NBA playoff picture 2023: Ranking Kings’ potential first-round matchups

Ranking Kings’ five potential first-round playoff matchups originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

In one week, the Kings will be making their final preparations to host Game 1 of a first-round playoff series at Golden 1 Center.

There’s still plenty to determine by then.

Entering Friday’s slate of games, there are three days left in the 2022-23 NBA regular season. The Kings’ potential playoff matchup is down to, well, exactly one-third of the Western Conference.

All odds suggest the Kings (48-32) will land in the West’s No. 3 playoff seed. Sacramento can slide up to the No. 2 spot if it wins its last two games against the Warriors and Denver Nuggets, and the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (50-30) lose to the Milwaukee Bucks and Oklahoma City Thunder.

No matter how things shake out, the Kings will face either the Clippers, Lakers, Pelicans, Timberwolves or Warriors in the first round.

Which matchup is most favorable for the Kings? It might not matter to guard De’Aaron Fox.

“I don’t give a f–k who’s over there,” Fox said after a win over the Clippers in February. “It doesn’t matter.”

Maybe not, but it’s a fun talker anyway. Let’s rank the Kings’ potential playoff matchup from least favorable (5) to most favorable (1):

5. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors had one of the oddest seasons for a defending champion in NBA history.

After reestablishing the dynasty in the Bay Area last summer, Golden State went 9-30 on the road this season. No one — not coach Steve Kerr, not star guard Steph Curry — can explain why.

The road issues aside, a first-round matchup against Golden State would be concerning. The Warriors are getting healthy at the right time. Gary Payton II, a key member of the championship rotation who returned to Golden State at the trade deadline, is healthy again. He packs a punch on defense. Andrew Wiggins, who missed 23 games due to personal issues, won’t play against Sacramento on Friday but will be back for the playoffs.

Among five-man NBA lineups with at least 100 minutes, the combination of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney rank first in net rating (+21.9) and assist percentage (78.3), second in PIE (60.5) and sixth in offensive rating (128.0).

The Mike Brown vs. Steve Kerr narrative would be fun, as would Kings fans invading Chase Center and vice versa.

Playoff experience is a big topic this time of year. The Warriors have plenty. The Kings might be better off gaining their postseason reps against an opponent with less than four championship rings.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves gave the Kings big problems this year.

Sacramento lost three of four games to Minnesota this season, its only win being a 118-111 overtime triumph Jan. 30 in Minneapolis. Three-time All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t play any of the four matchups.

Now, Towns is back on the floor and the Timberwolves once again are trying to find chemistry between him and Rudy Gobert. They are 12-13 in games Towns and Gobert both play, although they’ve been better together since his return in late March.

The Kings don’t match up well against the Timberwolves’ size. However, it might not be as overwhelming in the first round as backup big man Naz Reid, who has journeyed from undrafted afterthought to the Timberwolves’ sixth man in four years, will be out until at least the second round with a wrist injury.

On a team with Towns and Gobert, Reid was the Timberwolves’ best center this season in terms of availability and consistent play. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20 minutes per game in February and March.

A playoff series between the Kings and Timberwolves likely would go six or seven games. It would reignite a rivalry between two of the NBA’s most tortured fan bases that plan to be near the top of the Western Conference for years to come.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

Look. The Kings handily won the season series against the rival Lakers three games to one. The only loss was that weird Thomas Bryant game (who’s now in Denver, by the way) when he racked up 29 points and 14 rebounds on Jan. 7.

But we need to throw those four games out of the window. The Lakers are a completely different team since they shed Russell Westbrook and acquired Malik Beasley, D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt, among others, at the trade deadline.

Before the Feb. 9 deadline, the Lakers ranked 20th in defensive rating (114.3). Since making that massive trade, the Lakers are 16-8 and rank third in defensive rating (111.1). They finally have enough defense and shooting around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, still one of the league’s top duos when healthy.

Could the Kings beat these new-look Lakers in a best-of-seven series? Absolutely. But it’d be much more difficult than we thought three months ago. Blame the Utah Jazz and Timberwolves for bailing the Lakers out in that trade when their season appeared lost.

This might be the most fun matchup of the five options, as the rivalry between the Kings and Lakers survived Sacramento’s 17-year playoff drought. Anyone up for a little 2002 Western Conference finals revenge?

2. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers entered the season with championship hopes. Six months later, they are fighting for a playoff spot due in large part to injury woes, something that has plagued their franchise in recent years.

Kawhi Leonard has been limited to 50 games in his first season since tearing an ACL last year. Paul George suffered a knee sprain in late March and his first-round playoff status is in question.

The Kings won three of four matchups against the Clippers this season. Leonard and George both played in just one of those contests, and boy it was memorable — that 176-175 double overtime thriller that many called the best game of the season.

RELATED: Chuck claims Kings will win playoff series over Dubs, Lakers

Even with Leonard and George healthy, the Kings’ lethal offense should be to cook with little resistance. Fox averaged 31.3 points and 6.8 assists in the four matchups against Los Angeles, taking advantage of the Clippers acquiring Westbrook to shore up their issues at point guard.

Health is the Clippers’ biggest worry. But if they land a matchup against the Kings, they should be sweating even more.

The Pelicans ruled out superstar Zion Williamson for the play-in tournament Friday. His status for any first-round series, if the Pelicans reach that stage, also is in question.

Williamson poses big problems for the Kings (and the other 29 NBA teams). But without Williamson? Good luck. The Kings destroyed the Williamson-less Pelicans 121-103 on the road Tuesday night to clinch their first Pacific Division title in 20 years.

Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum are a fantastic duo. The Pelicans looked dead in the water during a 10-game losing streak in January, but Ingram, McCollum and company roared back into contention by going 8-2 in their last 10 games.

New Orleans has been a top-10 defense all season, but without Williamson, their offense might struggle to keep up with the high-flying Kings over a best-of-seven series.

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