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Young Kings maturing but enduring growing pains

By Will Robinson

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - Now that the grassroots "Here We Stay" campaign has been completed, "Here We Win" must happen for the National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings.

Following a handful of seasons clouded with possible relocation, the team began its first season permanently entrenched in California.

When tech developer and philanthropist Vivek Ranadive bought the team last May, he replaced longtime general manager Geoff Petrie and head coach Keith Smart with former Denver Nuggets executive Pete D'Alessandro and Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Malone, respectively.

Led by DeMarcus Cousins, the scrappy Kings hope to turn around a season that is off to a nightmarish start, even if wins and losses aren't featured on the rubric of success.

"If you look at our team, I don't know a guy that competes harder than DeMarcus Cousins. I don't know a guy that hates losses as much as that man," D'Alessandro said of the team's cornerstone big man after Tuesday's 107-104 win over the visiting Phoenix Suns.

MIXED REVIEWS

Before the 2013-14 NBA season, the fourth-year player out of Kentucky received a four-year, $62 million contract extension. The enigmatic 23-year-old has flashed dominance early in the campaign but has been inconsistent in his three previous seasons. Through 11 games this season, Cousins is averaging 21.5 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game.

The decision to give Cousins a lucrative contract received mixed reviews. Yet the front office had no doubts about placing the franchise's future in Cousins' big hands.

"To me, if you believe in something, you do it," said D'Alessandro. "We have one of the best big men in this game. Anyone else gets an extension like that, then everyone goes, 'Of course.' Then DeMarcus gets one, then they question, 'Oh, why?' Why? Because he's DeMarcus Cousins. That's why. We believed in him then, and we did the deal."

Known to fight with officials or pout after bad calls, Cousins kept a cool demeanor during a 27-point, 12-rebound performance in a win on both sides of the court on Tuesday.

"What I saw from him tonight was a determination, a will. He's one of the guys that willed us to this win tonight," Malone said after the Phoenix game.

"He didn't drop his head, didn't quit, didn't give in to adversity, and that's the thing I'm most proud about him as a leader of our team. He battled through it, and he helped will us to a much-needed win."

CULTURE SHOCK

Malone has preached it is a process to change the team's culture, a team that has boasted a losing record each season since 2007. But that does not make it easier to withstand seven losses in the first 11 games.

"Knowing that this is a process and that is going to take a while, we gotta do the things that we can control, and that's playing hard and playing together and giving it our all," said 5-foot-9-inch bench sparkplug Isaiah Thomas.

"We all come from winning places. We say it's a process, but you sit at courtside and watch a loss, it's not easy for any of us," D'Alessandro said. "It's about the big picture: Where do we go? And you have to do it because losses aren't easy.

"Those guys want to win; we just got to get there. Every game, we're trying to get there," D'Alessandro said.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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