If you read any NBA previews this fall, there were a few consensus ideas that kept appearing. Almost everyone picked the Warriors to win their third championship in a row, that LeBron James would vastly improve the Lakers, and that the playoff race in the Western Conference would be a bloodbath, albeit one that was not likely to include the Sacramento Kings as major players. Tim McMahon of ESPN picked the Kings to finish last in the West, projecting their final record to be 24-58, which was still more charitable than FiveThirtyEight’s prediction of 23-59. FiveThirtyEight also gave the Kings less than a one percent chance to make the playoffs — the lowest odds in the NBA.
Yet now, halfway through the season, the Kings remain one of the most surprising teams in the league, holding strong at ninth (as of this writing) in the ever-shifting landscape of the Western Conference. For the first time since 2005, the Kings have entered the new year above .500, looking like a team that may be primed for several postseason appearances in the near future. All of this is good and exciting and cool, especially for a fanbase that has had very little to cheer for since the early 2000s, but how were all of us so wrong about the Kings entering the season? Why did no one expect them to contend for a playoff spot and for them to be a perpetual mess night in and night out instead?
Part of the reason analysts underestimated the Kings entering this season was the tendency to extrapolate perhaps too much from a player’s first season or two. After his rookie season, few were ready to call De’Aaron Fox a bust, but many wondered if his lack of a jump shot would forever place a cap on his ceiling. There was the blitzing speed and the aggressiveness on both offense and defense that were worth lionizing, though they often appeared to be little more than aesthetically pleasing distractions from a limited skill set.
Sure, Fox was only twenty, but in a season where Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum all looked like readymade stars in spite of their flaws, Fox seemed to lag far behind. It would certainly have been foolish to not expect any improvement from Fox, but to expect this much improvement this quickly seemed even more foolish. There’s really no area of Fox’s game that has not improved so far this season — he is shooting better from everywhere on the court, has doubled his free throw attempts per game, and has looked much more confident running an offense than he did last year.
Emerging alongside Fox this year has been third-year player Buddy Hield, who is averaging nearly 20 points a game while shooting better than ever before. Hield established himself as one of the league’s better 3-point shooters in his rookie year, but this year he’s improved in the mid-range as well, making him a more well-rounded and more punishing scorer. Hield’s improvement isn’t necessarily shocking, but even though he was just entering his third season, many were already quick to write him off due to the fact that he was three years older than nearly every other lottery pick in his draft class. This led many to tacitly assume that whoever Hield appeared to be in his first two years was who he would be forever, despite the fact that he was still a young player, not yet in his prime.
Apart from the promising growth shown by the Kings’ young players, Sacramento has also benefited from surprisingly good seasons by veterans such as Nemanja Bjelica and Iman Shumpert. Bjelica had originally planned to return to Europe this season before signing with the Kings and Sacramento must be thrilled he stayed stateside as he has made the most of his first consistent starting job in the NBA by averaging career highs in every major statistical category while also shooting better than ever before, making over 50 percent of his shots overall and nearly 44 percent from deep. Shumpert, after only playing 14 games last season due to a knee injury, has not been as impressive as Bjelica but is providing solid minutes as the starting small forward, as his true shooting percentage is higher than it’s ever been. While the Kings would benefit from an upgrade at that position eventually, he’s been a good placeholder in the interim.
Finally, in addition to the internal improvement of their players and the unexpectedly good seasons from previously undistinguished veterans, the Kings have completely transformed how they play as well. After finishing last in the league in pace last year, so far this season, the Kings rank as the second fastest team in the NBA. Part of this is a natural development of their finally committing to youth — by trading Garrett Temple to Memphis, letting Vince Carter walk, and not playing Zach Randolph at all even though he’s still technically on the roster — but it’s also a wise choice to play at such an overwhelming speed, allowing them to outrun and outscore teams that they still may not be necessarily able to outplay otherwise.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that analysts should have been more generous to the Kings in their projections, but even as I watch them play, I struggle to make sense of their success. Even though I’ve witnessed it and can explain how it’s happened and what’s different, it still feels odd considering how haphazardly this team has been brought together and just how bad the Kings have been at team-building over the last decade and a half. It honestly feels as if they accidentally stumbled backward into being a competent team, rather than consciously constructing one.
Of course, part of that is due to perception — they have not earned the benefit of the doubt. While the San Antonio Spurs could sign a 47-year-old Eric Montross who hasn’t played in the NBA since 2002 and be praised for it due to their phenomenal track record, any move the Kings make is immediately scrutinized and usually derided because of their history of blunders. Ignoring the fact that they passed on Luka Doncic, the selection of Marvin Bagley III became immediately questionable because this was the same franchise that felt Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, and Nik Stauskas were worth acquiring on four consecutive draft nights earlier in the decade. Any team taking Bagley second overall seemed like a stretch to many, but the Kings doing it just seemed fitting, and so much worse. (That being said, he’s been a good contributor off the bench so far this season.)
It made sense to assume that the Kings’ offseason moves were short-sighted and dumb because that’s what most of their moves have been over the past several years, and it also seemed fair to assume that their young players would not make the leap they have considering how faulty their games had been before this year. Though perhaps handwringing the failures of analysts to see this coming is less appropriate than just enjoying the fact that the Kings are fun to watch and look like they may have a promising future for the first time in many years.