The Sacramento Kings enjoyed a positive start to the 2020-21 season, winning three of their first four games. The Kings toppled playoff-caliber teams in all three victories but, especially in the case of two wins over the Denver Nuggets, the national focus seemed to be more on the hiccup of the opponent rather than the success of the Kings. From there, Sacramento went into something of a tailspin, losing 9 of the next 11 games.
During that 11-game swoon, the Kings were the worst team in the NBA statistically, with opponents out-scoring Sacramento by a whopping 13.2 points per 100 possessions. Much of that came on the defensive end, with Sacramento yielding an unsightly 123.7 points per 100 possessions to their opponents. To that end, it isn’t too much of a surprise that, as of Feb. 9, the Kings still carry the NBA’s worst defensive rating, allowing nearly 1.17 points per possession through 23 contests. However, Sacramento’s recent play is turning heads and, despite the modest full season numbers, there is a lot to like in Sacramento.
The Kings are 7-1 in their last eight games, including an active four-game winning streak with victories over the Pelicans, Celtics, Nuggets and Clippers. During that run, the team’s defense has improved (110.8 points allowed per 100) and, while that isn’t fantastic, the Kings are scoring efficiently and doing just enough to win. In fact, Sacramento currently leads the NBA with 11 victories in what NBA.com defines as “clutch” situations and, with the game on the line, the Kings have been able to pull victories out of the fire.
In fact, Sacramento’s last five victories arrived by single digits, with only two double-digit wins all season. In the grand scheme, that isn’t a “good” thing in that there is usually some noise associated with a poor net rating and a record that is now above the .500 mark at 12-11 overall. Still, the Kings have banked those 12 victories, and their recent play leads them into the playoff discussion, at least with regard to a potential berth in the play-in tournament.
Individually, De’Aaron Fox is playing fantastic basketball, averaging 27.0 points and 7.8 assists per game during the 7-1 stretch. In that span, Fox ranks second in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring (10.0 points on 53.7 percent shooting), and he is the catalyst for the Kings in “winning time.” Fox’s play is also backed up by a major accolade, as he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday. Elsewhere, Harrison Barnes has been fantastic, shooting 51.5 percent from the floor, 44.0 percent from three-point range and 92.1 percent from the free throw line in the last eight games, and it is now fashionable (and accurate) to suggest he is an underrated player in a league-wide context.
On top of Fox, Barnes, Richaun Holmes and other productive veterans, the Kings are also receiving high-end contributions from No. 12 pick Tyrese Haliburton. In fact, NBA observers are already yelling from the rooftops about Haliburton and the events that led him to fall all the way to No. 12, but the Kings are the beneficiary, with Haliburton producing a 62.4 percent true shooting mark with 114 assists (5.4 per game) to only 32 turnovers. The Iowa State product isn’t perfect at this stage, especially on the defensive end, but Haliburton is backing up the widespread assumption that his game would translate quickly, and his play often does not resemble that of a typical rookie guard.
The coming days will be interesting for the Kings with a five-game homestand beginning on Tuesday evening. If Sacramento can continue to defend at a passable level, they could hang around the playoff race for quite some time. If they regress on that end, the team’s performance could more closely resemble its net rating (bottom eight in the NBA), and it would be difficult to maintain a .500 record through that lens. Regardless, the Kings are entertaining to watch and, in the recent past, playing at a high level.
Where does Sacramento land in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s break it all down.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (19-6, Last week — 1st)
Monday night got a little bit dicey for the Lakers, needing overtime (again) to beat the Thunder. Anthony Davis missed that game, to be fair, and Los Angeles is riding a five-game winning streak. The champs don’t have the NBA’s best record or net rating, but they have an elite profile. I’m not dropping them from the top spot without a reason to do so.
2. Utah Jazz (19-5, Last week — 6th)
The Jazz are unbelievable right now. They’ve won 15 of the last 16 games. They are a top-four team on both ends of the floor. They are well-coached. They are talented. They will cool off at some point but they have a very good case to be No. 1 right now if not for the Lakers continuing to find ways to win.
3. Milwaukee Bucks (16-8, Last week — 4th)
Milwaukee is (still) very good. The Bucks just won five games in a row, including the last three on the road, and they walloped the Nuggets in Denver on Monday evening. After a slow start by their standards, the Bucks are rounding into form defensively (seventh in the NBA) and the offense is firing on all cylinders.
4. L.A. Clippers (17-8, Last week — 2nd)
The Clippers ended the week with two losses in a row, and both came at home. That’s not what you want, but Paul George didn’t appear in either game and the losses came by seven points combined. Everything’s alright.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (17-7, Last week — 3rd)
Not that anyone needs to hear this, but Joel Embiid is out of his mind. He leads the entire league in a few advanced stats, and Embiid is putting up 29.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game while maintaining efficiency. Oh, and he’s tremendous on the defensive end. Philly had a weird home loss to Portland this week, which explains the minor drop, but the Sixers are playing great and Embiid is the biggest reason.
6. Phoenix Suns (14-9, Last week — 10th)
Phoenix is looking more like the team that was a trendy sleeper in the West. The Suns are 6-1 in the last seven with wins over Golden State, Dallas (twice) and Boston. It hasn’t been the absolute toughest gauntlet from a schedule perspective, but they are top-eight in the league in net rating and top-five in defense while still figuring things out offensively — which is the area most anticipated them to excel.
7. Brooklyn Nets (14-11, Last week — 7th)
It was a weird week for Kevin Durant and the Nets, and no one should be “worried” about Brooklyn in a regular season sense. They did lose three of the last four games, though, and the Nets are 27th in defense.
8. San Antonio Spurs (14-10, Last week — 16th)
Only eight teams in the NBA have at least 14 wins and the Spurs are one of them. Granted, San Antonio has been out-scored for the season (which is a red flag), but Gregg Popovich’s team is 6-2 in the last eight games. This is probably too high, but somebody has to rise as other teams fall.
9. Boston Celtics (12-10, Last week — 11th)
Did you know Boston is just 4-7 in the last 11 games? Injuries are a big part of that, but the Celtics just aren’t lighting the world on fire on either end of the floor. To play devil’s advocate, Boston is still above-average on both ends, and the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown really helps raise their floor when those two are healthy. They’d like to be better than they’ve been to this point, though, even considering Brown’s recent absence.
10. Sacramento Kings (12-11, Last week — 20th)
Sacramento probably isn’t going to keep winning this incredible share of close games but, hey, wins are wins and they’re incredibly fun.
11. Denver Nuggets (12-11, Last week — 5th)
One step forward, two steps back. The Nuggets just went 0-3 this week with a defense rating of 122.2 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray hasn’t looked like himself as he deals with a lingering knee injury, and Denver lost a game when Nikola Jokic had 50 points and 12 assists. Woof.
12. Charlotte Hornets (12-13, Last week — 18th)
This is a little bit high for Charlotte, but they are really fun. Part of that is LaMelo Ball, who should’ve been the No. 1 pick in the draft. Part of that is Gordon Hayward, who is playing at a career-best level. Part of that is the energy with a young, vibrant team. Part of that is a terrific coaching job by James Borrego. Put all together, and they are 5-2 in the last seven and having a ton of fun doing it.
13. Atlanta Hawks (11-12, Last week — 13th)
The Hawks haven’t been hit by widespread absences due to health and safety protocols, but Atlanta is battered by injuries. Kris Dunn hasn’t played yet, Bogdan Bogdanovic has been out for a long while and, just as Danilo Gallinari and Onyeka Okongwu are being integrated, breakout forward De’Andre Hunter is now on the shelf for several weeks. It’s a testament to Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela and others that the Hawks are hanging around .500, but they (still) don’t have the team they paid a lot of money to assemble.
14. Toronto Raptors (11-13, Last week — 14th)
Toronto is playing better basketball. They’ve won four of the last five, and the only loss was on the second night of a road back-to-back in Atlanta over the weekend. The defense still isn’t what it is “supposed” to be, but Toronto’s offense is clicking at the moment.
15. Golden State Warriors (12-12, Last week — 15th)
Golden State went 1-3 this week, but the three losses came by 11 combined points — and featured one hilarious Draymond Green moment. It is tough to figure out what Kelly Oubre Jr. and some of the Warriors’ other role players will provide on a nightly basis, but Stephen Curry is brilliant.
16. Portland Trail Blazers (12-10, Last week — 17th)
Somehow, Damian Lillard has the Blazers at 12-10. That’s really all there is to say. This is not an available roster that should be above .500 right now.
17. Indiana Pacers (12-12, Last week — 12th)
Is it time for a bit of panic for the Pacers? They are 1-5 in the last six, including three home losses, and the absences of TJ Warren and Caris LeVert definitely hurt. It’s fair to think Indiana was just regressing back to their .500-ish profile, but time will tell on that.
18. New Orleans Pelicans (10-12, Last week — 23rd)
What a week for New Orleans. They were fading from the consciousness before rattling off three wins, and the victories came against solid competition in Phoenix, Indiana and Memphis. Defense is still a problem, but the Pelicans are playing like the equivalent of a 39-or-40 win team over an 82-game season. That isn’t too brutal.
19. Dallas Mavericks (11-14, Last week — 28th)
It was a strange, yet encouraging week for Dallas. The Mavericks won in Atlanta in a bounce-back effort, then got absolutely annihilated by the Warriors. From there, Dallas won the next two games, including a memorable victory over Golden State on national TV, and the biggest point of optimism was the offense rounding into form. That’s necessary for the Mavericks to even approach their preseason expectations.
20. Miami Heat (9-14, Last week — 22nd)
Miami has been frustratingly bad this season, in part due to health and safety protocol absences, though back-to-back wins help the team’s overall profile as this week begins. In the near future, the Heat begin a six-game road trip that will likely reveal quite a bit about where the team’s actual baseline is, provided they have a full-ish roster when they hit the road.
21. Houston Rockets (11-12, Last week — 9th)
We were glowingly positive about the Rockets last week, and they earned it. Since then, however, Houston is 1-3 and they scored less than a point per possession this week. Injuries played a part, but it wasn’t pretty. Put simply, this is a good team when John Wall plays and a not very good one when he doesn’t, which isn’t a huge surprise when you look at the rest of their point guard rotation.
22. Memphis Grizzlies (9-10, Last week — 8th)
After winning five in a row across a long period of time due to a COVID-related hiatus, the Grizzlies just completed an 0-4 week. They gave up almost 1.25 points per possession defensively and, even against some quality opponents, it was a reminder that Memphis was probably playing over their heads previously.
23. New York Knicks (11-14, Last week — 24th)
New York is hanging around but, on Super Bowl Sunday, they pulled off a trade for Derrick Rose. On cue, the consternation began on how things will work in the Knicks’ backcourt with regard to Immanuel Quickley. The Knicks really do have a lot of guards, but um, they are still 11-14, so that’s something.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-13, Last week — 26th)
There are nights when the Thunder look like the worst team in the league. On those nights, the roster issues really come to the surface, and it is easy to see this is a team in rebuild mode. Then, there are nights like Monday, when they nearly beat the Lakers, and OKC looks very competitive. It’s quite odd, but 10-13 is better than they should be. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is really good, and that helps a lot.
25. Washington Wizards (6-15, Last week — 25th)
Washington probably would have dropped, even from No. 25, if not for a win over the Bulls. It’s not going well but, hey, speaking of the Bulls…
26. Chicago Bulls (9-14, Last week — 21st)
Chicago is in the doldrums with a 2-6 record in the last eight games. Furthermore, the Bulls are without both Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen, leaving the cupboard virtually empty and forcing Billy Donovan into some rotations that are not filled with rotation-caliber players.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-15, Last week — 19th)
The early-season optimism is fading for the Cavs after a 2-8 mark in the last ten games and four losses in a row. Larry Nance being on the shelf with injury badly hurts Cleveland’s defense, and the Cavs allowed a defensive rating of 124.8 during the four-game skid.
28. Orlando Magic (9-15, Last week — 27th)
With all due respect to Steve Clifford, who is good at his job, the Magic are pretty rough. Orlando is 3-13 in the last 16 games, and they’ve been out-scored by a mind-numbing 13.2 points per 100 possessions during that stretch. The Magic got a win over Chicago this week, only to lose the rematch by 26 points at home. Nikola Vucevic deserves credit for playing well, but he doesn’t have a ton of help as the Magic have been absolutely ravaged by injuries.
29. Detroit Pistons (5-18, Last week — 29th)
Detroit has the worst record in the league and the NBA’s longest losing streak. That’s not a combination any team wants. To their credit, the Pistons gave the Lakers a real run in their last game, and Detroit’s net rating (-4.9) is only pretty bad, not abysmal.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves (6-18, Last week — 30th)
The Wolves did pick up a road win this week, toppling the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Minnesota lost to OKC the very next night, though, and the win came in a game that did not feature Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. One could argue the Wolves have been a little bit better lately, but they haven’t done anything to climb out of the basement.