decade long drought dating back to the 2005-06 season during the Rick Adelman era.
Joerger made the playoffs the previous three seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies. He isn’t ready to make promises, but he laid out his path for success this season following practice.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is learn how to compete,” Joerger said. “The second thing then is to learn how to win. We’re not a young group, so if we can get to stage one quickly, then we can can to stage two. If it takes all year to get to stage one, that’s okay, that will be a progression.”
Vegas has the Kings win total set at 34, good enough for third worse in the Western Conference. To add insult to injury, Sacramento’s odds of winning the NBA Championship are set at 500/1.
“I don’t really care what people think,” Cousins added. “I don’t care what their expectations are. I know what we’re putting in on the daily. I know we’re in here working, we’re trying to get better everyday. All we can do is worry about one another and go out and perform every night.”
The Kings will be a work in progress throughout the season. With an entirely new coaching staff and eight new faces on the opening night roster, this is a team in need of seasoning. Chemistry will take time, but this is a veteran team with plenty of experience.
“It’s a great group of guys,” forward Omri Casspi said. “I feel like once the season starts, everything will fall into play on the court as well.”
Joerger has been busy putting in his defensive principles all camp in an attempt to patch the largest hole the Kings had from a season ago. A key phrase keeps coming up when players are asked about Joerger’s style of coaching, specifically of the defensive end, where his teams routinely rank amongst the league’s best.
“The attention to details on the defensive end,” Casspi said of what Joerger has brought to the table. “We always have a guy in the way and we really play the lanes.”
Attention to detail is almost a buzzword in Sacramento. Joerger’s system is very different from what the Kings ran last season. There will still be switching, but not nearly as much. Joerger’s teams play tough, aggressive, inside-out defense. They clog the lane and protect the rim, which should play to the strengths of the roster.
“Offensively, I think we can play with the best, we’ve always been talented offensively,” Cousins said. “Defensively is where we’ve always struggled. Do I think we’re in a comfortable place? No, but I think we’re on the right path. We’ve still got a lot of growing to do.”
Cousins may feel that the Kings can score with the best, but he’s learning an entirely new system. For the first time in his career, the two-time All-Star will man the high-post on a regular basis. The offense will run through him on most plays and will be expected to become a distributor, as well as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.
“I still can play my game, be the same DeMarcus, but I think it’s better for the team,” Cousins said. “It helps our spacing. I think it plays to our advantage. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice at all.”
The offense might be perfect for Cousins’ skill set, but he’s just seeing the most rudimentary parts of the scheme at this point. With so much focus on correcting the defensive inadequacies, Joerger has hardly cracked his playbook during camp.
“About a quarter or a third,” Joerger estimated when asked how deep into his offensive sets he’s gotten so far. “It’s been tough, but I’d rather try to get better at smaller set of stuff than not being very good a whole bunch of things.”
Joerger will implement new wrinkles as the season goes on. The high-post system has plenty of room to expand as the players become more acquainted with the principles. When it’s run to perfection, this offense is pretty to watch. But even in its basic form, the high-post is an efficient and structurally sound system.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than the last time we talked,” Cousins said with a smile. “Coach has a lot, we’re learning a lot, it’s new options every day. But I’m definitely in a better place now.”
Early in the season, the Kings’ focus will be on developing and improving, not so much worrying about who the new next opponent is on the schedule. It’s been a long camp, including a week layoff between the team’s last preseason game and their first regular season game. For now, the players are just ready to get the ball rolling on a new season and dispense with facing each other in practice every day.
“I feel like it’s time to get started,” Casspi said. “We’re all excited and happy and ready to go to Phoenix.”
The Kings open on the road against the Suns on Wednesday night, before returning for their home opener Thursday evening against the Spurs. They play the Timberwolves on Saturday, but then take off on a five game road trip back east.
“Two weeks from now I’ll be begging for a practice, right now we’re all kind of begging for a game,” Joerger said.
The action will come fast and furious over the next few weeks. Eight games in 12 nights, including six road games is tough for any team. For a group that is just learning each other, the trial by fire begins Wednesday.