As the Kings crumble for the second straight year, are they most disappointed about their numerous injuries, their blown leads or their failure to build upon their core of young talent? None of the above, says second-year forward Michael Smith. What's most vexing, he says, is that Sacramento didn't learn from last season's collapse. "Last year we were right there [in contention for a playoff berth]," says Smith. "But we couldn't make it happen. And now here we are again, making the same mistakes."
Those shortcomings—inconsistency at point guard and an overall absence of leadership—had dropped the Kings, who began the season 19-9, to a 28-35 mark at week's end and into a dogfight with the Nuggets and the Warriors for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Moreover, defeats like Sunday's 115-84 debacle against the Cavaliers have put Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean on the hot seat.
The early-season hopes were high that Smith and forward Brian Grant would perform better than they had in their superb rookie season. The Kings' second 1995 draft pick, point guard Tyus Edney, quickly earned a starting job. Resident All-Star guard Mitch Richmond was playing so well that he seemed a lock for one of the two open spots on the '96 U.S. Olympic team. And swingman Walt Williams, a tantalizing talent, seemed poised to break out.
But on a 1-4 January road trip, which hit its nadir when the Kings coughed up a 25-point lead and lost to the Celtics, the weaknesses that plagued Sacramento last year reemerged. Foremost was erratic play at the point. In the 5'10" Edney's first swing through the league he had exhibited quickness and court savvy, but the second time around teams exposed his defensive frailties. Then the 152-pounder crashed into the rookie wall; Edney has been so exhausted in recent games that St. Jean has had to burn timeouts to give him a breather. On March 3, St. Jean inserted third-year point guard Bobby Hurley into the starting lineup even though St. Jean had lobbied to trade Hurley for more than a year—with no takers.
On Feb. 22, with Williams threatening to exercise an escape clause in his contract after the season because he wanted to play in a larger market, the Kings traded him to Miami. In return Sacramento got hobbled forward Billy Owens, who has played with an injured right foot most of the season.
Meanwhile, Richmond has failed to deliver what the Kings need most: leadership. At week's end he was averaging 23.8 points, but he remained uncomfortable about getting in his teammates' faces. Now, as a result of Sacramento's sharp decline, his Olympic status is in doubt. The Kings' struggles also have taken a toll on Grant, who is flustered by the double-teaming he now sees regularly and often runs into early foul trouble.
After a 2-13 February, say sources, Sacramento ownership considered replacing St. Jean with director of player personnel Jerry Reynolds, who twice before has served as the Kings' coach. But Kings general manager Geoff Petrie preached patience. St. Jean acknowledges his tenuous position but adds, "Let's not forget, through all the clouds, we're still very much in the race."
If as recently as last year someone had predicted that recovering alcoholic Chris Childs would make point guard Kenny Anderson expendable to the Nets, that underachieving forward Danny Ferry would average double figures for the Cavs and that CBA forward George McCloud would become a cornerstone of the Mavericks offense, we all would have said, "You're nuts!" But look: Childs, Ferry and McCloud are the biggest surprises of the 1995-96 season. Here's why:
Childs. Low point: June 26, 1993. Childs, who was not drafted out of Boise State in '89, has been out partying until 6 a.m. even though he has an 8 a.m. practice with his USBL team, the Miami Tropics. "I drank about 24 beers and a couple of shots, and smoked a bag of marijuana," Childs says. "The sick part of it was, I was supposed to be in rehab." Tropics owner/coach John Lucas confronted Childs, who was undergoing treatment at Lucas's rehabilitation center. This time, Childs checked into a Miami facility called Better Way, where patients included pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers. "What I saw there scared the crap out of me," says Childs. "I didn't want to end up like them."