Earlier this year, longtime Kings season-ticket holder J.J. Jose had a question for his brother, whom he attends games with.
“After Tyrese [Haliburton] got traded, I asked him: ‘Look, man, should we keep hanging on?’” he said, referring to their season-ticket package, which they’ve shared dating back to 2013.
Even before the February deal to send away the ever-popular Haliburton, who at just 22 is thriving with Indiana, there was a laundry list of questionable organizational choices.
There was the decision to use the No. 2 pick in 2018 on Marvin Bagley III—who lasted all of three and a half seasons in Sacramento—as opposed to Luka Dončić, who’s become a perennial MVP candidate. There was the puzzling ’14 decision to fire Michael Malone—now with Denver—after a seemingly decent 11–13 start, even though the team had been playing without franchise player DeMarcus Cousins, who’d been sidelined with viral meningitis. That came just a year after the club nearly ended up in Seattle, when the Maloofs sought to sell to buyers who wanted to relocate the Kings to Washington State. And then, of course, on top of everything there’s the simple fact that the Kings—who haven’t made the postseason in 16 years—are in the midst of the longest playoff drought in NBA history.
So for the 48-year-old J.J. to only recently raise the question of whether it was time to pull the proverbial plug tells you how bad things had gotten in Sacramento lately. Yet when he put the question to his younger brother, Justin, about whether they should bail, Justin urged patience.
Not everyone made that choice, of course. In section 221, where the Jose brothers sit, “a lot of people faded” after deciding not to renew. But with the Kings at 9–6 through 15 outings, and looking like a threat to snap the biblical playoff drought, J.J. and Justin couldn’t be happier they held on to their seats. For the first time, they feel as if their loyalty is being rewarded.
“I’ve talked myself into ‘This year’s gonna be the year’ for the last few seasons. But for the first time in a long time, it actually feels that way, like there’s something sustainable,” says J.J., a Stockton resident who, along with his brother, runs a handful of disability care centers. “There’s been a confluence of good things to happen. I’ve seen so much bad basketball to where I can normally tell exactly when my team is gonna fold, either three or three and a half quarters into a game. But with this group, I see a really different theme developing.”
Some of that stems from new coach Mike Brown, whose animated nature appears to have the team buying in. A good chunk of it seems rooted in the personnel, which executive Monte McNair has clearly upgraded in the form of increased perimeter shooting.
The result, so far, has been a reinvigorated De’Aaron Fox, who’s looked almost eager to step out and defend, a supercharged offense with the spacing to rival Pacific Division foe Golden State and the club’s first six-game win streak since the middle of the George W. Bush Administration.
Between Fox taking on the defensive challenge laid out by his coach—one similar to what Steve Kerr tasked Stephen Curry with back in 2014—and Sacramento now having the space to go with the accelerated pace it’s always played with, the Kings have been a force. As of Tuesday, they were piecing together the most efficient offense in NBA history. Defenders look like contortionists in trying to stop both Keegan Murray and Kevin Huerter, a wing who’s hitting nearly 50% of his triples on seven tries per night, while also maintaining enough of a paint presence to cover big man Domantas Sabonis, who’s feasted on the ample square footage. None of this even touches on the roster’s bounciness, which jumps off the screen—often in the form of Malik Monk or Chimezie Metu—and makes the club the most fun League Pass watch.
This isn’t our way of suggesting the Kings are serious Western Conference contenders yet. A number of things indicate that might be a ways off. Even with Brown’s attention to detail and Fox’s commitment on D, the club—which hasn’t fielded an average defense a single time since Rick Adelman was the coach—still ranks near the bottom in terms of getting stops. Sabonis isn’t known for his rim protection, and teams have no fear of going at him—part of the reason why the Kings rank second-worst in how many points per game they allow in the paint. Additionally, Sacto has one of the NBA’s most challenging schedules the rest of the season.
Still, aspects of this feel genuine. Huerter and Fox have jelled extraordinarily well with Sabonis, and rank right near the top of the league in dribble-handoff efficiency, according to Synergy. The bench has been one of the most productive in basketball thus far, and Sunday’s narrow home win over Detroit notwithstanding, the Kings own the NBA’s best defensive-rebounding rate. Perhaps most interesting: Despite the blistering tempo at which it plays, Sacramento makes a concerted effort to slow opposing clubs down and limit transition baskets defensively, and ranks second in the league, surrendering just 10.8 fast break points per contest so far. It’s a quirk that seems like the sort of thing that comes from Brown’s being in the players’ ears about it.
“The players are invested in the coaches, and the coaches are invested in the players. You can see it whenever Mike Brown calls timeouts really quickly [to start a quarter], and pulls a player aside to really coach him,” says season-ticket holder Arlene Munoz, a nurse and business student from Elk Grove who’s had season tickets with her husband, Michael, since 2019. “[The players] are getting so much more of that than they did in prior years.”
It’s made for an atmosphere that’s been more fun than anything Sacramento’s experienced going back to the Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson days, when the team was a contender. Whether it’s a jam from the Nelly-bandaged Monk, or even the more mild-mannered Harrison Barnes, fans have shown they’re willing to blow the roof off of One Golden Center at any given moment. And the notion of having anything to celebrate—even something like lighting the purple beam atop the arena’s roof after each home victory—is a long time coming.
“We’ve been losing so long, and, to be honest, as a business student, [season tickets] have been a risky investment that I can’t quite justify. But it does feel like that investment is finally starting to pay off,” Munoz says. “It’s a risky investment, but we’re in it for the long run.”
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI this past week
- My buddy Rohan Nadkarni wrote about how the Celtics, who had the NBA’s most dominant defense last season, have gone about fielding perhaps the most explosive offense this year.
Detroit will have to crank up the development another notch
For a brief stretch last season, as Cade Cunningham reached a place of comfort as the centerpiece of the Pistons franchise, it wasn’t hard to talk yourself into the idea that Detroit was only a year or so away.
It was early March, in that stretch of season just after the All-Star break, and the Pistons had won six out of their last eight. Not necessarily enough to go out and buy balloons for a championship parade anytime soon. But more than enough for me to at least start wondering: For a team that stood at just 12–45 on Valentine’s Day to then collect six more victories in an eight-game stretch against solid, playoff-level competition … could we be looking at a Detroit club that, after adding another top lottery pick, flirts with postseason contention in 2023?
After all, Cunningham—who’d been injured to start last season, and then brutally cold from the field for the first month after that—had come around and arguably looked like the league’s best rookie from December on. The lowly Pistons, even, were a formidable club with him, posting Bucks-like net ratings with Cunningham on the floor, and league-worst Spurs-level net ratings with him sidelined. So between his being available more and having more experience, and Detroit getting another lotto pick—one that would turn out to be the highly coveted Jaden Ivey at No. 5—the thought of the Pistons’ making noise this season wasn’t necessarily all that wild. Especially with other youngsters like wing Saddiq Bey and center Isaiah Stewart in tow. (Though, if we’re being honest, those thoughts quickly vanished if you paid attention to Detroit in the preseason, a stretch in which the Pistons went 0–4 while looking largely uncompetitive.)
But even if Cunningham’s development did tempt you, it’s now looking like he may be on the shelf for the foreseeable future as he deals with a shin injury that could require surgery.
The young star needing a procedure and losing a season obviously wouldn’t be ideal. Still, there could be some upside for the club, currently just 3–15, in such a scenario. The 20-year-old Ivey—averaging almost 17, 5 and 4 per night as a rookie so far—gets even more opportunities to develop as a ballhandler, as does 2020 first-rounder Killian Hayes, who really needs those reps. Similarly, with Stewart out another week or two with a toe injury, it opens the door for Jalen Duren, the forceful, talented 19-year-old big man, to get even more run. He’s been wildly fun to watch, particularly on the offensive glass, where he already owns one of the top-10 offensive rebounding percentages in the league despite being the youngest player in it.
In any case, there’s also the uncomfortable elephant in the NBA’s living room: the fact that Victor Wembanyama will be there for whichever club is fortunate enough to land the draft’s No. 1 pick. Strangely enough, a number of the teams—Utah and Indiana, especially—who were thought to be the top candidates to land it have gotten out to far better starts than anyone anticipated. That could leave the Pistons even better positioned to win yet another No. 1 pick.
If they land there, then it might be fully appropriate to start thinking about the playoffs next season, and maybe even some championship-parade balloons in the more distant future.
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