The Sacramento Kings have been bad for a long time. Even in their last playoff appearance, in 2006, they were a shell of their former Western Conference Finals selves. Well, 17 years later, they’re back in the NBA playoffs and just sealed Game One against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. So how did they get here?
The NBA is fragile. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks, who went from an up-and-coming franchise who advanced to the West finals with a superstar in Luka Doncic last season to out of the playoffs this year. In the same season, the two former laughingstocks of the NBA, the Kings, and the New York Knicks, have won their first game amid the doubters, haters, and prognosticators who have only watched a handful of nationally televised games of each.
The Kings’ turnaround is anything but a flash in the pan. It was a long, grueling surgery. They reconstructed themselves the long way, through the draft and via an atomic bomb of a trade that could have gone either way. First, let’s address the core acquired organically. De’Aaron Fox, the league’s most clutch scorer and a rising star in the West, was drafted with the No. 5 overall pick in 2017.
Initially, Fox’s selection was met with little fanfare. He was seen as one of many fast, shoot-first guards Kentucky is known to produce. But year by year, he added little wrinkles to his game. In his sixth year, he is averaging career highs in field goal percent (51.2), eFG percent (55.7), and rebounds (4.2), along with 25 points per game and 6.1 assists per game. The most impressive is his clutch time numbers, which is defined by games with a five-point scoring margin in the final five minutes. In those minutes, he’s dropped 194 total points, the highest in the NBA.
Sacramento Kings’ strong roster moves
Along with Fox, rookie Keegan Murray, a sharpshooter with 41-percent accuracy from three, and
Davion Mitchell, the defensive bulldog taken No. 9 in 2021, make up the Kings’ young core. They also had the pristine luck of Tyrese Haliburton falling to them at No. 12 in the 2020 draft. By his second year, he had already surpassed expectations, taking the franchise’s reins as the point of attack. The Kings had three point guards on the roster — Haliburton, Fox, and Mitchell. The thought was Fox would be moved, as he had just signed a five-year, $163 million max contract extension in 2020. Haliburton was cheaper and showed more promise as a lead guard. Then, suddenly in the middle of last season, the Kings swung for the fences and traded Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for Domantas Sabonis.
On paper, it made sense. The Sacramento Kings did not have a big man. Sabonis is one of the best in the game. But the optics outside Sacramento screamed chaos. The Kings had done it again, backing the wrong guy in Fox and shipping out Haliburton, who had All-Star potential. A year and a half later, many of the doubts have disappeared.
Sabonis has anchored the league’s best offense (118 offensive rating), averaging 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 7.3 assists. He has paired with Fox to form one of the most unstoppable pick-and- roll duos in the league. And wouldn’t you know it, Sabonis, Fox, and Haliburton were named All-Stars this year.
For the last two decades, Sacramento was where aging vets went for one last paycheck. Nobody ever chose Sacramento for a chance at competition or to be a part of something “special.” But that’s exactly what general manager Monte McNair sold to Malik Monk and, most importantly, Mike Brown, who he hired to lead his young team out of the muck. Monk reunited with his Kentucky teammate Fox to form a sharpshooting backcourt, while Kevin Huerter, who was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks last summer, brought playoff experience to a team in desperate need of shooting.
And Brown? He is the frontrunner to win Coach of the Year for lifting the Kings to the third-best record in the Western Conference and 48 wins.
Harrison Barnes adding leadership
Tying it all together is Harrison Barnes, the longest-tenured King and a survivor of some of the
Kings’ worst seasons. Barnes brings championship experience after helping the Golden State Warriors win their first chip in 2015. Barnes stuck around through the bad times and, well, more bad times. His consistent professionalism and output helped establish a culture for the young draft picks and new guys to look to as an example. It’s a testament to McNair for retaining Barnes as he reshaped the roster into a contender. A pending free agent this summer, McNair must do whatever it takes to re-sign Barnes and show that they are committed to winning and investing in veteran leadership.
In the last 12 months, the Kings hit the trifecta of improvement — via trades (Sabonis), draft (Murray), and free agency (Monk, Huerter). One playoff game doesn’t guarantee anything in a tight NBA playoffs, even against the reigning champions. But for Sacramento Kings fans, who stayed loyal when the franchise gave them every reason not to, it’s a sign their loyalty meant something. It’s also a sign the team is doing everything it can to make its own luck and escape the institutional poverty they have been mired in for far too long.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo