Return of the Kings: Will Sydney win it all this season?

After finding themselves stuck in the barren wastelands of mediocrity for much of last season, the Sydney Kings are eyeing the NBL throne once more.

It's a seat they haven’t held since their 2005 championship. A bold offseason saw the Kings accrue a vast array of talent, and it's put them on a trajectory that could possibly reach the top. With Kevin Lisch and Jerome Randle leading their backcourt, Andrew Bogut controlling the frontcourt, and a deep roster of gifted players at each position, it would be understandable to expect a high level of hubris emitting from the organisation. Despite the pressure of rising expectations and a hunger for redemption, a level of humility nonetheless exists.

The Kings are fully aware that pride comes before the fall. They know acutely, what failure feels like, that the best-laid plans can crumble in an instant.

Looking back at last season

Last season was a rough one for Sydney. Lisch’s torn calf in October had him sidelined for close to three months. His absence, in combination with issues surrounding Sydney's import players, stacked the odds against the team from very early on. It showed in the win/loss column, when the Kings lost 16 of their first 21 games. The Kings however, remained strong throughout this patch of adversity. Lisch’s replacement, Jerome Randle, put on a show most nights, going all out in pursuit of desperately needed wins.

The besieged Kings finally found their rhythm when Lisch finally from his calf injury. With the team back, the Kings bounced back with force, closing the season out by winning six of their last seven games. Head coach, Andrew Gaze, attributes much of the surge in form to the positive attitude of the playing group.

“I give the players a lot of credit for sticking strong with the season," Gaze shared. "We were out of the playoff race with a considerable amount of time left in the season, and in those circumstances [it’s often the case] that the players put it in the too hard basket, and just see the season through, and look forward to the future.”

In addition to the players’ resolve, success soon followed once the playing group and the coaches discovered how the team should flow. “I think ultimately we were able to find the roles for the players,” said Gaze. “We found the right rotations, we were then able to play some decent basketball and, fortunately, we were able to get some wins.”

An NBL season is an unpredictable beast. For Lisch, who watched much of the season from the sidelines, the tumultuous season helped facilitate the team’s growth. “I think it really showed our character through some really tough times. Seasons rarely go as they are planned, and that’s just the nature of sports, whether it goes really good or really bad. But I think the most encouraging thing is the way we finished the season.”

The tough season showed what the team was made of, and although they took a beating, Lisch looks back on last season with pride. “Sometimes it takes those situations to really see what you’re made of as a team, same goes for the coaches. I think as far as that test went, I think we passed.”

Retooling for success

After emerging from last season bruised, battered, but with an underlying sense of optimism, the Kings set about a radical rebuilding process. Central to the rebuild was the acquisition of NBA champion centre, Andrew Bogut. With Bogut on the roster, the King’s championship ambitions began to crystallise.

For Lisch, playing with Bogut is an exciting prospect. Bogut thrived with the Golden State Warriors, demonstrating his ability to feed off guards like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, with his imposing screens and cerebral court awareness.

It’s a mouth-watering prospect for the shrewd Sydney guard. “It’s not just me telling [Bogut] to set screens for me or rebound my shot because the guy can bring the ball up the court, he can play down low, he passes better than most guards.” It’s also his actions off the court that Lisch anticipates being central to the team’s success. “[Bogut’s] also a guy who’s outspoken, he helps immensely with culture… The things he brings from his past experiences, I think it helps a team in so many different ways.”

With their amassment of elite pieces, the Kings bear a heavy burden of expectation. Gaze, who will commence his third year as head coach of Sydney, is acutely aware that the pressure is on him to steer the heavily armed ship on the correct course. “I understand that that pressure is there,” said Gaze. “For me, I feel just as much pressure this season as I did last season. But it’s a good pressure to have, you welcome that pressure, that’s why we are involved, it’s the nature of the game; it’s what motivates us.”

Andrew Bogut has been extremely outspoken about his expectations for his debut NBL season with the Kings. At a training session last month, he didn’t mince his words. The 213cm centre made it clear that a championship was the only measure of accomplishment that mattered for the Kings.

In that assessment, Gaze is right there with him. “Absolutely that is the expectation. That’s what we are holding ourselves accountable to. We believe that we’ve put in place the pieces that justifies that as being such a firm objective.” However, Gaze is under no illusion what failure will mean. “If we remain healthy, [if] we continue to work hard and put our best foot forward and we don’t achieve a championship, then I say that it’s a fair and reasonable judgment to say that we haven’t reached our expectations, or fulfilled our goals.”

With Sydney’s opening game of the NBL season two months away, the Kings have plenty of time to familiarise themselves with one another, sharpening their claws to an even finer point before they face the Adelaide 36ers on October 13. With their intentions clear to all, it’s now just a matter of waiting to see if the Kings can implement their plan of league conquest.

For Lisch, the task is a simple one. “We feel like we are trying to hunt some guys down this year.”

It sounds like it's hunting season - the rest of the NBL had better watch their backs.