- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

SACRAMENTO, Calif. The series never left Chris Webber's mind for more than a few hours. The 2002 Western Conference finals were his summer reruns, constantly playing in the background.

When Webber visited his family back in Michigan, the Sacramento Kings' leading scorer and rebounder thought of the good times of Game3, when the Kings ran the Los Angeles Lakers out of their own building, or Game5, when Mike Bibby hit the jumper that brought down the house.

While Webber watched the Tyson-Lewis fight in June, the officiating injustices of Game6 ran through his head. Each time he spent another draining day in the gym, he thought about overtime in Game7 about that one last dramatic moment when Sacramento stumbled.

"So many things in that series could have gone the other way," Webber said. "It's stupid to spend all your time thinking about it. It's a waste. You've got to move on. But it's hard. It was big. We just want that chance again."

In three unsuccessful playoff runs at the Lakers over the past three seasons, the Kings learned more about failure than they wanted to know. Yet they're quietly confident that next spring, a script with all the same players will somehow have a different ending.

If they can maintain the level of play they reached during the best season in franchise history, if they can fend off Dallas and San Antonio and Portland, if they can keep their sights set on the purple-and-gold target, they believe they'll get a chance to make things right.

"When we get back, watch out," Webber said. "We'll be stronger."

To that end, Kings president of basketball operations Geoff Petrie kept his group together. The biggest offseason changes in Sacramento were made to the uniforms: The Kings' road togs are purple now instead of black, while the home whites feature a new script and numbering.

Every significant player returns from the high-scoring, slick-passing team that went 61-21 last season, winning the Pacific Division and stretching the three-time NBA champions further than they ever had been stretched during their three-year run of titles. They added shot-blocking forward Keon Clark, but the Kings needed no overhaul.

"We've got the guys here who can do this," said Bibby, who got a seven-year, $80million contract from team owners Joe and Gavin Maloof largely as a reward for his spectacular playoff work.

"We proved last year that we're as good as, if not better than, anybody in the league. We've just got to stay in position for another chance."

The Kings won't say it directly, but they don't feel their game needs a great deal of improvement, either.

"We can still improve on the small things," coach Rick Adelman said. "I just don't see any big problems. When problems come up in the regular season, we'll address them, but right now our only goal is to be better this spring than we were last spring."

In the early going, improvement will be difficult. Bibby could miss the first month while his broken foot heals a situation similar to the one Sacramento faced last fall when Webber missed 20 games with a sprained ankle.

The brightest spotlight will shine on Bibby, who will reveal whether his postseason play was an aberration or a preview of greater things. Bibby dramatically increased his offensive contributions when All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic was out for six playoff games with a sprained ankle.

"This isn't a team where one guy has to do it all," said the normally quiet Bibby, who's been louder and funnier during training camp. "I don't have to be somebody I'm not. I'm not going to suddenly become the 'Answer' [Allen Iverson], wearing one of those sleeves on my arm and taking 30 shots a night."

Stojakovic also has plenty to prove after essentially dropping out of the Kings' game plan in the conference final. Though he's still considered one of the game's best pure shooters, he hopes to add more dimensions to his game after helping Yugoslavia and Vlade Divac win the world championship.

"I have to create my own shot more, and I have to be tougher on defense," Stojakovic said. "We are thinking about the Lakers, but there's a lot of time until the playoffs. There's a lot we can do to get ready for them."

Sixth man Bobby Jackson must hold his own against the West's top point guards while Bibby is out, while Hedo Turkoglu will try to play well enough to steal Doug Christie's starting spot at shooting guard.

Divac will gladly cede some of his regular-season minutes to Clark if it keeps him fresh for the postseason. At 34, Divac still is as effective as ever at the best parts of his game passes, finger-rolls and creative defense.

None of the Kings want a championship more than Divac. In his 14th NBA season, he knows better than most of his teammates that the window for success might stay open for several years but it can close in an instant.

"We can't sit around thinking about what the Lakers did to us," Divac said. "Maybe we should have won that series. Maybe we did. But we don't have the rings. I think we're going to get another shot. That's what we're all here for."


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