Once headed nowhere, the Kings are closing in on a playoff spot--and that's ascary prospect for the West's top teams
Meet the team thatno Western contender wants to face in the first round: the once flyweight,suddenly heavyweight Kings, who at week's end were 17-11 since acquiringswingman Ron Artest from the Pacers on Jan. 25. Never mind the roster overhaul,the lame-duck coaching staff or the mediocre 35-35 record through Sunday.Sacramento has a quartet of former All-Stars, a rock-solid eight-man rotationand a formidable home-court advantage. "[The Kings] can be verydangerous," says Warriors assistant Mario Elie, whose team tried to acquireArtest. "I was looking at their lineup the other day. You've gotathleticism, toughness, shooting, unselfishness."
Sacramento wasadrift when it traded three-time All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic for theincendiary Artest, who was out of shape after playing only 23 games (largelybecause of suspensions) over the previous 14 months. Almost instantly, however,Artest provided the perimeter defense and edge that the Kings had been lackingsince trading Doug Christie midway through last season. The numbers sinceArtest's arrival are telling: A D that had allowed 93.7 points per game throughSunday (down from 100.2), an 11-1 record at home and a 4-1 road trip to kickoff March, with playoff-caliber wins at Cleveland, New Jersey and Milwaukee."His aggressiveness rubs off," says center Brad Miller, who also playedwith Artest in Chicago and Indiana. "You got one guy out there doing that,and it gets annoying when other guys aren't trying to match hiseffort."
Still, the Kingsremain almost as mercurial as their new small forward. Last week Artest andpoint guard Mike Bibby teamed for 34 and 30 points, respectively, in a 105-96win over the visiting Sonics. One night later, however, Artest had seventurnovers in an 87-80 loss at Los Angeles that gave the Lakers a one-game leadover Sacramento for the No. 7 seed. Bibby and Miller, the only players who werewith Sacramento two seasons ago, still occasionally struggle to mesh withArtest and fellow newcomers Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells. "We don'thave enough patience," says coach Rick Adelman, who's in the last season ofhis contract. "If [the opponent] takes Mike [Bibby] away, then somethingelse has to be open, and we've got to take it that extra step. Right now we'renot doing it."
The Kings stillhaven't decided whether they're better as a passing team that maximizes thepick-and-roll skills of Bibby and Miller; a fast-paced, finesse team thatshowcases young swingmen Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia; or a post-up teambuilt around Artest, Wells and Abdur-Rahim. While Artest is their best post-upscorer, a Western Conference scout says, "When the ball hits his hands, itjust stops because he's either posting up or isolating."
Nonetheless, Artesthas been filling up the stat sheet, having averaged 17.5 points, 5.6 rebounds,4.0 assists and 2.1 steals as a King. His ability to bring the ball upcourt hasalso relieved the pressure on Bibby, who is averaging a team-high 21.2 pointson 44.3% shooting since the trade--as opposed to 20.4 points on 40.4% shootingbefore it. "I'm not happy with the way we're playing offensively," saysAdelman, "but I don't know what we can do about it because since Ron's beenhere we've had [the equivalent of] three full practices."
Having generated somuch controversy over the last two seasons, Artest won't dwell on theshortcomings of his new team. When asked, for example, about the reports thathe initially tried to veto the trade, he says, "That wasn't me, that was myrepresentative [agent Mark Stevens] who didn't want me to come here. This feelslike home now."
Publicly, the Suns,Mavericks or Spurs won't say that they'd prefer to meet the Lakers or Hornetsin the opening round, but it's not hard to believe that, say, Manu Ginobiliwould rather avoid a physical first-round matchup with the 6'7", 255-poundArtest. And if Ginobili doesn't, he should, says Artest, who guarantees thatthe Kings will advance past the first round. "It doesn't matter who weplay," he says. "There isn't anybody we can't beat."
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On second-year Nets center Nenad Krstic, 22, who is averaging 13.3 points and6.1 rebounds while shooting 49.7%.
"Other than thefoul trouble he gets into--which is common among young guys--he doesn't make alot of mistakes. He can shoot from the outside, post up and rebound, he's agreat team player, and he's a good screener, which is a dying skill among bigmen. I always wonder why they aren't playing at a faster pace, because Krsticwould be good trailing behind Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd onthe break. But Lawrence Frank is a controlling coach, and when you see howother teams are moving to up-tempo basketball, it makes me question whether therest of the league is passing [Frank] by."