NBA LUNCHTIME: Are The Kings On To Something?

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The Sacramento Kings can make history this season. Should they fail to reach the postseason, they would tie the Los Angeles Clippers for the longest such drought in NBA history at 15 seasons.

Yes, it’s been nearly two decades since we last saw playoff basketball in Sacramento. Questionable roster construction and coaching decisions have long plagued the franchise. A far cry from the entertaining, run-and-gun bunch of the early 2000s, the last 15 years has seen the Kings constantly overlooked, penciled in as an almost certain win on the opposition’s schedule.

But, early in this 2020-21 season, Sacramento looks as if they may have turned a corner.

A 12-12 record might not seem like a big deal, but it is for the Kings. Currently the ninth seed, Sacramento is very much in the playoff mix. While they’re not among the top eight teams, the Kings would make the play-in game, were the postseason to start today. And, prior to their most recent loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento had surged as of late, with four straight wins including victories over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers.

So, while the Western Conference is a gauntlet, the Kings have seemingly found their recipe for success and a potential postseason berth. And it starts with De’Aaron Fox.

The fourth-year guard is in the midst of a career-year and could make his first All-Star appearance; Fox’s 23 points per game are a career-high, while he’s also shot an efficient 48 percent from the field. He may get lost in the national spotlight, playing in Sacramento, but Fox has blossomed into a legit franchise cornerstone for the Kings, who have him locked up long-term, that has established himself amongst the NBA elite.

That said, were Fox to lead his team to the postseason, it would vault him into the league’s upper echelon of players, the best of the best.

They’ve also gotten solid play from their frontcourt. Always one of the best backup bigs, Richaun Holmes is vastly out-producing his contract. A defensive anchor in the paint and a strong finisher at the rim, he’s made a world of difference. Marvin Bagley III and Harrison Barnes, meanwhile, have turned in strong performances of their own. Barnes, especially, has been instrumental in the team’s most recent surge; in their four-game streak, the 28-year-old averaged 20 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting. On the season, he’s averaged a career-high in rebounds (6.5), assists (3.5), field goal percentage (49.6) and three-point percentage (41.7).

While Bagley hasn’t lived up to the expectations of a second overall pick, he has continued to improve despite a ban run of injury luck early in his career. This season, he’s become a more than dependable stretch-big for the Kings, as his 37.1 percent three-point percentage has opened up a whole new dimension of Sacramento’s offense. A nightly double-double threat that’s also shown some improvement on the defensive end, Bagley’s play should prove ever-more important to the Kings’ success as the season goes along.

And, perhaps the biggest surprise to the uninitiated, has been the play of rookie Tyrese Haliburton. That Haliburton slipped all the way to Sacramento in the 2020 NBA Draft was a head-scratcher for some and, this season, he’s made nearly every team that passed on him regret it.

For the most part, head coach Luke Walton has been trusting of and patient with Haliburton, who was recently awarded the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for January. A frontrunner for Rookie of the Year Haliburton has, at times, looked more like a seasoned pro than a rookie. And, during the Kings’ streak, he played a crucial role, knocking down clutch shots and playing strong defense.

Overall, this Sacramento squad is young, hungry and eager to separate themselves from the negativity that has surrounded the team for more than a decade. There are certainly some holes to patch up; the Kings remain among the NBA’s worst, defensively, giving up 118.2 points per game and posting a league-worst 117.8 defensive rating. It’s also may seem somewhat tough to trust the team, as we’ve seen this from them before: a surging roster on the cusp of the postseason flops in the second half, once again left on the outside looking in.

To change their fortune, Sacramento must build on what they have and continue to improve. If they do, their postseason-less streak may finally come to an end.