With a 120-80 win Wednesday, the Sacramento Kings officially punched their ticket for the 2023 NBA playoffs. That’s right: After 16 long years, the longest playoff drought the NBA has ever seen is now officially over. Light the friggin’ beam.
It took a few extra days, but the Kings got an emphatic win over the depleted Portland Trail Blazers to control their own postseason destiny. "Light the beam" chants broke out at the end of the game ... in Portland.
The Kings become just the third team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff berth, joining the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies. This, to put it mildly, is not what the sharp community expected prior to the season; heading into training camp, BetMGM set the over/under mark for Sacramento’s 2022-23 win total at 34.5 games. Those soft expectations came in the context of a decade and a half of calamity: The Kings hadn’t topped that number in three seasons and had beaten it just twice since 2005-06.
It wasn’t always like this. At the turn of this century, the Kings ranked among the league’s perennial powers. They made eight straight playoff appearances under head coach Rick Adelman, and won 50 or more games in five straight seasons, including a league-best 61 during the 2001-02 campaign that ended in shattering (and potentially nefarious) circumstances. Led by the likes of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojaković, those Sacramento squads reveled in fast breaks, ball movement, 3-point bombing and highlight-reel finishes; their style exuded joy and packed the substance to match.
Things began to turn, though, after Webber tore up his knee and aging rotation pieces like Divac, Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson moved on. Following a pair of first-round exits, the Kings elected not to renew Adelman’s contract in summer 2006, starting the clock on a benighted period that would see 11 different head coaches working under four different lead executives for two different ownership groups, all straddling the existential crisis of a near-move to Seattle and failing to produce a single .500 season or top-15 finish in defensive efficiency. (They won’t finish above average on D this season, either. Kings fans don’t seem too down about it, though.)
There were fun moments: Kevin Martin averaging like 25 a game that one season, Tyreke Evans winning Rookie of the Year, Isaiah Thomas going from Mr. Irrelevant to making it, the nightly spectacle that was Peak DeMarcus Cousins, etc. But they were blips on the radar, mostly overwhelmed by the static surrounding a franchise that did stuff like fire a promising young head coach while his best player was sidelined by viral meningitis and take Marvin Bagley III with the second pick in the 2018 NBA Draft — the next three players off the board: Luka Dončić, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young — amid year after year of losing.
The script changed this season, though, thanks in large part to one mammoth change the Kings made at the 2022 trade deadline — sending ascendant young point guard Tyrese Haliburton and 3-point sharpshooter Buddy Hield to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for gifted offensive center Domantas Sabonis — and another they made in the offseason, hiring Mike Brown off the champion Warriors’ bench to be their new head coach.
“What Mike [...] said before the season started, it instilled confidence in us,” All-Star point guard De’Aaron Fox recently told Anthony Slater of The Athletic. “Hell, he might make you believe you’re better than you are. Every night, we go out there and we expect to win. You know you’re not going to win every game. But you go out there and expect to win.”
As much as Brown — who cut his teeth with Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, presided over elite defenses during his time in Cleveland and served as Steve Kerr’s lead defensive lieutenant in Golden State — might prefer those expected wins come via consistent strings of stops, these Kings, like their C-Webb-era forerunners, win with their offense. Sacramento owns the highest point total of this NBA season, scoring 176 points in a double-overtime thriller to beat the Clippers. It also got a share of the no-overtime high-score, by virtue of hanging 153 points on a Nets team that still featured Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a nationally televised ass-kicking that authoritatively announced the Kings’ presence as a team of consequence.
“Every time we step on the floor, we have to prove our worth,” Brown told Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Vincent Goodwill earlier this season.
Plenty of pundits and Kings fans alike panned the Haliburton-for-Sabonis deal at the time, thinking it foolish that a team seemingly so far away from contention would ship out a low-cost 21-year-old playmaker with All-Star upside. (In fairness, Haliburton needed all of one year to realize that upside.) As it turned out, though, the swap not only broke up a lottery-pick logjam in Sacramento’s backcourt and rebalanced a roster short on size, it imposed order on a disparate collection of talents, drawing the blueprint for what has been the NBA’s best offense this season, averaging a scorching 119.8 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions entering Monday’s games, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox — the lone starting point guard left standing after Haliburton’s exit — began developing chemistry in the two-man game almost immediately last season, a pair of crafty southpaws catching opponents off-guard from unorthodox angles and alternately bulldozing and blitzing their way to the basket. After watching the Kings score like a top-three offense with Sabonis and Fox sharing the court after the trade, general manager Monte McNair entered the offseason intent on giving his star bookends even more space to operate. With three moves — one free-agent signing, one trade and one draft pick — McNair helped propel the Fox-Sabonis partnership into the stratosphere, taking the top off the Kings offense and reimagining its possibilities.
Many first-draft-of-history roundups — including Yahoo Sports — listed Sacramento among the losers of the 2022 NBA Draft, and the Pistons among its winners, for deciding to take Iowa’s Keegan Murray with the third overall pick and allowing Purdue’s Jaden Ivey to fall to Detroit. While it’s possible the Kings will one day rue passing on Ivey, today they’re awfully psyched to have picked a plug-and-play combo forward to slot in alongside the metronome-steady Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup — especially one who’s shooting 41% from 3-point range on more than six attempts per game, drilling triples from the corners and above the break, serving as one of the league’s most prolific catch-and-shoot marksmen and on pace to shatter the record for the most 3-pointers ever made by a rookie.
After landing an immediate impact shooter in the draft, McNair grabbed two more once free agency opened, sending a package headlined by a lottery-protected 2024 first-round pick to the Hawks for Kevin Huerter and using the midlevel exception to pluck Fox’s old Kentucky teammate, Malik Monk, away from the Lakers. Huerter proved a hand-in-glove fit alongside Fox in the starting lineup, posting career-high shooting percentages both inside and outside the arc on the highest usage rate of his career. Monk has been one of the NBA’s most dynamic reserves, ranking among the league leaders in points and assists per game off the bench while producing at career-best per-minute rates. The trio of Murray, Huerter and Monk have combined to make more than 500 3-pointers — a massive reason why a Sacramento team that finished 25th in made 3s per game and 24th in team 3-point accuracy last season has zoomed up to the top-10 in both categories this season.
Flanking Sabonis — one of the league’s premier high-post offensive hubs and also its leading rebounder — with multiple wings who could shoot, pass, dribble and cut unlocked all manner of possibilities for Sacramento’s attack. Brown rebuilt the offense around Sabonis’ ability to facilitate from the elbows; no team finishes more possessions per game via dribble handoff, no team scores more points per possession on those plays and the 26-year-old big man is turning in the highest assist rate of any non-Nikola Jokić center in the 3-point era. All that space on the interior and service from Sabonis have helped unleash Fox, who earned his first All-Star berth alongside Sabonis behind career-best scoring and his emergence as perhaps the best clutch scorer in the league this season.
That formula — spread the floor, pummel offenses with a dizzying array of handoffs, screens, cuts and drives, and when it’s close late, get the ball to Fox and get out of his way — has produced Sacramento’s best season in nearly two decades. The question now: Can it produce postseason success?
While Sacramento will have home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, it’ll also likely feature the worst defense of any team in the bracket. The fundamentals of the Kings’ defense under Brown are pretty sound — they’re excellent at preventing transition opportunities and fast-break points; they’re right around league-average in how often they allow opponents to shoot at the rim or from beyond the arc; they don’t foul a ton — but the results have yet to match that process. They entered the week 25th in points allowed per possession and 29th in opponent field-goal percentage. Sabonis is an elite rebounder, but he’s not a rim protector; opponents are shooting nearly 70% at the basket against the Kings, who block fewer shots as a team than anybody but the Heat.
How far the Kings ultimately go this spring will probably come down to whether they can string together enough stops for their offense to carry the day. The good news: No matter who they wind up facing, that offense will be a friggin’ beast to deal with.
“I think our potential is limitless,” Fox recently told Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report. “We know that we can score with anybody. Our season will hang on if we can get stops, and that’s something that we’re continuing to work on every day. If we become a better defensive team, we could win a championship.”
That is, admittedly, an exceedingly lofty goal. By qualifying for the playoffs, though, the Kings have taken the first step toward it — and considering how far they’ve come and how quickly they’ve done it, maybe we doubt them at our own peril.