Sports

Kings’ 16-year playoff drought comes to end

After a 16-year hiatus, it was only right that the Sacramento Kings punched their own ticket back into the NBA playoffs.

The Kings had been eligible to qualify for the playoffs since Saturday but came shy of getting the needed wins from themselves and other teams entering Wednesday. However, the Kings could clinch a playoff spot Wednesday with a road win against the Portland Trail Blazers, a Minnesota Timberwolves road loss against the Phoenix Suns or a LA Clippers road loss against the Memphis Grizzlies. After the Clippers won, Sacramento clinched its first playoff berth since the 2005-06 season by beating the Blazers 120-80 before the Wolves game came to a conclusion.

When it comes to the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA, there was no franchise with a playoff drought longer than the 16-year one that belonged to the Kings. The 2005-06 Kings won 44 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs. Since then, Sacramento had been the jester of the NBA, failing to earn a winning record in any season entering 2022-23. The small-market franchise was stymied by numerous bad draft picks since 2006 while passing on the now-NBA superstars likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine, Bam Adebayo, Luka Doncic and Trae Young. There was also a revolving door of 12 head coaches. A near-move to Seattle was halted by late NBA commissioner David Stern and the NBA Board of Governors relocation committee. The Kings even traded then-NBA All-Star DeMarcus Cousins on the day of the 2017 All-Star Game.

When the Kings acquired Domantas Sabonis for up-and-coming young star Tyrese Haliburton last season, the expectation was that they had made yet another bad trade. But on the contrary, it was a win-win for both teams, as Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox immediately showed the makings of a superstar duo, and both became 2023 NBA All-Stars. Come training camp time, former NBA champion Harrison Barnes was still on the roster and a capable scorer to go alongside Fox and Sabonis. Sacramento also drafted Keegan Murray, a Las Vegas Summer League MVP who on Wednesday set the NBA record for 3-pointers made by a rookie.

The Kings acquired two hot-scoring veteran guards, Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, who both predicted a playoff appearance during their introductory news conference. And last but not least, Sacramento hired Mike Brown after he had coached the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers and won three championships as an associate head coach with the Warriors. Brown, a projected front-runner for the 2023 NBA Coach of the Year award, has pushed his players to dream bigger than just making it to the postseason.

“It wasn’t just our goal to just make the playoffs,” Brown said. “Hey, let’s be like everybody else. Let’s try to win a championship just like everybody else. That’s why we’re doing this and don’t set a bar that’s too low for us to attain as a group. So, we’ve been talking positively about our season from day one. And trying to instill that belief in them from day one has been a big focus of mine.

“The guys seem to believe it and buy into it, and every little win or every little success that we have as a group has just added fuel to the fire and helped with the belief, which is extremely important. Sometimes you can have a team that people may view as maybe not as talented as another team, but if they’re connected, they believe they can be a dangerous group.”

The Kings looked like the same ol’ Kings when they opened this season with an 0-4 record. However, they rebounded quickly and began garnering some notice that they might be for real when they arrived to 2023 with a 19-15 mark. The Kings entered Wednesday’s road game against the Trail Blazers with a 45-30 overall record and a Western Conference-best 22-14 away mark.

Former Kings center Brad Miller, who played on the franchise’s last playoff team, said he began believing today’s Kings were for real in December.

“They lost early in the season, and everyone got on the Kings,” Miller, who played for the franchise from 2003 to ’09, told ESPN. “But the road record has been great for them. You saw them come together. Sabonis has been a playmaker that has helped get Fox more open for what he is better at, too. The strengths have been pulled out from everyone this season.”

To long-time Kings employees, the thought of finally being back in the postseason has made them emotional of late. Brown said long-time Kings equipment manager Miguel Lopez cried in the hallway near the team locker room after a win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, knowing that a postseason berth was looming. Chief operating officer Matina Kolokotronis, who has been with the franchise for 26 years, told ESPN she got emotional at her home on Sunday night.

“I just started thinking about everything we have gone through before getting to this point and I just started crying,” Kolokotronis said.

The Kings have not played an NBA postseason game since May 5, 2006, at Arco Arena in Sacramento. As a projected higher seed, the Kings are expected to host their first playoff game in 17 years at the Golden 1 Center in downtown. Miller, a regular at Kings home games, might tailgate with the fans once the playoffs arrive.

“They haven’t made the playoffs since I was here,” Miller said. “I’ve been watching them all of these years. I told one of my friends it will be awesome to be on the other side experiencing this as a fan when they make it. They were tailgating three to four hours before a playoff game at the first one I was at in Arco [Arena]. These fans are into it. We can finally get to see the true potential at Golden 1 Center.”

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