SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Just four months ago, the Sacramento Kings' window for a championship run appeared to be closed. A whole new window is open now, thanks to Ron Artest -- and he's determined to push his team through it.
Although the Kings' eighth consecutive playoff trip ended Friday night with a six-game first-round loss to the San Antonio Spurs, there was an abundance of optimism and excitement in their locker room.
After floundering through the first half of the season, Sacramento reached the playoffs and gave a profound battle to the defending NBA champions. With a more forgiving bracket, the Kings might have advanced to a later round -- something that seemed unfathomable back in January before Artest arrived in Sacramento to save the season.
"It definitely feels like home, and I think it will be home for a long, long time," said Artest, who's under contract for at least two more years. "The season was great. [The playoff series] could have gone either way. ... In Game 5 [with the series tied 2-2], we had the game tied 93-93, and we made a couple of defensive mistakes. I can't see that happening next year."
The Kings won 25 of their last 36 regular-season games shortly after Artest was acquired in a trade for Peja Stojakovic, the last remaining player from the 1999 roster that thrilled the NBA with its wide-open, free-flowing style in the first of eight straight trips to the playoffs.
Coach Rick Adelman's team has a different look now -- and so does Adelman, a longtime offense-first coach who presided over his defense-dominated club's impressive late-season run with the same management skills that have produced 752 career victories.
But Adelman doesn't have a contract for next season, and the Kings' decision on his future could determine whether this dramatic rebuilding project can stand up to the stress of a full season.
"I'm really proud of the way the guys finished this season, because people had written us off -- said we were done as a franchise," said Adelman, who didn't want to discuss his future Friday night. "We've built a great foundation for the stuff we want to be able to do. I'm very optimistic about it."
Adelman and Geoff Petrie, the Kings' president of basketball operations, will have to decide the coach's future soon -- with ample input from owners Joe and Gavin Maloof, who tentatively courted Phil Jackson last summer while Adelman was still employed by the club.
None of the involved parties -- not Adelman, Petrie or the Maloofs -- has indicated whether Adelman expects to return, or whether he's even welcome.
Bonzi Wells' future also will be up for discussion when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer after one season with Sacramento. Wells was injured for a large part of the regular season but turned into a monster in the playoffs, terrorizing the Spurs with scoring, rebounding and tough defense.
"It's very realistic," Wells said of a return to Sacramento. "I told them when I got here that I don't want to move any more, so if I'm not here next year, it's totally up to them. I want to be here. I want to do everything it takes to be a King for the rest of my career. ... I love the city, and I love the fans. They can sign me if they want to."
Wells probably earned a big contract with his series, but the Kings might not be the ones to provide it if he sticks to his desire for a five- or six-year deal. Sacramento already has lengthy, expensive deals with most of its core -- and Kevin Martin, the second-year pro who made a buzzer-beating layup in Game 3 over Tim Duncan, might be ready for a starting job.
Petrie also must decide whether changes must be made to that core. Center Brad Miller flopped in the playoffs at the end of an underwhelming season, averaging just 9.2 points and 3.0 rebounds while repeatedly getting benched in the second half.
Mike Bibby also struggled in the postseason with a low shooting percentage and spotty defense on Tony Parker, who scored a playoff career-high 31 points in Game 6 despite a bruised right leg to close an outstanding series. Bibby and Miller both struggle on defense as well.
But after rebuilding his entire roster over the previous 18 months, Petrie might decide to build continuity and teamwork in his core while searching for suitable role players. Martin and rookie Francisco Garcia will come back older and wiser, but the Kings could use a better backup point guard and more depth in the frontcourt.
But as long as Artest remains the charismatic, energetic, controversy-free (well, except for his one-game playoff suspension) superstar he became in 3½ months in Northern California, the Kings will be on the NBA map.
"I'm just excited for the future," Artest said. "It's going to be good."