In late September, I was in Sacramento. I was there to interview the Kings new rookie, Keegan Murray, but something funny kept happening from the moment I set foot in the very beautiful half of the Golden 1 Center the Kings use as their practice facility. Across the faces of everyone I met or sat down with: piqued interest; excitement; eager curiosity. On their own, these feelings tend to spring out in one direction and eventually taper off. Together, they alchemize into a sensibility much greater: pride.
The front office, communications staff, training staff and players were warm with it. More than answering my immediate questions about Murray, they (including Murray) wanted to try and express to me what was happening here. Sacramento, so long the league’s scapegoat, competitive non-starter and trade deadline dumping ground, was budding. They all felt it. I felt it, and the season hadn’t even started yet.
With a clean slate coaching staff led by Mike Brown, new future franchise pillar players in Murray and Domantas Sabonis, do-it-all additions in Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, an optimized role for Harrison Barnes, further gelling of Davion Mitchell and what seemed like a true plan and real support for De’Aaron Fox, the Kings at least promised to be fun.
Fast forward to a season with a month of games left in it and Sacramento sits first in overall their offensive rating and points per game, has outpaced their projected win record of 35-36 (they’re currently 36-25), and sits third in a stacked Western Conference. They still look fun, they still look excited, but more than that, they look serious.
That the franchise facing the longest playoff drought (16 seasons) in league history got here is the underdog story basketball fans live for. Through the early months of the season, it initially seemed the Kings winning momentum fit into that sweet and unstoppable spot of a team not knowing they weren't supposed to be this good yet. A brief and auspicious room of one’s own reinforced by flourishing skill and belief that has previously hosted iterations of teams like the Toronto Raptors leading up to their Championship run, and the Memphis Grizzlies of the last two seasons. The Kings still have some of that, but what’s doggedly replaced any coasting mode of thought has been the group’s laser-focused intention.
“They have a belief that is uncanny for a group that has never played together before, nor have a lot of these guys had key roles on playoff teams as individuals in big situations. It’s extraordinary,” Kings head coach Mike Brown told SI in a recent interview, when asked about the success of the group, “That belief is something we’ve talked about trying to instill since Day 1.”
Some of that belief comes in the challenges Brown has set for his players, like the defensive accountability he’s demanded of Fox, who since his tenure with the Kings had mostly been asked to show up as a one-dimensional, fleet-footed offensive threat. Fox was very good at that, but Brown saw his natural quickness not as a finite resource, but a steady-state that the guard could deploy at either end with a bit of focus. Fox has since become a swift menace for Sacramento, intercepting or lightly lifting the ball away for steals, forcing turnovers, even showing up as a more pronounced presence in defensive rebounding.
Brown’s been candid about the lessons he took from learning under Steve Kerr, that trust has to run both ways in a coaching staff that needs to try things in order to optimize what they have. In light of that, Brown’s given Jay Triano and Jordi Fernandez, Sacramento’s offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, free rein. The Kings burgeoning identity as a defensively savvy team, on top of their walloping offensive force, should be worrisome for the rest of the league because it means they have a significant amount of space to get even better.
“If you ask any of our guys, they’ll tell you: I’ve said since Day 1 that I did not come here to make the playoffs. I came here to compete at the highest level and chase a championship like everyone else,” Brown told SI about his and the group’s postseason expectations. “I feel like our group is convinced that we’re better than just making the playoffs.”
None of what Brown said should be taken as bravado. He and the team, if anything, are becoming obsessively pragmatic in their strengths as much as their weaknesses. Where Sacramento has managed to stifle opponents has been in cutting off access to their offensive gas.
Brown has noted that when the group switches to a smothering zone on the defensive end it’s not “because we feel we’re so good at it or because the numbers say we’re good at it”, but because it disrupts an opponent’s rhythm. And because the team is good at talking to each other. Where the Kings are lacking defensively (and they are, at 26th out of 30 in their defensive rating overall) is in their man-to-man efforts. They aren’t a particularly oversized or long team and are vulnerable to cuts and screens. But the silver lining of that is how telling it is to their strength as a collective. At this point, they are just better when working together, all of the time.
As Tom Ziller pointed out earlier this week, the fact that the Kings haven’t been here, facing playoff contention, in a long time doesn’t put this particular group and what they’re capable of doing at a deficit. Sacramento is no longer a breezy win for a struggling team or record padding boost for a great one — they’re a matchup.
If the team clinched today they’d face the Clippers in the first round. Even if the Suns, trailing by three games, manage to catch them, the Kings drawing the Mavericks or Timberwolves, two groups that don’t look nearly as cohesive, feels more psychologically and technically troubling to any group without a giant, purple beam at its radiating core. The pride of the team and their fanbase, the ubiquitous beam, isn’t going anywhere. What’s changed since the start of the season to now, nearing its conclusion, is that the Kings, undeniably, are.
(Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)