With last night’s win against the Orlando Magic, the Kings notched their 21st win of the season, thus guaranteeing they will finish the first half of the season over .500. The last time the Kings were over .500 at the halfway point was all the way back in the 2004-05 season. The Kings currently sit atop the Pacific Division, are 5th overall in the West and have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. So why am I still nervous?
Some of that trepidation definitely comes with just being a Kings fan and experiencing so much disappointment over the last 16 years. We’ve had moments like this before where it seemed like we were turning a corner and you don’t even have to go back that far to find it; Back in 2019, Dave Joerger had the Kings at 30-26 but they would win just 9 more games the entire rest of the season. Despite how fun this season has been, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that it could all come crashing down at any moment and I probably won’t lose that feeling until I actually see this team in the playoffs.
But the biggest reason for my nervousness is just how close everyone in the Western Conference is right now. The Kings are 5th at 21-18, but just 3.5 games separate the Kings with the 13th place Oklahoma City Thunder at 18-22. The only teams in the West with any real separation right now are the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, both at 27-13, with the New Orleans Pelicans not far behind at 25-16. The only truly bad teams in the West are the San Antonio Spurs (13-28) and the Houston Rockets (10-30). Everyone else is fighting for those play in spots and not much separates them. One winning or losing streak changes the standings so much. Just look at the Dallas Mavericks, who were outside of the playoff picture at 15-16 but then snapped off 7 wins in a row to vault to the 4th in the conference. Then there’s the Phoenix Suns who were 18-12 when Devin Booker got hurt and have since gone 2-9 and are now 8th in the West.
The Kings have put themselves in a good position, but they can’t afford to let up at all. Those big losses to bad teams like Charlotte and Washington at home sting particularly hard when every game matters so much. Sacramento’s next three games come against the Rockets and Spurs, teams they should beat and have to if they hope to make the playoffs. Unlike previous seasons where the Kings would only seem to get up for good teams, they have to treat each night like a must win game. Last night was a good example of them doing just that, as they took care of business on the home floor against a young Magic team.
The second half of the season will come with its own challenges. The Kings aren’t a surprise anymore and teams are starting to figure them out. Over this last stretch of games, we’ve seen opposing teams relentlessly attack the paint knowing that the Kings aren’t going to stop them. Perhaps no team exploited this better than the Lakers on Wednesday night when they scored 70 points in the paint in a game the Kings still had a chance to win. There’s definitely a personnel issue at play here as the Kings don’t have a traditional rim protector, but we’ve also seen the Kings play better defense this season than they have been lately. The Kings likely aren’t going to become a good or even great defensive team as currently constructed, but they can’t afford to be terrible. For their part, the Kings know this as well as both Mike Brown and the players continue to mention defense as their first priority and I’m sure when Monte McNair is looking at guys to add, defense will be first on the list.
For once though, the Kings are in control of their own destiny. They aren’t on the outside looking in, hoping to catch someone else in the standings and sneak in through the play-in games. They have the advantage right now and they need to press it.