In a macro sense, it’s a good thing that the NBA changed the draft lottery odds so that tanking is a little less prevalent than it used to be. But I kind of miss the late-season games between lottery teams, when some truly hilarious lineups took the floor and both clubs tried to collect an extra loss to earn more favor with the ping pong ball gods.
Four years ago today, the Kings headed to Denver for the second night of a back-to-back, one that head coach George Karl called “the toughest back-to-back in the NBA”. The team was 30-46 at that point, well-removed from playoff contention, and decided to leave its two most productive players, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, at home for the trip.
(Side note: The lasting Cousins-Rondo friendship is such a strange byproduct of that 2015-16 season.)
With their starting point guard and center away from the team (as well as DNPs for Marco Bellinelli and Omri Casspi), the Kings put together a starting five of Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy, and Willie Cauley-Stein and brought Seth Curry, James Anderson, and Kosta Koufos off the bench. Half of that eight-man rotation is out of the league. It should have been a perfectly executed tank job.
But against the Nuggets that Saturday night, those eight were enough.
Denver was in year one of Michael Malone era (it’s always fun when former head coaches get to square off against one another), and Malone didn’t seem to have the best handle on his rotations yet. The double-center pairing of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic was still a thing, and poor Emmanuel Mudiay was still considered a starting-level point guard.
Nevertheless, some disinterested defense from Sacramento (seriously, this highlight video is all uncontested dunks) left the Nuggets with a 12-point lead halfway through the third quarter. A quick surge from Gay and Anderson, who combined for 11 points to close out the period, kept the Kings within striking distance down four going into the fourth quarter.
After a missed Curry three to begin the final period, Sacramento made its next five shots to take the lead at 96-95, highlighted by a clean Cauley-Stein jumper from the wing. That shot was so surprising that I looked back at Cauley-Stein’s 2015-16 stats, and according to Cleaning the Glass, he only made eight midrangers outside of 14 feet that season — he certainly picked a good time to cash one of that bunch.
McLemore added a couple of threes, and before Malone thought to call timeout, the Nuggets were down eight with six minutes to play. The Kings ended up winning the fourth quarter by 13 to earn the victory. Koufos hit the dagger to put Sacramento up six with a minute left and then intercepted a Joffrey Lauvergne pass on the ensuing possession to ice the game.
The 2015-16 season ended up being the last stand in the NBA for Anderson after six seasons. Acy lasted for essentially one more season, and McLemore almost fell out of the league before resurrecting his career in Houston. The Kings that took the court that night were on their last legs from fatigue, and some in terms of their NBA futures. But they played hard, and they won.
Ultimately, defeating Denver, a fellow lottery team, in the last month of the season has little historical significance. But it’s enjoyable to remember a group of players fighting for their place in this league, giving a professional effort and emerging victorious. There’s a mantra that organizations tank, players don’t. On that night, the franchise made a decision to tank by sitting its best players. The ones who played were unwilling to give the game away.