Tuesday, June 25

‘Good is the enemy of great’: Inside the Sacramento Kings’ quest for greatness

SACRAMENTO – Malik Monk, probing his transition dribble into traffic, wanders into a brief Jordan Ford and Jaylen Nowell double-team. It’s an open scrimmage in the middle of Kings training camp. Nowell, trying to make the team as an energy guard, whacks at Monk’s dribble and gets a piece of his arm.

The assigned referee calls nothing. Monk picks up his dribble in frustration and begins to complain while the action is still moving. A whistle finally sounds. But it’s from the opposite side of the gym.

Chirp. Chirrrrrrrp. Chirrrrrrrrrrrp. Each screech echoes through the gym with increased force.

“Malik!” Kings coach Mike Brown yells. “I’m about to lose my f—ing top if we keep doing that s—!”

Monk begins to provide an explanation.

“I don’t give a f—,” Brown bellows and repeats as he walks right into the scrimmage, ostensibly speaking to the entire organization more than just Monk. “I don’t give a f—!”

Go back to that Golden State Warriors series six months ago. The Kings’ dream season slipped away by the slimmest of margins, with Sacramento falling to the defending champs in seven games after breaking the league’s longest playoff drought, which had started 16 years before.

A Harrison Barnes buzzer 3 here, a healthy De’Aaron Fox finger there and maybe Sacramento survives.

Brown was particularly upset after the 126-125 Game 4 loss. His team, zooming up the floor at a breakneck pace, too often flailed away a brick and lingered too long to complain.

“All of our guys are jumping into two, sometimes three guys and begging for a call,” Brown said postgame. “We wasted a ton of possessions in transition, driving and just throwing up some crazy stuff.”

Around Sacramento, there’s a growing buzz about this Kings season. They lit the beam — a tradition that’ll remain — two days before the season opener and lit it again after they blew out the Jazz in Utah 130-114 on Wednesday night. An eruptive crowd is expected on Friday night for the nationally televised home opener against the Warriors.

There’s more local anticipation than has been felt since the halcyon days of Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac and all the rest of their old favorites. Blind hope or overall apathy has been replaced by ambitious but realistic expectations. They won 48 games, looked legit in the playoffs and regathered a young core with upward growth potential.

But that sunny outlook hasn’t bled into the interior of the building. It was a tense training camp and uncomfortable preseason, rooted in the demands of an empowered head coach intent on shoving the Kings forward instead of looking back.

“I feel like he’s erased everything we did last year from his memory, from our memory,” Domantas Sabonis said. “He only brings up that we lost against the Warriors. He’s definitely pushing us harder, and I love it. It’s fair. That happens usually (where) guys get complacent or think, ‘Oh, whatever we did last year.’ But if we don’t do all the little details, nothing’s going to change, you know?”

In the lead up to the season, The Athletic spoke with several Kings players, Brown and GM Monte McNair, setting the stage for this pivotal next step in Sacramento’s arc. Are the Kings a one-hit wonder or is something more substantial growing?

“That moment was about, ‘Hey, we can’t take anything for granted,’” Brown said of the practice outburst. “‘Nothing’s coming easy to us. We’ve got to figure s— out on our own. We can’t rely on this to help us or that to help us.’”

How does something like that land?

“I don’t care,” Monk said. “I know he’s trying to win games. If we win, everybody wins. I think that’s our mindset. That’s Mike’s mindset.”

Davion Mitchell and the Kings are being pushed to be a better defensive unit this season. (Alex Goodlett / Getty Images)

When the Kings held their training camp team dinner around this time a year ago, there was a getting-to-know-you feeling that was inevitable and, ultimately, unhelpful. Their new coach was just a few months removed from assisting the Warriors in their latest title run, meaning the full transition to all things Kings was delayed more than a month after he was hired.

The foundation was still being set. Key relationships were in their infancy stages. They started the season 0-4.

But this year’s team dinner was different. More intense. And it came with a message from Brown that set the toughest of tones for the weeks and months to come.

“Good is the enemy of the great,” Brown told his team.

For the second straight year, Brown had every member of the team commit to their cause by signing an “All-In” poster that detailed his expectations.

“I embrace the adversity in a positive way to earn the trust of the team, every play and every day,” the final sentence reads.

At the very least, they can’t say Brown didn’t warn them about what was to come.

“A lot of times if you are good, you get too comfortable,” said Brown, who spent much of his youth growing up on military bases in Germany. “And if you get too comfortable, and you’re OK with the position that you’re in, it makes it extremely hard to be great. So for us, we’ve got to win the day every single day. And we’ve got to be OK with open and honest communication with each other. We’ve gotta be OK with the mental and physical stress that it takes to just be a little bit better. You’ve got to be OK being uncomfortable so it helps us prepare for a deep playoff run.”

That last part is the point of it all, really.

When Brown signed a four-year deal to join the Kings in the summer of ’22, his goals went well beyond ending their infamous playoff drought. His plan, as told to owner Vivek Ranadivé, McNair and the rest of the organization’s braintrust during the process, was to turn the perpetually woeful Kings into lasting contenders.

He has history. Brown first won a title while on Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs staff in 2003, led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals with LeBron James in 2007, then won four titles with the Warriors as Steve Kerr’s right-hand man during Brown’s six-year stretch with Golden State. He wants his past to be the Kings’ prologue.

In the course of a 32-minute phone interview, he used the word ‘championship’ no fewer than four times.

“I truly believe that we can compete for a championship,” Brown said. “I do.”

But how?

The Kings’ offense lit the league on fire last season, finishing with an NBA-record 118.6 rating. But Sacramento also finished 24th in defense, giving up 116 points per 100 possessions. As history suggests — and both Brown and McNair will agree — that’s hardly the profile of a champion.

So Brown, a defensive tactician at his coaching core, has opted to take a calculated risk. He is amping up his focus and demands on the weaker side of the ball. That means lineup choices, practice plans and even some schematic offensive tweaks that he believes can bump up the defense, even at risk of eroding that historic offense.

“There are a lot of people who may not like this,” Brown said. “But the reality of it is that in order to be great sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice. It may not work. We may not have the success that I think we can have, that I truly believe we can have. And people may say at that point in time, ‘Well, you should have continued to do what you’re great at, which is focus on the offense.’ Nah. I think we still have a chance to be that.

“(But) there’s a ton of room where we can improve defensively. So if we don’t fall off the wagon offensively, if we finish in the top three or top five, I’m good with that. But can we get in the top 15 or top 10 defensively? If we do, I truly believe we’ll be in a much better situation come playoff time.”

That playoff series gave Brown and McNair a reason to believe. The Kings amped up the physicality, locked into the scouting report and made life challenging for the Warriors for long stretches. They struggled to keep Kevon Looney off the glass and contain Stephen Curry when it mattered most, but they held the Warriors to a stingy enough 111.6 offensive rating in the series.

“They were very physical,” Kerr said. “They attacked the glass. They got offensive rebounds, which slowed us down a bit. They tried to jam us up with our off-ball stuff. It was a great series.”

But tilting the balance of focus can come with pain points within a team dynamic. Lineup choices generate natural questions and discomfort.

In one preseason game, Brown replaced Kevin Huerter, the established shooting guard of the league’s highest usage starting lineup last season, with Chris Duarte, acquired from the Indiana Pacers this offseason.

Huerter is the superior shooter and offensive weapon. Duarte showed more defensive oomph in training camp and preseason. So the one-game start came off as both a reward but also a bit of a message.

“He doesn’t want us to get complacent,” Huerter said. “He doesn’t want us to be drunk on the success we thought we had last year. Everything right now is a feel-good. The city feels good. The organization feels good. There’s a great vibe and energy. We can’t get caught up in that. I think he’s purposely trying to make us uncomfortable.”

Another preseason rotation choice made waves. Sasha Vezenkov, the high-profile overseas signing, opened action in the third unit. Brown edged him back into the second unit and it’s clear he will get a crack at securing a significant bench role, but it surprised plenty (especially internationally) that Brown even said that the EuroLeague MVP didn’t have guaranteed minutes to open the season.

“The great thing about Sasha is he’s been in a lot of high pressure situations,” McNair said. “You’ve been over to EuroLeague games. There’s plenty of pressure over there. So I don’t think that will be an issue for him.”

Vezenkov profiles as a perfect offensive complement to the Kings’ style. He is an elite shooter, natural cutter and excellent passer and decision-maker. But he also sticks out as a potential target for offenses and scoring wings to attack in isolation, generating another question about the offense-or-defense balance.

“I’m working for the team, he’s working for the team,” Vezenkov said. “We’re working in the same direction. … From theory to action, (the NBA is) a little bit different. A lot of times you have to face it, you have to challenge it and you have to be stronger to keep going. It’s totally different world, totally different league. I’m taking a small step every day forward to be what I want to be and what the team needs me to be. I’m trying. The game is so fast and these guys are so talented.”

Huerter started the season opener in Utah and maintains a temporary grip on that spot. Vezenkov played 16 minutes off the bench, given a clearer rotation path with Trey Lyles currently out. He made two 3s and had a pair of steals. But playing time questions will persist up and down the roster because it’s clear the head coach is willing to pull various levers in search of true contention.

“If guys can get it done, they gonna play,” Brown said. “If they don’t get it done, I gotta do what’s best for the team. And that doesn’t mean trash a guy or throw a guy along the wayside. But yeah, I got to make the decision of who plays, who doesn’t play, who starts, who doesn’t start. And that’s going to be based on what’s best for the team.

“And we’re going to put some demands on individuals across the board that are all the same, where a guy has to be able to perform at that certain level in order to play and/or start. So Kevin knows what that is. Sasha knows what that is. JaVale knows what that is. Domas knows what that is. And if I feel they can’t get it done, and at the highest level, individually first, so that collectively we’re a championship level team, then I got to make a change. So at the end of the day, it will be dictated upon their performance more than anything else.”

De’Aaron Fox applies pressure on Talen Horton-Tucker in Sacramento’s season-opening victory. (Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE via Getty Images)

This is where internal buy-in from the face of the franchise is paramount. De’Aaron Fox elevated his game on the court last season, morphing into an All-Star guard, the league’s best scorer in the clutch and a feared playoff performer.

His next step is about leadership. Brown has coached a long list of the game’s greats: James, Curry, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and more. There is a story he loves to tell about LeBron that relates to this moment for Fox.

Back in 2005, when Brown was in his first season with the Cavaliers, his defensive game plan was falling apart at the seams early on in the regular season. They were a ‘show’ team on the pick-and-roll but the team wasn’t fully embracing the system.

“So I called timeout and I went straight to the huddle and I just started going off, saying ‘OK, what the hell do you guys want to do?’” Brown recalled. “Every time we try to defend the pick-and-roll, we’re getting diced apart. You want to switch? You want to trap?’ We were a show team. Some people might call it hedge, so I said, ‘What do you want to do? I’ll do whatever you guys want to do just as long as…”

LeBron stepped forward.

“I didn’t even get a chance to finish, but ‘Bron stepped in and said, ‘No, no, no.’ — excuse my French — but he says, ‘No f— that. We’re a show team. That’s what we’re gonna do. You do this. You do that.’ And as he’s saying this, I just backed out of the huddle. From there, we took off. I mean, we were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA the next I don’t know how many years. And in my opinion, it’s because the tone was set — maybe initially by me — but the tone was solidified by LeBron.”

Fox elevated his level on the defensive end last season and really caused some problems for the Warriors in the playoffs, getting physical on the off-ball action and jumping passing lanes. Brown has said he believes he can be one of the league’s best on the perimeter.

“It starts with me,” Fox said. “Both on and off the court. Especially on the court. You’re coming in, especially the way he wants to play — play fast, play physical — ball pressure defensively. It all starts with me.”

Fox’s voice is becoming a bit louder internally, according to those in the building. He spoke up a ton during the Kings’ regular offseason player meet-ups. In particular, he’s made an active effort to cultivate a strong bond with Keegan Murray, working out and hanging out with the surging second-year wing all summer.

Fox has stated that this team’s upward growth potential is through Murray. If Murray takes a leap, they can take a leap. To do it, the talented Murray must bust out of his calm demeanor and add some extra aggression on both ends of the floor.

That could mean some stern messages, pump-up sessions and, at times, harsh words for those who aren’t buying-in, particularly defensively. It can often land softer from a player rather than always the coach.

“Yes,” Fox said. “We have to be able to get on guys. We need to be as consistent as possible on that end.”

Sabonis has seen it — and even done it himself — more than before so far.

“I feel like Fox is speaking up more in team huddles and stuff like that, which gets everyone locked in,” he said. “We’re pushing each other, you know? And if teammates see me and Fox going at each other, or pushing each other, and speaking up and all that, it’s only going to make them lock in too and fight stronger because we all know it’s going to be a completely different year. And it’s going to be way, way harder.”

As McNair shared his view of it all while sitting on a black couch inside a Golden 1 Center conference room, he took a moment to highlight the harsh reality that awaits well beyond Sacramento: The Western Conference is dangerously deep this season.

From the defending champion Denver Nuggets down to the Victor Wembanyama-led Spurs and everywhere in between, there won’t be many easy nights at the office.

“There’s no reason, for us, that we can’t be even the one or two seed, or be the three seed (again),” McNair said. “(But) if we don’t bring it every night, we’re going to be potentially in the play-in mix or worse. That’s how good the West is. So that, to me, is what’s exciting. The whole (season) matters because (the West) is going to be so condensed.”

For McNair, who has built this roster so deftly after being hired away from the Houston Rockets in September 2020, that underscores the importance of top-to-bottom connectivity within the locker room. He’s confident that Brown will lead the way wisely as they so boldly reinvent themselves, pushing just enough when it’s needed and praising at the right times too.

“We really trust Mike that he’s going to find that balance of ‘I’m going to get these guys ready to go, but I also know that we’ve got 82 (games) and more after that,’” McNair said. “You can’t burn out too early.”

There’s truth in that sentiment, to be sure. But this much is clear: With his eyes on the ultimate NBA prize, Brown is going to bring the heat.

“I won’t be here 50 years as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings, although I’d love it,” Brown said with a laugh. “So for me, if something was to end for me, as long as I can look in the mirror and I can honestly tell myself that I tried to do the best I could for this team, then I’m gonna be OK with it.”

(Illustration : John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: G Fiume, Loren Elliott, Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images )