Let’s be honest, winning an NBA championship is hard, and sometimes, the best team doesn’t always come out on top. In 1997, the Houston Rockets trio of Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley lost to Utah’s John Stockton and Karl Malone in the Western Conference Finals. Who too were then defeated in the NBA Finals by the GOAT, Michael Jordan.
However, of all the teams that never won an NBA championship, perhaps the most memorable of all was the ‘01/’02 Sacramento Kings. Now that we’re officially 20 years out from witnessing the demise of one of the most fabled teams in NBA history, it’s time to take a look back at just how good this team really was and why they were denied an NBA championship.
What made this team so good?
It’s no secret that the Sacramento Kings have been one of the least fortunate NBA franchises in league history, specifically in the last 15 years or so. From failing to put together a single winning season since 2006 to witnessing nearly all of their recent lottery picks decline rapidly or move on to greener pastures. Tyreek Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Marvin Bagley, and now, Tyrese Haliburton, just to name a few.
Simply put, for well over a decade, the Sacramento Kings have been the laughing stock of the NBA. Although, this wasn’t always this way.
Believe it or not, from 2000 to 2004 the Sacramento Kings were one of the premier teams in the Association. Winning 55 or more games in each of the four seasons and bolstering one of the most talented rosters in the entire NBA. Unfortunately, they also went 27-21 in the playoffs during that time and never made it to the NBA Finals.
The ‘01/’02 NBA season saw Michael Jordan return to the NBA and sign with the Washington Wizards. The Memphis Grizzlies make their debut in Tennessee after relocating from Vancouver, and the Charlotte Hornets play their last season in Carolina before moving to New Orleans. However, perhaps the greatest story of all were the Sacramento Kings.
The ‘01/’02 Kings not only had the ninth-winningest head coach in NBA history in Rick Adelman. But they also featured one of the deepest rotations in basketball with Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Scot Pollard, and Vlade Divac. Not to mention a young Hedo Turkoglu and rookie Gerald Wallace. Simply put, they were absolutely loaded with talent, with everybody but Wallace playing 1,750 minutes or more that season.
Headlined by All-Stars Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, both of whom were in the prime of their careers - Webber averaging 24.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game on nearly 50% from the floor and 75% from the line. In addition, Peja was averaging more than 21 points, 5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1 steal per game while shooting over 48% from the field, 41% from deep, and 87% from the line, respectively.
Even beyond these two, the Kings had an aging Divac at center, who was nearly putting up a double-double with points (11.1), and rebounds (8.4). As well as Mike Bibby at the point, and Doug Christie at shooting guard, who were both averaging double digits in scoring. To top it all off, Turkoglu, Jackson, and Pollard were providing valuable minutes and production off the bench.
Thanks to the play of these eight, the ‘01/’02 Sacramento Kings finished the regular season with an NBA-best 61-21 record. This stands as the third-best winning percentage in franchise history to date. All the while ranking third in the league in offense (109.0), sixth in defense (101.1), and putting together an overall Net Rating of +7.9, which led the NBA.
This team was deep, talented, had clearly established roles, and seemed poised to go on a run entering the postseason as arguably the most well-rounded team in basketball. Unfortunately, the ‘01/’02 Sacramento Kings aren’t just remembered for how well they played, but also for how the season ended for them and the direction the franchise went following the 2001-02 NBA season.
Why didn’t they win the whole thing?
In the ‘01/’02 NBA playoffs, the Kings won the franchise’s first playoff series since relocating to California by knocking off the Utah Jazz in four games (3-1). This was the final postseason that held a best-of-five first-round series format before expanding to the modern best-of-seven.
Next up, they had the fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who finished with 57 wins on the season and were led out by one of the best one-two punches in the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. Ultimately, the Kings would go on to take advantage of the Mavericks’ lackluster defense, winning the series in five games (4-1) and advancing to the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
Sacramento seemed well on their way to winning their first-ever NBA championship, that is until they ran into an absolute buzzsaw in Los Angeles with Shaq and Kobe, and many believe, dubious refereeing to say the least.
The most controversial NBA game in league history
Even though the Lakers were not a particularly deep team, they still had a devastating duo that was wreaking havoc on the NBA, not to mention a few solid role players in Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and Rick Fox. So, this series was projected to go the distance, and provide some of the most entertaining basketball in recent memory. Safe to say it lived up to the hype.
Game 1 saw Stojakovic sidelined for the Kings, which gave Los Angeles the edge, but then in Game 2, Sacramento took advantage of the Lakers’ terrible shooting night and stole a win to even the series. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, the Kings then marched into the Staples Center for Game 3 and rallied behind Webber’s 26 points and 19 rebounds to pull out a dramatic 103-90 victory, allowing them to regain the home-court advantage in the series.
Sacramento then stole Game 4 thanks to 20-point performances from Bibby, Divac, and Webber, while Los Angeles bounced back in Game 5 off Kobe’s 30 points, and Shaq’s 28. All of which led up to potentially the most controversial NBA game in league history; Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
The game was filled with countless questionable calls (most of which went in favor of Los Angeles), and the Kings ended up losing 106-102 as a result. There were then allegations that the game had been ‘fixed’ by the referees in relation to the ‘Tim Donaghy scandal’. The Lakers finished the game with a whopping 40 free throws, 27 of which were in the fourth quarter alone. Not to mention the fact that all of the Kings’ big men landed in foul trouble towards the end of the game, with Divac and Pollard both fouling out of the pivotal matchup.
With tensions high, the Kings would go on to lose an epic Game 7 that saw the two teams go into overtime before both Shaq and Kobe completely took the game over. With each finishing with over 30 points and Fisher, Horry, and Fox all playing major roles in clinching the series.
Game 6 of this heated series is still a topic of discussion today, especially with the Donaghy scandal that was brought into light back in 2007. In fact, Donaghy has even stated himself that long-time NBA official, Dick Bevatta, may have helped change the outcome of the game, and effectively, the series. Noting that “the Sacramento Kings should have a ring on their finger.”
To make matters worse for the ‘River City,’ the Kings franchise never quite recovered after this moment. In fact, not only has Sacramento not made the playoffs since 2006, but they couldn’t even put together more than 30 wins between 2009 and 2015 and have since remained one of the bottom feeders of the Association.
The future remains questionable for the franchise, but there’s no denying that even 20 years later, the 2002 Sacramento Kings were absolutely robbed of a title and remain one of the best teams in NBA history never to go all the way.