As we approach the NBA playoff season, the Western Conference is rich with uncertainty. I thought we could briefly focus on the particular case of the Sacramento Kings. They are pretty locked into the three seed and have none of the historical baggage of many of the other teams in the conference. Yet, there is an undercurrent that the Kings offense-only style is not a real threat.
Currently, the Kings are 47-31 (after a bad loss to the Spurs) but the team lacks balance. The Kings have the NBA’s top offense but are 24th on defense and are 11th in pace. Even in this high scoring era, pace tends to slow down in the playoffs and scoring is usually harder to come by. How unprecedented would it be for a team with the Kings’ defense to make a deep playoff run?
I looked back to the start of this Steph Curry Three Point Era in 2014-15, to see if any teams made the conference finals with a team with as extreme an offensive makeup as the Kings. Here’s the list of conference finalists together with their offense, defense, and pace rankings during this time:
Over this span, conference finals teams have an average offense rank of 6th in the NBA and a defense average rank of 9th. A few teams (some LeBron Cavs teams and the 2020-21 Hawks) have been offense-only in the regular season and have made the conference finals but there are some significant differences between those teams and these Kings.
The LeBron James Cavs teams were bad on defense (21st in 2016-17 and 29th in 2017-18) but it was pretty clear that LBJ was coasting during the regular season and the Cavs were a different team in the post-season. Most recently, the Hawks snuck into the Eastern Conference Finals with the 21st defense but they were slower paced than the Kings and they had the help of the sui generis event of Ben Simmons’ meltdown.
If we go beyond the Curry Era, the most similar team to the Kings was the 2009-10 Suns with late stage Steve Nash. Phoenix was 1st on offense, 23rd on defense and 4th in pace. They were dispatched by the Lakers. Earlier versions of the Nash Suns also had similar splits and made the WCF.
In short, the past data isn’t great for the Kings unless they are as good offensively as those old Suns teams. The Kings could easily win the first round but the Kings’ path to the WCF is quite narrow. We will revisit this when the playoff seeding becomes clearer.