SACRAMENTO -- 25 games. In the NBA, it can be an eternity, especially when winning no longer matters to a team.
For the last 12 seasons, that is what the stretch run has been for the Kings. In fact, in most years losses were much more value to Sacramento than wins. That is an unfortunate reality of the NBA’s lottery system.
That mentality corrodes a franchise from the inside and it often takes years of work to scrub that idea from the walls of the locker room.
This is one of the reasons why the Kings didn’t give in to the chase for ping pong balls last season. Sure, they sat veterans to develop young talent, but coach Dave Joerger and his staff refused to give in to the culture of losing.
Plenty of teams around the league were tanking down the stretch, but the Kings set their sights on playing spoilers. They finished 9-12 over their final 21 games, which was good enough to push them all the way down to the seventh spot in the draft lottery.
The Kings’ focus on building a winning culture didn’t hurt them in the draft. Good basketball karma and a little lotto luck landed the Kings at No. 2, where they selected Marvin Bagley III.
Early this season, the Kings continued to build from their experience last year. They got off to a surprising start and with 25 games remaining, the team sits at 30-27 and just a game out of the eight seed in the Western Conference playoff chase.
“With us, we’ve just got to stay focused,” De’Aaron Fox said. “Sacramento hasn’t played too many games after the break that actually mean something for ourselves. Instead of playing spoiler, we’re actually trying to get in the playoffs.”
Even if the Kings make the playoffs, they’ll likely matchup against a team like the Golden State Warriors or Denver Nuggets in the first round. They’ve failed to pick up a win against either team so far this season and would likely be massive underdogs coming into the postseason.
With that in mind, why does fighting for a playoff spot matter?
It’s pretty simple. The intensity of a playoff race raises the level of competition, and making the postseason gives the team a taste of something more.
“It can mean everything,” Harrison Barnes said Wednesday evening. “I remember my first year, just making the playoffs with that group, kind of what that did for everybody. Having that collective hunger. Seeing what it’s like playing against elite level teams.”
It’s going to be a battle down the stretch. The team is trying to take it one game at a time, but the players openly admit to watching the standings every night. They know where they are and what it will likely take to make it to the playoffs.
“Now they can really grow up,” Vlade Divac told NBC Sports California. “It’s a great way of developing their game. That experience is priceless and I think that’s why we’re all so excited right now, to be in that race.”
The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. The drought is the longest current streak in the league, something the players understand very well.
Fans have shown up in droves all season long to cheer on the upstart Kings, and the team has responded with a 19-11 record at Golden 1 Center.
“For this organization, the fans, the city, I think it would be great to get back there and just feel that energy,” Buddy Hield told NBC Sports California. “I think it would be good for us and we feed off that.”
It’s going to be a battle down the stretch. The Kings are in one of the tougher grouping of games in their schedule. After falling in a heartbreaker to the Nuggets, the Kings face the Warriors, Thunder, Timberwolves, Bucks and Clippers over the next five games.
They’ll have an opportunity to pick up some games in the month of March, but night in and night out, it’s going to be a battle.
“You look at the west right now, everyone’s vying for a spot, everyone is vying for position,” Barnes said. “Every game means something. I think for us, everything comes back to us focusing on what we can control.”
It’s a confident group. They’ve defied the odds makers all season and they believe they can fight through and be there in the end.
Buddy Hield is so positive in the team’s chances, he was willing to place a bet on it following practice on Wednesday evening, although it came with a caveat.
"Very confident. I'd bet my house on it... I mean, I make a lot of money to buy the next one," the third-year guard said.
It’s going to be an interesting final seven weeks of the season for the Kings. For the first time in over a decade, the Kings are in the race. Whether they finish the season with a postseason berth or not, they’re building something in Sacramento.