The Sacramento Kings took a huge leap last season. Their never-ending rebuild cycle got hit with a strike of De’Aaron Fox lightning and a flash of Buddy Hield fire, and the organization made mostly smart moves in an effort to build around their young stars. The team finished at 39-43, their best mark in 14 seasons, and have seemingly set themselves up for another, stronger, attempt at a playoff birth.
But inside the state of California, things weren’t quite as smooth last season. The Kings went just 1-11 against their California rivals—the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Golden State Warriors. In those 12 games, the Kings lost by an average of nearly 7 points per contest. Their only win came on December 27, when Bogdan Bogdanović’s buzzer-beating three knocked out the Lakers 117-116. Bogi’s three was a highlight of the season, no doubt, but it also came against a LeBron James-less Lakers team. The Lakers even bested the Kings 121-114 three night later.
The good news for Sacramento is that among the four California squads, they arguably have as much—if not more—year-to-year roster cohesion. The bad news is that the state just got a lot more star power. The Western Conference is as competitive as ever, and if the Kings are going to make the playoffs, they almost certainly have to do better against their California rivals this season.
The Clippers had the Kings’
number all season long, besting Sacramento by an average of 10.5 points in their four meetings. The 2018-19 Clippers were the ultimate workhorse team, and beat the Kings by sheer force of will (and by torching the Kings defensively, to the tune of 124.5 points and 49.2% shooting per game). There weren’t many players who seemingly destroyed the Kings on both ends quite as bad as Montrezl Harrell did—he averaged 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 66.7% shooting per contest. And things won’t get easier this season; did you hear the Clippers added both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?!
The first step for Sacramento to beat the Clippers is to figure out ways to get Hield hot; Buddy Buckets averaged just 15 points on 29% shooting (and 17.9% from deep) against
LA’s superior team the Clippers. The Kings first contest against the new-look Clippers comes on New Years Eve; we’ll know a lot about the Kings mental makeup by then, but they won’t be making the playoffs if they again play four listless contests against Doc Rivers’ hungry, determined squad.
24 months ago, the Kings and Lakers were both rebuilding through the draft and looked to be on similar trajectories. But LeBron is the NBA’s ultimate agent of chaos, and after a season of courting Anthony Davis, the Lakers threw all their chips at New Orleans to go all-in on a James/Davis pairing. There are significant concerns about their surrounding cast—their guard rotation is laughable, their best three players are either power forwards or demand to play power forward, and Dwight Howard is actually expected to play a meaningful role for this ballclub—but let’s not kid ourselves. Having two of the top five players in the NBA makes this team terrifying, especially if the addition of Davis (and an extended summer vacation that James’ hasn’t been accustomed to) means LA gets a rejuvenated, two-way motivated LeBron this season. Luke Walton will clearly be determined to beat his old squad, and the Kings will have a clear advantage at the guard spots, but it’ll be a massive challenge for the Kings forward lineup to match up against James and Davis.
(Side note: I’m legitimately disappointed we didn’t get a decade-long De’Aaron Fox/Lonzo Ball Pacific Division rivalry. I’m optimistic that the young players traded to the Pelicans will thrive outside of the vortex of massive expectations that swirls around LeBron. It’ll take some time, but Lonzo/Zion Williamson can become a ferocious pairing, especially when they’re surrounded by dudes like Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, and JJ Redick who can open up the court and mitigate their individual weaknesses.)
And finally, we come back to the Golden State Warriors. In 2017-18, the Kings managed a 2-2 split against the dynasty, winning both contests in
Arco West Oracle Arena, but the record was a bit of a mirage; the Warriors rested their starters against the Kings all season. That changed in 2018-19; aside from Steph Curry missing the first contest, the Warriors big four of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant played in all the contests against Sacramento. The Warriors had high praise for the Kings new identity, and to Sacramento’s credit, they played four fun, competitive games against the Dubs... but to their detrement, they faultered late in each contest.
Somehow, someway, the NBA ethos has concluded that Kevin Durant’s departure and Klay Thompson’s ACL tear will doom the Warriors this season. This is madness. Steph Curry and Draymond Green are still playing—the heart and soul of the dynasty, most certainly armed with a chip on their shoulder for how last season ended—and Thompson is hopeful he might be back after the All Star break. Millions of tweets and articles have been wasted debating the fit of D’Angelo Russell on the roster, as if the Warriors haven’t overcome roster cohesion issues before by the sheer force of their talent and gameplanning. Russell was a damn All Star last season (albeit a replacement one) who can pass, dribble, and shoot, and he did manage to torch the Kings twice last season. This team might lack in depth, but if their remaining players can stay healthy and get Klay back late in the season, I’d predicting another top 3 conference finish come April. The Warriors are inevitable—count them out at your own peril, and pray the Kings never do.
The Pacific Division is the best division in the NBA and while the Kings are multiple steps ahead of the Phoenix Suns, they still have to prove themselves against the three powerhouses in California. If they want to make the postseason, they can’t afford to give up so many games to conference rivals, let alone the ones they have to face four times in a season. Their success or failure against these California titans will make or break our dreams of a playoff game in Golden 1 Center next April.