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Defying Expectations: The Sacramento Kings' Unexpected Rise to Competitiveness

New coach, potent offense, and beam lighting. The Kings have set a foundation for the future while also raising questions about what comes next.

Giannis Antetokounmpo recently had a quote following his team’s early exit from the NBA Playoffs where he was asked if the top-seeded Bucks losing in the first round meant that the season was a failure. Giannis went on to say that every season that doesn’t result in a championship is not a failure. That there are lessons learned and growth is acquired through every experience. It was a polarizing answer, but one that had some truth to it. In some cases, losing in the first round of the playoffs is not a failure but instead a resounding success. One such example of this is the Sacramento Kings, a team that was the 3-seed in the West but ultimately bowed out in 7 games to the Golden State Warriors.

Defying Expectations

If I’m being honest, I did not think that the Sacramento Kings would be good this year. A ritual that I have with a good friend of mine is that every year before the start of the NBA season we predict the season standings. I thought that the Kings might be a play-in team. Boy was I wrong. Sacramento brought in Mike Brown from Golden State as their new head coach and he instantly turned the Kings into the most potent offense in the league.

Up and down, the roster is filled with interesting and dynamic players. It all starts with Domantas Sabonis, the do-it-all center for the Kings that operated as a hub with his excellent playmaking and scoring capability. Constantly a matchup problem, Sabonis abused defenses with his stretching ability and timely passing on the way to averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists per game on over 60% shooting from the field. His co-star, point guard De’Aaron Fox, had another dazzling year but dispelled the notion that he was a player that simply compiled stats on a bad team.

The Kings also had great contributions throughout the year from newcomers Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter, and rookie Keegan Murray. The team captured the hearts and minds of the city of Sacramento, which had been starving for a good basketball team. This was embodied by the “Light the Beam” phenomenon that lit up the Sacramento night sky with a purple light whenever the Kings won a home game at the Golden 1 Center. The team won 48 games this year, good for the 8th-best record in the history of the franchise, and the best record it has had since 2005. The irony of it all was that just a season ago, the Kings were being laughed at by the greater basketball community. This was a team going nowhere, that just made a dumb trade and was under threat of being relocated.

A Lot Can Change in a Year

I remember when the trade happened. The Sacramento Kings traded promising young point guard Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for big man Domantas Sabonis. This moment felt like the pure chaos that you come to expect from a struggling NBA franchise. Before that season started, the Kings drafted Davion Mitchell, an athletic defensive-minded point guard from Baylor. This was a curious selection for a team that already had two excellent point guards on the roster in De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Many wondered if this meant that Fox was on his way out and that the Kings would build around Haliburton and Mitchell.

Instead, the team traded Haliburton, who was coming off an All-Rookie selection the previous year. In return, they got Sabonis, a player who simply was not meshing well in the clogged frontcourt in Indiana alongside Myles Turner. Many analysts said that this was a home run for the Pacers, that they had their point guard of the future and sold off a distressed asset in Sabonis. The flip side was that the Kings made yet another Kings-like blunder, without much of a vision for the future of their franchise.

In all honesty, I can’t blame people for feeling that way. This is a franchise that has had issues putting a competent product out on the floor, after all. This is a team that drafted promising players like Kevin Martin, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, and Marvin Bagley and could do nothing with them. On top of that, the Kings could have drafted several great players but simply chose not to. They selected Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic, Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard, and Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson. The result? 16 years without a playoff appearance and the butt of jokes in conversations about the league. But nobody's laughing now, as the Kings have positioned themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference for years to come.

The Next Step in the Process

It is hard to imagine any Kings fan being disappointed in their team’s season. But the reality is that they lost in the first round, albeit to a team with a championship pedigree. The question for the Kings now becomes, where do they go from here? They have now built a foundation of a team that could be a perennial playoff team with a home arena that is one of the best atmospheres in the NBA. They have a playmaking modern big man and speedy point guard that can score in bunches. What’s missing?

As it currently stands, the Kings need two things: an upgrade on the wing and time. Harrison Barnes has been a key piece for the Kings since he arrived via a trade from the Mavericks in 2019. As a King, Barnes has been a good, but not great, player averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from three. While he helped build this Sacramento team from a joke into a competent and compelling assembly of talent, it is clear that they need an upgrade at the small forward position to complement Sabonis and Fox.

That upgrade could be rookie Keegan Murray, who averaged 12 points this season while shooting 41% from three, and this is where time plays a factor. Sacramento has two paths that it can travel in its pursuit of NBA success. It can play the slow development game and wait for Murray to mature into an elite wing player in a few years and make their run then when Fox is in his late 20s and Sabonis is in his early 30s, or it could decide it wants to cash in on some assets and go star hunting.

Consider the Jaylen Brown situation in Boston currently. There has been writing on the wall for months now that Brown may ask out of Boston, favoring to be a primary scoring option on another team and escaping Jayson Tatum’s shadow. Perhaps that situation is in Sacramento where he provides an instant upgrade over Barnes and Murray and creates an intriguing trio with Sabonis and Fox. The true wonder becomes if Sacramento feels that its time is now or if they are content to continue its organic rebuild. This team is still very young with only two players (Barnes and Matthew Dellavedova) over the age of 30, and 13 players 27 years old or younger.

I would look for the Kings to try their luck with this core for the next couple of years before deciding to push their assets into the middle of the table to acquire a star. This allows Murray to continue to grow and potentially work his way into a centerpiece in this star trade or become the future of the franchise. Whatever they do, one thing is certain: the Sacramento Kings are no longer the longest-running joke in the NBA.

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