On Friday afternoon, the Sacramento Kings will play their first meaningful basketball in over four months. As they take on the San Antonio Spurs in Orlando, they'll embark on the most important eight-game stretch in more than a decade, thanks to the NBA's revamped playoff structure in Florida.
Unlike a typical season, in which a team like Sacramento would be desperately trying to catch the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold a 3.5 game lead in the win-loss column, the Kings must instead take care of business on two different, complex fronts. First, while they'll no longer be required to surpass the eighth seed to lay claim to the final playoff spot, they must instead hover within four games of eighth place. If that's the case, they may be eligible for a play-in tournament, assuming that they not only keep within striking distance of the Grizzlies, but that they also finish ahead of the other contenders in the West: the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns. If the Kings can accomplish both of those tasks, or take over the eighth seed completely, they'll enter into a two-game series for the final playoff spot. If they're the eighth seed at that point, Sacramento must only win one game to advance, whereas a ninth-place finish would require two consecutive wins over eighth to move into the first round of the postseason.
While that sounds relatively simple in concept, the inherently messy nature of a six-team battle for eighth, with a possible play-in tournament thrown in, grows even more complex when taking into consideration all that has already occurred, such as head-to-head matches earlier in the season, what has yet to occur, such as upcoming games between contenders, and what random, seemingly minor details will have a major impact on who finishes where, such as the number of games played prior to the league's hiatus.
In an attempt to make sense of all of the chaos, and with tables that will hopefully be updated regularly once the season truly restarts, I've broken down each rival that the Kings must best in order to break their playoff drought. Instead of trying to combine every possible scenario into one massive spreadsheet, which would drive even the most excel-obsessed individual insane, the assumption has been made that each team listed will be the only one in play for the eighth or ninth seed at that given time. Every contender is listed by current tie-breakers, how many games are scheduled between the teams, and what win-loss record the Kings must obtain in order to guarantee themselves a shot at the play-in tournament.
As the current owners of the final playoff spot in the West, the Memphis Grizzlies are almost certainly going to be in play as either the eighth or ninth seed come the theoretical play-in tournament. If they completely blow it, a single contender may surpass them for eighth, but the likelihood of two teams playing almost impossibly well, coupled with a Memphis collapse, is quite low.
Current tiebreaker: Sacramento owned
Games scheduled: 0
|Grizzlies Finish||Kings Must Finish|
As demonstrated by the table above, the Kings, along with the rest of the playoff hopefuls, have very little chance of actually catching the Grizzlies. It would not only take a massive collapse on Memphis’ part, but also a nearly perfect eight-game performance from one of the lower seeds to flip positions. It’s relatively safe to say that the Grizzlies will own the eighth seed come mid-August.
Portland Trail Blazers
With all of the effort put into making the league’s resumption of basketball as balanced as possible over the last few months, it’s clear that the NBA missed on one major point when seeding for the play-in tournament, and that’s the Blazers unearned advantage heading into the resumed regular season. In a normal year and in a normal situation, teams would play the same number of games and any deadlocks would be split by a cascading set of tiebreakers, from win-loss records versus one another, to division winners, to conference records, and so and so forth. However, for reasons that remain unclear, the league decided to ignore the complication of some teams playing more games than others before the hiatus. Instead, the NBA announced that whichever team finishes with a higher winning percentage at the conclusion of the regular season, regardless of actual record in Orlando, will secure the higher seed.
At first glance, that may seem to be the fairest resolution for all involved, but it does negatively impact several of the Western Conference contenders. Prior to the NBA's shutdown, the Blazers had played 66 games, the Suns sat at 65, the Kings and Pelicans were both at 64, and the Spurs had competed in just 63 contests. Because all of these teams hold a record below .500, any team with more games played prior to the break will automatically finish higher than a team with fewer games under their belt, assuming everyone finishes with the same record. For example, if the Kings and Blazers both win five and lose three in Florida, Portland will end up with a final record of 34-40 (.459), while Sacramento will end at 33-39 (.458). Despite entering the tournament the same number of games behind the eighth seed (3.5), and despite finishing with the same record in the resumed season (5-3), the Blazers would finish .001 points ahead in win percentage and would snag the final spot. To put it simply, head-to-head tiebreakers will have no effect on the Kings-Blazers battle, so Sacramento must best Portland's win-loss performance to finish ahead in the standings.
Current tiebreaker: Portland owned, but irrelevant due to the league’s seeding oddity
Games scheduled: 0
|Blazers Finish||Kings Must Finish|
New Orleans Pelicans
Although the Memphis Grizzlies hold the most enviable position at the start of the resumed regular season, and the Portland Trail Blazers have been granted a positional advantage if they tie with any of the lower seeds, the New Orleans Pelicans are often assumed to be the team with the greatest chance of stirring things up before the playoffs begin. With the heavily marketable Zion Williamson at their helm, some have even gone so far as to believe that the league’s playoff format was partially driven by a desire to see the Pelicans in the playoffs, and their schedule speaks to such a conspiracy, as New Orleans was given the easiest opponents of any of the 22 teams headed to Florida. Assuming that the Grizzlies hold onto the eighth spot, it’s highly likely that the Kings will find the Pelicans to be their toughest opponent to square off against for that second play-in spot.
Tin foil hats aside, the Pelicans also offer a distinct challenge for the Kings, as the two squads were set to square off in an incredibly important game on the night the league was shut down, just moments before tipoff. As things currently stand, New Orleans holds a 1-0 lead in a tie-breaker situation, but the Kings and Pelicans will face each other twice in Orlando, meaning the Kings can reverse that placement with a pair of wins over their fellow playoff hopeful.
Current tiebreaker: New Orleans owned, but can be reversed with two Sacramento victories
Games scheduled: 2
|Pelicans Record||Lose to Pelicans Once||Beat Pelicans Twice|
San Antonio Spurs
Of all of the teams that might consider complaining about the league’s decision to weight win percentage over games behind or ahead, the San Antonio Spurs by far possess the biggest gripe with Adam Silver and the NBA’s Board of Governors. Due to playing only 63 games at the conclusion of the regular season, the Spurs must finish with a better record than every other Western Conference contender in order to have a shot at the eighth or ninth seed, meaning any head-to-head tiebreakers will hold no water when determining final positioning.
Current tiebreaker: Tied, but irrelevant due to the league’s seeding oddity
Games scheduled: 1
|Spurs Win Versus Kings||Kings Must Finish||Spurs Lose to Kings||Kings Must Finish|
Including the Phoenix Suns in the Orlando bubble seems almost cruel of the NBA when considering their minuscule chance of actually making any sort of run at the final playoff spot. As the worst team in the Western Conference group, they trail the Spurs by two full games, the Kings, Pelicans, and Blazers by three-and-a-half games, and the Grizzlies by a full six games. In short, Phoenix will not only need to play perfect basketball themselves, but they’ll also need four other, better teams to win almost zero games between them to have a shot at the ninth seed. The Suns were out of this thing the moment in which the format was announced.
Current tiebreaker: Head-to-head tied, division record currently owned by Sacramento
Games scheduled: 0
|Suns Record||Kings Record|
Looking through all of these scenarios reveals no easy path to the playoffs for the Sacramento Kings, but the same can be said for every single one of these competitors. There are no valid excuses for poor play or a poor finish. If the Kings wish to break the playoff drought that has hung over this organization for more than a decade, they must start strong, play fast, and maintain focus throughout the entire tournament. If they can do those things, they may just have a shot at the postseason.