There are plenty of things to be bummed out about in basketball, these days. A referendum-style conversation is being broadly held, about the quality of the average regular season NBA game—and of the real value of an expensive ticket to go see one live. Injuries, this time of year, always make the games worse, but so does the over-abundance of contests, and the murky incentive structures within them. And in the NCAA, star power is almost totally absent from March Madness, with more and more top-flight players opting for more financially rewarding development ramps, largely invisible to the public eye. One of the few big names in the tournament is in legal trouble gnarly enough that it makes him hard to watch, and that reminds us of why mega-star Ja Morant is still away from his team in the pros.
To all of this: yuck. But there is, within basketball right now, also a bright, reliable, burningly awesome arc—of redemption, of inspiration and mirth—to be had on your television, multiple times every week. The 2022-23 Sacramento Kings are one of the great feel-good stories of not just this season, but this entire era of pro hoops. They’re stupendous! After missing the playoffs for 16 years straight, they’re now finally bound for the postseason again, and likely with home court advantage in the first round. Led by first-year head coach Mike Brown, who’s a virtual lock to get a trophy for the job he’s done, they’ve invented a devastating, league-leading offense from freshly assembled parts, on the fly.
De’Aaron Fox, the team’s MVP, has been a King since the team drafted him in 2017, and Harrison Barnes has been in Sactown since 2019. Their three partners in the starting lineup—Domantas Sabonis, Kevin Huerter, and Keegan Murray—have all been around for just a year or less, as has Sixth Man of The Year candidate Malik Monk. From this sudden convergence of talents, Brown has microwaved a Michelin-starred meal, instantly getting total buy-in from all of them as they run a system that perfectly streamlines all their skills. Fox is their most frequent pressure creator, with a first step that no one alive can deal with, but Sabonis also uses his big body to barrel to the hoop, abusing and exhausting opponents.
Together, they are one of the better thunder-and-lightning duos we’ve ever seen. They’re The Fox and The Ox, who can both race past you and clobber you all night long. Around them, Huerter, Murray, Barnes, and Monk fire open threes without thinking twice about it, and the results are spectacular. Watching a weeknight Kings home game, from a Central or Atlantic time zone, has become a sleep hygiene risk; I dare you to start watching them at 9:00 or 10:00 PM, turn it off anytime before it’s over, and then try to fall asleep at a reasonable hour, after their beautiful, surgical style has filled you with pure basketball love.
Such restless, breathless fervor courses through the Golden 1 Center, too—all the way through the TV screen, hundreds of miles away, you can feel it. Their fans, starved for relevance and competence for nearly two decades, are the image of a child who’s finally outside on the first day of Spring, every single game. Mark Jones, one of the most creative play-by-play broadcasters around, extends this joyful energy with his constant stream of wit and appreciation—”everybody eats!” he exclaims after particularly pleasant amounts of ball movement led to an easy basket. As they wash away opponents in a tidal wave of points, the crowd gets louder and louder. And upon victory, a beam of brilliant purple light is activated outside of the stadium, in ritualistic celebration. It is seen for miles around.
It’s not always this easy, but in the tighter games, Fox makes sure the Kings prevail. With the burst and lift of Zach LaVine and the precision, control, and touch of Jalen Brunson, he has become the single best clutch player in the league, regularly getting to any spot he desires and scoring from it. Sabonis has been nearly as good; when his battering ram approach doesn’t apply, his chessmaster-from-hell footwork on post-ups tends to get the job done. He also has tremendous chemistry with Huerter, who has been unlocked as a more creative presence after years of catch-and-shoot stasis with Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks.
Together, everyone involved is making good on a new chance. Fans are shedding their resentments and sour memories rapidly, every player on the team is blowing up their pre-existing reputation, and so is Brown, who has never had such raw material to prove himself with. It all amounts to one of the most surprising teams of the 21st century, with little left to prove before we speak of them as genuine title contenders. Whether the Kings get there or not, they’ve already made a cultural imprint for the ages. If you’re so fortunate as to be watching them do what they’re doing, you already know that you’ll be able to say “you had to be there” to those not around for it, decades down the line.