- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Although he had experienced it, it hadn’t sunk in until a reporter mentioned the numbers to a dejected Chris Webber in the Sacramento Kings’ locker room at Staples Center.

“Twenty five-to-one?” Webber repeated incredulously. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”

Playing in his 13th game following a 10-month absence rehabilitating his left knee from an injury some considered potentially career-threatening, Webber and his star-studded teammates could do nothing as the Los Angeles Lakers went from a three-point deficit to a 31-10 lead on the way to a 115-91 rout of their Pacific Division nemesis Friday night in what was clearly a statement game.

Before Webber, the former Washington Wizard, returned to the Kings (51-21) on March2 after an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, the two-time defending Pacific Division champion Kings had the league’s best record.

Since Webber’s return at substantially less than 100 percent, the Kings have struggled. Heading into tonight’s game against the Wizards (23-49), Sacramento has lost three of its last five, including a 112-101 defeat at home by a Milwaukee team that had lost five straight. It ended the Kings’ 29-game Arco Arena winning streak against Eastern Conference teams.

Sacramento’s formerly fluid offense now sometimes stagnates, breaking down not only against the Lakers but also earlier this month against the lowly Wizards in a 114-108 loss.

Still, the Kings believe they must go through this process of working Webber back into the lineup if they are to compete for a championship. Sacramento also must work in last season’s sixth man, guard Bobby Jackson, who missed five weeks with an abdominal strain but is likely to play today.

“It hasn’t been easy,” coach Rick Adelman said of integrating Webber. “You always say the cliche thing, that he’ll fit right back in. But no matter what you do, it’s not going to be the same. You’re changing people’s minutes, you’re changing rotations. And even though he does a lot of the same things Brad [Miller] and Vlade [Divac] do, the guys are used to playing with Vlade and Brad. Now they have to get readjusted to Chris.”

The King who has had to make the biggest adjustment is leading scorer Peja Stojakovic. Third in the league in scoring at 24.6, Stojakovic has averaged 20.9 points since Webber’s return.

Despite their failure to win an NBA championship, the Kings to a man seem to know that the regular season is a mere formality, and they appear to view it much in the way the Lakers do — as a primer for the postseason.

“There are no problems,” Stojakovic said. “We have to fine-tune the offense over the last games so we can go into the playoffs ready.”

So far this season, Webber’s 18.1 scoring average is four below his career figure. However, the best barometer for judging him is his field goal percentage. A career 49 percent shooter, Webber isn’t drawing the double-team of years past while making 41 percent of his shots.

“Hopefully, I’ll get double teamed and [somebody else will] get more shots,” Webber said. “But we don’t care about that. If you get a championship, then it would be great to argue over who’s the man. But you have to get a championship first.”

And there are suspicions now that the Kings’ window of opportunity is starting to close.

Although they traded for Brad Miller, an All-Star last season with Indiana, and have a young Olympian in point guard Mike Bibby, Webber is 31, Divac 35 and defensive stopper Doug Christie 33. Since the Kings picked Stojakovic in 1996, the only drafted players on the roster are little-used Gerald Wallace and Jabari Smith. Also, the huge contracts of Webber, Bibby and Miller won’t allow the Kings much salary cap relief for a few seasons at least.

No wonder Webber sounds almost desperate for a title.

“I haven’t accomplished nothing if I don’t have a championship,” Webber said. “I’m sure that view will change if I retire without one. But I’m not going to be like [Charles] Barkley and those guys and say it doesn’t mean anything.

“Right now it means everything to me, and it would be hard for me to even watch basketball after I retire if I don’t have a championship. It would be closure on a lot of things. It would be satisfaction. I don’t even know emotionally how I would be able to handle it. But it would mean a lot.”

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