The Sacramento Kings’ Best Season: 2002

Since moving from Kansas City in 1985, the Sacramento Kings have just eight winning seasons, which came all in a row between 1999 and 2006.

In a franchise history that stretches all the way back to the Rochester Royals joining the BAA for the 1948-49 season and winning the franchise’s only title in 1951, the squad has 23 winning seasons in 72 tries.

The team is so far underwater that they could go 82-0 in the next five regular seasons and still end up far enough under .500 in franchise history that they’d have to keep winning almost to Christmas 2026 to get back even. The team is 511 games under .500. Six full seasons plus 19 games.

But in 2002, this perpetual sad sack franchise came within a miracle shot and a referee screwjob of making it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1951.

Let’s take a look at those trend-bucking Kings and see what made them a winner in a sea of losing history.

The On-Court Record

The Kings’ 61-21 record stands third in franchise history for winning percentage at .744. The 1949 Royals went 45-15 in a 60-game season; the 1950 edition went 51-17 in a 68-game campaign, each good for .750.

But those 1949 and ’50 squads fell short in the Western Division Finals and Central Division semifinals in the BAA and NBA respectively, leagues of 12 and 17 teams. Sacramento made the Western Conference Finals in a 29-team league where 16 teams made the playoffs.

The Kings smacked down the Utah Jazz 3-1 in the first round, took out the Dallas Mavericks in five in the second round, and then had the Los Angeles Lakers on the ropes. Kobe Bryant missed a 7-footer to tie the game. Shaquille O’Neal grabbed the rebound but couldn’t tip the ball in. Vlade Divac slapped the ball away from the rim, hoping to run out the clock, but the ball went right to Robert Horry, who drained a 3-pointer to kick Kings fans in the groin. That took a series Sacramento was winning 2 games to 1 and tied it up.

Then, in Game 7, Kings fans will argue to this day that they got screwed by the referees, but the Lakers shot 36 free throws to the Kings’ 30, and more importantly, Sacramento went 16-of-30 from the line (a woeful 53.3 percent) in a game they lost by six. Had they made their shots at the line, they would have won that game, so no matter how biased the refs were, they weren’t the ones choking at the charity stripe all game long.

Thus put an end to the Kings’ rise; it was a slow, steady decline over the next four years that, once complete, cast Sacramento into a pit of despair. Not only have the Kings not made the playoffs since 2006, they haven’t even had a winning season. From 2009 to 2015, they didn’t even win 30 games in any regular campaign.

The Featured Players

Chris Webber was the star of Sacramento’s show. He went into the Hall of Fame as a player in 2021, a fitting finish to the legacy of a man who, as a rookie, got in Don Nelson‘s doghouse almost from the word go in Golden State.

The Warriors sent him to Washington after his rookie season, and after four years in the nation’s capital, he joined the Kings for the 1999 lockout season—the first winning season for the Kings in Sacramento in their 14th attempt.

For the 2002 edition, C-Webb scored 24.5 points per game, pulled down 10.1 rebounds, made his third of four consecutive All-Star appearances (and five overall), and led the team in VORP at 3.9.

One recurring theme that seems to show up on championship teams we’ve talked about in this series and in general on this site is how there are two types of champion. One has the single dominant player with the VORP up in the stratosphere, or two players who combine for that kind of VORP total but split it between them—LeBron James‘ best seasons, or what Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did in Chicago in the 1990s.

The other is the team that spreads the love around and beats the league by having no guy you can take your eye off of lest that guy step up and rip your throat out with a big game.

Behind Webber in VORP stood seven (!) Kings players with at least 1.3 VORP. In order:

Peja Stojakovic (3.3), Doug Christie (3.1), Vlade Divac (2.9), Bobby Jackson (1.8), Mike Bibby (1.6), Hedo Turkoglu (1.4), and Scot Pollard (1.3)

There was just no getting away from these Kings. They went eight deep—all eight guys played 1,750 minutes or more while the other six guys on the roster combined for just 1,557 minutes all season, with only two guys playing more than 153 minutes. And all eight guys they ran out there were solid guys, ranging from “above-average role player” to “borderline All-Star” in terms of caliber.

Stojakovic made the All-Star team. Divac had gone in 2001 but was snubbed in ’02. The rest of the guys just played their role and did it well. Bibby never made an All-Star team and has an argument for the best non-All Star in NBA history now that Mike Conley finally made the game in 2021.

As for the counting stats, the Kings were a super-slow squad by today’s standards. Sure, they led the league in pace, but in the Dark Ages, you could do that at 95.6. So their counting stats got held down by that comparatively glacial pace of play.

Still, seven players averaged double-digit points and Pollard, the only rotation player who didn’t, still put up 6.4 points and 7.1 rebounds a game to keep himself productive enough to post that 1.3 VORP in the advanced column.

Overall, Sacramento was third on offense and sixth on defense, for an overall Net Rating of plus-7.9, best in the league.

The Coach

Rick Adelman holds the distinction of having coached two franchises at the height of their powers—he was at the helm in Portland for both of their early-90s Finals appearances and posted a .654 winning percentage. Then, in Sacramento, he posted a .633 mark, as his eight seasons coincided with the only eight winning seasons in Kings history in California. The only two franchises he couldn’t coach to winning records were Golden State and Minnesota, because the former was snakebitten for 40 years and the latter is the NBA’s equivalent of that coal seam fire in Pennsylvania that has been going for 60 years and managed to chase everyone out of the town built over the coal deposit.

Indeed, of all the coaches in the Royals/Kings history going all the way back to Rochester, Adelman has the best winning percentage. Les Harrison, who coached Rochester from 1949 to 1955 and helmed the 1951 title team, ended up with a .620 winning percentage.

And because Harrison’s 1955 Royals posted a losing record (29-43), Adelman is the only coach in the entire history of the franchise never to dip below .500 in his tenure.

Being the best coach in the history of the Kings is a bit like winning a 100-yard dash with two functioning legs against a field full of quadraplegics denied wheelchairs, but Adelman has the honor.

Honorable Mentions

The Rochester Royals were good in the NBA Stone Age. The Sacramento Kings were good in the Dark Ages.

No other Royals or Kings team made a mark in any other city or any other era. The Cincinnati Royals had a brief run in the mid-60s when they were sniffing around the fringes of contention with Oscar Robertson and Jack Twyman, Hall of Famers both, on their team, and they did go 55-25 and made the East Finals in 1964, but then Bill Russell and the Celtics stomped them in 5 and that was that.

Big O led the Royals in Win Shares for ten years in a row, from 1961 to 1970, and the team only posted five winning seasons. Then he ended up in Milwaukee and lo and behold, the Bucks won the title.

Let’s give a special dishonorable mention to the 27-55 2018 Kings. That team was so bad that their leaders in Win Shares were Willie Cauley-Stein and Kosta Koufos, who both posted just 3.9. You have to be all kinds of awful, like historically bad, to not even have one guy on your roster with even four WS. We’re talking ’73 Sixers (John Block, 3.4 WS on a nine-win team) or ’93 Mavericks (Derek Harper, 2.7 WS on an 11-win squad) bad. The Kings ventured into that rarefied air of futility in 2018, far more fitting for their history than anything C-Webb or Big O or those old Rochester Royals did.

NEXT: San Antonio Spurs. Iceman. The Admiral. Duncan. Kawhi. We’re talking honorable mentions out the wing-wong and a truly deserving “best year ever” tomorrow. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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