Luke Walton summed up 14 years of Kings basketball in one statement Sunday night following Sacramento's elimination from playoff contention.
“We’re not there as a team,” the Kings coach said after Sunday's loss to the Houston Rockets. “Unfortunately the best and only way to really learn that lesson is to feel that pain. And that pain’s gotta mean enough, it’s gotta hurt enough that we’re willing to make changes.”
Changes might come whether Walton wants them or not, but the point is, once again, that the Kings aren’t there.
In Walton's defense, he got the Kings closer to a postseason berth in his first season than they've been in any other season since 2005-06. Sacramento was mathematically eliminated from a playoff spot ahead of their third-to-last regular-season game, albeit in a very bizarre season. It's frustrating and the final outcome is what matters, but there also needs to be some perspective.
The Kings were one of 22 teams to participate in the restarted NBA season because they deserved to compete for a playoff spot. When the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus, Sacramento was in a three-way tie for ninth in the Western Conference. The Kings were the hottest team out of the lot fighting for the eighth seed.
This largely is the same team that showed promise under Dave Joerger last season while still finishing 9.0 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the West's final playoff spot. They were fun to watch, but they "were not there as a team" in the end.
What is missing from this group? The Kings' defensive effort was atrocious in the Orlando bubble, but they also struggled with the finer nuances of the game. They made mistakes at times when you can’t make mistakes and it cost them the opportunity to win at least two games.
“It’s just how important details are,” Fox said about what the Kings learned. “We were in the race last year and we were in the race when we got to the bubble, but it’s just how every little thing matters. Every single second of every game matters. You can’t have mental lapses.”
It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Kings fans were hopeful that this team might break the spell. Instead, they're watching the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers flaunt their experience and surge into the playoff race.
They’ve even watched the talented-yet-mediocre Phoenix Suns streak past the Kings in the standings and jump right into the mix.
Sacramento isn’t the only team to fall apart in Orlando. Oddsmakers gave the New Orleans Pelicans the best odds to finish in ninth and force a play-in series for the last playoff spot, and they've completed flamed out. New Orleans is 2-4 in the bubble, despite having the easiest schedule.
The Memphis Grizzlies are 1-5 since the restart, clinging to just a half-game lead in eighth after starting the restarted season up 3.5 games on ninth.
How do the Kings take the next step and show improvement over a shortened offseason?
“It’s going to take a lot more work, but that’s what we are here for,” Fox said following the loss to the Rockets. “We’re here to win games, but we’ve got to put it together, completely.”
The Kings were a Jekyll and Hyde team all season. Sacramento started 15-29, then won 13 of the next 21 before the season suspended.
All season, you never knew which team would show up. That was firmly on display during a 1-5 start in the bubble.
“We got to be consistent,” point guard Cory Joseph said. “The inconsistency the whole year killed us. We’re a very talented team and that’s why it’s very upsetting that we’re in this position. We just have to learn from it and come back stronger.”
The Kings fought down the stretch in the restart opener, but couldn't execute in the final four minutes of their loss to the San Antionio Spurs. Sacramento was blown out by the middle-of-the-road Magic in the next game, losing a down-to-the-wire nail-biter to the Dallas Mavericks in the third.
A big win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday lifted the Kings' spirits, but they followed that up a day later with a loss to the no-name Brooklyn Nets. Joseph said the finer details are missing from Sacramento's play.
“We got to do the little things,” Joseph said. “We lost a lot of games on make shot, miss shot. To be a good team, it can’t all be predicated on that. You have to come out and have a strong identity every game on both ends of the court -- the way we move it on offense and also the way we play for each other on defense. As long as we get better at that and consistently do it on a nightly basis, we’ll be in a good position next year to make it.”
It’s back to the drawing board of Sacramento. The Kings play two more games before heading home, but then the real work begins.
Will they make changes to the coaching staff or management? It seems unlikely at this point, but they have some major decisions to make with the roster as they prepare for another season that’s just around the corner.