NBA

The Pathway To The Play-In

Feb 21, 2022, 12:33 PM | Updated: Feb 22, 2022, 7:37 am
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - OCTOBER 29: De'Aaron Fox #5 of the Sacramento Kings shoots over Jonas Vala...
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Sacramento has 22 games to make up 3.5 games in the Western Conference Play-In race

When Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair stunned the NBA landscape by trading away young guard Tyrese Haliburton in order to acquire two-time All-Star center Domantas Sabonis, the message–if it wasn’t clear already–became apparent:

It’s postseason or bust.

Of course, days after the February 10th trade deadline, McNair poured a little bit of water on that notion when he shared that the move to acquire Sabonis wasn’t just one that was made for this season alone, but rather to set the team up for the future.

β€œI would say, our stated goal is the playoffs and continued success in the playoffs, so through that lens, we want to make the playoffs as quickly as we can, but in a sustainable way, and in a way that we can not just get there, but build from there,” McNair told Carmichael Dave on February 14th.

β€œ(Sabonis) is somebody has already expressed that he wants to be in Sacramento, that this could be a longterm home for him, and that he could not just get us into the playoffs, but be a part of keeping us there and continuing to win once we get there.”

Qualifying for the Western Conference will not end Sacramento’s NBA-record tying 15-season playoff drought.

In reality, finishing the regular season in possession of the 10th-best record in the West should not be viewed as a win, seeing that the Kings are already lined up to secure its 16th-straight season with a sub-.500 record.

Alas, as we sit here on February 21st, the Kings are once again in the same position that they have been in around this time of year for the fourth-straight season: within arms-reach of the final postseason spot, but just as close to a top-five lottery slot.

With 22 games remaining in the regular season, Sacramento (22-38) is 3.5 games behind the 10th-seed Portland Trail Blazers(25-34), with the San Antonio Spurs (23-36) and New Orleans Pelicans (23-36) both right in front of the Kings in standings.

While the Play-In is within reach, a top-five spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is just two games out of reach. A highly-coveted top-four spot also possible to attain as the Kings sit three games back from a chance at selecting one of the 2022’s top-prospects Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero.

So, what exactly is the goal for this rollercoaster of a Kings team?

With Sabonis in the fold and De’Aaron Fox returning to his 2020-21 season form, the Kings have posted a 2-2 record since shaking up the roster.

Not only has Sacramento beefed up the rotation with veterans in Justin Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Jeremy Lamb, Trey Lyles and Josh Jackson, they have also cut ties with the remaining youth that they had at the end of its bench.

Jahmi’us Ramsey, Robert Woodard II and Louis King were all waived or released prior to the All-Star break, meaning that anyone hoping for the team to “play the young guys and tank” down the closing stretch of the season are out of luck.

The Kings now have a team full of veterans, with 23-year-old rookie Davion Mitchell being the only (non-two-way contract) player on the roster that doesn’t have at least two full seasons of NBA experience under their belt.

With 22 games to go, that veteran presence could come in handy as the Kings aim to make up ground in a hurry before the regular season comes to a close in seven weeks.

Not only does Sacramento have the 9th-hardest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA, they will play 13 of their final 22 games against teams with a .500 record or greater. 13 of the final 22 games will also take place away from Golden 1 Center–a daunting path for a team that holds a 7-21 road record this season.

Here’s Sacramento’s road ahead:

Games vs teams with β‰₯ .500 winning percentage

Denver Nuggets (33-25) .569 | 3 games | 2/24 & 3/9 at Golden 1 Center, 2/26 in Denver

  • Sacramento will open up the Play-In push with two-straight games against Denver. The Nuggets defeated the Kings 121-111 back on January 7th at Ball Arena.

Phoenix Suns (48-10) .828 | 2 games | 3/20 at Golden 1 Center, 4/10 in Phoenix (final game of season)

  • Although the Suns have likely lost Chris Paul (thumb avulsion fracture) for the remainder of the regular season, they have plenty of firepower to stay afloat as the number-one team in the league. Harrison Barnes’ game-winner in Phoenix back on October 27th was one of the highlights of the year–and is one of the Suns’ 10 losses this season.

Utah Jazz (36-22) .621 | 1 game | 3/12 in Utah

  • Utah has been Sacramento’s kryptonite for quite some time. Not only have the Jazz won seven-straight against the Kings dating back to the end of 2019, they have won those seven games by an average margin of 20.2 points.

Chicago Bulls (38-21) .644 | 1 game | 3/14 at Golden 1 Center

  • Tied for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Chicago has turned a corner this year behind the incredible play of DeMar DeRozan. Just last week, DeRozan dropped 38 points on the Kings during a 125-118 Bulls win at United Center. Sacramento’s matchup against Chicago on March 14th will tip-off a brutal four-game home-stand that will also include matchups against Milwaukee, Boston and Phoenix.

Milwaukee Bucks (36-24) .600 | 1 game | 3/16 at Golden 1 Center

  • The reigning champs will look to win their 12th-straight game against the Kings when they travel to Golden 1 Center on March 16th. Sacramento has not defeated the Bucks since February 1, 2016.

Boston Celtics (34-26) .567 | 1 game | 3/18 at Golden 1 Center

  • In recent history, the Kings have played the Celtics well (won three of five since the start of the 2019-20 season). However, Sacramento did not play Boston well back on January 25th when they suffered its worst loss in over 30 years when the Celtics put a 53-spot on the Kings. Yikes.

Miami Heat (38-21) .644 | 1 game | 3/28 at Miami

  • Sacramento has not defeated the Heat in Miami since October 29, 2018. If you believe in due, they are very due.

Dallas Mavericks (35-24) .593 | 1 game | 3/5 in Dallas

  • The Kings are currently 1-2 against the Mavericks this season, with Chimezie Metu’s buzzer-beater on December 29th having saved the team from staring at a 0-3 season-series record.

Golden State Warriors (42-17) .712 | 1 game | 4/3 at Golden 1 Center

  • In what could be the penultimate home game of the season for the Kings, Golden State will come into town looking to secure its fifth-straight win against Sacramento. Depending on where things stand in the Play-In race, this game could be either very, very important or completely insignificant.

Games vs teams with ≀ .500 winning percentage

Los Angeles Clippers (30-31) .492 | 1 game | 4/9 in Los Angeles

  • Like the Golden State game on April 3rd, this is another game that could have massive implications (for either team).

Oklahoma City Thunder (18-40) .310 | 1 game | 2/28 in Oklahoma City

  • If there are any must-win games for the Kings (outside of the upcoming must-win section that will be listed below), this is one. Sacramento is 2-1 against the Thunder this season.

New York Knicks (25-34) .424 | 1 game | 3/7 at Golden 1 Center

  • Like the Kings, New York has found itself in a 3.5-game hole as they chase the 10th-seed spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams will be fighting for their postseason lives when Sacramento faces the Knicks on March 7th. New York blew out the Kings (116-96) back on January 31st.

Indiana Pacers (20-40) .333 | 1 game | 3/23 in Indiana

  • Tyrese Haliburton will get his chance at revenge on March 23rd. Depending on where the Kings are in the standings, Haliburton and the Pacers could play spoiler in Domantas Sabonis’ first game back in Indianapolis following the February 9th trade that sent the All-Star to Sacramento.

Orlando Magic (13-47) .217 | 1 game | 3/26 in Orlando

  • The owners of the worst record in the NBA, Orlando will also look to play spoiler when the Kings come to town on March 26th. Like the OKC game, categorize this one as another must-win game. Sacramento defeated the Magic by a final of 142-130 back on December 8th.

Houston Rockets (15-43) .259 | 2 games | 3/30, 4/1 in Houston

  • Sacramento will get back-to-back matchups against the Rockets at a crucial point in the schedule. Houston currently owns the worst record in the Western Conference. The Kings and Rockets split a back-to-back at Golden 1 Center on January 14-16th.

Game That Could Swing The Play-In

These are the big ones.

Sacramento is currently looking up at three teams in the Western Conference standings: Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans.

  • The Kings have already secured a tie-breaker with Portland after defeating the Blazers two times this season.
  • Sacramento and San Antonio’s game on March 3rd will determine the tie-breaker between the two teams.
  • After winning their first two matchups against the Pelicans, the Kings need to win one of the final two games against New Orleans on March 2nd and April 5th to secure the tie-breaker.

San Antonio Spurs (23-36) .390 | 1 game | 3/3 in San Antonio

New Orleans Pelicans (23-36) .390 | 2 games | 3/2 in New Orleans, 4/5 at Golden 1 Center

In what could arguably the most critical 48 hours of the season, Sacramento will face San Antonio and New Orleans back-to-back on March 2nd and 3rd.

With two more matchups coming against the Pelicans, that means that De’Aaron Fox has more opportunities to face what seems to be his favorite team to go up against. Fox hasn’t shied away from going right at Pelicans defenders, having posted 22.9 points per game and 7.3 assists against New Orleans during his career–the most that Fox has averaged in either category against any team during his career (minimum 15 games).

Winning tie-breakers is imperative when it comes to the Play-In race, but Sacramento needs to look at each remaining game as a must-win scenario.

The Kings won’t get much help, although New Orleans has a similar strength of schedule (8th hardest) in comparison to Sacramento. Former number-one pick Zion Williamson has suffered multiple setbacks due to a foot injury and is unlikely to play this season.

Talented guard CJ McCollum, acquired in a mid-season trade with Portland, has thrived since joining the Pelicans.

Speaking of Portland, a team that many thought was waving the white flag on this season with superstar Damian Lillard sitting out due to an abdominal injury, has instead thrived behind young guard Anfernee Simons. The Blazers have won four-straight games leading into the All-Star break.

Head coach Alvin Gentry has said it many times now: the Sacramento Kings control their own destiny.

If Sacramento can play winning basketball, they will end up where they want to be when the season comes to a close. Inconsistency has plagued this team all season long, but the recent four-game stretch with new faces–along with multiple practice days following the All-Star break–could reignite a faint glimmer of hope in this fanbase.

Whether it be for the next week or for the next month-and-a-half, meaningful Kings basketball is on the horizon.

Can the new De’Aaron Fox–Domantas Sabonis duo lead this team to a postseason berth?

It all starts Thursday night at Golden 1 Center.

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The Pathway To The Play-In