What Bibby Is Not Is Key to the Kings


Practice had been over for more than an hour. Reporters had come and gone, having filled their notebooks and tape recorders with the wit and wisdom of the Sacramento Kings. Players and coaches drifted away, toward home or, perhaps, a late lunch.

Mike Bibby remained behind, standing slightly to the right of the top of the key, shooting baskets while a couple of team officials with can-we-go-now? looks on their faces rebounded.

Bibby didn't miss often, so the predominant sound inside the Kings' practice facility one recent afternoon was silence. The ball left Bibby's hands, arced toward the basket with textbook backspin and snapped the net ever so slightly before landing in the hands of a rebounder.

"Mike Bibby is incredible," forward Chris Webber said, marveling more about his teammate's overall game than this particular shooting display. "We've barely scratched the surface with him."

What has Bibby, in his first season with Sacramento, meant to the Kings?

"He's meant everything," center Vlade Divac said. "He's one of the best point guards in the league. People say they are surprised at how he plays in the playoffs. It's not a big surprise to me."

Sacramento faces the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers in the Western Conference finals, which begin today at Arco Arena, and the Kings say it's because of Bibby, a 6-foot-1 guard, that they have advanced this far.

Bibby, 24, could prove to be the X-factor in the best-of-seven series against the Lakers, who often failed to contain San Antonio point guard Tony Parker during their five-game conference semifinal victory over the Spurs. After all, Bibby has already outplayed John Stockton of the Utah Jazz and Steve Nash of the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs.

"Stability," Coach Rick Adelman said when asked for Bibby's most significant contribution to the Kings' best season since the franchise moved from Kansas City to Sacramento before the 1985-86 season. "He makes great decisions with the ball. You know what you're going to get from him. He's a great shooter. He goes to the basket strong. You don't see Mike Bibby going 100 mph. He seems to slow down and he freezes defenses."

The Kings had an exceptional team last season. They had strength up front with Webber and Divac, and finesse with Peja Stojakovic shooting from the wings. They also had a selfless all-purpose player in Doug Christie.

What they lacked was a steady guiding hand.

Jason Williams turned heads with his eye-popping passes and long-range shooting. He was fun to watch for fans of his unpredictable game, but perhaps a headache to coach and play with sometimes.

All too often, Williams whipped the ball behind his back (and off target) when a simple chest pass would have sufficed. The Kings won 50 games with Williams at the point, but when they meekly bowed out of the conference semifinals, four games to none, against the Lakers, it was time for a change.

The Kings dealt Williams and Nick Anderson to the Memphis Grizzlies for Bibby and Brent Price on June 27, 2001. If it wasn't the best trade of the off-season, then it was a close second to New Jersey's acquisition of Jason Kidd from Phoenix.

"Steady as a rock," Christie said of Bibby's first season as a King.

Yet the trade happened during a summer of uncertainty.

Webber was prepared to leave Sacramento as a free agent, all but punching his ticket out of town in the days after the Lakers eliminated the Kings. Webber, occasionally seen in the company of model Tyra Banks, longed for the brighter lights of L.A. or New York.

In the end, the Kings added Bibby and retained Webber, signing their power forward to a seven-season deal worth $123 million--the league's second-richest contract.

At first, Webber wasn't sure what to expect from Bibby, who is eligible to become a free agent July 1. Webber was one of Williams' biggest boosters and he was disappointed to see his friend leave for Memphis.

But now, as Webber recently noted, the transition is complete and he has become one of Bibby's biggest boosters.

"Our whole demeanor is different," Webber said.

The Kings won the Pacific Division by three games over the Lakers and nailed down home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with a 61-21 record largely because of Bibby's steadying influence at the point.

"We're getting a better idea now of what Mike can do," Adelman said. "He breaks down defenses. He makes a huge difference. He helps everybody else out there too. Jason had the long jumper or he'd take it all the way to the basket. Mike has the in-between game."

Bibby, the son of former NBA player and USC Coach Henry Bibby, would only say he's starting to feel more comfortable with his new teammates after spending three seasons with the woebegone Grizzlies.

Asked if he believed there was something he brought to the Kings that they might have been missing with Williams at the point, Bibby said flatly, "I'm not a critic." But when he was asked to assess his play during his first playoffs, Bibby was a bit more expansive.

"I have played better than I did in the regular season," he said. "I've become more confident. I'm concentrating on making things happen. I'm hitting my shots [44% overall, 48.5% on three-pointers]. I think I'm a pretty good shooter. I want to be in the middle of things. I don't just want to be standing around and watching things."

With averages of 21.8 points and six assists during the Kings' conference semifinal series victory over the Mavericks--up from 18.3 points and 5.4 assists in the regular season--there would seem to be little doubt that Bibby has indeed been an active participant in the playoffs.

"I feel more comfortable," said Bibby, who acknowledged feeling jittery before the playoffs began last month. "The team has helped me with my confidence. If I miss a shot, Chris and Peja will tell me to keep shooting. It can't get any better than that."

Perhaps the Kings have been so encouraging because Bibby has been so willing to do what's necessary to win. For instance, in Game 4 against Dallas, Bibby drove to the basket for the tying score with 31.7 seconds remaining in regulation time. In overtime, he scored the winner by driving the left baseline with 12.2 seconds to go.

The Kings' 115-113 victory gave them a 3-1 series lead. They finished off the Mavericks in Game 5 on Monday at Arco Arena, going where no Sacramento team has ventured: a conference final.

Next: the Lakers.

"I think they'll do a good job of coming at him and putting pressure on him for the whole game," Adelman said when asked about his expectations of the Lakers' play against Bibby. "It's up to us to find a way to make sure Mike has a chance to succeed."

Perhaps that's true. But it also could be said that it will be up to Bibby to make sure the Kings have a chance to succeed against the Lakers.

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