The horn sounded. The third quarter ended. Chris Paul sat on the bench, forlorn. His bright red jersey, now burgundy and drenched in sweat, clung to his frame.
He took a deep breath and looked up at his head coach. Searching and hoping for a diatribe that would light a fire under his listless teammates, he got the opposite.
“We’ll regroup for Game 2,” his coach said, mentally forfeiting.
“We’ll be ready,” he said.
But alas, this was Game 1 and there were still 12 minutes remaining.
And as he sat down and looked up at the scoreboard, he saw the 85-64 score. He didn’t need an abacus to tell him that his team faced an insurmountable deficit. That this was Game 1 on the road made the task of accomplishing the impossible all the more daunting.
Lesser men would have rationalized the defeat, waved the white flag and reasoned that they simply needed to win Game 2.
Instead, Paul opened his mouth.
“You have to give us a chance,” he pleaded with his coach.
And against his better judgment, Vinny Del Negro relented. Paul peeled himself up for the game’s final 12 minutes and went out and made history.
His Los Angeles Clippers didn’t just defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, they practically robbed them at gunpoint, erasing a 24-point fourth quarter deficit to win Game 1 of a series that would eventually see them prevail in seven.
Yes, it was a heist, and afterward, Blake Griffin said so himself.
“We put a mask on and robbed that one,” Griffin told The Los Angeles Times.
So as Paul closes in on his 30th birthday and the questions about his durability and lack of bling persist and polarize, I ask you:
What will you remember him for?
Will you remember him for having the heart of a champion? Will you remember him for controlling and dominating games, despite often being the smallest competitor on the court? Will you remember him for single-handedly turning two franchises into contenders in the ever-tough Western Conference?
Or, will you, like those who cannot see past their own noses, simply boil his legacy and place in history down to the simple question of whether he was able to capture a championship over the course of his career?
Would Kevin Garnett not be as great of a player in your eyes if he never had the good fortune (and sense) to be traded to the Boston Celtics to team up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen?
Would Dirk Nowitzki not be arguably one of the greatest shooters and offensive forces in NBA history if his 2011 Dallas Mavericks weren’t able to pull off one of the biggest NBA Finals upsets in history?
Are they, Garnett and Nowitzki, better players because they were able to accomplish that?
Through that lens, I ask you, even deeper, will you remember any of the NBA’s superstars who walk away from the game without ever having the pleasure of cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy?
If Kevin Durant is unable to lead his Oklahoma City Thunder to the promise land, will that diminish his greatness? Will you pretend as though he is not a transcendent basketball talent who, amazingly, has the stature of a beanstalk, the grace of a gazelle and the dead-eye of an eagle?
Will you brush their accomplishments aside and forget to mention them along the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade?
Will you cast their legacies aside and include them in the list of “others” that were unable to accomplish the game’s ultimate feat?
The gross majority of the basketball-watching public will, but you should not, because the ultimate measure of one’s greatness should not be boiled down to whether or not they were able to win a championship. Prudent and intelligent management is an integral part of accomplishing that and players have little control over it.
Yes, the bling sings, but it should be in pianissimo.
Let’s talk about irony.
Let’s talk about a player whose own fan base is torn on him and his talent.
Let’s talk about a player who has been expected to live up to an unattainable standard and is largely unappreciated as a result.
Yes, let’s talk about Carmelo Anthony and his self-appointed designation as being the game’s most underrated superstar, even after signing a five-year, $124 million contract to remain a member of the New York Knicks.
And then, let’s talk about the fact that Anthony is correct.
Perhaps somewhat naturally, in a culture that has come to worship the World Series of Poker and other winner-take-all endeavors, we have learned how to ignore all but the brightest shining star.
You’re either the best, or you’re not. You’re either the man, or you’re not. You’re either LeBron James, or you’re not.
I know LeBron, and Mr. Anthony, you are no LeBron.
But I know that Anthony is still an amazing basketball talent worthy of universal reverence from all-corners of the league (and the basketball-watching world, for that matter). But I also happen to know that Anthony is being simultaneously judged while his immense talents are disrespected and overlooked. Not only because he’s considered the peer of LeBron, and not only because of the dearth of playoff series victories, but also because of Allen Iverson.
Collectively, we were sold on the idea that Iverson, a “volume scorer,” who was both ball-dominant and inefficient, was impossible to win with. Over time, we soured on Iverson. We overlooked the fact that he would leave everything he had on the floor in pursuit of winning. Instead, we focused more on the fact that he was unable to win more and do more, despite the likes of Derrick Coleman, Matt Geiger, Toni Kukoc and Theo Ratliff being his wingmen.
Instead of talking about how he played hurt and was a one-man wrecking crew that was small enough to fit in Shaquille O’Neal’s pocket—and revering him for that—we would rather spend our time talking about practice and why Iverson was “only” able to lead his Philadelphia 76ers to one NBA Finals appearance.
Because of Iverson and his faults (and he did have quite a few), we were eventually taught to buy into the myth that a man whose most capable asset on the floor is his ability to score points is impossible to succeed with. We have been taught that anyone lacking the all-around skill set of LeBron James isn’t worthy of our respect.
And so what if Mark Cuban was able to finally win with Nowitzki?
Nowitzki was far more efficient than Carmelo. He’s never even sniffed the 50/40/90 club, so clearly, he’s not of Nowitzki’s caliber
We will continue to overlook the fact that since 2011, Anthony has become a more efficient shot maker, become a more willing passer and has flat-out played harder than we had grown accustomed to seeing him in the past.
We will continue to not believe that the correct offensive system—the triangle, in this case—can find a way to utilize his unique skills while hiding the weak points.
We will continue to overlook some of his more amazing accomplishments. Like that time when he finally got a capable running mate in Denver and he and Chauncey Billups gave an in-prime Kobe Bryant a valiant fight for the 2009 Western Conference Championship. Or that time in the 2011 NBA Playoffs where, without Billups and a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire, being flanked by the likes of Bill Walker, Toney Douglas, Jared Jeffries and Shawne Williams, Anthony put together one of the most amazing playoff performances many of us have ever seen.
After he single-handedly gave his New York Knicks an opportunity to win with a 42-point, 17-rebound, six-assist effort, Doc Rivers called him one of the best players he’s ever seen and said his Boston Celtics were “lucky” to have won that night.
The 33 points he scored in a single quarter back in 2008? We will brush that aside as quickly as we have the fact that he is one of the greatest and most accomplished players to ever play for USA Basketball. We will brush them aside just like we did his amazing performance in the 2012 Olympics, where he emerged as the alpha scorer for Team USA and set the USA Men’s Olympic team record for most points (37) scored in a game.
Those 62 points he scored against the Charlotte Hornets back in 2014 in Madison Square Garden? Most call that meaningless in the grand scheme.
Instead of holding Anthony in high esteem, we will continue to boil his usefulness and legitimacy down into one simple question…
How many championships has he won?
And until that number changes, if it changes, the answer to that questions equals how much respect he will get from the masses, because honoring, respecting and appreciating players like Anthony and Chris Paul requires more than a passive look. It requires actually watching.
It requires one to do more than simply look at a stat sheet or an accolades list to make a determination about a player’s worth.
It requires basketball education, and frankly, that’s a little too difficult for most of us to attain.
So yes, let’s talk about irony and let’s discuss what it is.
In short, irony is becoming a better player while your team regresses. Irony is making it through 11 years in the NBA without ever simultaneously having a coach that could fully utilize your skills and a Robin that fully complements them.
Since arriving in New York, like his salaries, Anthony’s game has risen while his stature in the league has seemingly gone on a descent.
That’s life as Anthony, though. The $124 million underrated superstar.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Since 1999, each NBA Finals has had at least one of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade in it.
Duncan has had R.C. Buford and Greg Poppovich by his side for his amazing run. Bryant has served under Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson and Wade owes almost everything to Pat Riley.
Behind every great champion is a great executive and a great head coach. Winning requires an immense amount of talent on the basketball court, but it requires an immense amount of brainpower above it, as well.
In the end, no matter how great the player, he himself cannot single-handedly win the ultimate prize. In the end, reducing someone’s legacy and the amount of respect bestowed upon him to a single question as to whether he was able to win is an insult.
Although there are more chapters to be written in the books of Paul, Anthony and even Durant, eventually toppling LeBron’s reign atop the NBA is something that should enhance the legacies that they leave on the game. But if none of those three are able to, it should not detract or distract us from seeing them for the special talents that they are.
Success in the NBA is no accident. It requires an alpha-male, but it requires so much more.
Falling short of accomplishing that ultimate goal should not be a black mark against any player who changes the culture of a franchise and gives it an opportunity to compete at the highest level.
I’ll take Paul or Anthony on my team any day. I’ll take their strengths and their weaknesses and I’ll do my best to utilize them and hide them, respectively. I’d do my best to be the Mark Cuban to their Dirk Nowitzki.
And when it’s all said and done, win or lose, I’ll take their accomplishments and their shortcomings.
I just won’t take their credit.
When it’s all said and done, win or lose, after observing their growth over the years and their transforming of two franchises, I’ll take their legacies, too.
I’ll take their legacies and defend them, because unlike many, I understand that winning in the NBA never was and never will be about just one player.
But one’s legacy? It should be.
And at the end of the day, it is important to know the difference. Being an inlier is a natural byproduct of competition, but by no means should it reduce the esteem anointed to some of the greatest players we have had the pleasure of watching.
So no, neither Paul nor Anthony is LeBron. But at the end of the day, they’re still pretty damn good.
NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch
Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.
The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.
And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.
The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?
The Eastern Conference Arms Race
The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.
With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.
While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.
The Competitive Postseason Bubble
There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.
In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.
Out West, it’s more of the same.
Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.
The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.
Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.
The Three-Man Race for the MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.
But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?
Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.
As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.
The Anthony Davis Situation
The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.
Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.
So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.
The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.
The Battle for Zion
Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.
The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.
In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.
As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.
NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders
Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.
The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.
“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”
It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?
Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.
It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.
In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.
The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2
They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5
Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.
MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7
We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.
MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3
The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.
MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?
Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.
With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.
If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.
Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.
NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?
As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.
Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.
For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?
The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.
Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.
What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.
Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.
While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.
Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.
One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.
As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.
The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.
Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”
Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.
As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.
Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.
Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.
But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.