On the evening of Jan. 22, the Sacramento Kings looked to be dead and buried, at least through the lens of the 2019-20 season. Luke Walton’s team was blown out by the Detroit Pistons, with the loss marking the 15th defeat in the last 18 appearances for Sacramento. That swoon brought the Kings to a relatively dismal 15-29 record on the season and, considering Sacramento’s high hopes after a very encouraging 2018-19 campaign, describing the team’s performance as disappointing would have been an understatement.
Since then, though, the Kings have shown plenty of life, zooming to an 11-5 record and jumping back into the Western Conference playoff mix. Sacramento boasts a +3.0 net rating during that run and, on the defensive end, the Kings have been vastly improved, ranking in the top ten of the NBA since late January.
While there is undoubtedly some noise involved, the Kings’ surge began immediately after a lineup change that sent Buddy Hield to the bench. The sharp-shooter was still productive in the early portion of the season but, in his own right, Hield has been much better since changing roles, knocking down a blistering 46 percent of his three-point attempts during the 11-5 surge. It isn’t only traced to Hield’s improvement, however, with the Kings also playing much better in the starting lineup and roles seemingly coalescing at a high level during the uptick.
De’Aaron Fox is averaging 21.7 points and 6.3 assists per game during the hot streak and, after a bit of a slow start that included injury woes, he is reestablishing himself as a very intriguing point guard option for the present and future. Sacramento has also received important, albeit supporting, contributions from new arrivals like Kent Bazemore and Alex Len, with incumbent pieces like Harry Giles playing some of the best basketball of their careers.
As the calendar flips to March, FiveThirtyEight projects the Kings to finish with a 37-45 record and, if that holds, Sacramento likely won’t make their way into the playoff mix. That is reflected in a projected playoff chance of only 10 percent on the site but, at present, the Kings are within 3.5 games of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed.
It makes perfect sense that the hard-charging New Orleans Pelicans, headlined by Zion Williamson, would draw the majority of the headlines in an attempt to catch the Grizzlies, and a pair of old-school playoff teams in the Spurs and Blazers have also drawn more attention. Still, the Kings are right there and, even if the chances are slim that Sacramento will be facing off with LeBron James and the Lakers in round one, the turnaround executed by this team should be lauded.
1. Milwaukee Bucks (52-9, Last week — 1st)
The Bucks had the audacity to lose a basketball game on Monday evening, losing in Miami on the second night of a back-to-back. It was Milwaukee’s first loss since the All-Star break and the Bucks have “only” a five-game lead on the field after that showing.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (46-13, Last week — 2nd)
Saturday’s loss in Memphis was a bit of an odd one for the Lakers, but they responded in a big way on Sunday. Los Angeles went into New Orleans and topped the Pelicans without Anthony Davis. LeBron James was utterly ridiculous in that contest, producing some scalding takes about his MVP chances, and the Lakers are entrenched in this spot.
3. L.A. Clippers (41-19, Last week — 7th)
When the Clippers are healthy and dialed in, they look impressive and it backs up a positive overarching view of the team. L.A. just rattled off four straight wins, including victories over Denver and Philadelphia in succession, and they would be close to a consensus choice in this spot from a future-facing perspective.
4. Denver Nuggets (41-19, Last week — 6th)
This feels too high for Denver and, in short, the top three are separated a bit from the pack. The Nuggets still have quite a profile, though, and Nikola Jokic was obscene in posting a triple-double against the Raptors in Sunday. That result buoyed Denver this week.
5. Houston Rockets (39-21, Last week — 4th)
It is hard to rank the Rockets this week. On one hand, Houston just won six in a row in very impressive fashion. On the other, the Rockets just lost to the Knicks. Fortunately, they earned a “tiebreaker” with a head-to-head win over Boston on a national stage.
6. Boston Celtics (41-18, Last week — 5th)
It’s been more than a month since Boston lost to any team not named the Rockets or Lakers. That’s not too bad, when you think about it, and it helps that Jayson Tatum has been out of his mind for quite some time now.
7. Toronto Raptors (42-18, Last week — 3rd)
At 42-18, there isn’t much to worry about with Toronto. With that said, the Raptors have lost three in a row, including a troubling home loss to Charlotte. Something to monitor.
8. Miami Heat (39-22, Last week — 11th)
Less than one week ago, the Heat were in the middle of their worst stretch of the season, losing seven out of nine games and flopping at home against Minnesota. From there, Erik Spoelstra’s team rattled off three wins, including home victories over Dallas and Milwaukee. That’s one way to garner goodwill.
9. Utah Jazz (38-22, Last week — 12th)
It wouldn’t be wise to assume that the Jazz are cured of all ills after back-to-back wins, especially when they came against the Wizards and Cavaliers. Utah still really needed those wins.
10. Indiana Pacers (37-24, Last week — 16th)
Right as things were teetering for the Pacers, they did what they needed to do with a 4-0 week. Granted, they didn’t beat a single team with a .500 record in that span, but the wins count the same and there are no guarantees.
11. Oklahoma City Thunder (37-23, Last week — 9th)
The Thunder are 26-9 in the last 35 games. The week ended on a sour note in a very lopsided loss to Milwaukee but that will happen this season. Overall, it’s going well.
12. Philadelphia 76ers (37-24, Last week — 8th)
Shake Milton is a revelation, but the 76ers still aren’t very good without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Sometimes, analysis is just that easy.
13. Dallas Mavericks (37-25, Last week — 10th)
This is the dividing line between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” but the Mavericks earned No. 13 this week. That’s what happens when you lose to the Bulls.
14. Sacramento Kings (26-34, Last week — 19th)
As noted above, don’t forget about the Kings. Don’t do it.
15. Memphis Grizzlies (30-31, Last week — 14th)
Memphis lost five in a row, including two losses to Sacramento, and that explains this placement. To their credit, they rebounded to stun the Lakers by double-digits and absolutely annihilate the Hawks on Monday. Get back soon, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (26-34, Last week — 13th)
It would’ve been nice if the Pelicans stole one of the two games against the Lakers this week. At the same time, it is tough to punish them for, uh, losing to the Lakers. New Orleans is still in decent shape, but they have to keep compiling wins.
17. Orlando Magic (27-34, Last week — 17th)
Losing to the Lillard-less Blazers by 23 points at home is very bad. Orlando is simply saved by a positive stretch before that and, frankly, the fact that the bottom of the East is such a mess.
18. Washington Wizards (22-37, Last week — 22nd)
This is still a team that can’t get stops, but the Wizards are 9-9 in the last 18 games. If they can maintain that pace, it isn’t impossible that Washington will be battling for the No. 8 seed in April. That’s how bad the Nets are playing right now.
19. Portland Trail Blazers (27-35, Last week — 15th)
Portland has a -7.2 net rating with Damian Lillard off the court this season, and their impotence without him was on full display in a bad loss to Atlanta. The Blazers did bounce back to thump Orlando, though, and that is helpful as they try to stay afloat.
20. Brooklyn Nets (26-33, Last week — 18th)
The Nets are seven games under .500 after four consecutive losses. The Nets still have a four-game lead on their competition for the No. 8 seed with only 23 games remaining. The East is wild.
21. San Antonio Spurs (25-34, Last week — 21st)
San Antonio is in full purgatory as a team that can’t be totally ignored for the playoffs but also can’t be taken all that seriously. That’s not where you want to be.
22. Phoenix Suns (24-37, Last week — 20th)
Honestly, the Suns should probably be lower than this after losing at home to the Pistons and Warriors. That is very bad. Phoenix is just saved by their overall profile in this case.
23. Charlotte Hornets (21-39, Last week — 24th)
The Hornets had an excruciating six-week run and, since then, they’ve been just fine. Charlotte is 5-3 in the last eight and, on Friday, the Hornets went into Toronto and stole a win. From a point differential standpoint, the Hornets haven’t been as good as their record indicates, but it wasn’t a given that Charlotte would win 21 games in the full season, much less by early March. Good work.
24. New York Knicks (19-42, Last week — 27th)
Look at the Knicks! It is debatable how much it matters, but New York just won two in a row, including a stunning home win over the Rockets. The Knicks are also 7-8 in the last 15 games and displaying some actual competence during that run. However, they are still the Knicks and as such are now feuding with Spike Lee of all people.
25. Chicago Bulls (21-40, Last week — 25th)
Chicago has endured a disappointing season and that likely won’t change between now and mid-April. With Otto Porter and Wendell Carter in the lineup, though, it is kind of easy to remember why some people were high on the Bulls.
26. Atlanta Hawks (19-44, Last week — 23rd)
Trae Young and company were 11-11 over a 22-game period and seemingly trending up. In fact, the Hawks would’ve been (much) higher in the pecking order before Monday night. Then, Atlanta lost at home to the short-handed Grizzlies by 39 points. There has to be some penance for that.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers (17-44, Last week — 26th)
It honestly hasn’t been that bad in Cleveland lately. The Cavs have lost three in a row, but each defeat came at the hands of a playoff team. Prior to that, Cleveland beat Miami and Philadelphia in back-to-back games. It’s still not great, but there are some positives.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (17-42, Last week — 29th)
On the positive end, the Wolves picked up a road win in Miami this week. That single result was enough to bring them up a spot in the rankings. Minnesota is still a comically dismal 2-20 in the last 22 games. There is no getting around that.
29. Detroit Pistons (20-42, Last week — 28th)
Christian Wood has been a revelation and Derrick Rose is still enjoying a nice season. Other than that, there isn’t much to celebrate in Detroit, with the Pistons losing eight of the last nine games.
30. Golden State Warriors (13-48, Last week — 30th)
The Warriors actually played well in a road win over Phoenix this week and, on that night, it would’ve been easy to forget the team’s record. After taking a step back, Golden State is the only choice for No. 30, and a 4-24 record in the last 28 games cements it. We are nearing the return of Steph Curry, so there is some hope on the horizon.