By Arron MacDonald
Coach MacDonald takes a glance back at one of his all-time favourite teams, making the case for their greatness and diving into one of the biggest injustices ever committed in sports...
I’ve been obsessed with the NBA since I was 10 years old, and have always been a fan of the history of the game.
It’s clear how much the league has changed over just the past ten years – as players at every position now handle the ball and shoot the three and coaches worldwide understood the true value of different shots and great spacing.
Watching games from ten (or more years) ago almost look like a different sport, as teams tried to force the ball into the post for a contested fadeaway, played iso-ball, or generally clogged the lane and got into their own way.
There's still a ton to learn from watching older teams. While all fans have a habit of focusing on the teams which won the Championship, that is inherently flawed... as probably the biggest factors in separating a championship-winning team from an also-ran remain "health" and "luck".
Instead, I'd suggest focusing on teams who led to the evolution of the game we love, and I'm going to focus on one of those today (as well as diving into a widespread conspiracy theory about just how they fell short from a title)...
In the 00’s, the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns were considered revolutionary for their pace and space – but they’d be at below league average pace (and three’s per game now).
Earlier this decade, Coach Pop’s Spurs played a “European” style of basketball, focusing on drive-and-kick motion, great ball movement and a preference for shooters at each position.
As the Spurs took a backwards step, Golden State’s “Lineup of Death” struck fear into opponents every crunch time, but with the majority of teams in the league now playing at a similar pace and in a similar style, the ‘fear’ has dissipated (even if the Warriors have the name recognition and rings to show they’re still the team to beat).
While the Suns, Spurs and Warriors have been credited for changing the style of the NBA, another team set the tone, stylistically, at the turn of the century…
When the NBA moved to Channel 4 in the late 90’s (and then onto Sky), games were on most nights.
This was in the days before “League Pass” and on-demand viewing.
It was pre-Youtube.
The best we could hope for was that the VCR allowed us to schedule a recording and didn’t accidentally record the kung-fu movie on Channel 5 instead.
So what could I do to feed my NBA habit?
Like a lot of fans, I’d try to go to bed early, and set my alarm earlier to catch the games live. While I’m (still) a Celtics fan, the Eastern conference at that time didn’t make the best viewing, so instead I regularly woke up at 2:00am to catch a team I didn’t even support… forget about the Lakers, the Sacramento Kings were the real “showtime” from the moment that Jason Williams and Chris Webber came on-board.
Over the course of a few seasons, the Kings evolved into a contender and going into 2002 it was widely accepted that they were the serious contenders for the title.
This was supposed to be the turning point for the Kings as a franchise, for Webber as a superstar and for the league as a whole.
This was how the Los Angeles Lakers were supposed to be dethroned, by the small team from inside their own state who had been fighting for respectability and a playoff berth for longer than they’d had real title aspirations.
The 2002 Kings were a legitimately ten-deep juggernaut. A superteam created in the most traditional of ways, by a clever front office and owners with deep pockets (as opposed to friends wanting to play together and scheming to do so).
The roster was simply superb. Mike Bibby and perennial sixth man of the year candidate Bobby Jackson ran the point, backed up by Mateen Cleaves, still relatively fresh from his MOP performance in the Final Four. Doug Christie and Jimmy Jackson at the off-guard with a young Damon Jones providing depth and off-balance shooting.
Small forward spot was stocked with All-Star (and super wingman) Peja Stojakovic, backed up by future All-Stars Hedo Turkogku and Gerald Wallace. Franchise cornerstones Webber and Vlade Divac were the starting bigs and were backed up by Scot Pollard, Keon Clark and Lawrence Funderburke.
Jump this team on into the late 00’s or early 10’s, this team wins 65+ games, and that’s just on paper.
Delightfully, they were allowed to get onto a basketball court, where the pieces fit beyond perfectly, and were led by the masterful Rick Adelman, ably assisted by Princeton guru Pete Carrill. They played the game superbly, and brought the advent of a European style of basketball to the NBA before it was the “in” thing to do.
The Kings thrived on slick, unselfish ball movement - particularly from the posts where Webber and Divac competed to be the “best passing big ever” (not named Walton, Sabonis, Djokovic or Russell) - and on the perimeter, they had a drive and kick game that was simply before it’s time.
Even if we decried the trade of Jason “White Chocolate” Williams for Bibby, Sacramento replaced style with substance in that move, and played simply beautiful basketball in an era only otherwise known for Shaq throwing his weight around and Tim Duncan’s ability to make a ten-foot bank shot when the Spurs were simply considered boring.
In other words, the Kings were the ray of light that kept fans entertained AND played winning basketball.
…And then it all fell apart on May 31st 2002, in game six, when the Kings squared up to the Lakers, along with Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Ted Bernhardt, who will hereby be known as the Three Stooges.
Please understand, as a Coach, I never condone "blaming the referees" for a result - particularly when we're talking about junior basketball, and referees working games primarily for their love of the sport and a little pocket money... but in the NBA? You only have to look into the recent ESPN piece rehashing the Donaghy scandal to understand that referees have absolutely affected the outcome of fixtures.
The figures are astounding. LA shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, benefitted from multiple egregious no-calls (in particular when, with the Kings somehow up one point with 12 seconds to go, Kobe maliciously elbowed Bibby in the nose trying to get free – an act which would warrant a flagrant foul and/or a suspension, but was met with the zebras swallowing their whistles). This was the night when NBA became WWE, and according to disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy, Mr Stern was every bit of Vince
McMahon as you could imagine:
“The ideal finals for me? The Lakers versus the Lakers, there’s just something about the Lakers.” – David Stern
Read and re-read the above. There was only ever one outcome of this series.
Michael Wilbon’s piece in the Washington Post surmised it beautifully, “six calls that were stunningly incorrect, all against Sacramento and all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots to hold onto their championship”.
The Kings would never get another chance to go for the throne.
The following season, with everyone back, Sac’to made another run of it, but Webber’s knee gave out in the playoffs in a losing effort to Dallas, and just like that the window had closed.
Vlade went back to the Lakers. Jackson and Christie got traded, and Webber came back as a shadow of himself.
The Kings – and their fans - have never really gotten over the 2002 Western Conference Finals. It was the time when the lights shone brightest on the darker allegations made in our sport, and despite the legacies left of players like Webber, Divac, Stojakovic et al, it has fanned the flames of rumours like “Chris Webber couldn’t win the big one” that “Divac couldn’t win without Magic” or any of the other nonsense that we as basketball fans have allowed to perpetuate about these Kings over the years.
The truth is that the Kings probably won six of those seven games, the officials just happened to decide that three of them needed to go the other way to prevent the assumed ratings nightmare of a Kings-Nets finals.
The most shameful of these calamities was game six, and it meant that one of the finest teams in basketball history never got their rings, never got to raise a banner, and never got to give their city that boost it so desperately needed for the darker times that inevitably followed the team’s decline.
It also means that it’s down to the true fans, YouTube addicts and league pass junkies to spread the word of these Kings without a throne, so that the next generation of fans can at least see who the best team was that year, rather than letting them suffer the fate of being another forgotten also-ran.
Then at least, maybe, the Kings fans won’t have to try and forget about it, or get over it, but instead can rightfully celebrate one of the best basketball teams ever assembled.
Do yourself a favour and watch the highlight reel below. Whether they got hardware or not, the Kings deserve to be remembered.