It's early on a September morning, and the Kings' practice facility is nearly empty. The only steady sound comes from the squeak of sneakers on the court, where Mike Bibby is bobbing and weaving around imaginary defenders as he drives to the basket. He repeats the drill a hundred times, maybe more. "When are you going to be done?" asks a friend who has been watching Bibby's one-on-none game for more than an hour.
"Soon," replies Bibby, one of the game's most clutch shooting guards. "But I'm going to run after."
Another solitary pursuit, naturally. Other than Bibby, only forward Peja Stojakovic remains from the dynamic 2001-02 team that came within one game of the Finals. Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson have departed, and with them went any hope for a title. As a result the once stable Kings--the only team besides the Spurs and Mavericks to win at least 50 games in each of the last five seasons--underwent a Lindsay Lohan--like makeover during the off-season, signing free-agent forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim and acquiring mercurial swingman Bonzi Wells from the Grizzlies.
One element about the Kings that hasn't changed is coach Rick Adelman's commitment to a motion offense that places a premium on big men who can pass. While Abdur-Rahim is a reliable low-post scorer, he hardly rivals Divac or Webber as an assist man. Bibby expects it'll take the newcomers a while to adjust to the nuances of their new offense. "When I first came here, balls were hitting me in the head going into the key," he says. "Some guys think if they pass it, they're not going to get the ball back. That's not the way it works here. If you're open, you're going to get the ball."
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Kings
"They probably need a little more depth in the backcourt, but in spite of all their changes they're still a playoff team with an excellent starting five.... I'm a Bonzi Wells fan. He's one of the most talented one-on-one players in the league, and I think he'll buy into their ball-movement offense by passing it. I know Wells has done some stupid things, but Rick Adelman has a history of dealing well with knuckleheads.... Mike Bibby is always a surprise to me. He isn't a great shooter, yet he makes the big shots. He's not an exceptional playmaker, yet he gets them into their offense, he's unselfish and he competes every possession.... The Kings' system brings out the best in Brad Miller, who I used to think was overrated. When he gets the ball on the elbow, he's skilled enough to handle, pass or hit a jump shot. His health is going to be crucial, though at least the Chris Webber trade left them relatively deep in the frontcourt with Kenny Thomas as their main bench scorer along with Corliss Williamson and Brian Skinner.... Their offense will continue to work with Peja Stojakovic as the first option because he has dominant size for a small forward and he can pass as well as score. Plus he's in a contract year and needing to bounce back after having his worst shooting season [44.4%] since he was a rookie."
Last season the Kings averaged a league-high 24.5 assists and a league-low 13.1 turnovers and were second in scoring (103.7 points per game).
The point guard enjoys elite status--even if his team no longer does
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004-05 statistics
Record: 50-32 (6th in West)
Points scored: 103.7 (2nd in NBA)
Points allowed: 101.6 (26th)
Coach: Rick Adelman
(eighth season with the Kings)