At the beginning of the 2015-16 season, the Kings hoped to be in contention for a playoff spot midway through their 82-game schedule.
But while the Kings hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference one game past the season’s halfway mark, they figured their record would be better than 19-23.
Sacramento is benefiting from struggling Western Conference teams.
Should the Kings apologize that the conference is weaker than in recent seasons, allowing Sacramento to overcome a 1-7 start to be in the mix for its first postseason in 10 seasons? Of course not.
Should the Kings be content? That would be a mistake.
The Kings cannot be fooled into believing they’re a good team. That mindset has led to embarrassing home losses to Portland, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Minnesota.
It also has caused befuddling road losses to short-handed Washington and Minnesota.
With 40 games left in the season and Sacramento leading ninth-place Utah by a half-game and 10th-place Portland by 1 1/2 games, the Kings’ biggest impediment to the postseason is themselves. At full strength, they’re probably better than the Trail Blazers and Jazz. Sacramento has been healthier than New Orleans and, if everything comes together, could challenge Houston for seventh in the West.
But the Kings must show professionalism, play hard and smart, and focus on the rest of the season.
“We can move to solid instead of crazy at times,” coach George Karl said. “We play at a high pace, and because of the pace that we play at, we’re going to make some mistakes, but we can’t make – for lack of a better phrase – silly mistakes. Both offensively and defensively, we have lapses. It’s a mystery out there sometimes.”
The Kings have reason for optimism. Forward-center DeMarcus Cousins has played at an elite level lately. Point guard Rajon Rondo, thought to be washed up by some – especially in Dallas – has shown he can still direct an offense and pile up assists.
Forward Omri Casspi is having a career season, and rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein shows signs of becoming the impact defender the Kings have needed.
Forward Rudy Gay’s scoring is down this season, but he remains vital, as he can create a shot when the offense breaks down.
The Kings are 18-16 with Cousins in the lineup and look like a playoff team if he stays healthy.
So all is on the upswing, right? Wrong.
“If we think we’re good, I think that would be a mistake right now,” Karl said. “We’ve played good basketball, we’re playing better basketball, but we have a lot of work to do.”
The Kings’ perimeter defense remains problematic as teams routinely have lit up Sacramento from three-point range. The Kings must avoid relying on their potent offense and show more determination on defense.
Barring a trade to add a gritty one-on-one defender, the Kings must improve their communication and become solid in their concepts to prevent their frequent breakdowns.
For all the Kings’ offseason changes, they failed to land a rangy wing defender. Sacramento will try to address that before the Feb. 18 trading deadline.
But for now, the Kings are in playoff position.
“It feels good, but I’m not satisfied, and we shouldn’t be satisfied as a team,” Cousins said. “I don’t think it’s just about making the playoffs. I think we have a chance to make some noise this season. It’s just about separating from the pack and continuing to grow as a team.”