Kings’ 16-year playoff drought comes to end

After a 16-year hiatus, it was only right that the Sacramento Kings punched their own ticket back into the NBA playoffs, with a 120-80 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

The Kings had been eligible to qualify for the playoffs since Saturday but had been coming up shy of getting the needed wins from themselves and other teams. Entering play Wednesday, Sacramento was set to clinch its first playoff berth since the 2005-06 season with a road win against the Trail Blazers, a Minnesota Timberwolves road loss against the Phoenix Suns or an LA Clippers road loss against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But the Kings did it on their own, beating the Blazers after the Clippers won and before the Wolves game came to a conclusion.

“I guess this would be like relief. People can’t keep saying it. It’s over and done with,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “We want to do bigger things. But [16] years, it’s a long time. It feels great to get it off of us.”

The Kings also were insistent that returning to the postseason is not the final destination on their journey.

“We know what our goal is. It’s not just to make the playoffs. It’s to make noise there,” guard Malik Monk said.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s victory, the numerous Kings fans at the game at the Moda Center in Portland chanted the new rallying call of “Light the Beam,” referencing the purple beam the team started lighting over its home arena of Golden 1 Center after every win this season.

“It would have been nice for us to do it at home for them and for them to see this,” forward Harrison Barnes said about the fans. “That was a letdown for them. But for all the support they have had over the years, to continue to come to the arena after frustration, heartbreak and disappointment season after season, to finally get this moment, it was everything.”

Said coach Mike Brown: “We want to give [the fans] a lot more than we’ve given them so far already because they’re more than deserving of it. And, you know, when you have a fan base that’s as intelligent, rather passionate about not only their team, but their city, too, you could feel it’s a prideful thing. You want the world for them and you’re excited about it. We want them to celebrate, but we, we also expect more from us and we expect to hopefully give them more.”

When it comes to the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA, there was no franchise with a playoff drought longer than the 16-year one that belonged to the Kings. The 2005-06 Kings won 44 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs. Since then, Sacramento had been the jester of the NBA, failing to earn a winning record in any season entering 2022-23. The small-market franchise was stymied by numerous bad draft picks since 2006 while passing on the now-NBA superstars likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine, Bam Adebayo, Luka Doncic and Trae Young. There was also a revolving door of 12 head coaches. A near-move to Seattle was halted by late NBA commissioner David Stern and the NBA board of governors relocation committee. The Kings even traded then-NBA All-Star DeMarcus Cousins on the day of the 2017 All-Star Game.

When the Kings acquired Domantas Sabonis for up-and-coming young star Tyrese Haliburton last season, the expectation was that they had made yet another bad trade. But on the contrary, it was a win-win for both teams, as Sabonis and Fox immediately showed the makings of a superstar duo, and both became 2023 NBA All-Stars. Come training camp, former NBA champion Barnes was still on the roster and a capable scorer to go alongside Fox and Sabonis. Sacramento also drafted Keegan Murray, a Las Vegas summer league MVP who on Wednesday set the NBA record for 3-pointers made by a rookie.

The Kings acquired two hot-scoring veteran guards, Monk and Kevin Huerter, who both predicted a playoff appearance during their introductory news conference. And last but not least, Sacramento hired Brown after he had coached the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers and won three championships as an associate head coach with the Warriors. Brown, a projected front-runner for the 2023 NBA Coach of the Year award, has pushed his players to dream bigger than just making it to the postseason.

“It wasn’t just our goal to just make the playoffs,” Brown said previously. “Hey, let’s be like everybody else. Let’s try to win a championship just like everybody else. That’s why we’re doing this and don’t set a bar that’s too low for us to attain as a group. So, we’ve been talking positively about our season from day one. And trying to instill that belief in them from day one has been a big focus of mine.

“The guys seem to believe it and buy into it, and every little win or every little success that we have as a group has just added fuel to the fire and helped with the belief, which is extremely important. Sometimes you can have a team that people may view as maybe not as talented as another team, but if they’re connected, they believe they can be a dangerous group.”

The Kings looked like the same ol’ Kings when they opened this season with an 0-4 record. However, they rebounded quickly and began garnering some notice that they might be for real when they arrived to 2023 with a 19-15 mark. The Kings entered Wednesday’s road game against the Trail Blazers with a 45-30 overall record and a Western Conference-best 22-14 away mark.

Former Kings center Brad Miller, who played on the franchise’s last playoff team, said he began believing today’s Kings were for real in December.

“They lost early in the season, and everyone got on the Kings,” Miller, who played for the franchise from 2003 to 2009, told ESPN. “But the road record has been great for them. You saw them come together. Sabonis has been a playmaker that has helped get Fox more open for what he is better at, too. The strengths have been pulled out from everyone this season.”

To longtime Kings employees, the thought of finally being back in the postseason has made them emotional of late. Brown said longtime Kings equipment manager Miguel Lopez cried in the hallway near the team locker room after a win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, knowing that a postseason berth was looming. Chief operating officer Matina Kolokotronis, who has been with the franchise for 26 years, told ESPN she cried on Sunday night while reflecting and after the Kings made it official on Wednesday night while watching from her Sacramento home.

“No words. Just gratitude and love,” Kolokotronis told ESPN.

Kolokotronis said Kings owner Vivek Ranadive called her after the berth was clinched. Ranadive didn’t make the trip to Portland because he has pneumonia. Kings general manager Monte McNair tweeted out, “Playoffs here we come!”

The Kings have not played an NBA postseason game since May 5, 2006, at Arco Arena in Sacramento. As a projected higher seed, the Kings are expected to host their first playoff game in 17 years at the Golden 1 Center in downtown. Miller, a regular at Kings home games, might tailgate with the fans once the playoffs arrive.

“They haven’t made the playoffs since I was here,” Miller said. “I’ve been watching them all of these years. I told one of my friends it will be awesome to be on the other side experiencing this as a fan when they make it. They were tailgating three to four hours before a playoff game at the first one I was at in Arco [Arena]. These fans are into it. We can finally get to see the true potential at Golden 1 Center.”

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