SACRAMENTO -- At least Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart knows what he's up against now: his current roster.
Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie skipped past the trade deadline and kept his squad intact for the duration of the 2011-12 season, preserving salary cap flexibility to pursue significant free agents this summer but virtually ensuring the Kings' return to the NBA lottery for a sixth consecutive time.
It could be worse, though. Doing nothing is preferable to doing something stupid.
Been there, done that. The last thing the Kings needed was to assume more bad contracts and assemble more ill-fitting pieces. Better opportunities will present themselves this summer, both on Draft Day and on July 1, when teams can begin signing free agents.
"We go with what we have," Smart said. "Now, can you get this team better? What do we need to do? In the next several weeks, we'll figure that out. We want these guys to become further along in their individual games and in their awareness of the game.
"Sure, I would like us to be better right now. But, unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. We need a summer, and we need some time."
While the Kings' 14-29 record has snuffed out any conversation about pushing for the eighth and final playoff berth, at least we're discussing basketball again instead of debating which city has the best odds of luring the Kings out of Sacramento.
Nonetheless, this three-game skid has sucked the momentum right out of the building. The Kings responded to the good news with their worst basketball under their new head coach.
If the plan was to ride the good vibe through a nine-game homestand that featured a number of winnable games, that blueprint has already been scrapped.
After a narrow victory against New Orleans and a thrashing of the demoralized Dallas Mavericks, the Kings raised the white flag against the travel-weary Atlanta Hawks, the depleted Warriors and the lowly Detroit Pistons, and were booed in two of the past three games at Power Balance Pavilion.
So if you're Smart -- and he is -- and your roster is set -- and it is -- and your defense has allowed 106, 115 and 124 points, respectively, your best post-trade deadline move is to shake up your lineup.
Someone should go to the bench. Someone (a) whose defense is atrocious. Some- one (b) who forces shots. Someone (c) who commits turnovers.
A real shakeup, of course, would involve all five starters. But since the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas is the best option at point guard, DeMarcus Cousins is the center (and the future), Tyreke Evans is learning to play small forward, and Jason Thompson provides some much-needed frontcourt length, streaky 6-foot-3 shooting guard Marcus Thornton is the obvious man out.
And John Salmons is the obvious man back in. Admittedly, Salmons' game is about as exciting as a math quiz. He was king of the death-by-dribbling offense long before Evans assumed the role. But Salmons no longer dominates the ball. He was always a quality defender, and at 6-foot-6, his presence alongside the diminutive Thomas minimizes some of the Kings', er, defensive shortcomings.
But this isn't going to happen. Smart is swallowing the defensive numbers and committing to his starters in the hopes that, sooner rather than later, they'll figure out that when the other team scores more points than they do, they lose. With this group, he is attempting to transition the Kings from a selfish, one-dimensional team (dribble, dribble, dribble) into a squad that plays hard and fast, plays hard and fast together, and plays hard and fast and together at both ends.
"We started out working on the offense because that needed so much help," Smart acknowledged, "but defense is our problem. Everyone has to learn to defend their position. It's learning how quickly you can go from helping (other defenders) to recovery (back to your man).
"That lag time is killing us. Dribble penetration is killing us. I want to get to the point where we don't double-team anyone, where our guys stay with their own. But we're not there yet."
Clearly they're not. Clearly they're not even close. But defense is easier to fix than offense. Defense is about effort and about wanting to defend. And for the nonconformers among the Kings, there is always the D-League or the waiver wire to consider.
There are options, and there should be no comfort zone in the Pavilion. The place, after all, will soon be obsolete.