On Dec. 30, Kings general manager Monte McNair knew.
In a 10-second sequence against the Utah Jazz, the Kings were down two with 19 seconds left. Their star guard De’Aaron Fox missed two shots but offensive boards kept them afloat. Eventually, Harrison Barnes grabbed the rebound, dished it out to rookie Keegan Murray, who immediately found Kevin Huerter well behind the 3-point line. Splash.
That was the ballgame. Sacramento pulled out the one-point win and improved to 19-15 on the season. But McNair saw it as much more than that.
What he witnessed, along with the rest of the world, was a group of guys hungry, closer to starving for a shot at the playoffs. There was still an entire second half of the season to be played, but McNair knew this Kings team was special.
“I think that just showed our guys aren’t going to quit, but they’re also going to be unselfish,” McNair said at a press conference Friday, roughly 24 hours after the NBA trade deadline. “They’re going to get in the fight and they’re going to be confident that when the ball hits their hand, they’re going to knock down the shot we need them to. That was special. There’s been a lot of moments along the way.”
That game and others like it are part of the reason why McNair and the Kings front office staff didn’t make any major moves before Thursday's 12 p.m. PT trade deadline.
Sacramento’s first move of the action-packed week turned out to be its only move. On Wednesday, the Kings acquired 22-year-old forward Kessler Edwards and cash in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for the draft rights to David Michineau.
Other than that, McNair found it important to keep what’s been brewing in Sacramento as is.
“Our framework heading into the deadline was two things," McNair said. "One has been our mantra, I think since we got here, which was being disciplined and aggressive when the time comes. But this year with where we’re at, we also want to be protective of the core group of guys that we’ve got this year that have gotten us to this point.
“Our starting lineup is one of the best, if not the best, in the NBA. Our bench units mixed in there have been fantastic as well. Our guys have shown they can compete with any team in the league. For all these reasons, we want to continue to let this group grow and gel together and continue on the improvement path that they’ve been set on.”
Wednesday’s wild 130-128 win over the Houston Rockets was the 31st time the Kings lit their highly popular beam this season, already surpassing the total amount of wins (30-52) they had last season. There are 27 games remaining.
McNair said he was involved in several conversations and did their “due diligence” all week leading up to the final noon buzzer, but ultimately, the team’s current chemistry and camaraderie was the priority.
Even with the blockbuster trades that rocked the Western Conference after Kyrie Irving joined forces with Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks and Kevin Durant going to the Phoenix Suns to team up with Devin Booker and Chris Paul, McNair’s faith in his roster remained.
“As things change with our competitors, that can change that calculus but we also don’t want to be reactionary just to be reactionary. We’ll never do that,” McNair said. “The West is always tough. I've been in the West for 16 seasons and this is no different. We think we’re in a really good spot but we have 28 games left so we’ll have to go and fight it out with some really good teams.”
While the Kings didn’t make a big splash ahead of the deadline, there’s still room for more player movement with the NBA buyout market where teams can make key improvements by adding veterans for depth.
“We’ll continue to look at opportunities that can help our team, [but] at the same time, not just our starting lineup, but our depth has been great,” McNair said. “We’ve had 10, 11, 12, 13 guys help contribute. We’re confident in our roster top to bottom but, of course, if there’s opportunities to continue to help that present, we’ll look at those.”
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At the end of the day, the goals are clear. Short-term: Get to the NBA playoffs. Long-term, as McNair pointed out, is to be a contending team in the West for several seasons to come.
They’ll take it one step at a time, and they’ll do it with just about the same guys they entered the season with.