EACH CONFERENCE’S BIGGEST SURPRISE

2023-01-31 · 3 min read · NBA/Basketball
Sacramento Kings Domantas Sabonis and Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant

Ezra Shaw | Getty Images

In the West…
For years, the Sacramento Kings have been an NBA laughingstock. With a playoff drought reaching way back to 2006, their fans have had to endure one of the least successful eras in any major sport’s history.
But this year? No one’s laughing anymore.
The Kings are comfortably in third place in the West currently, and breaking that playoff drought seems like a foregone conclusion. There are plenty of reasons for the Kings' success, but the first one to point to is last year’s controversial and much-talked-about trade with Indiana, when they gave away budding star Tyrese Halliburton for proven big man Domantas Sabonis.
At the time, trading Halliburton seemed like a huge risk; a second-year guard who looked like he was ascending into an all-star calibre player. But the problem was, he played the same position as D’Aaron Fox, whom the kings also had a lot invested in.
The move was a gamble, but it worked, as Fox exploded after being given the full keys to the castle, unhindered by another point guard who needed the ball playing alongside him. Think back to when Toronto traded Rudy Gay in 2013, changing the course of the organization.
The move was supposed to be a sell, but what inadvertently happened is DeMar DeRozan was given more opportunities and space on the wing, and subsequently blossomed almost instantly. Obviously different circumstances, but you see the comparison.
But Fox’s ascent is nothing compared to the actual player they got back in the trade (Sabonis), who’s been a perfect fit. He and Fox are masterful in the pick and roll, together and he’s become an elite centre on both ends of the floor, posting an impressive stat line of 18.5 ppg and 12.4 RPG.
Throw in the draft day addition of Keegan Murray, who’s resourceful and versatile even as a rookie, along with some prudent moves to fortify their wing depth in the form of Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk, and the Kings are one of the most complete teams in the West.
They may not have the high-end talent to truly compete, but a trip to the second round isn’t out of the question. And for a franchise as winning-deprived as they are, I’m sure that will be a welcome first step.
In the East…

The East has mostly gone chalk at the top, so I’m going to go with the Brooklyn Nets here, who after firing their coach and losing their best player for nearly a month, find themselves 11 games over .500, and in 4th in an Eastern Conference filled with powerhouses.
The move to let go of Steve Nash in favour of Jaques Vaughan has paid dividends, as the latter clearly has the respect of the locker room in a way Nash no longer had by the end. Kyrie Irving’s play in a contract year has been outstanding. He remains one of the league's elite scorers at 27.3 points per game. Since Durant’s injury, that number has gone up to 29.5.
The Nets also have gotten healthy, with the likes of TJ Warren, Seth Curry and Joe Harris each solidifying the bench with solid shooting and smart play.
Durant also deserves a ton of credit, as before his injury was maybe the favourite to win MVP. When he comes back, this team should continue to chug along to a top-4 seed. One player I’ve yet to mention is the enigmatic Ben Simmons, but maybe that’s a good thing.
On this team, he doesn’t have to do too much, all and just focus on playing defence, distributing and running. There will come a time though, probably beyond the second round, when they’re going to need Simmons to step up. I don’t know when or where, but it will happen.
Whether or not he’s up for the challenge could ultimately coincide with the Nets' fate as true title contenders.
Sports Tree Profile

By: Eddie Huband

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