The national media hasn’t exactly acknowledged the Kings’ existence heading into the NBA restart, seemingly forgetting Sacramento altogether in discussions regarding the Western Conference no. 8 seed.
As a result, it’s not surprising that ESPN has a low opinion of the Kings relative to the other contenders for the final playoff spot. Out of the 22 teams that will be in Orlando, ESPN has Sacramento ranked 18th, ahead of only San Antonio and Phoenix in the West. It’s worth noting that the Kings were already ahead of both the Spurs and the Suns in the conference standings, and that those teams are missing LaMarcus Aldridge and Kelly Oubre Jr., respectively, for the rest of the season.
Per Nick Friedell of ESPN, the main question for the Kings is whether De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield can translate their individual performance into team success:
Can De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield rise to the challenge? Hield signed his big-money extension in October, and Fox is in line for a massive extension of his own. Now is the time for both young players to lift the franchise back into the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The pair is averaging 40 points per game, but the two have yet to show that they can elevate those around them to a different level of winning. Now is the time.
What’s strange about that analysis is it indicates that Fox and Hield are a duo, when in reality they only play 13 minutes per game together since the lineup change that made Hield a sixth man. Maybe the fact that neither has achieved significant NBA success makes them a natural pairing, but Bogdan Bogdanovic hasn’t either, and he’s the one who actually starts next to Fox.
This question also diminishes the significant jumps Fox and Hield took between 2017-18 and 2018-19. The Kings reached a “different” level of winning in the pair’s second season together, winning 12 more games than the previous year. The improvement obviously hasn’t been linear, since Sacramento wasn’t on pace to win 49 games this year, but they have made meaningful strides as a backcourt and as a team, accomplishments that are belittled by the phrasing.
The Kings actually placed 16th overall in the last iteration of ESPN’s rankings on March 9, but has dropped two spots in the interim. Sacramento hasn’t played any games since then, but was jumped by New Orleans and Portland. The Blazers make a little bit of sense since they will have Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic healthy for the seeding games, but they will also be without Trevor Ariza. Meanwhile, the Pelicans are arguably less whole than they were in March since an unnamed player was replaced by Sindarius Thornwell for the restart.
This team is used to being overlooked, whether in national coverage or power rankings. The players expect to compete for the playoffs, and they’ll be taking names of whoever doubts them along the way.