Few players had as much impact on their team last season as the mercurial Artest did, arriving in Sacramento on Jan. 26 in a trade with Indiana for Peja Stojakovic. Before Artest came to town, the Kings were 18-24 and appeared to have little chance at reaching the playoffs.
Due mostly to the tough forward’s outstanding all-around play and signature brand of lockdown defense, Sacramento finished the season 26-14 and took defending champion San Antonio to six games in a spirited series before bowing out in the first round.
Artest helped the Kings lower their points-allowed-per-game average from 100.2 to 94.3, while providing the team with a much-needed identity.
Artest, however, does have a checkered past and keeping him on the court and free of suspensions this season will be the top priority for Musselman, who replaces longtime coach Rick Adelman.
“The team is motivated, and I just want to win,” Artest said. “That’s what we are going to do. I got settled in here so fast that I feel like I’ve been here for a long time, so I’m fine now. I’m ready to go.”
The high-energy Musselman, who compiled a 75-89 record in two seasons as Golden State coach in 2002-03, will have to get past his arrest for drunken driving Oct. 21. Despite the embarrassing incident, Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof stood by Musselman, saying they would not suspend or fine the coach, who could still face disciplinary action from the NBA if convicted.
“He loves to coach and has done a wonderful job,” Gavin Maloof said. “It’s a bad incident and we’ll move forward.”
While the Kings will have Artest around for a full season, they won’t have swingman Bonzi Wells, arguably their best player in the first-round loss to the Spurs. Wells signed with Houston after averaging 23.2 points and 12.0 rebounds on 61 percent shooting in the loss to San Antonio.
Sacramento did sign free-agent guard John Salmons away from Philadelphia, hoping he can he improve upon the 7.5 points he averaged for the Sixers in 2005-06. Shooting guard Kevin Martin, coming off a strong preseason, and rookie Quincy Douby also will be counted on to help fill the void left by Wells.
Minnesota’s 33-49 record last season was the second-worst in the Western Conference and represented the team’s fewest wins since a 26-56 finish during Garnett’s 1995-96 rookie season.
Garnett remains one of the league’s top players after averaging 21.8 points and 12.7 rebounds while shooting a career-best 53 percent from the field last season, but the veteran clearly needs help.
“Last year was such a big disappointment that it’s fueling me to go back and really, really remember why I play,” Garnett said. “Remember why we all love to play this game and why we all play with emotion.”
In an effort to ease the sizable burden on Garnett, the Wolves signed free-agent guard Mike James to a four-year, $23 million contract. After playing for six teams in five years, James flourished as a starter with Toronto last season, averaging a career-high 20.3 points and 5.8 assists, while displaying one of the league’s most accurate three-point strokes.
“I don’t have the hype,” James said. “All I can give you is my heart. The hype can change. The hype can leave, the hype can come, but my heart isn’t going nowhere.”
Foye, the seventh overall selection, averaged 24.8 points as the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League, and may be the most NBA-ready of the 2006 rookie class. Smith, a second-round pick, is a scrappy power forward who helped get Boston College into the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Relying on rookies may be risky, but Garnett has very high praise for his new teammates.
“Our rookies are some of the best rookies I’ve ever experienced,” the nine-time All-Star said. “(I’ve seen) a long line of good people, but those two work really, really, really hard. They’re good kids. They come here and they work their butts off and they do what they’re told.”
Besides Garnett and hopefully Foye, Minnesota should get production from Ricky Davis, who averaged 19.1 points in 36 games with the Wolves after arriving in a trade with Boston. Also part of that deal was starting center Mark Blount, who contributed 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds last season with the Celtics and Wolves.
Minnesota won two of three meetings with Sacramento last season and is 21-11 at home against the Kings.