Return of the Kings? The path to Sacramento becoming a dangerous playoff opponent

It took the Sacramento Kings more than a decade and a half to get right: to find the appropriate mixture of management, coaching and talent to consistently play high-quality basketball for the first time since George W. Bush’s second term; to end the longest postseason drought the NBA had ever seen; to turn firing a blinding laser into the Northern California night into a full-fledged movement.

It’s not easy to author an encore to something like that. Which might be why the Kings’ run this season has felt a little more labored; no matter how organic the breakthrough feels, the follow-up always requires a bit more sweat.

After needing overtime to hold off the Grizzlies on Monday, Sacramento sits at 39-28, in sixth place in the West, a half-game ahead of the Mavericks and Suns. Both of those teams boast more superstar wattage than head coach Mike Brown’s crew — as, for that matter, do the ninth-seeded Lakers and No. 10 Warriors. And yet: The Kings have the inside track to boxing all of them out of a guaranteed playoff berth, relegating them to the play-in knife fight.

The Kings swept their season series with the Lakers and split with Golden State. They hold a 2-0 edge in their season series with Dallas, with a huge two-game series coming at the end of March, and are tied 2-2 with Phoenix, with one game left — April 12, just two days before the end of the season. All three of those games will take place in Sacramento. (Dallas has the West’s easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon, and Phoenix the conference’s toughest, with the Kings in the middle.)

(Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Gregory Hodge/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

There’s a path, then, for the Kings to seize a second straight playoff berth. The projection models, though, aren’t overly optimistic about them locking it down. Playoff Status pegs the Kings’ odds of securing a top-six spot at about 57%. has them at about 46% — which is to say, more likely than not to land in the play-in. Inpredictable (40%) and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (31%) suggest similar skepticism, stemming from underlying numbers that cast the Kings’ season in a slightly dimmer light than that 11-games-over-.500 record.

While Sacramento’s record is just one win off of last season’s pace, getting there hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. The Kings have squandered multiple 20-point leads, suffered bad losses to cellar-dwellers like the Trail Blazers, Pistons and Hornets, and logged several defeats at the hands of teams missing key pieces: Philly without Joel Embiid, the Pacers without both Tyrese Haliburton and Pascal Siakam, the Heat without most of their rotation.

Through 67 games, the Kings have outscored their opposition by a total of 70 points — barely one point per game, and just one-tenth of a point per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. They are, for the 18th straight season, below average defensively, sitting 20th in points allowed per possession. And whereas last year’s model made up for its defensive deficiencies with an overwhelming offense that led the NBA in points scored per possession, the 2023-24 edition has dipped to 13th on that end, thanks partly to drop-offs in how frequently they generate shots at the rim and from the free-throw line.

Pair a slightly-above-average offense with a slightly-below-average defense, and what you’ve got is, well, average. And in a conference that’s significantly deeper than the one in which the Kings won the No. 3 seed last season — another reason for Sacramento’s offensive slide: the Thunder, Clippers, Suns and Pelicans have all risen into the top 10 on offense — “average” is just good enough to make you look, once again, like maybe the friendliest first-round matchup for Western playoff hopefuls.

Case in point: Monday’s win over Memphis. The Kings hosted a team that had lost two-thirds of its games … and came out flat, trailing after the first quarter. (In fairness, losing starting guard Kevin Huerter to a nasty-looking shoulder injury two minutes in probably took some wind out of their sails.) They eventually took control behind the All-NBA battery of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis … before surrendering a 10-1 run in the middle of the fourth quarter, and courting disaster when Sabonis literally handed the ball to Santi Aldama in the paint with less than a minute left in a tied game. They needed pull-up magic from Fox just to sweat out a potential Grizzlies game-winner and escape to overtime; from there, Malik Monk saved the day:

Monk provided the sort of late-game heroics that have allowed the Kings to roll up a 19-14 record in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes. Which, stretched over the course of the full season, is the sort of “clutch” résumé that has allowed the Kings to outproduce a point differential that pegs them as a .500 team.

And, to be fair, having that club in the bag is a hell of a lot better than not having a Sixth Man of the Year-caliber playmaker/incendiary device who can ignite to the tune of 35 points after halftime against the NBA’s best defense:

But even a performance like that — one that fueled a 124-120 overtime win earlier this month in a game that Fox missed — was met with some derision.

“I really don’t worry about [the Kings] when they come here,” Timberwolves wing Jaden McDaniels told reporters after the game. “I feel pretty confident we could beat them four times in a row if we had to play them.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if other Western playoff squads felt the same way. Which is kind of funny, when you consider the fact that Sacramento has not only the West’s fourth-best conference record, but a combined 18-9 record against the Thunder, Wolves, Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks, Suns, Warriors and Lakers. (The Pelicans, though … not sure Sacramento wants that smoke.)

For all that glass-half-empty talk up top, Sacramento isn’t exactly showing up unarmed to a postseason firefight. Fox made All-NBA last season, went toe-to-toe with Stephen Curry in Round 1, and may well have gotten the better of that exchange before breaking a finger on his shooting hand. The 26-year-old lead guard has played at a similarly elite level this season, becoming even more adept at changing speeds as he manipulates space, and averaging just under 27 points and six assists per game while shooting 36.6% from deep on a career-high 7.5 attempts per game.

There’s a bit of a “tale of two seasons” there — Fox shot 40% from 3-point range in the first half, and has cooled to 31% over the past two months — and you wouldn’t want one of the most sudden and lethal off-the-bounce players in the game to fall too deeply in love with the jumper. (Fox is averaging fewer drives to the basket per game than he has since 2018-19, and posting his lowest free-throw-attempt rate since his rookie season.) When he gets hot, though — as he did in the third quarter against Memphis, splashing the pull-up — he’s an absolute bear to guard, the skeleton key to the most devastating version of this Sacramento offense.

With Sabonis, “absolute bear” is the constant — table-stakes for a player whose piledriving playmaking paces the Kings, and whose ascension as a full-time, full-tilt hub has been one of the NBA’s biggest revelations over the past two seasons.

After finishing seventh in MVP voting last season, Sabonis has been even better, averaging 20.1 points per game on 61% shooting while leading the NBA in rebounding (13.7 caroms a night) and sitting tied for fifth in assists (8.3, same as James friggin’ Harden). Quibble with the credibility of those dribble-handoff dimes if you want. But Sabonis’ skill at activating his fellow Kings in those actions — moving side-to-side to shift the defense before picking out the right partner, and then unceremoniously dislodging said partner’s trailing defender with a sharp-shouldered screen — has become the lifeblood of the Kings’ offense.

Brown has made it clear that the identity he wants this team to embody is to play fast, play physical and play together. That mentality — one that has Sacramento ranking second in the league in passes, sixth in assists, and fifth in points created via assist — flows directly from Sabonis’ bruising connectivity. The Kings run those actions a ton because they get everybody moving, and because they work, and Sabonis’ resultant production has been eye-popping: a franchise-record 50 straight double-doubles and more triple-doubles this season (23) than anybody besides Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Russell Westbrook or Nikola Jokić has ever had in a single campaign.

The Kings score 119.9 points per 100 possessions when Fox and Sabonis share the floor — a top-five rate that provides the basis for believing that, no matter who they face in the postseason, they won’t be outgunned. Ensuring they don’t get outclassed, though, will require a steelier disposition on the other end.

“Our season lies with what we do defensively,” Fox recently told reporters.

There’s some hope on that score. The Kings have strung together a handful of strong performances in a row, including sequences where you see glimpses of something better — like midway through last week’s win over the Lakers, when an active, aggressive Kings defense forced L.A. into miscue after miscue:

Switching assignments on the flight of the ball to take away layups. Communicating through a stack pick-and-roll to avoid a Laker springing loose. Good ball pressure at the point of attack. Snuffing out easy stuff, forcing late-clock jumpers. Good activity navigating screens, staying connected to the ball-handler and attacking his dribble. Aggressively bumping cutters and consistent physicality at the pick-up point. Hard close-outs and high hands in the passing lanes, leading to deflections and eventually steals.

Nailing these sorts of details isn’t necessarily who these Kings have been. Brown continues to believe, though, that it’s who they can be.

“As dangerous as we are in terms of scoring the basketball, if we have situations where we’re getting eight stops in a row throughout the course of the ballgame against any team, there’s a chance we can blow that thing open,” Brown told reporters.

(Especially considering how much easier offense gets when you’re not constantly taking the ball out of the basket. Sacramento scores 1.25 points per possession following a live rebound and 1.32 points per play after a steal, according to Cleaning the Glass — compared to just over one point per trip in the half-court.)

Elevating the team defense is a group project. Sabonis must make up for his lack of shot-blocking menace by dominating the defensive glass. Fox, Monk and Huerter have to be as active as they can to make up for being undersized in a lot of matchups. Whether his jumper is falling or not — and, for the last 20 games, it mostly hasn’t — Keegan Murray has to be equal to the challenge of checking the best of the best.

To Murray’s credit, he has. Only 26 players in the league rank above the 80th percentile in The BBall Index’s matchup difficulty and defensive versatility metrics — the kinds of guys who take on an opponent’s toughest cover, regardless of position. It’s a list that features some of the NBA’s premier stoppers: McDaniels, Luguentz Dort, Dillon Brooks, OG Anunoby, Alex Caruso, Jrue Holiday, Herb Jones. It also features Murray, who has earned Brown’s trust as Sacramento’s best option against All-NBA game-breakers like Curry, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Edwards and Luka Dončić.

Beyond better effort from those guys, though, there’s been a common thread in the Kings’ best defensive sequences of late. They tend to come when Keon Ellis is around.

“When Keon’s on the court, I think good things just happen,” Fox recently told reporters.

While Ellis’ box-score stats don’t necessarily leap off the page — 5.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists in 21.6 minutes per game since the All-Star break — a closer look bears out Fox’s assessment.

Undrafted out of Alabama in 2022, the 6-foot-3 Ellis went from a two-way deal to a three-year standard contract on the strength of his defense; he’s been a per-minute defensive havoc-wreaker all season, posting strong block and steal rates for a combo guard. But he’s cranked it up another notch on that end of late, using great instincts and a 6-foot-8.5-inch wingspan to swipe the ball on 3.5% of Sacramento’s defensive possessions since the All-Star break — a mark that would lead the league for the full season — and produce an absurd 9.3 combined steals, blocks and deflections per 36 minutes of floor time.

Ellis has maintained that frantic level of disruption in increased minutes and opportunities, and it has paid significant dividends for Sacramento. The Kings have outscored opponents by 56 points in 193 minutes with Ellis on the floor since the All-Star break — the highest plus-minus on the team.

Playing with that kind of motor and anticipation — trying to do his work early, prevent his assignment from using a screen, and force his man into help — can sometimes come back to bite him …

… but it gives Sacramento’s defense some bite, too. The Kings have held opponents to 105.2 points-per-100 in Ellis’ post-All-Star minutes — a league-best-caliber mark.

After Huerter’s early exit against Memphis, Brown leaned on Ellis — a career-high 34 minutes — and inserted him into the starting lineup for the second half. He told reporters after the game that he intended to stick with that look; what remains to be seen, though, is whether leaning in the direction of needed defensive improvement makes high-quality offensive looks, especially from beyond the 3-point arc, harder to come by.

“I knew [the defensive intensity] would take some time, but I knew our guys were capable,” Brown told reporters after Saturday’s loss to the Knicks. “We just need to make sure we don’t lose our identity on offense.”

That’s the rub: iterating on what made you successful without forsaking it; mitigating your weaknesses without sacrificing your strengths. If the Kings can strike that balance over the next few weeks, they’ve got a chance to do more than just hold off everybody gunning for that sixth seed; they could go from the opponent everybody wants to see in Round 1 to one nobody’s all that eager to deal with. It took 16 years for the Kings to get right. It’ll take 15 games to find out just how far they can go.

“We know we can do something,” Monk recently told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “We’ve just got to get in there.”