Michael Malone has one more game before his nightmare first season as an NBA head coach is over. Yes, it has been a nightmare. Twenty-eight wins is not acceptable for Malone. Neither is 29 or even 40. What is acceptable for him is a playoff run, which is something he became very accustomed to over the last decade as one of the league’s best assistant coaches.
Like his star center DeMarcus Cousins, Malone hates to lose. He isn’t happy that his season is ending on Wednesday evening. And he certainly isn’t happy with just matching Keith Smart‘s win total from a year ago.
“28 wins is going to get us in the lottery again,” an impassioned Malone said following the Kings’ win over the Timberwolves on Sunday. “I’m happy we won tonight and it’s great, but more important to me is trying to improve and get better and become a team that really embodies our identity of defending, and rebounding and valuing the ball and sharing the ball.”
The 2013-14 Sacramento Kings did not embody Malone’s vision. Not even close. They will finish the season as the league’s ninth-best rebounding team, which is completely acceptable. But every other category that Malone mentioned is well below average.
On the defensive end, the Kings rank 25th in the league overall, yielding 103.4 points per game. They have struggled all season long defending the 3-point line, allowing the opposition to shoot 37.9 percent, which ranks 29th out of 30 teams. They also rank 27th in blocked shots and 22nd in steals.
Malone could argue that he has a team full of offensive weapons, not elite defenders. He could also point to the trades that have changed the face of his roster multiple times during the season. There are reasons and there are excuses, and Malone has plenty of reasons why his season has gone the way it has.
General manager Pete D’Alessandro made roster moves all season, swapping out Luc Mbah a Moute, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette in a whirlwind first season at the helm.
D’Alessandro looked to add athleticism for a team desperately lacking in entertainment value. In a few cases, he clearly traded defensive-minded players for offensive weapons. Sometimes that is all you can do.
Malone’s best defender, Luc Mbah a Moute, was dealt to Minnesota for Derrick Williams before he really even got a chance to get into a rhythm. While Williams is more athletic and has a higher upside, Mbah a Moute brought an ability to guard three positions at a very high level, something no other Kings player can do.
One man would not have fixed all the issues the Kings had on defense, but players like Mbah a Moute will be needed if Sacramento is going to make a move up in the defensive rankings.
The argument could be made that not only was Mbah a Moute Malone’s best defender, but Salmons and Hayes were right behind him in defensive ability.
On the offensive end, the Kings struggled mightily with hero ball and selfish play all season. They ranked 16th overall in scoring, but also led the league in fewest assists and after a strong start to the season, they will finish with the 21st most turnovers allowed this season.
Again, continuity was a huge issue on both sides of the ball. Only one player is still on the roster from the opening night starting lineup. D’Alessandro didn’t just add and subtract a few tertiary players; he swapped out almost the entire rotation, leaving Malone to mix and match players on the fly.
This isn’t an indictment on D’Alessandro. The Kings roster was broken and still is to some degree. The GM’s job is to bring the coach as much talent as he can and hope that the coach can fit the pieces together at breakneck speed.
This wasn’t about just integrating Isaiah Thomas back into the starting lineup or adding a bulk scorer like Rudy Gay for Malone. It was about survival in a season of change for everyone involved.
We knew this team would be a work in progress, but I’m not sure even Malone knew what he was getting into when he took the job. The good news is that he has the backing of the organization and perhaps more importantly, the players.
“I think the future is bright,” Cousins said following Sunday’s game. “I’m with Malone until the end – he knows that. He has my back, I’ve got his. You’re going to be seeing him for a while until he gets rid of me because it won’t be my choice.”
The fans seem to have taken a liking to Malone, as well. You have to love his tenacity and his passion for the game. He has a sense of history about what this fanbase has endured, and he knows they deserve better.
“We made a lot of progress in areas, we’ve played well at certain times of the year and I just want to try and get better,” Malone said. “And 28 wins will never be something we’re proud about.”
Twenty-eight wins is a start. It is proof that despite all of the challenges facing the 2013-14 Kings, they didn’t regress. They haven’t progressed as far as anyone would like to see either, but with Malone at the helm, this team is headed in the right direction.