Sacramento Kings '97-98

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Predicted: 36-46
1996-97: 34-48
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TWO SEASONS AGO, WHEN THE KINGS recorded their best record since '83, Mitch Richmond had an off-year. The team was buoyed by rookies Brian Grant and Michael Smith, by second-year swing man Walt Williams, by retread Spud Webb, and by Olden Polynice who was having a career year.

Now Grant, Williams, and Webb are gone. Polynice might as well be; his '95 year was called a career season because none other in his career has approached it. Smith is still around and provides toughness to a team that needs it, but he provides no offense to a team that also needs that.

Richmond has had a couple of very good seasons since the promising '95 season. He has raised his level of play, going to the hoop when it's there, but also embracing the three-pointer, something he didn't do early in his career. Richmond, however, is not happy in Sacramento anymore. Though he came out in support of new coach Eddie Jordan, he has been publicly disgruntled and, as happened with Shawn Kemp, it has been affecting Richmond's play in the preseason. Specifically, he wasn't playing until recently. Since he has, he has not been looking like an All-Star.

If Richmond goes, there is no doubt that the Kings are in danger of losing 60 games. If Richmond stays, there is some chance that this team will get into the playoffs. That chance is based upon the surprisingly fine play of Lawrence Funderburke and the historic high points of Billy Owens' and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's careers. If Polynice finds another career season in him, that would definitely help.

The starting lineup for the Kings has one obvious hole, no matter who they start. At point, Bobby Hurley will apparently get the chance to run the team, but, even if he distributes the ball well, he has been so far from being able to hit a shot that he will be a liability. Abdul-Rauf fits the role that Dell Curry, Ricky Pierce, and Eddie Johnson fill, which is designated shooter off the bench who can't play defense. The Kings tried him at point, but his defense and his off-guard mentality got him in disfavor with Coach Jordan.

The Kings may have another hole at power forward. Corliss Williamson and Michael Smith cannot provide offense to give the Kings some kind of interior game in addition to the spotty Polynice. Both are tough and good backups, but one may have to start. The Kings are really hoping that Funderburke can perform at this slot and he has provided evidence that he can do it. During the preseason, Funderburke has posted numbers worthy of an All-Star. He has been scoring on 58% of his possessions, with offensive and defensive ratings of 116 and 95. If he continues to post numbers even within a few points of that and Richmond decides that he wants to play, the Kings have two very good players. And that is all it takes to get to the playoffs these days.