The Kings clinch winning record for the first time in 16 years, but where do they go from here?

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Friday, March 17, 2023

NEW YORK -- As the final seconds ebbed away in the Sacramento Kings' 101-96 victory over the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on Thursday night, Kings fans began a loud "Light The Beam!" chant.

It was a celebratory night on a few levels. The victory was Sacramento's eighth in its past 10 games -- the best record of any team in the NBA in that span. It also pushed the Kings a half-game in front of the Memphis Grizzlies for the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

But, in the immediate, it did something bigger: It gave the Kings 42 victories, ensuring Sacramento has a winning record this season.

That might not sound like a big deal. But consider this: The 2022-23 season marks the first time Sacramento has posted a winning record since the 2005-06 season, a span of 16 seasons -- an NBA record.

The second-longest streak? Held by the Kings, too, from 1983 to 1998.

"If anything, it means a lot for the fans and the organization," Kings coach Mike Brown said after the game. "Sacramento, it's a proud fan base. Hardworking fan base up in the city and they don't get a lot of love around the nation citywise, or even in the state of California citywise. So to be able to pound their chest and be able to walk with their heads high and talk with their friends to have a little bit of bragging rights, it's great.

"It's a little tough for me, because I don't equate March 16 with 42 wins. We're just trying to go after as many as we can while trying to play the right way -- especially this time of year."

For the Kings and their fans, this time of year has rarely been about getting ready for the playoffs.

Until this season, the only coach to have posted a winning record -- or even 40 wins in a season -- with the Kings was Rick Adelman, who did so each season from 1998-99 to 2005-06.

To say those were the glory years for this franchise in its nearly 40 years in Sacramento is an understatement. Those Kings, led by Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac, went to the playoffs eight consecutive seasons -- eight of the 11 total times the team has made the playoffs in Sacramento -- including three trips to the Western Conference semifinals and an extremely memorable seven-game showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals in 2002.

For Brown, success is something he's accustomed to in the NBA. He has had six winning seasons in his career as a head coach, including five with a winning percentage above .600. He has won a Coach of the Year award (and is the heavy favorite to win a second this year), has coached in an NBA Finals and has won a playoff series in every season he has coached a team to the postseason.

That doesn't include spending the past six seasons with the Golden State Warriors as Steve Kerr's top assistant, a stretch that included three NBA championships and another trip to the NBA Finals, nor his prior deep playoff runs as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers.

It was that message -- that Brown knows what winning in the NBA looks like, and that he believes the Kings can achieve it -- that he preached to his players from the time he took the job last summer.

"I've been talking to the guys from day one, so internally, it's been pretty easy, because the guys understand what my messaging has been all along, and they understand how passionate I am about it," Brown said. "I do feel that that group believes in themselves. Not just because I'm telling them they're good, but because they've gone out and proven it time after time after time, whether it's individually in certain situations, or collectively as a team.

"When you have a team that believes, they can be dangerous. When you've got a collected team that believes, that can be a very dangerous team. That's what our group is right now."

It's easy to see why. Although outside observers waited for the bottom to fall out of Sacramento's season, the Kings kept on winning. Domantas Sabonis, who had 24 points, 21 rebounds and 5 assists in Thursday night's win, is on pace to potentially make an All-NBA team. So, too, is De'Aaron Fox, who is also a shoo-in to win the league's first Clutch Player of the Year award, something he once again validated with his game winner to beat the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night on the front end of Sacramento's back-to-back sweep.

Meanwhile, lottery pick Keegan Murrayhas stepped into a key role in the starting lineup and immediately produced, while Kevin Huerter, an offseason acquisition in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks, has solidified the starting 2-guard spot next to Fox, hitting 41% of his 3s on high volume.

They've also, as Brown said postgame, been blessed with good health -- something that took a hit when Huerter landed awkwardly in the first quarter and left the game with a hamstring injury. Sources said, however, that there was optimism Huerter hadn't suffered any structural issues, though an MRI would determine the severity of the hamstring injury.

And while there are many star-studded Western Conference teams struggling in the morass that is the battle to make the play-in tournament -- including teams like the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks,LA Clippers, Lakers and Warriors -- the Kings have had none of the lapses in form that those teams have had this season.

That is why the Kings are on pace to do a lot more than just win 42 games -- and why they were nonplussed at the idea of this being a momentous win for them.

"I don't think anybody on our team was coming into the season like, 'We want a winning record,'" Fox said. "But I think it's good. I think it's good for the franchise, it's good for the city, it's good for the fan base to finally get that out of the way.

"But, for us, we know that we still want to do bigger things."

Doing bigger things, though, requires accomplishing big things first. Breaking the league's longest streak of consecutive losing seasons was the first thing on the list. Soon, the Kings will check off another one: snapping their 16-season drought without making the playoffs -- the longest in NBA history, and the current longest active streak among the four major North American professional sports leagues.

The Kings, though, are hungry for more. And, after the way this season has played out, they have every reason to believe that more is possible.

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