SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento Kings are about to embark on another season in California's capital.
That alone might be considered a success for a fan base that has been beaten and bruised emotionally following the back-and-forth drama over the franchise's future home. Nobody can truly predict what might happen next. If the past few years have proved anything, though, the Kings will keep things interesting again.
Maybe even this time on the court.
Keith Smart begins his first full season as Sacramento's coach with a roster full of talented young players who have yet to mesh -- or play defense. After six straight losing seasons, constant coaching changes and no long-term arena solution in sight, Smart understands why the optimism that's been recycled every October in Sacramento is hard for so many to believe anymore.
"We have to surprise people because we're no one in the NBA," Smart said. "We have to pull out all the stops to try to grow as a team.”
Smart encouraged players to take a different approach this summer.
Instead of spreading out across the country to the various cities that they're from, many stayed in Sacramento -- or at least came back earlier -- to work out together. In between, Smart and his staff visited with some, both to form relationships and to find ways to improve the team.
Smart, who was promoted from assistant coach when the Kings fired Paul Westphal after a 2-5 start last season, wanted to take every advantage his first full offseason as an NBA coach. He had a one-and-done season with Golden State after taking over for Don Nelson on the eve of training camp in 2010, and had a stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers' interim head coach for the final 40 games in 2003 after taking over for John Lucas.
Even with all the extra time spent studying video and working with players, Smart still has an almost identical roster to the one that finished 22-44 last season and has to compete in a much-improved Pacific Division.
DeMarcus Cousins is one of the NBA's best budding big men but still has trouble controlling his emotions. Tyreke Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year, stayed healthy last season but struggled in his move from point to guard to wingman. And former BYU sensation Jimmer Fredette had a mostly disappointing debut trying to play in a structured system but has vowed to be more aggressive his second time around.
Standout point guard Isaiah Thomas is back after a sensational rookie season. The Kings also added free agent guard Aaron Brooks and fifth overall pick Thomas Robinson, the former Kansas forward and first unanimous first-team All-American since Blake Griffin, to mix with veterans such as Chuck Hayes and Francisco Garcia.
"We're out there trying to prove so much," Cousins said.
Players also bonded over summer workouts, including a week in July when about 10 came to Sacramento, and during the first week of training camp, which Smart moved to Colorado Springs. In particular, Cousins and Evans -- who practiced in the gym at such late hours Smart called him the "cat burglar" -- were working out in Sacramento most of the offseason.
"I think that was just a first step," Evans said, "for us to start playing together knowing we've all got to be on the same page this year.”
No matter what success might come Sacramento's way this season, the franchise's future is still murkier than ever.
Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof backed out of an arena deal in April that Sacramento Mayor and former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson trumpeted and the City Council approved. The Maloofs have said the deal, signed off on by NBA Commissioner David Stern, didn't make financial sense for the franchise.
No other plan has been in the works between Sacramento and the Maloofs, which will again open the possibility of relocation if nothing develops by early 2013, not to mention lead to endless speculation from Anaheim to Seattle to Virginia Beach -- and everywhere in between -- about luring the franchise.
There also appears to be no long-term deal in the works for Evans, who is eligible for an extension with Sacramento until Oct. 30, after which time he will become a free agent next summer. Kings President of Basketball Operations Geoff Petrie also is in the final year of his contract.
With so many possible distractions, Smart has long preached to his players not to worry about the things they can't control.
"You want them to focus on just the team in the moment," Smart said. "They don't have anyone else out here they have to focus with. They have to focus on just the team.”