In Sacramento, there is a clear policy: Friends don’t let friends talk about the NBA playoffs.
It’s pretty simple. Every time the Kings looks like they are on their way to snapping the franchise’s 14-year postseason streak, the team takes a dive in the standings and end up with another lottery pick.
With six games remaining in the 2020-21 season, the Kings sit at a disappointing 29-37 record. They’ve already secured a fifteenth consecutive sub-.500 record, which in most seasons would end this discussion.
But with the league concerned with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and the potential for teams to finish with less than 72 games, a mini play-in tournament was created. And while friends don’t let friends talk playoffs, it’s probably time that we have a heart-to-heart about what the term “play-in” means, and why Kings fans should tune in for the final six games.
What is the play-in tournament?
Again, with the potential for teams to have cancelations and finish with fewer games, the league decided to institute a NCAA tournament style play-in. Basically what this means is that instead of the standard eight playoffs spots going to the teams with the eight best records, there is a chance for the teams with the ninth and tenth-best records in their conference to get one last chance to make the playoffs.
How it works is that the team with the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds play a single game. The winner of that contest is the seventh seed in the playoffs and move on to play the No. 2 overall seed in the postseason.
While the seven and eight battle it out, the No. 9 and No. 10 seed also play a single game. The loser of that game is out of the running and the winner goes on to face the loser of the seven/eight game.
Whoever wins the matchup between the loser of the seven/eight game and the winner of the nine/10 game moves on to the playoffs. They get the privilege of traveling to the host city of the No. 1 overall seed where they’ll start a seven-game series as part of the standard NBA playoff format.
In a nutshell, the seven/eight seed has to lose twice to be out of the playoffs, while the nine/10 has to win back-to-back games to advance.
Why does this matter for the Kings?
A quick glance at the Kings’ record would have you believe that they are out of the running. Two nine-game losing streaks in one season should have been a death blow for their postseason chances. But the play-in tournament gives a glimmer of hope, as does the schedule ahead.
All of this discussion begins and ends with Friday’s matchup against the San Antonio Spurs. The Kings trail the Spurs by 2.5 games in the standings. The Spurs have seven remaining games and the Kings have just six. The two teams are tied 1-1 in the season series and the winner of Friday’s matchup will hold the tiebreaker.
If the Kings manage to win that game, they cut the Spurs' lead to just 1.5 games. San Antonio leaves Sacramento following that contest and will travel to Portland for a back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers.
This two-game stretch might be the easiest remaining games for the Spurs. They finish the season with the Milwaukee Bucks and then a brutal four games in five nights stretch against the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and then back-to-backs against the Phoenix Suns.
San Antonio’s strength of schedule is the second-most difficult in the NBA over the last week of the season with an opponent win percentage of .610. If you take the Kings’ game out of the equation, the Spurs remaining opponents currently hold a .639 win percentage on the season.
Hiding in between the Kings and the Spurs are the New Orleans Pelicans, who trail the Spurs by a game and a half and sit a game above the Kings.
The Pelicans' schedule isn’t as bad as the Spurs, but it’s still extremely difficult. They start a five-game road trip on Friday with stops in Philadelphia, Charlotte, Memphis, Dallas and San Francisco. And then they finish off their season at home against the Los Angeles Lakers.
New Orleans’ remaining opponents hold a combined .554 win percentage, which is the sixth-most difficult in the league, although they only have one set of back-to-backs. In the Pelicans' favor is the fact that they won the season series against the Kings 2-1, although the Spurs beat them 2-1. This scenario might complicate matters even worse.
Sacramento’s remaining schedule is the easiest of all three teams in the running. Following the Spurs game, the Kings host the Oklahoma City Thunder for a pair of games. They have back-to-back games on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies on May 13 and 14, before finishing out their schedule against the Utah Jazz at Golden 1.
The Kings’ overall remaining opponent win percentage is .476, which is the 20th-most difficult in the league to finish out the season.
If all three teams tie for the final play-in spot, things get a little muddled. If the Kings beat the Spurs and hold a 2-1 advantage, that would set up a scenario where all three teams would have a tiebreaker over one opponent and since not all three play in the same division, it would fall to conference record.
The Pelicans currently lead the pack with an 18-20 conference record with four conference games remaining. The Kings have a 16-20 conference record with six conference games remaining and the Spurs have a 16-22 conference record with four conference games remaining.
After these scenarios, the tiebreaker rules go to the highest winning percentage against playoff teams in their own conference and then the highest winning percentage against playoff teams in the opposite conference, but those are much more difficult to figure out and it likely won’t come to that.
Do the Kings have a real chance?
Absolutely. They are coming off a 4-0 road trip with victories over the Lakers, Mavericks, Thunder and Indiana Pacers. At 7-3 over their last 10 games, they are the team with momentum and they are playing the best basketball out of the group.
They also have the easiest schedule out of the group, but it really all comes down to Friday’s matchup against San Antonio. If they lose that game, they would trail the Spurs by 3.5 games with five games remaining and they wouldn’t have the tiebreaker.
As of now, the Kings’ chances of making the play-in game, according to The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine, is 10 percent. San Antonio sits at 65 percent and the Pelicans have a 26-percent chance. Those odds will change dramatically from one day to the next.
Should the Kings try for the play-in game?
At this point, the Kings should go for broke. They already have won too many games to be serious contenders to move into the top four in the NBA Draft Lottery. The four-game win streak came at the wrong time for the folks hoping the team would tank.
With six games remaining, they could definitely hurt their draft stock further, potentially falling another four spots in the lottery, but the real meat of this draft is in the top five picks, which mathematically, the Kings have a slim chance of landing at this point.
Does the play-in count for making the playoffs?
No. At least that is this writer's opinion. If the Kings are to snap their 14-year drought, they need to not only make the play-in games, but win twice and make it to a seven-game series.
Will the Kings make the play-in game?
All bets are off at this point. This is the most manic team in the league. They are on a hot streak, which we’ve seen before this season. We also know that this group could drop the next six games without explanation.
The only thing left to do is tune in, ring some cowbells and keep a close eye on the NBA scoreboard.