Something is different with the Kings this time around. They believed they had a shot at a playoff berth last season, but they didn’t know how to respond when times got tough.
The hangover seemed to play into the start of this season when Sacramento lost its first five games. Before the Kings knew what hit them, the hole was deep and a series of injuries made the road ahead even more difficult.
In a normal year, the Kings’ season already would be over and done with. At 24-33, they should have an insurmountable climb ahead, and the team and the conversation should shift to the 2020 NBA Draft.
But this is not a normal year. The 2019-20 season has been a trainwreck for multiple teams.
After making it to the Western Conference finals last season, the Portland Trail Blazers (26-33) have struggled and Damian Lillard now is nursing a groin injury.
The San Antonio Spurs (24-33) have made 22 straight postseason appearances, but they now are behind the Kings in the standings after losing Wednesday.
The Memphis Grizzlies have turned heads with their gritty play, but they are fading after injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clark. New Orleans is making a move, but they are inexperienced and caught up in a four-or-five-team race for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Why is this season going to be different than last year when the Kings closed out the year with an 8-15 stretch to fall out of contention?
It might not be. The Kings definitely could stumble towards the finish line once again.
It’s also possible that Sacramento learned from its mistakes last season, gained valuable experience and now has the veterans who can help hold the ship together as the Kings venture into unfamiliar waters.
“We have a greater sense of urgency,” Harrison Barnes said of what feels different this season. “We realize what we have to do in order to make the playoffs. I’ve been proud of how everyone’s come out, focused, ready to play since the break ended. Hopefully, it will continue.”
The Kings have won three straight coming out of the break, including a 112-94 win over the Warriors on Tuesday. Sacramento is now 9-4 since losing to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 22.
The loss in Detroit seemed to be a catalyst for change. Coach Luke Walton shifted his starting lineup to include Bogdan Bogdanovic while moving Buddy Hield to the second unit, but that was only part of the shakeup.
Since that game, newcomer Kent Bazemore has stepped in and taken on a much bigger role with the club. Second-year pro Harry Giles has also started to show improvement and almost every player is seeing a spike in their numbers.
“We’ve got a little pep in our step right now at shootaround, at practices,” Bazemore said. “Guys are just working. After practice, guys are just in the gym for an extra 45 minutes to an hour, just getting up shots. Guys are loving to come to work.”
Players are putting in the time, and they seem to be buying into Walton’s system. The Kings are staying together, and it’s possible they could get Richaun Holmes back from injury -- and maybe even Marvin Bagley III -- back before the season ends.
Sacramento is starting to pick up the pace on the offensive end, and the defense has played well over the last two games.
“I think we’re playing well on both sides of the ball,” De’Aaron Fox said. “I think we’re playing like a desperate team right now. It’s been going good for us. We’ve been able to get stops when we needed them. We’ve been able to execute when need be. I just think, right now, we’re playing our best basketball of the season.”
The Kings came out of the break seven games out of the eighth seed, but they’ve won three straight heading into a back-to-back with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Grizzlies on Thursday and Friday.
Memphis has dropped three in a row, allowing Sacramento to shave the deficit down to four games with 25 remaining. If the Kings are going to get all the way back in the race, Friday’s game against the Grizzlies is huge, as are winnable games at home against the Pistons and Washington Wizards next week.
Sacramento still needs to find a way to get past Portland, San Antonio and New Orleans in the standings, but the Kings have some momentum. They can’t afford any letdowns from here on out if they are going to have a shot of snapping their 13-year postseason drought.