It’s the day after Christmas and if the season was to end today, the Kings would be either the 7th or 8th seed in the post-season, depending on their future outcomes against the Houston Rockets in the regular season. Let me say that again: it’s the day after Christmas and the Kings are currently a playoff team! Not even the most positive of fans could have predicted that outcome at the beginning of the year.
Of course, the season isn’t yet half over and the Western Conference features 14 teams as realistic playoff contenders, with only the Suns sitting on the outside. Just 3.5 games separate 8th and 14th place. Any losing streak of significant length could cause a team to plummet down the standings, dropping from contender to pretender faster than a Scot Pollard hairstyle change.
The next six games for the Kings offer more hardship than help for their unexpected playoff hopes. All six contests are against Western Conference opponents, a group Sacramento is just 11-12 against, versus 7-3 against the East. The half dozen opponents are also all ahead of the Kings in the standings, meaning victories count for double, an added ‘W’ in the win column for Dave Joerger’s squad and an ‘L’ thrown in for good measure for post-season hopefuls. It’s not often a team has such direct control over their standings for such an extended period of time.
This stretch is not only important, but it’s one of the toughest of the entire season. The Kings have yet to score a win against any of these opponents during the 2018-2019 campaign, going a combined 0-6 versus these teams, with a point differential of 607-560. That works out to an average loss of 7.8 points, mostly due to their close defeats to the Warriors. Against the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets, the Kings differential jumps to 360-319, an average loss of 13.7 points. Things could turn very ugly, very quickly.
Adding to that normal level of difficulty is the seemingly constant lack of advantage the Kings hold in scheduling. None of the six opponents are on the second night of a back-to-back when they play Sacramento, while the first game against the Lakers is a back-to-back for the Kings. Although the league schedulers pitted the Kings against the Lakers and Clippers on the 26th and 27th, they didn’t manage to keep them in L.A. for both match-ups. Sacramento will travel to the City of Angels on Wednesday night for their battle against the Clippers and will then turn around for a home game against the Lakers the following day.
A bit of relief may come in the form of injuries: one recent and one hopefully healed. In his Christmas Day game against the Warriors, LeBron James tweaked his groin during the third quarter and did not return to the contest. While wishing injuries against opponents is never acceptable, a minor ailment keeping the best player in the world out for a pair of games certainly wouldn’t hurt Sacramento’s chances at a win.
“We’re going to prep for Sacramento as if (LeBron) is not going to play,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. Lakers play at Kings on Thursday.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) December 26, 2018
Marvin Bagley should also be making his return to the court sometime over the next few days. He has already been declared inactive against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night, but it’s been 11 days since he was given a recovery time frame of 10-14 days. Assuming there are no setbacks, the Kings should gain some important front court depth sometime during the six-game stretch.
Four months from now, when the playoff race is coming to a close, the Kings may very well look back to the next 10 days as a turning point in their season. Losing all six games is not outside of the realm of possibility, and beyond waking the slumbering Brandon Williams, a losing streak could push Sacramento too far down the standings to recover. Thankfully, the Kings aren’t in a position in which they desperately need to win all or even half of the upcoming games. Instead, they need to survive. Winning two of the next half dozen games would move Sacramento to 20-19 on the season, a much more palatable position, with upcoming games against the Magic, Suns, Pistons, and Hornets, not nearly the same marathon of punishment as the next week and a half holds.