It’s an old saying: Happiness is tied to expectations.
On Valentine’s Day, with a 30-27 record at the All-Star break, the Sacramento Kings looked poised to push for their first NBA playoff spot since 2006. Those aspirations suffered a body blow after last week’s defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the teams the Kings are chasing in the standings. It would be their fourth loss in five games, including a tough two-point setback in Golden State, and a one-point overtime loss to the Bucks. The Kings took the best teams in each respective conference down to the wire, but they wanted more than moral victories. The demoralizing stretch shrank their postseason odds to just five percent.
Back in October, preseason projections pegged Sacramento to win around 19 to 25 games and finish as one of the worst teams in the league. Then the season started. After a rough rookie year, De’Aaron Fox took a huge leap forward and established himself as a franchise cornerstone. Buddy Hield blossomed into one of the best shooters in the league. Marvin Bagley flashed his scintillating ability, setting rookie records between injuries. Harry Giles regained the promising form the Kings gambled on after his two debilitating ACL injuries. By February, the team’s preseason expectations were shattered.
The organization is not satisfied. The weight of the playoff drought looms over the front office. The team still owes their upcoming first round pick to either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. They would prefer it not be a lottery pick, if only to save some face from the infamous Cousins trade that team general manager Vlade Divac admitted was a mistake. The deadline acquisition of the established—and much more expensive—Harrison Barnes for the emerging Justin Jackson made it clear: The Kings wanted to win now. Maybe most importantly, a playoff series would provide valuable experience for their young core.
The odds are steep, but not impossible. One thing in their favor: After that 1–4 gauntlet, Sacramento faces one of the softest remaining schedules in the league. They own the tiebreaker with the San Antonio Spurs, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot. The Clippers just traded away their best player and stand to keep their pick if they miss the playoffs, removing some urgency from their standpoint. There’s still hope, and missing the playoffs would still be a disappointment. But regardless of outcome, one thing remains certain about this team: They are finally, undeniably, happy.
If that sounds like a platitude, or hollow praise in a league where winning is everything, bear in mind that sentiment is something of a rarity right now. Unrest around the league is an issue of such concern, NBA commissioner Adam Silver addressed it directly last week.
“When I meet with them [the players], what surprises me is that they’re truly unhappy. A lot of these young men are generally unhappy,” Silver said last Friday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
“I think it’s less calculated than a lot of people think,” he went on. “The reality is that most don’t want to play together. There’s enormous jealousy amongst our players.”
Nowhere is this more evident than with Sacramento’s longtime rivals to the south, the Los Angeles Lakers, who have imploded in recent weeks. LeBron James looks like a tenured professor who naps through lectures but cannot be fired. Coach Luke Walton reportedly will be fired. The team’s young stars have one foot perpetually out the door to make way for another superstar. Last month, ESPN published the findings of a two-year investigation into last decade’s referee scandal, triggering Tim Donaghy-related PTSD everywhere—most acutely, that fateful 2003 Kings-Lakers Conference Finals. Watching this Lakers team’s demise may never take away that pain, but it’s been a delightful piece of schadenfreude for Kings fans.
While the Lakers serve as the most glaring example, they’re far from the only team that’s miserable. Kevin Durant is unhappy on one of the best teams in history. Kawhi Leonard was unhappy last year with one of the most respected franchises in all of sports. Jimmy Butler was unhappy everywhere. Kyrie Irving is unhappy depending what day of the week you ask him.
Irving’s Celtics are a perfect portent of just how fleeting happiness can be. Coming into this season, the Celtics were in maybe the most enviable situation of any team. Loaded with young talents like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, established stars in Irving and Al Horford, a deep supporting cast, a “genius” coach, and a bevy of draft assets, they had pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year without their two highest-paid players, both of whom were set to return from injury at the start of the year.
Most analysts expected the Celtics to win the Eastern Conference and push the Warriors in the finals. Thus far they’ve underachieved as a fifth seed. Celtics power forward Marcus Morris described the team’s atmosphere as “toxic,” Irving calls out players and coaches in the media and recanted on his previously stated desire to stay in Boston: “I don’t owe anybody shit.”
Suffice it to say, it can all come apart quickly. “The disease of more” is a phrase coined by Hall of Famer Pat Riley, who coached five championship teams. Riley realized those teams often fail the following season because every player who returns wants more playing time, more shots per game and more money. Now it seems the disease has become more pervasive, setting in before championships are even won.
The Kings, as of this moment, are free of that disease. They play with joy, and they have an identity. Their games are entertaining, and they run at the fastest pace in the league. Opponents have taken notice, often verbally. In a league where contracts are short and players long in the face, the Kings are an increasingly attractive free agent destination, armed with a max salary slot. They may not be the favorites to land a superstar this summer, but don’t rule them out.
The Kings are on the bubble to make the playoffs right now, but they’re playing meaningful March basketball for the first time since Pluto was a planet. There are no max contracts on the roster, nor the egos that come along with them, Dave Joerger is a dark horse Coach of the Year candidate and Vlade Divac looks to have come into his own as a GM. Fewer than 20 games remain. The only thing left to do is be happy, and enjoy the moment.