She who lasts laugh wears the pants
I come to speak of you, as THC did in this blog's formative days, of the Sacramento Kings. THC claimed that, before the Webber trade, the Kings were the silent killers, the deadly assassins, the (insert name of third-tier Wu fam producer here) of the postseason. Skilled beyond belief, capable of running circles around any East coast team and taking down Western hopefuls in a shoot-out, and at least used to being in the playoffs, you couldn't really count them out of the discussion.
Unless, of course, you believed that they were physically incapable of swallowing their inhibitions (pun intended) and seeing the big one through to the end, the quintessential very good-not-great (the Nique distinction, which is apparently more important to the league than honoring its ninth leading scorer all-time) team of the early twenty-first century. Choking is every bit as real as clutch performing, but in the Kings' case, they've also been the victim of bad, bad luck, from botched calls and poorly-timed injuries to just being on the wrong end of divinely-ordained Laker clutchdom.
But it's hard not to sum up all that "it wasn't me" misfortune in a single man: erstwhile Kings star and perpetual fall guy/basketball martyr Chris Webber, the symbol of everything great and unfortunate about the Sacramento teams we all learned to admire, pull for, and get sick of in the span of five years. I am a long-running Webber apologist (maybe "sympathizer" works better), but it's no coincidence that his career-spanning pall became synonmous with the woes of the one team he had made his own. Even if the Kings were never at an actual disadvantage because of their "team spirit," it made other teams see them as vulnerable, making the hungry Lakers and Wolves of the league step their game up to make sure the Sactown Queens stayed in their place. Because, after all, no one wants to lose to a listless queen.
This new Kings team, though, is not for the faint-hearted. With Webber and Christie gone, replaced by player's player Cat Mobley and a slew of rugged low-post scorers, suddenly this team is worth fearing. The rest of the league feels their might and fliches accordingly. Without Miller and Jackson, last night they still made the Cavs look like a rec league squad; it took yet another night of almost unspeakable excellence from LeBron to keep Cleaveland from flat out forfeiting the game. Most amazing of all, it's not Peja, a brilliant shooter but hardly the kind of guy you want as the heart and soul of your team, who's doing the heavy lifting. It's Bibby, who should've been the man all along; Mobley, who now seems supremely confident instead of cocky; Maurice Evans, the first-ever King who can make a highlight reel as an individual; Corliss Williamson and Kenny Thomas, Eastern conference bangers who toughen up the Kings' nimble gameplan.
Once Miller and Jackson return, the Kings have to be the favorites to come out of the West. That's right, I said it. They're as explosive as the Suns but far smarter, fine-tuned like the Spurs but even deeper and more varied, and more than capable of exploting the Rockets' unevenness. A Pistons/Kings clash would be a great one--the Pistons mean something when they have to come out of their shell and deal with the other team, but of course it's the Kings/Heat Finals that, on some level, we all really want to see.
It may have been Kobe who slew the Kings year after year, but the beef was with Shaq. He's the one that called them out. And while there's been plenty of turnover on the Kings, the real postseason warriors on that team--Bibby and Jackson--are still around, and certainly remember.
Subject to change with the Pope's condition.