West’s eighth seed is there for the Kings’ taking
Since the turn of the century, the Western Conference has consistently fielded more winners than the East. In fact the West has produced a higher cumulative winning percentage than the East in 14 of the past 15 regular seasons (2008-09 being the exception). In 2014-15 the disparity was an all-time high, as the Western Conference won 56.7 percent of their games while their East counterparts gained 43.2 percent.
As the New Orleans Hornets essentially proved in 2004 when they switched from the East to the West, playing in one conference or the other can be the difference between making or missing the postseason. A club may be dominant in comparison to Eastern rivals, whereas the same roster will look pedestrian when pitted in a division of powerhouse Western foes.
In the case of the Sacramento Kings, they have countless reasons on and off the court for their nine-year playoff drought. Needless to say playing in the West has been an undeniable factor. The Kings have won 30 or more games just twice in the span, yet it’s easy to feel their discouragement when a squad like the 2013-14 Suns misses the postseason despite earning 48 wins.
It seems the pity party can finally wind down, because the West’s landscape is slightly eroding. The West’s juggernauts are still to be feared, but the thinning of a few mid-tier franchises have afforded the Kings a little wiggle room to make a move for the eighth seed.
Barring a catastrophic plague of injuries or locker room meltdown, the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs are locks to secure a playoff bid. The New Orleans Pelicans, who snuck into the playoffs last April are expected to return as superstar Anthony Davis continues his ascension.
Two playoff teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks, suffered a talent purge in the summer. The Trail Blazers lost four of five starters including All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The Mavericks saw DeAndre Jordan slip through their fingers, gutted their bench and replaced Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis with the aging Deron Williams and damaged Wesley Matthews. A regression for Portland and Dallas all but inevitable, two playoff seeds will be up for grabs leaving the Kings and the rest of the lot to duke it out.
Assuming a healthy Kevin Durant reverts the Oklahoma City Thunder back to its winning ways, the reality could be that there’s only one playoff spot to claim. Looking at the West’s bottom feeders from last season, it’s fair to say every team improved so the Kings will have serious competition.
The Phoenix Suns added Tyson Chandler and have high aspirations for their Brandon Knight/Eric Bledsoe backcourt. After a 21-11 finish to 2015, the Utah Jazz hang their hopes on a maturing, high-ceiling core. The Denver Nuggets jettisoned a cancerous presence in Ty Lawson, a case of subtraction by addition, and the Los Angeles Lakers infused their roster with competant veterans. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves appear to be on the upswing after drafting Karl Anthony-Towns.
Fortunately for the Kings, the aforementioned clubs all come with potentially lethal flaws. The Suns’ Markieff Morris is demanding a trade, and Jazz starting point guard Dante Exum will miss the year with an ACL tear. The Nuggets’ roster is a mishmash of role players, and the Lakers’ hopes live and die with a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant. The Timberwolves are likely remaining a work in progress as they set out to build chemistry and develop their lottery picks.
The Kings’ success in 2014-15 will be ultimately determined by their ability to mesh after flipping over the roster, but this time the players and coaches will know their wins aren’t in vain. A window propped open with a twig stands in front of the Kings, so we’ll see if they seize the opportunity.