Domantas Sabonis

Kings players agree two factors led to ‘frustrating' 2023-24 season

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SACRAMENTO – Roughly one year ago Monday, the energy inside the media room at Golden 1 Center during the Kings’ exit interviews was high, positive and hopeful.

Their magical 2022-23 NBA season ended in heartbreaking fashion, but they snapped a 16-season playoff drought while re-instilling a sense of promise for the future back into the basketball-loving town of Sacramento.

But after completing the 2023-24 season two wins short of last season's record yet falling six spots down in the standings, there was a much different vibe from the players Monday morning at Golden 1.

And that was summarized perfectly by one word repeated at the podium: Disappointment.

“It's definitely very disappointing how it ended,” Kings star center Domantas Sabonis said during his exit interview. “It's frustrating. It's tough to even watch the playoffs, knowing that we could be there fighting.

“So the fact that we're not in the postseason is definitely hard to swallow right now.”

The 11 other players who spoke to reporters Monday echoed that sentiment.

Sure, the Kings are trending in the right direction and, compared to what this franchise has been for nearly two decades, a 46-win season isn’t terrible.

But that wasn’t and isn’t the mindset of this team, which is hungry for more.

“I think everyone's still trying to process the abruptness of the end of the season,” Harrison Barnes said. “But I think when you look at all the goals that we had coming into the season, I think the goal was making the playoffs. So to miss that, it’s a bit of a disappointing feeling.”

Sacramento finished this season with a 46-36 record, “good” enough for the Western Conference’s No. 9 playoff seed. It finished 48-34 one year ago, which secured the No. 3 seed and home-court advantage in its first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

Things change quickly around the league, though, and the Kings learned that the hard way this season.

Kings general manager Monte McNair and Co. had good intentions by “running things back” with the same core and essentially the same exact team as last season’s. It was cute. It was inspiring. It gave the players confidence – which is important – that the front office had faith in the group’s ability as is. But as the Kings relied on consistency and togetherness, the rest of the West was aggressive, made moves and got better.

“Obviously it's a disappointing ending,” Kings star point guard De’Aaron Fox said Monday. “We wanted to continue to play for more. I don't think we were bad this year, but obviously the West got tougher and I don't think we stepped up to that plate. 

“We can look at countless games where we had the lead or games we should have won, and you look back at that and it definitely bit us in the back coming toward the end of the season.”

No season is going to be picture perfect. There will be the ups and downs. Injuries. Slumps. Adversity, and so on.

But one of the most bizarre trends that hung over the Kings like a cloud this season was losing games where they once had large leads and falling to subpar teams.

The Kings went 15-8 against six of this season’s eight Western Conference playoff teams -- 4-0 against the Los Angeles Lakers, 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets, 2-1 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 2-2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns. Comparatively, Sacramento lost to non-playoff teams including the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards (h/t The Athletic).

After the first time, you think to yourself, ‘OK, it happens.’ But when the first couple of times became a notorious theme of this team, it turned into a growing concern -- and, ultimately, all the difference in how the season ended.

Had the Kings not let five or six of those games slip out of their hands, they wouldn’t have been speaking to the media Monday morning. They would be competing in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Those “what ifs” have weighed heavily on Kings second-year forward Keegan Murray.

“That was a big thing that I kind of reminisced on,” Murray admitted. “I feel like a lot of games, I think we had a stretch the last couple of weeks where we had 20-point leads and couldn’t maintain that lead. And you see the bigger things in games in the middle of the year that we should have won that we lost. 

“Obviously during the season, you're going to have close games, and you're not going to win every single close game, but a lot of games I felt like were easily controllable, so that's obviously frustrating and disappointing. It's just something that I see as a team we have to get better at.”

There is no good in playing the blame game after a disappointing end to a season. But the dozen Kings players who spoke Monday seem to be in agreement on two things as to why and how their season ended earlier than they would have liked. From what they were able to control, it was the winnable losses. What they aren’t necessarily tasked with controlling is the personnel side of things. 

The Kings witnessed the West get better, and it will only get tougher going forward. That responsibility lies upon the front office, which has a big offseason ahead with significant decisions to make. Those will come a later time.

For now, one thing is for certain: 10, heck, maybe five years ago, this team and this city would have been celebrating a 46-win season. But after experiencing a season full of expectations for the first time in a long time, reality checked in for the Kings.

How they respond next season will be the true test, and how they separate themselves from a good to a great team could make all the difference.

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