The Sacramento Kings have clinched a winning record in the regular season for the first time since 2006.They’re 9-2 since the All-Star break. They’re 22-12 since the start of 2023, tied with the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics for the fourth-most wins in the calendar year. They’re jostling for the 2-seed in the Western Conference with the Memphis Grizzlies (0.5 games up currently) and are 4.5 games up on the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns with 14 games remaining, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Kings will hold homecourt advantage in at least one playoff series, if not two.
Point blank, Sacramento is a very good basketball team. And yet, because the Kings are the new kids on the block, conversations around Sacramento’s playoff chances overwhelmingly focus on why they might fail instead of why they can succeed.
On one hand, it’s understandable, because the only way to prove you’re ready for playoff basketball is to do it in the postseason. On the other, this team rocks! While the Kings undoubtedly have flaws, so does every single team in the West. While there are no guarantees everything translates to the postseason, the Kings do a lot of things you want from a playoff team.
The biggest separator for the Kings this season has been their play in clutch situations, where De’Aaron Fox has become an absolute killer and is running away with the inaugural Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year award. That ability to excel and execute offensively when the pressure is highest should bode well for Sacramento once the playoffs roll around.
The Kings are already a good team, leading the league in offensive rating on the year and plugging away with a solid +2.7 net rating. They operate a great deal in transition, playing with the fourth-highest transition frequency (17.1 percent of plays) in the league, where they’re incredibly efficient.
Oftentimes, when looking at a high frequency transition team, you expect a stark fall-off in how effective that team is in the halfcourt. Teams that run a ton typically sell out to play fast and avoid set defenses due to limitations they have at creating advantages without being buoyed by pace. That’s not a problem for the Kings, boasting the second-most efficient halfcourt offense in the league per Cleaning the Glass. They play with continuous movement and intuitive principles to keep defenses in motion even when it should be most difficult. That is the part that translates at the end of games, and is also why I’m bullish on their ability to remain a dominant offense come playoff time.
It starts with their star guard, as Fox isn’t just leading the league in clutch scoring (defined by NBA tracking as a game within five points and five minutes or fewer remaining), he’s lapping the field. Fox is averaging 5.2 clutch points per game shooting 54.2% from the field. The next closest player is Stephen Curry with 4.4, and only five players total are averaging more than 4 per game on the season amongst qualifiers (at least 10 games played).
Every shot he’s taken in the waning minutes of a close game has felt good this season. There’s an air of “yeah, he has IT.”
DE'AARON FOX CALLED GAME 😱
KINGS WIN IN CHICAGO pic.twitter.com/ZVNNIcaAS9
— NBA (@NBA) March 16, 2023
In rewatching Sacramento’s clutch minutes, clutch games, and trying to parse through what’s different and what clicks for the Kings, composure is the answer that I keep coming back to. It sounds cliche, but it stands out in a way that’s uncommon for a team without a significant history of winning.
They don’t run different sets. They don’t operate with different personnel. They just do what they do, but better.
The Kings lead the league with their 118.7 offensive rating, which would be the best in league history as it stands. In clutch time, that jumps up to an astonishing 129.3 offensive rating; the next closest clutch time offense is the Lakers with a 116.9 ORtg.
Their turnover rate dips to 8.3 percent, making for the NBA’s 2nd lowest in clutch time and is 4.2 percent lower than their regular turnover rate. The Kings play with a similar pace, but with a different purpose: It’s Fox time.
For a team that prides itself on ball and player movement, they are dominant when they allow Fox to isolate late in games. Just 49.5 percent of Sacramento’s 2-point baskets are unassisted per game, near exactly league average, but 72.4 percent of their clutch twos are unassisted, the highest mark in the league.
They toe the line of heavy isolation, while also operating with their east-west movement. It’s essential. Every player remains a threat and keeps the floor spread for this year’s King of the Fourth. It rarely becomes a straight up isolation without an initial action or off of a switch hunt, but instead possessions begin out of a DHO or early pistol action, as the Kings get Fox to his best spots to cook off movement. It’s an important distinction when understanding why things work and how the Kings get to their bread and butter.
De'Aaron Fox, WHEW.pic.twitter.com/xhK0nOFtXn
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) March 10, 2023
That lack of stagnancy matters greatly in producing great offensive looks. The Kings and Fox are like a great distance runner, sticking to the game plan, abiding by their truth, remaining calm, and then hitting the burst for the closing mile. The Kings’ defense isn’t good, and is oft the most nitpicked aspect of them. Understandably, as they sit bottom five in the league in defensive rating and have much of the year.
However, I tend to look at their defense in a different light. They do their job. They stay the course and rarely sway from their base. While their personnel are undoubtedly limited, they sell out to do what they do best; contest shots and rebound the heck out of the basketball. They limit opponent second chance points to enhance their own ability to get the ball out in transition. Again, it’s not good defense, but it is self-aware in that regard and just tries to limit the damage as much as possible.
They play a continual war of attrition, gaming the margins, trust-falling into their strengths. Every shot you miss is another opportunity for the Kings to put you on the back foot.
It’s reasonable to not believe in the Kings. They haven’t been in the playoffs before and they do have notable questions, namely their defense. Yet, I keep coming back to this pivotal quote in Watchmen (it happens in the novel, but differently) from Rorschach/Walter Kovacs.
“None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.”
Every time I watch the Kings pull it together in the fourth quarter and establish their clutch dominance, it’s hard to not envision that scene. There are plenty of questions to be answered by Sacramento come playoff time, but De’Aaron Fox and the Kings deserve the opportunity to make that statement. Based on their play throughout the course of the season, we should be in for one heck of a first round series, whoever they play.