Before the Suns there were the Kings. While other teams relentlessly pounded the ball inside or ran mind-numbing isolation plays, Sacramento was a circus act of head fakes, backdoor cuts and creative bounce passes needled through traffic for easy hoops. Each player on the floor always appeared to know where the other four Kings were going, and they circulated the ball with brio. Their style wasn't just entertaining, it was successful: Sacramento was one of only three teams to win 50 games in each of the last five years.
Well, aficionados of freewheeling, dynamic basketball, shed a tear: This season, quite literally, marks the end of the run. After acquiring power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim and shooting guard Bonzi Wells over the summer, the Kings are irreversibly committed to a traditional half-court offense. "It's not going to be the cutting and the splitting," says coach Rick Adelman. "It's got to be the post-up game and a lot more pick-and-rolls, where we're not just playing through our big guys."
The early results have been painful for Sacramento and all-too-familiar to Abdur-Rahim, a former All-Star who has yet to play on a winning team in his nine-year pro career. At week's end the Kings had struggled to a 1-2 start, and their offense--which averaged 103.7 points last season, second to only Phoenix's 110.4--repeatedly broke down in the first two games, when Sacramento averaged 78 points. It did, however, display some of its old fluidity and balance in a 118-117 victory over the Suns on Sunday, when all five starters scored at least 16 points.
Abdur-Rahim, a career 19.8-point scorer, will fill the scoring void left by Chris Webber, but it was Webber's ability to create for others that made Sacramento so lethal. While Abdur-Rahim is eager to prove that he can flourish as a passer (he had seven assists against the Suns), the Kings want to play to his strengths before developing other parts of his game. To ensure that Abdur-Rahim and Wells get enough touches, Adelman is calling more plays from the sideline than in past years. "When you make a lot of calls, it's nice to have a presence like Shareef inside," he says. "You know that he's going to manufacture something."
If he stays healthy. The Nets rescinded a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers this summer over concerns about Abdur-Rahim's right knee, and an NBA club executive told SI that his team decided not to pursue the player for the same reason. The Kings got him for what they consider a bargain: $29 million over five years. "I never sat out practices because of a knee injury, I never missed a game because of a knee injury," says Abdur-Rahim, who missed 12 games in his first eight years but sat out 22 games last season with a right elbow injury. "I took the same physical here that I took [in New Jersey], and nobody had a problem with anything."
Then there is the issue of the postseason. Abdur-Rahim is desperate to stop answering questions about having the longest playoff drought among active players. "If I can bring anything, it's a hunger to win," he says. But simply playing in late April won't satisfy him either. "My focus is on trying to feel the same way as these guys," he adds, noting that Wells, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby have each reached the conference finals. "None of these guys' aspirations is just to get in the playoffs."
For now, though, the Kings will be happy to develop a little of the offensive consistency they used to take for granted.