There are the underdogs, and then there are the seemingly cursed. Those franchises who lead a sisyphean existence, one in which they are always the butt of the joke. Until this season, the Sacramento Kings could be described as the latter. Several teams that were founded more recently have a worse win percentage, but the Kings have the most losses in NBA history, with just north of 3,200. While pundits generally approved of their off-season moves this past summer, few would have predicted Sacramento would be third in the Western Conference at the end of March. These are not your mom’s Sacramento Kings. So how did they turn it around?
It’s pretty rare for historically underperforming and mismanaged franchises to take big swings, and see them work out (see the Minnesota Timberwolves’ chips-into-the-center push on Rudy Gobert). And the Kings faced a fair amount of pushback when they sent their stellar young point guard Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for big man Domantas Sabonis. But this was one of the even rarer occurrences when the momentous trade not only worked out for the Kings, but seemed to be a win-win for both sides. Haliburton is thriving on the Pacers, and Sabonis achieved the Kings’ goal of unlocking their franchise cornerstone, speed-demon point guard De’Aaron Fox.
The chemistry between the two is electric, and Fox has said that Sabonis is the best screen setter he’s ever played with. After years of criticism for underachieving, it seems all Fox really needed was a better-suited running mate and supporting cast. And a change of scenery has proved fruitful for Sabonis as well, vaulting him into the conversation for All-NBA. It has also landed him on a team that will finish in the top-three in their conference for the first time in his career.
Great NBA coaches are, in many ways, only as good as their players. But it’s also true that even the most talented rosters can easily lose the plot without a great captain to steer the ship. And Mike Brown has provided capable and impressive leadership this season.
Brown has led the Kings to an all-time offensive season: they currently have a smoldering 118.9 offensive rating, which, if it holds, would be the best figure for a season since such numbers were tracked. Yes, even better than the “we’ve never seen anything like this before” offense of the Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant Nets (118.3).
Brown, who has been in the NBA coaching ranks since the 1990s, earned many of his offensive stripes on Steve Kerr’s staff in the Bay with the Golden State Warriors (a team who are no stranger to record-setting offensive prowess themselves). When he took the Sacramento job last year, many wondered why a coach with Brown’s resume would want to lead a team with so much institutional baggage. But, clearly, he saw serious potential that many others did not. As a result, Vegas currently has Brown as the odds-on favorite for Coach of the Year, and it’s well deserved.
The Sabonis-Fox pairing is scintillating, but basketball is a team sport, and the Kings have proved they possess a sneaky good supporting cast too. Kevin Huerter, who has always been a threat from the perimeter but wasn’t necessarily a foundational piece at the Atlanta Hawks, has been on fire since arriving in Sacramento this season. Malik Monk turned heads during his tenure with a struggling Los Angeles Lakers team last season, but they were ultimately unwilling to pay him, and he has found a perfect home on these exuberant, fast-paced Kings. The front office took a lot of flak for passing on Purdue’s Jaden Ivey in favor of Iowa’s Keegan Murray in last year’s draft, and while the long-term results have yet to be borne out, Murray has been anything but a bust. Even Harrison Barnes, an oft overlooked veteran, has averaged 15 points a game this season.
Sacramento fans have been one of the most devoted and enthusiastic groups in the sport for some time. It has been a staggering league-longest 17 years since the Kings made the postseason, but fans at Golden 1 Center have weathered the storm. Capitalizing on this, and in one of the greatest strokes of marketing genius in recent sports history, the Kings began sending out an enormous purple beam of light from the top of their arena after every win, and the Light the Beam campaign was born. Sure, the Kings were already destined to be one of the feelgood stories of the year – Vegas had them at comically long +25,000 odds to win the Pacific Division headed into the season – and everyone loves an underdog. But the brilliance of the Light the Beam campaign can’t be understated. Its exultation is contagious, and it has created one of the catchiest NBA taglines since the “We Believe” Warriors.
Would it still be a shock if the Kings win the championship this year? Sure, especially because their historic offense comes with a pretty god-awful defense. But it’s definitely possible. And breaking a playoff drought going back nearly 20 years with home court advantage is nothing to sneeze at. It’s been a long, dark winter of mediocrity (and sometimes worse) in Sacramento. But this year, the Golden 1 Center is positively illuminated. Light the Beam, indeed.
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