The Sacramento Kings changed their entire roster and their entire franchise's future with the major deal that brought Rudy Gay to Northern California in early December. We called it one of those rare win-win deals that got both the Raptors (who evidently have one of the best records in the East since Dec. 9 when the deal was completed) and the Kings a player they needed to get better.
Sacramento with Rudy Gay got a player capable of creating from the perimeter to complement Demarcus Cousins in the post. Despite that price tag — a little north of $37 million due to Gay this year and next provided Gay declines his early termination option for next season — Gay is a talented player who makes defense respect him with his scoring ability (albeit famously inefficient).
Add in the young point guard Isaiah Thomas and there is a chance for some offensive fireworks for the Kings.
And so far that has been their identity.
"It took some time, we got some games and some losses," Rudy Gay said. "But after a while we figured out how to talk to and play with each other and also take care of each other."
The Kings offensive efficiency has jumped from 101.9 before the trade to 107.2 after the trade, through Jan. 14. Even Rudy Gay seems to be playing much better. Since joining the Kings, his scoring average has bumped up to 20.7 points per game 19.4 with Toronto, his field goal percentage jumped from 38.8 percent to 51.7 percent from the floor.
Even his efficiency numbers appear to be up. His PER has gone from a pedestrian 15.1 to a near All-Star quality 20.5 and his effective field goal percentage is up to a respectable 54.4 percent after a horrific 42.1 percent witht he Raptors.
The Kings have been playing some strong basketball and bucking a lot of trends.
"[Rudy Gay] gives them versatility," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said before a game in late December. "It's going to be interesting. Coach Malone can do a bunch of things with Derrick Williams, Rudy Gay, with Cousins on the floor. He can go with Rudy Gay at four with Quincy Acy at five. We'll definitely be tested at multiple positions regardless."
The Kings won that game with an offensive onslaught that the Magic could not stop. Seemingly the Kings were able to find someone to fill in consistently and keep the train rolling.
Michael Malone knew that offense was not going to be a problem even before the trade. The key was for this team to start playing more defense. The Kings have not been known as a defensive team and the trades have done little to improve that to this point.
Since the trade, the Kings are giving up a 106.8 defensive rating. With the way the team scores some nights, that might be good enough. But consistently and in the long-term, defense is what is going to win games and get the Kings ultimately where they want to go.
"The identity that has come around is not a good one," Kings coach Michael Malone said. "Our identity right now is one that cannot defend. That's not a good identity. That's not who we want to be.
"Offensively, the thing that has really surprising is if I didn't call one play tonight, we would have a good chance of scoring the basketball. We have some offensively talented players. We score over 100 points with ease some nights. We cannot get caught in that mindset.
"Right now, we have a very offensive mindset and identity and that can't be who we are. In the NBA that doesn't work. It might look good on the scoreboard, it might make for exciting basketball, but at the end of the day it's losing basketball. We have to find a way to get back being and buying into being a defensive minded team."
So the Kings know that offense is what will come easiest to them. That is the identity they have taken on this year before and after the trade.
Getting to the Playoffs and making some real signs of improvement continues to be the challenge.
Things there have not changed. The Kings are 14-24 entering Sunday's games. That is 14th in the Western Conference and 7.5 games back of the final Playoff spot. It will take an incredible effort to make up that gap now at the halfway point of the season.
"Even I knew coming in when I got the job before all these trades that it wasn't going to happen overnight," Malone said. "It was going to be a process. Going from a team that had not defended really in three, four years being a lottery team, you aren't all of a sudden going to be come a top tier defensive-minded team."
It appears it will be a bit of a two-year plan for Malone and the Kings to get where they want to go. Gay will still be there and the offense does not appear to be heading anywhere either. Continued improvement particularly on the defensive end will make teh difference for this franchise moving forward.