The Sacramento Kings have three games left this season, and sit 2.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the play-in. The Pelicans and the Spurs each have a path to ruin the Kings chances to make the postseason play-in, but if the Kings win out and both other teams slip, the Kings could find themselves celebrating the accomplishment of making the 10th seed in a 15 team conference.
As a long-jaded Kings fan, I struggle to get excited about any of this. The Kings have won 9 of their last 13 games, 6 of their last 7. There's a glimmer of hope for a play-in game that could lead to another play-in game which could lead to a playoff appearance. Everything is breaking right for the Kings as they enter the easiest part of their schedule, and everything is breaking against their opponents (Zion Williamson is out for the Pelicans, the Spurs will likely face a just-back-from-injury James Harden, the Kings will face the Jazz without Donovan Mitchell). I should be excited about all of this, right?
But I'm not. The Kings have done this to me too many times before. "Oh, if everything goes right, we've got this! The stars have aligned! Oh, we didn't do everything exactly right. Sorry you got your hopes up."
The Kings have back to back games tomorrow and Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, followed by a final game against the Jazz. None of those can be penciled in as easy wins, especially for the Kings who will be without Tyrese Haliburton, and could still be without De'Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes. Marvin Bagley missed yesterday's game. Buddy Hield has a bum ankle that has him riding a bike on the sidelines when he's not in the game. The Kings are held together right now by duct tape and a prayer.
Don't get me wrong, if you want to get excited about this, I support you. And if you want to keep being excited, you should stop reading the rest of the way.
Because the context of this run matters, and the context isn't great. The Kings have won 6 of their last 7, but 3 of those wins were against the Oklahoma City Thunder who are actively hunting a higher draft pick. One of those wins was against a floundering Pacers team. The wins over the Mavericks and Lakers, I'm fine with anyone who wants to count those as good wins.
I worry that this mirage is going to convince the Kings brass that all is well in Sacramento. That they'll convince themselves that this run was impressive, and "oh if we'd had Fox and Haliburton we definitely would have made it!" That this run will somehow be used to gloss over a historically bad defense, and two separate 9-game losing streaks. That this run will be used to justify keeping Luke Walton another year and keeping essentially the same roster again next season.
The greatest trick the NBA ever pulled was convincing people that the 10th seed was an accomplishment. Consider, if you will, Dave Joerger's final season. The Kings were 39-43, the 9th seed in the West. This year, the Kings would be finishing 10th in the West, with a 34-38 record as a best case scenario. If you adjust that to a pace for 82 games, it would be 39 wins.
I'm tired of celebrating sub-.500 teams that almost make it. If the Kings somehow end up in the play-in, which I still think is pretty unlikely, we shouldn't treat it as a great accomplishment. If the Kings won their play-in games and got the 8th seed, I would celebrate that. Anything short of that, though, is simply more of the same old Kings.