For sports fans, expectations often lead to disappointment.
As we head into the NBA All-Star Break, both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings find themselves comfortably in the playoff picture. But expectations for the two Northern California franchises could not have been more different heading into the 2022-23 campaign, leaving their fan bases in polar opposite camps.
The Warriors were expected to hit the ground running this season after yet another championship run last year, resulting in the team’s fourth NBA Championship of the past decade. Meanwhile, the Kings were hoping to just make the playoffs, a feat that Sacramento hasn’t accomplished in 16 years.
So for the current third seed in the West, Kings fans are understandably ecstatic about the trajectory and potential of their squad, while Warriors fans are left wondering if they will even make it out of the Play-In tournament in a suddenly stacked Western Conference.
With only about a quarter of the season left, let’s take a deeper look into how these teams got to where they are now, the effect that several moves made at the trade deadline last week may have, and their respective outlooks going forward.
How did we get here?
The Golden State Warriors head into the All-Star break sitting at 29-29 on the season, 5-5 in their last 10 and currently hold the ninth seed in the conference. At this same time last season, the Dubs were 42-17. So what happened?
Well, as is often the case, injuries have taken their toll. Guard Stephen Curry, the 2022 NBA Finals MVP, and forward Andrew Wiggins, arguably the second most impactful player during last year’s run, have missed a combined 43 games due to injury.
Additionally, while General Manager Bob Myers and the rest of Golden State’s front office were able to keep their core intact, they were unable to bring back everyone, including letting go of fan-favorite defensive ace Gary Payton II and assistant coach Mike Brown (more on them later).
But at the end of the day, injuries and off-season changes are a reality for every team in the NBA. And in this league, you are what your record says you are.
Anthony Slater, Warriors insider and reporter at The Athletic, believes that the on-court results have been accurately portrayed in the win-loss column and by their season statistics as a whole. He tweeted after their most recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, “Warriors will enter the All-Star break with a profile very representative of their play this season. Record: 29-29… Offensive ranking: 14th. Defensive ranking: 15th. Seed: 9th.” (@anthonyVslater)
As the motor and vocal leader of that defense, forward Draymond Green echoed similar sentiments when expressing his frustration with their middling results this season after last year’s title-winning run. “I don’t think it’s a championship hangover. You’re not hungover at .500 60 games into the season. You’re a loser if you’re still hungover at that point.” (@anthonyVslater)
While Golden State has been dealing with inconsistencies this season uncommon in the Steph-Klay-Draymond era, the new-and-improved Sacramento Kings have shocked the NBA world by consistently playing some of the best basketball in the entire Western Conference.
The Kings, who haven’t made the playoffs an NBA-record 16 seasons in a row, would have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today. Their record of 32-25 is good enough for third place in the West, only three games behind the second seed Memphis Grizzlies.
Led by Head Coach Mike Brown, hired this past off-season after winning the 2022 NBA Championship as a member of the Warriors coaching staff, Sacramento has looked nothing like the team that was 22-38 this time last year and went on to finish 12th in the West.
One of only three NBA teams to have multiple players named to the All-Star team this year, the Kings have been getting stellar contributions from guard De’Aaron Fox (first All-Star appearance) and forward-center Domantas Sabonis (third All-Star appearance) all season.
Acquired at last season’s trade deadline from the Indiana Pacers, Sabonis has fit in perfectly as a pick-and-roll partner and playmaker for Fox, leading the league in rebounds (12.3 per game) and helping Fox reach new levels of efficiency (career-best 59.5 true-shooting percentage).
General Manager Monte McNair, who was tasked by team owner Vivek Ranadive to end their historic playoff-drought, made a handful of off-season moves to support the Fox-Sabonis duo. Key moves included trading for sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from the Atlanta Hawks (39.2% on threes this season), drafting Iowa standout Keegan Murray (leads all rookies in three-pointer made), and bulking up the second-unit by signing guard Malik Monk (13.4 points per game off-the-bench).
For a fan base that would have been content with a Play-In berth, the Kings have a realistic chance at winning 50 games for the first time since the 2004-05 season and, barring a collapse, will break their playoff drought with a chance to do even more damage.
Effects of wild trade deadline
Calling this season’s NBA trade deadline ‘wild’ may be an understatement.
For a period that saw two of the league’s premier players traded within days of the other, along with plenty of other quality acquisitions for contending teams, the Western Conference now looks completely different.
The Dallas Mavericks shocked the NBA world when they acquired guard Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets only days after the superstar demanded a trade. A few days later, the Phoenix Suns became the on-paper favorites out West after trading a haul of key players and draft picks for former-Warrior and two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who requested a trade shortly after Irving was dealt.
The Suns, similar to the Warriors, have been a disappointment to this point in the season after having the best-record in basketball (64-18) last year. While Durant is still recovering from a knee injury, the potential of a fully-healthy Suns team is reminiscent of the Durant-led Warriors teams of the past, an absolute juggernaut that won back-to-back championships in 2017 and 2018.
Time will tell whether the new pairing of fellow All-Stars Irving and guard Luka Doncic in Dallas will have a similar impact on the Western Conference, but Irving is undoubtedly the most talented player Doncic has played with to this point in his NBA career.
Both teams from Los Angeles, the Lakers and Clippers, also made significant moves in the hopes of keeping up with the new superteams in the conference.
Yet, both the Kings and Warriors were relatively quiet.
Sacramento, a surprise team that some thought may make a move to better their playoff aspirations, only made one trade, acquiring young three-and-d wing Kessler Edwards from the Nets. Edwards has yet to get any meaningful minutes since the trade, and seems likely for a reserve/injury insurance role moving forward.
McNair, when asked about the team’s inactivity at the trade deadline, had this to say at a following press conference, “we want to continue to let this group grow and gel together and continue on the improvement path that they’ve been set on.” (NBCSports)
Golden State also made only one notable move, but it was certainly shocking. In a trade that brought back guard Gary Payton II (a member of last season’s championship rotation who had signed with the Portland Trail Blazers during Free Agency), the Warriors shipped off former number two overall pick James Wiseman to the Detroit Pistons in a four-team trade.
Moving off of Wiseman only a few years after drafting him clearly shows that the Warriors were not happy with his development and, more importantly, his current fit with a team that is in win-now mode. And while bringing back Payton seems like a no-brainer, a lingering core muscle injury will keep the guard from suiting up for an indefinite amount of time. GM Bob Myers is hoping “to have him back on the floor before the postseason begins in April,” per CBSSports.com.
Season outlook post-All-Star break
Sacramento, on the strength of their league-leading offense (119.5 points per game, first in NBA), have put themselves in an enviable position as the third seed in the conference. But going 6-7 over their past 13 games has shrunk their lead to only one game ahead of the surging Kawhi Leonard-led Los Angeles Clippers and one-and-a-half games ahead of the new-look Phoenix Suns.
With 25 games remaining, and Durant set to join the Suns following the All-Star break, the Kings will need to finish the season strong if they hope to hold onto one of the top-4 seeds in the conference and claim home court advantage in the first round. 18 of their remaining 25 games are against current playoff/Play-In teams.
Golden State is currently one game back of securing a playoff spot and avoiding the Play-In tournament while also only one game ahead of missing the tournament altogether.
Of their remaining 24 games, 21 of the contests pit the Warriors up against teams either in the playoffs or within three games of their current seed. Unlike Sacramento, this Warriors’ team has as much high-leverage game experience as any team in the league, but there is another troubling development that has Warriors fans worried for this critical final stretch.
Stephen Curry, as previously mentioned, has missed his fair share of games this season due to injury. His current one may be the most troubling.
When the 34 year old has been healthy, he’s put together one of his more efficient all-around seasons in years (29.4 points, 6.4 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game with a 66.5 true-shooting percentage). But the 9-time NBA All-Star has missed the team’s last 5 games and will not be able to suit up for this weekend’s All-Star game with “partial tears in two lower-leg ligaments.” (CBSSports.com)
And while the Warriors have dominated at the Chase Center (22-7 at home), their road record of 7-22 is one of the worst in the league. Half of their remaining games are on the road.
For Kings fans, expectations have been blown out of the water. But now comes the true test. Can a team that has done so well to this point in the season step up and hold their own, with a young core of players who have mostly never played meaningful late-season basketball before?
On the flip side, can the Warriors withstand the improvement of familiar foes while pushing their way up the Western Conference standings? And can guards Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson continue to shoulder their load of offensive production with Steph likely out for a few weeks longer?
More than halfway through the campaign, expectations rightfully should be adjusted. But with the Kings’ newly found confidence and swagger, and the battle-tested Warriors’ unmatched resume, Bay Area sports fans aren’t likely to sell their stock just yet.
Let the games begin.