How did the Kings drop from 5th seed to play-in tournament so quickly? Here are two big reasons

There’s a drastically different feeling around the Sacramento Kings this spring compared to when they ended their historic 16-season playoff drought a year ago.

This year’s team struggled down the stretch, going 3-7 in 10 critical games before Sunday’s blowout win over the mailing-it-in Portland Trail Blazers. Sacramento finished in the No. 9 spot in the NBA’s Western Conference standings, forcing the Kings to take on the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament Tuesday in a rematch of last year’s memorable seven-game series.

“We put ourselves in that spot,” De’Aaron Fox said after a practice Monday. “We lost games that we probably shouldn’t have lost and that put us in this position.”

Fox and the Kings last season were celebrated for earning the No. 3 seed in the West by finishing 48-34, which was only two games better than their regular-season record this year (46-36).

So why did the Kings finish so much further down in the standings despite the record being only slightly worse?

Late-season injuries and tough competition in the conference played a big role.

Last year, Sacramento was one of the NBA’s most healthy teams, with eight players appearing in at least 73 of 82 regular-season games. This year, just four players appeared in 73 games.

The Kings limped into the postseason with starting shooting guard Kevin Huerter lost for the season after recent shoulder surgery and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malik Monk out Tuesday, nearly three weeks removed from his MCL sprain in his right knee. Kings coach Mike Brown said Monk had “zero chance” of playing Tuesday.

Huerter’s injury came March 18 against the Memphis Grizzlies, with Monk’s coming six games later, March 29 against the Dallas Mavericks. The timing of those injuries, paired with other teams in the Western Conference surging after the All-Star break, played a role in Sacramento’s descent.

Another challenge for the Kings this season: Some of the West’s top players were simply more available.

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard appeared in 16 more games this season than last. Kevin Durant dealt with injuries and only played eight games for the Phoenix Suns last season after being acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a trade just before February’s deadline; this season, he played 75. Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving, also acquired from Brooklyn last year, played 38 more games this season for Dallas than a year ago.

Only two teams had winning percentages higher than .600 last season. That number increased to five this year, while the No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans and No. 7 Suns each finished at .598.

The Kings were as high as the No. 5 seed Feb. 25 after beating the Clippers in a stirring performance on the road. But they finished 13-13 in the games thereafter. Four teams hopped them in the standings over that span with better records: Dallas (17-8), Phoenix (15-9), New Orleans (15-9) and the Lakers (16-7).

The Warriors, who finished 10th in the West, also went 17-9 over that stretch.

Sacramento was missing its top two shooting guards on Tuesday in Monk and Huerter, but overall the group has been hardened by experiences this year — and by squaring off against the Warriors in last spring’s playoffs when Golden State was defending its championship title from 2022.

“One of the things we’ve been preaching is playing with a level of physicality for as close to 48 minutes as we can,” Brown said Monday. “We’re getting better with that. The exciting part is we still have a lot of room to grow in that area. But we’re better at that than what we were, shoot, last year, and even earlier into this season.

“There’s a little bit more confidence in who we are too, or who we can be. Last year, it was a little bit of an unknown.”

Fox played the final three games of last year’s Warriors series with a fractured index finger in his left shooting hand. It was suffered in the fourth quarter of Game 4 when he scored 38 points while Sacramento was a last-second 3-pointer from Harrison Barnes away from taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Golden State, of course, went on to win in seven games behind a record-setting 50-point performance from Stephen Curry in Game 7.

The Kings hoped to have a better plan to slow Curry and Golden State’s offense, which ranked 10th in the NBA, averaging 116.9 points per 100 possessions. Sacramento had the No. 6-ranked defense over the final 15 games this year, up from No. 17 over the last 15 regular season games of 2023.

“They’re just so good, so talented offensively,” Brown said of the Warriors. “They can put up 140 points in the blink of an eye. Steph can put up a 40 or 50 piece in the blink of an eye. If we let them get comfortable, it can be a long night for us. And so the physicality has to be there, especially defensively.”