SACRAMENTO, California — A season that started out so promising for the Sacramento Kings ended the same way as the previous eight: out of the playoffs, with a losing record and looking for luck in the draft lottery.
Except this time, that only begins to explain how things went so wrong.
Sacramento (29-53) struggled to shed its label as a league laughingstock, firing two coaches and restructuring its front office again. The Kings also ended the season with their top three scorers — DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison — sidelined with injuries that could linger into the offseason.
"This is one circus of a year as a team," forward Jason Thompson said.
"Not too many people have been through what we've been through," added forward Derrick Williams. "I just don't think it could have gotten much worse."
In November, the Kings looked like they had finally turned things around. They started 9-5 under coach Michael Malone and seemed ready for a breakout season.
Instead, Cousins came down with viral meningitis and missed 10 straight games. The Kings fired Malone just 24 games into his second season and never recovered.
Tyrone Corbin took over and went 7-21 before getting dismissed. The team replaced him with veteran coach George Karl, who finished 11-19 and hasn't changed the prevailing attitude in the locker room yet.
"We have excuses," Karl said. "But excuses are for losers, and we want to be a winner."
Off the court, progress has been made. The team has one season left at its outdated suburban home before moving into a plush downtown arena, which fulfills the commitment to the NBA after the league decided to keep the Kings in Sacramento instead of move them to Seattle nearly two years ago.
But returning to relevance — at least for the right reasons — continues to elude the franchise, and that means more changes could be on the horizon. Here are some things to watch in Sacramento this offseason:
SHOT CALLER: The front office is still reeling from recent moves. The Kings hired former center Vlade Divac in March under the broad title of vice president of basketball and franchise operations. Chris Mullin, who had served as an adviser to owner Vivek Ranadive the past two seasons, left soon after to become coach at St. John's, his alma mater. Pete D'Alessandro remains the general manager, but just who is calling the shots is unclear.
GETTING HEALTHY: Cousins (right ankle and leg), Gay (concussion) and Collison (core muscle) all ended the season on the inactive list. Getting them healthy remains paramount, especially Cousins, who averaged 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season. He made the All-Star team for the first time but also missed 23 games. Sacramento went 6-17 without him.
COACHING STAFF: Karl had no time to put together his own coaching staff so deep into the season other than adding offensive guru Vance Walberg. Count on Karl to make more moves this summer. He already has expressed interest in Nancy Lieberman, a former WNBA coach and one of the best women's basketball players ever. Hall of Famers such as Gary Payton and Mitch Richmond as well as Karl's son, Coby, are also possibilities.
DEFENSIVE ISSUES: No matter the coach, Sacramento never improved defensively. The Kings ranked 27th in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.5 points per 100 possessions. As has been the case in the past, Sacramento will need to figure out how to improve defensively before any serious strides can be made.
BACKCOURT DEPTH: Finding the right guard combination remains a problem. Shooting guard Ben McLemore, the seventh overall pick in 2013, showed slight improvement. But this season's first-round pick, Nik Stauskas, struggled to find a consistent rhythm — of course, having three coaches as a rookie doesn't help. The Kings also will need to figure out what they're doing with reserve point guards Ray McCallum and David Stockton, who spent most of the season playing for the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP