The Sacramento Kings Defy Expectations and History

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The Sacramento Kings followed up an offensive clinic and win against the Philadelphia 76ers last Saturday with a defeat of the San Antonio Spurs, marking perhaps the most significant milestones yet in the NBA’s greatest surprise development. 

With the two signature Ws, Sacramento surpassed its win total for the entire 2017-18 season, and sits just a game out of the final Playoffs spot behind the Clippers. With Los Angeles moving Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers, a proverbial punt flag on its postseason aspirations, the Kings ending a 13-year drought feels improbably close.

Sacramento’s sudden and meteoric rise out of the basement is a lot of fun, and not just for the inherent underdog narrative — though the narrative is indeed powerful.

This is a franchise that, after flirtations with the NBA’s apex and a heartbreaking denial of the Finals, reverted to an avatar of all that’s wrong with pro sports. The Maloof family, particularly Joe and Gavin, came in the millennium wave of young-money ownership. Save for maybe Suns owner Robert Sarver — who went from being a goof dunking on the mini-trampoline between quarters to a scowling malcontent indirectly using the team’s official Twitter account to whine about FAKE NEWS — the Maloofs most accurately represent the folly of early 2000s owners who tried to make themselves face of the franchise.

Their presence courtside for Kings successes coincided with the Palms becoming the It Vegas casino for young vacationers, in part for its exposure hosting the trashiest season of Real World ever.

Both were smoke-and-mirrors, further examples in the tacky facade that was 2000s pop culture. As decades changed, the Maloofs were mostly out of the Palms by 2011, and completely down with the Kings by 2013. But while the Palms remained standing, the Sacramento Kings’ fate was tenuous as the Maloofs exited.

The owners made their ambitions of moving the Kings to Vegas no secret, the prospect reaching its boiling point around the same time adult-aged toddler Howard Schultz was subverting the Seattle Supersonics’ existence. A disastrous 2007 NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas likely sealed the fate of the Kings’ move, and the Maloofs seemed to lose interest in even trying to look like they wanted a competitive product.

From the 2007-08 season on, the Sacramento Kings produced records of:

• 38-44

• 17-65

• 25-57

• 24-58

• 22-44 (lockout-shortened 2011-2012)

• 28-54

• 28-54

• 29-53

• 33-49

• 32-50

• 27-55

A constant threat of move and ownership uncertainty is no way to build a winning organization — but it’s also the history of the Sacramento Kings’ entire existence. The NBA charter-member Rochester Royals moved to Cincinnati in 1957, and had a brief stretch of prosperity with local star Oscar Robertson on the roster. His trade to Milwaukee marked the death knell of the Cincinnati Royals, who divvied their time between Kansas City and Omaha for a few years in the early 1970s, before becoming the Kansas City Kings for a spell that lasted less than a decade.

The franchise has been the Sacramento Kings for more than double the duration of its time in any other city, but the team has felt like a transient for most of the last 33 years. The Golden 1 Center provides some stability, at least for however long until someone demands a new venue. These days, 20 years seems to be the standard before a pro sports owner takes city council meetings hostage to demand a tax-payer funded building (and an SUX 3000).

Until that day comes, however, the NBA’s most well-traveled franchise remains in Sacramento. And the Kings are giving fans reason to visit the new arena.

To write no one expected Sacramento to contend for a Playoffs spot isn’t some stereotypical, phony underdog nonsense; I could not find a single preseason projection to forecast the Kings in the postseason.

I note that not to go all Freezing Cold Takes on NBA journalists; the 2018-19 Sacramento Kings are remarkably young, and not necessarily constructed like a Playoff team, and especially not a Western Conference Playoff team.

Leading scorer Buddy Hield was someone I was high on coming out of Oklahoma, particularly in context of the modern NBA. In 2015-16, he was the best college 3-point shooter since…well, since Steph Curry. But while coming back to Oklahoma for his senior season helped him cultivate his game, the decision was a paradox. Four-year players are not viewed with the same cynicism they had been last decade, but they are evaluated with less patience than the already-knee-jerk approach applied to all early-career talent.

So, when he was moved in the DeMarcus Cousins trade his rookie season, it sure seemed like a typical Sacramento Kings tanking effort. Instead, it’s been the catalyst for the franchise’s recent resurgence. 

His emergence as a standout 3-point shooter and quality scoring guard defies both the impatient nature of NBA punditry, and the skepticism often applied to college upperclassmen. The same applies to reserve guard Yogi Ferrell.

Ferrell isn’t a star, but he’s the consummate role player; someone who can come into a pressure situation, like Monday’s win over San Antonio, and net 19 points. Undrafted despite setting records at Indiana, Yogi seems to have found a niche with the rising Kings.

Meanwhile, if Hield’s college game reflected the trends of modern NBA, Willie Cauley-Stein’s contributions run contrary to the new norms. Cauley-Stein starred for the one-loss, 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats as a defensive stopper and presence on the glass, with enough offense around the rim to be dangerous. He hasn’t had to dramatically overhaul his game to contribute for the Kings.

Other noteworthy names are your more typical budding NBA stars. Marvin Bagley III and De’Aaron Fox were ballyhooed draft picks, and their quick success isn’t necessarily a surprise. In Fox’s case, however, he may be outpacing expectations at 17.5 points, 7.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game.

More difficult to project than their individual ability is how well both fit into the team.

Sacramento’s all-around team basketball is what makes this a fun bunch. The Kings rank eighth in the NBA in scoring at almost 114 points per game, a staggering 16-point per game jump from a season ago, and they’re doing it with only one player averaging above 20 points per game. That’s Hield, who barely clears that mark.

Their youthful energy is entertaining, and intriguing: If this nucleus stays together, the early 2020s Sacramento Kings could usher in an era of prosperity akin to the early 2000s Kings. And this time, they can do so with zero association to Trishelle.

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