It's often said that in the NBA, a team attains basketball immortality once it achieves the ultimate prize of winning the NBA title. But what becomes of the teams that were good enough to win it all, but never got over the hump? Do their stories eventually fade away?
With Rick Adelman and Chris Webber set to enter The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame side by side in 2021, there's no better time for a reminder that in the early 2000s, the Sacramento Kings were downright scary. They are, without question, one of the best teams to not win a championship.
In fact, they might be the best team to fall short of winning an NBA title.
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The Kings' story is often highlighted by their seven-game series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, and while that was the peak of their era, you have to take a trip back much further in time to fully grasp the context of the franchise's ascent.
In 1985, the Kings moved from Kansas City to Sacramento, and in their inaugural season in California, advanced to the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Over the next 12 years, Sacramento qualified for the playoffs just once more before a transcendent offseason in 1998.
Fresh off of a 27-55 finish, the Kings motioned to acquire Webber from the Washington Wizards on May 14, 1998. In June, Sacramento drafted Florida's Jason Williams with the seventh overall pick. In August, the Kings fired head coach Eddie Jordan, setting up the hire of Adelman on Sept. 16, 1998.
What would normally be a late coaching hire was right on time, as it came ahead of a lockout season which wouldn't begin until February.
A late start to the regular season also meant free agency would be pushed back, and the offseason was made complete with the signings of 1996 draft pick Peja Stojakovic, who had spent the previous two seasons in Greece, and Vlade Divac, who was just a season removed from leading the league in blocks.
With Adelman at the helm and Webber and Divac in the frontcourt, the Kings finished above .500 for the first time since moving to California in 1985, albeit in a lockout-shortened season. Sacramento earned the West's sixth seed with a 27-23 record, matching its win total from the year prior in 32 fewer games.
Webber, who at the time had just one All-Star selection to his name, finished the season averaging 20.0 points and a league-leading 13.0 rebounds per game, earning All-NBA Second Team honours, the first All-NBA selection of his career. The Kings went on to lose in the opening round to the defending Western Conference champion Utah Jazz in a decisive Game 5, but under Adelman, Webber began his ascension into the upper echelon of star big men in the league, and the foundation was laid.
The very next season saw the Kings build upon that foundation, advancing to the playoffs as an eight seed to face the mighty Lakers in the opening round of the 2000 NBA Playoffs. Despite being outmatched, Sacramento gave the eventual champs all they could handle, taking Los Angeles to five games in the opening round, and a rivalry was born.
Webber took another leap the following season, averaging a career-best 27.1 points to go along with 11.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game for a Kings team that would win 55 games in the 2000-01 campaign. With his monster numbers, Webber earned the lone All-NBA First Team selection of his 15-year career.
Adelman's offence made the most of the passing skill of his bigs, meaning the duo of Divac and Webber were in the perfect position to thrive, both earning selections to the Western Conference All-Star Team, which was led by none other than their head coach.
Stylistically, the usage of passing big men was just one of a few ways in which Adelman's team was ahead of its time. 2001 rounded out a three-year span in which Adelman's Kings led the league in scoring, as they averaged 101.7 points per game while playing at the league's second-highest pace at 94.4 possessions per game.
The Kings would run you and run up the score, which is part of the reason why they were so scary. That wasn't possible without Adelman or Webber.
2001 saw the Kings franchise win its first playoff series in 20 years, but in the second round, they were swept by a Lakers team that would go 15-1 in the playoffs en route to their second consecutive title.
Then came the magical 2001-02 season
If I spoiled how it ended for you earlier, my apologies, but that season was much more than what transpired in the Western Conference Finals. With a new point guard in Mike Bibby, the Kings had retooled into becoming the league's best team, finishing first in the Western Conference with a record of 61-21, including a 36-5 record at the vaunted ARCO Arena.
Sacramento's record is even more impressive when you take into consideration that Webber missed 28 games. Despite missing that much time, Webber still earned Second Team All-NBA honours with averages of 23.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
In the playoffs, the Kings made light work of their first two opponents, eliminating the Jazz in four games and defeating the Dallas Mavericks in five to advance to the West Finals, where they'd meet the Lakers for the third straight postseason.
And the Kings were right there.
Sacramento lost Game 1 but would win the next two to take a 2-1 series lead. The Kings were, quite literally, one defensive rebound away from taking a 3-1 lead, but Robert Horry happened. Still, Sacramento bounced back to go up 3-2, but one win away from the Finals, it couldn't get over the hump, losing Game 6 by four points and dropping Game 7 by six points.
In overtime. At home.
The Kings followed that heartbreak with a 59-23 finish in the 2002-03 season, but Webber suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 of the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, which signified the beginning of the end, as they would lose that series in seven games.
One year later, Sacramento again advanced to the second round and again fell in seven games.
There might not be an era of any franchise that has as many what-ifs as these Kings. They pushed five series to the limit while dealing with injuries and plenty of adversity.
What-ifs aside, this era will be remembered for a few undeniable facts.
From 2000 to 2004, the Kings compiled a 230-98 (.701) record, advancing past the first round of the playoffs in each season while Adelman coached the Western Conference All-Stars in 2001 and 2003, a sign of sustained excellence on the sidelines
Webber's stretch from 1998-2003 is where he truly lived up to the billing of being a former No. 1 overall pick. With averages of 24.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists, he earned an All-NBA Selection in each season and was an All-Star each year.
Sacramento's pace and high-octane prolific scoring under Adelman were innovative and game-changing, and the franchise has not made it to the postseason since he led them there in 2006.
Adelman never received Coach of the Year honours for the work he did in Sacramento, but this Hall of Fame honour is a tribute to what he did as the leader of the Kings as well as the Portland Trail Blazers. Webber finally earns his Hall of Fame recognition thanks in large part to that five-year stretch in which he was unquestionably one of the league's top 15 players year-in and year-out.
Had any of those Kings team gotten over the hump, perhaps this honour would have come sooner for them both, but there's no doubt that it's deserved.
They might not have attained basketball immortality by hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy, but Adelman and Webber will achieve a different kind of basketball immortality together, just as they took the league by storm together just decades ago.
The story of those Kings teams will live on in the halls of Springfield, MA.
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