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Sacramento Kings on the rise at the worst time in the wrong conference

The Sacramento Kings are a team on the rise at the wrong time in the wrong conference.

Last season was an enormous step in the right direction for the Kings. They went 39-43, their youth took the next step in their development, and they were in the playoff mix for the bulk of the regular season.

As a result of their eye-opening regular season and continued growth, the NBA world classified the Kings as a team on the upswing poised to make noise in the Western Conference in the near future. And why wouldn’t you think that?

With the likes of Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Bogdan Bogdanovic in place, the Kings arguably have the best young core in the sport among teams who were on the outside looking in at the playoffs last season.

Hield has come into his own as one of the best guards in the NBA. He’s a stout defender, an efficient shooter, and can score in a multitude of ways. Last season, Hield averaged a career-high 20.7 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and a career-high 42.7 percent from beyond the arc.

Fox is one of the best young guards in the NBA. He’s quick, blows by defenders to get inside, has a knack for finding the open man, and is a respectable defender. Averaging 17.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.6 steals per game last season, Fox was the driving force of the Kings offense and a reliable player on both ends of the floor.

Selected with the number two pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Bagley gradually improved in his rookie season. He showcased an ability to use his athleticism, by way of scoring inside and hitting the boards at a high rate. Last season, Bagley averaged an impressive 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, and one block per game while mostly coming off the bench.

Bogdanovic became a more vital source of offense for the Kings last season. In his two years in the NBA, he has shown an ability to score off the dribble, hit outside jump shots, and be a steady contributor in the team’s scoring efforts. Last season, Bogdanovic averaged 14.1 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game.

In the offseason, the Kings retained Harrison Barnes (four-year, $85 million deal), who they acquired from the Dallas Mavericks at last season’s NBA trade deadline, while adding Trevor Ariza (two-year, $25 million deal) and Dewayne Dedmon (three-year, $40 million deal).

This team is in store for a big 2019-20 season, right? Well, not quite. There’s an enormous obstacle in their way, and that’s the insurmountable number of teams in the West who have beefed up their rosters and have the firepower to win the conference.

Despite losing Kevin Durant to free agency and dealing with Klay Thompson’s torn ACL, the Golden State Warriors, who have won the West in each of the last five seasons, brought in D’Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein in the offseason and are still a potent foe; the Denver Nuggets have only improved each year and were the two seed in the West last season; the Portland Trail Blazers, who made it to the Western Conference Finals last season, acquired star center Hassan Whiteside.

The Utah Jazz added Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Ed Davis to a roster that’s been a playoff fixture and is one of the best defensive units in the NBA; the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Anthony Davis to play alongside LeBron James; the Los Angeles Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; the San Antonio Spurs are a playoff fixture with proven veteran players; the Dallas Mavericks are entering year-one of the Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis era.

Can you definitively say that the Kings are better than six of the aforementioned eight teams? It’s not to say that they can’t sneak into the playoffs, but the road map to playoff success is a complicated read.

When a team has young studs such as Hield, Fox, Bagley, and Bogdanovic, they’re supposed to be a dark horse to make the playoffs every year. When you incorporate the veteran talent they signed in the offseason, as well as the continuity their roster has, the Kings should be a playoff team.

They have great camaraderie, have improved as a team in each of the last two seasons, and have an offense that’s only going to improve. And with veteran forwards such as Barnes and Ariza present, the Kings youngsters will be supplemented by experience and outside shooting — which enhances new head coach Luke Walton’s offense.

If we put the Kings in the Eastern Conference, the notion surrounding the franchise would be that they’re a playoff team and perhaps a unit that could give teams headaches in a seven-game series. Outside of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, there are little to no championship contenders in the East, and the bottom half of the playoff picture is a guessing game on a yearly basis, next season included.

What really stinks for the Kings’ sake is that the teams they’re going to be competing with for the playoffs have plenty of years left to win a title; most of their cores are young and/or have been significantly improved.

Now, that’s not to say that some teams couldn’t take a step back, or see their title window close in a couple years, but teams like the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, and Clippers have rosters just beginning to tap into their potential, as well as growing stars. Meanwhile, the Warriors and Lakers have stars in their primes who are plenty of years away from a noticeable regression.

There’s also the star movement factor. While there’s no indication that Hield or Fox would want to bolt Sacramento when they hit free agency, if the Kings continually miss the playoffs, or get eliminated in the first round on a yearly basis, they could potentially want to leave to sign with a contender. And if the Kings sought to make a blockbuster trade in hopes of moving up the conference, it would involve moving on from a prominent part of their core; they’re not going to want to do that.

By no fault of their own, the Kings have an uncertain road ahead, no matter the youth and depth in their rotation.