Are the Sacramento Kings actually NBA title contenders?

Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings - Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings - Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Ironically, there are few, if any, Sacramento Kings within the grand hierarchy of NBA royalty. Although they’re the oldest team in the NBA, the last time they won a title was in 1951 as the Rochester Royals. Up until recently, the team has been mired in mediocrity for almost two decades, last making the playoffs in 2006.

From organizational instability to poor roster construction and coaching, the Kings have rarely done themselves favors and made smart moves to become contenders. Thus, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see the Kings currently sitting in 3rd place in the Western Conference more than half the way through the season after answering many questions critics had for the team in the preseason.

Their sudden rise has come from a combination of different factors, most of which have come on the offensive end of the floor, but given the goodwill surrounding the team, it’s fair to ask whether Sacramento has a chance of “lighting the beam” in June.

What makes the Sacramento Kings contenders?

All of Sacramento’s success starts and finishes on the offensive end of the floor this year. In Mike Brown’s first year at the helm, he’s helped transform the Kings into an offensive juggernaut. They’re currently 2nd in offensive rating in the NBA, 4th in assist/turnover ratio, and 3rd in effective field goal percentage.

Those numbers look scrumptious on paper but are even more appetizing when seen in motion. They move the ball quickly, generate open shots at the rim, and have assembled a cadre of marksmen who can smoke it from deep:

Their star tandem of Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox has been in rhythm all season, leading to career-best years for them both. Sabonis in particular has been the fulcrum for the team, serving as an offensive hub who spreads the ball on handoffs, short rolls, and bullet passes. There’s not only an argument for him to be an All-Star but also a starter in the West, which would be a massive accomplishment.

Fox is also having a banner year, averaging his best field goal percentage, two-point percentage, and free-throw percentage of his career. Although he’s put up better counting stats in past seasons, he’s never been as efficient of a scorer, which has made him more valuable. Combine that with some of the most ferocious rim assaults we’ve seen all season, and it’s clear that Fox is overdue for stardom:

The Kings haven’t just succeeded due to their dynamic duo, however. Sacramento is averaging the 7th-most three-pointers attempted in the league and hitting them at the 9th-best clip. More and more, the NBA has seemed to be transitioning into a numbers game of who can hit the most threes. Instead of swimming against that tide, Sacramento has hopped aboard and rode that wave into playoff contention.

What makes the Sacramento Kings pretenders?

It’s not all rosy for the Kings, however.

Although currently 3rd in the West, few in the media actually consider Sacramento to be in the same tier as Boston, Denver, or Memphis. Instead, they’re counted amongst Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Cleveland in the tier below, as teams who are good but not great.

Most of the understandable skepticism comes from the dismal defense of the Kings. The Kings are 23rd in defensive rating this year and it’s hard to believe that there are numbers adding noise to that figure. They’re only 21st in steals, 29th in blocks, and 28th in points allowed in the paint per game, which speaks to the lack of impactful defenders they have:

With no hope of keeping opponents out of the paint, Sacramento is at the mercy of easy interior buckets. This puts a ceiling on their ultimate potential, as no team that’s won the title has been lower than 11th in defensive rating. All five of the Eastern Conference contenders, alongside the Grizzlies, have a defense as their calling card, ranking in the top 7 in the league.

It’s also fair to question whether the Kings have a sustainable offense for the long term. Eventually shooting streaks regress to the mean and the hot shooting of the Kings will start to dry up eventually. They get more than a third of their points from deep, ranking 7th in the league there, which makes them more of a boom-or-bust team than a handful of other contenders.

What’s the verdict on the Kings?

It’s somewhat reductive to amount NBA conversation into the “Ringz” argument that is so often brought up. It’s more heartwarming to focus on the joy of a fan base as they watch their team soar to previously unreachable heights than to simply wonder if they’re the best team in the world.

dark. Next. Do the Sacramento Kings need a big trade to be contenders?

For this discussion, however, it’s necessary to be the voice of reason and throw cold water on Sacramento’s ultimate aspirations of title contention:

Without a capable defense, the Kings will likely peak as a regular season darling, only to lose in disappointing fashion to a team that’s built better for the postseason.