Sports Nut

Suicide Kings

Will Sacramento let Chris Webber kill its chance for an NBA title?

This King should abdicate
This King should abdicate

The Sacramento Kings rampaged through the first half of the NBA season. While cross-eyed, bumbling franchises struggled to put up 70 a night, Sacramento went retro, channeling the high-scoring spirit of Paul Westhead and Doug Moe. By a statistic I invented called Offensive Efficiency, which measures the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions, the Kings—with 109.5 points per 100 possessions—didn’t just have the best offense in the league at the midpoint of this year. They were on pace to have the best offense in the history of the NBA.

Alas, every NBA season has two halves. After rolling to a league-best 29-9 start, injuries to all-star center Brad Miller and super sub Bobby Jackson dropped the Sacramento offense from its lofty perch. Then, with 24 games left in the season, power forward Chris Webber reappeared after sitting out the balance of the year with a knee injury. You’d think the return of their perennial all-star, franchise player, and team leader would liven up the Kings’ increasingly decrepit play. Instead, the Sacramento offense started to give off an even more horrible stench. In the 58 games that Webber sat on the bench in a designer suit, Sacramento scored 100 points 37 times. In the 24 games that C-Webb wore a Kings jersey, they hit 100 a paltry 12 times. That won’t be good enough to beat the top-seeded Timberwolves in the second round of the playoffs.

The “C” in C-Webb needs repurposing. Chris Webber circa 2004 is Crippled-Webb. Lacking the quickness to drive past his fellow big men or to slam home rebounds with his usual vigor, Webber should have been the NBA’s highest-paid role player. Instead, Sacramento head coach Rick Adelman decided to make him into the NBA’s gimpiest point forward.

As soon as he returned to the lineup, Webber was given stewardship of the Kings’ offense. Adelman’s semidefensible reasoning was that, by letting Webber hold the ball and pass to teammates from the top of the key, the Kings’ star could be coaxed back to his high-flying C-Webb form—and just in time for the playoffs. During this coaxing period, the Kings lost eight of their last 12 regular-season games.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Kings’ offense kept on reeking. Despite playing the Dallas Mavericks, one of the worst defensive teams in the league, Sacramento didn’t clear 100 points in three of the series’s first four games. Largely through divine intervention—and the Mavs’ remarkable inability to make a shot in the last minute—the Kings still managed to win three of them. Still, it was clear: Even if they survived Round 1, Webber’s trick knee couldn’t carry the Kings to an NBA title.

If the Kings were going to win, someone had to wrestle the ball away from the team’s best player. In Game 5 of the Mavs series, Mike Bibby scored 36 points by knocking down open jumpers and getting into the lane for easy layups. By the second half, Bibby had forced Adelman’s hand. Instead of running plays through Webber, Sacramento went back to the motion-oriented, high-post game that proved devastating in the first half of the season. With Bibby running the pick-and-roll, Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller rediscovered their dormant scoring touch. Sacramento put up 95 points in the final three quarters to win 119-118 and move into the second round.

Game 1 of the Timberwolves series brought still more flashbacks to the well-oiled Kings of earlier this season. In the 104-98 win, Sacramento scored 34 points in the first quarter to take control of the game and finished things off with another 31 in the fourth. Bibby was again brilliant, torching the defensively challenged Sam Cassell for 33 points. In a strong supporting performance, Webber dropped in 15. And although he had been a turnover factory in the first round, Webber’s lessened ball-handling responsibilities meant he didn’t cough the ball up once against the T-wolves.

A hobbled Webber, if deployed correctly, is better than no Webber at all: His height causes matchup problems for opposing defenses, and he can knock down open jump shots when fed off the pick-and-roll. Sacramento fans just have to pray that Rick Adelman doesn’t see flashes of C-Webb out of the corner of his eye. Then he might be tempted to let Crippled-Webb hog the ball.