The 2002 Sacramento Kings: Rightful Champions That Got Robbed

The Sacramento Kings had been one of the NBA’s historically inept franchises. In 1999, they enjoyed a breakthrough year in the strike-shortened season of 1999 and began a slow ascent. 1999 saw them go 27-23 and take Utah to a decisive fifth game in the first round of the playoffs. One year later they went 44-38 and squared off the Lakers, again going to a fifth before coming up short. In 2001 the Kings broke the 50-win barrier, winning the franchise’s first playoff series since relocating. The Lakers were again the roadblock. The 2002 Sacramento Kings had to feel like their time had come.

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Chris Webber was the power forward and the clear star of the team, averaging 25 points/10 rebounds a night, while Mike Bibby, a good shooter and playmaker keyed the backcourt. Peja Stojakovic was lights-out from three-point range. Other key roles were filled by Dough Christie a 12 ppg scorer at small forward, and former Laker center Vlade Divac, who helped Webber hit the glass and chipped in some scoring help.

22-year-old Hedo Turkoglu was the best player on the bench, a future starter on a Finals team in Orlando (2009) while Scot Pollard could help with rebounding and Bobby Jackson added decent minutes in the backcourt. This was a team that was deep, well-put together with clearly defined roles and a go-to player in Webber good enough to win a championship with.

The early part of the season underscored both the promise and the problems. Sacramento won seven of nine to start the year, but one of the losses was at Los Angeles. The Kings closed November with quality road wins at Dallas and San Antonio, the latter in overtime.  Sacramento got revenge on Los Angeles with a December 7 win at home, and then two weeks later started a 12-game win streak through the soft spot on their schedule that ran the record to 31-9.

A brief stretch of up and down play including losses to the Spurs and Mavericks and March began with two more losses, plus another defeat at the Staples Center. But on March 24 the Kings ripped off 11 straight wins to get to 60-19 and lock up the #1 seed in the West and overall.

Even though a loss in the final game to Los Angeles left them 1-3 against the Lakers, Sacramento could at least write that off of as meaningless, while Los Angeles was playing for the #2 record. Still, the lack of head-to-head success against Shaq and Kobe had to be a concern as the playoffs began.

Sacramento’s first-round opponent would be the Utah Jazz, with the teams having reversed positions in the Western Conference pecking order since their 1999 playoff meeting. Utah still had the revered duo of Karl Malone at power forward and John Stockton at the point, but Malone was 38, Stockton was 39 and while both were good players, neither was a superstar anymore. And forward Donyell Marshall, at 15 ppg, was the only one in the supporting cast able to step up.

But veterans know how to dig deep in the playoffs and after a narrow loss in Game 1, Utah finagled a road win in Game 2 after Sacramento shot the ball poorly. The Kings went to Salt Lake City needing to win one of two to stay alive. On the final Saturday of April, they took care of business.

While the shooting was still cold, Webber led a ferocious team rebounding effort that dominated the glass and Malone looked the part of a 38-year-old. A 90-87 win reclaimed homecourt advantage for the top seed. Two days later, Stojakovic found his shooting touch and knocked down 30 points, Malone was held to three rebounds, and the Kings clinched the series on the road.

The Dallas Mavericks were up next. Dallas won 57 games and being just a 4-seed underscored the strength of the West. The conference’ s top four teams, including the Lakers and Spurs who were paired up in the other semi-final, had all won more games than New Jersey, the #1 seed in the East. And this in spite of the West teams playing an unbalanced schedule requiring them to beat up on each other. Any of the four teams still playing hoops in the West would win the East.

Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki was already a star by this point, a 23/10 man and at this point in his career, Steve Nash’s passing artistry was in Big D. Michael Finley scored 21 a night at the two-guard slot, Nick Van Exel provided quality depth. And the power forward was familiar to Webber—it was Juwan Howard, part of his freshman class at Michigan, a group that made history when they became the first team with an all-frosh lineup to reach the NCAA final and then repeated the feat as sophomores.  The only thing they lacked in Big D was the D—the Mavericks were 28th in the NBA in points allowed.

Stojakovic scored 26 points in Game 1 as Sacramento shot 46 percent and pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 108-91 win. But for the second straight series they gave away homecourt advantage in Game 2. Nash unleashed his scoring side, burying four treys and scoring 30 points, while Stojakovic went cold, 5-for-19 from behind the arc and neutralizing Webber and Bibby’s 22 points apiece.

The Kings may have had problems defending their home floor, but for the second straight series, they quickly reclaimed the edge in Game 3. Webber played his best game of the postseason, a 31/15 night in Game 3, Bibby knocked down 29 and the Kings survived a 37-point outburst from Finley. Then in Game 4, Webber again came up big, a 30/10 day, as he and Dirk went toe-to-toe. Nowitzki’s 31/12 game wasn’t enough as the Kings escaped with a two-point win.

Even though Sacramento was in command and would close out the series back home in Game 5, as Turkoglu scored 20 and grabbed 13 rebounds off the bench, one piece of bad luck had struck—Stojakovic was out, at least temporarily, and the Kings would have to get by without their three-point shooter as they got set to face the Lakers.

This was the de facto championship round and perceived as such at the time. Now the question facing Sacramento was the one that faces up-and-comers in any sport, but seems most pronounced in the NBA playoffs—can regular season potential and talent be translated into big-game performance?

Los Angeles was not a deep team, relying mostly on Kobe & Shaq. While that’s a pretty nice duo to build on, they would need contributions from Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox if they were going to win a series like this. But they did have the advantage of Stojakovic being sidelined, and then Kobe completely outplayed Bibby in Game 1, giving LA the edge in a win.

Their season realistically on the line in Game 2, the Kings came out and stayed alive thanks to some awful shooting by the Lakers, who went 3/19 from behind the arc, effectively negating a 35/12 night from Shaq.

Sacramento had needed to win road games throughout the playoffs, so if nothing else the situation didn’t intimidate them, and they played their best game of the postseason in Game 3. Webber turned in a 26/19, Bibby knocked down 24, Christie stepped up with a 17/12 and a lockdown defensive effort gave the Kings a 103-90 win to turn the series back in their favor.

After one quarter of Game 4, they held a 40-20 lead and had the chance to step on Los Angeles’ throat. But Horry stepped up and showed why he earned the nickname “Big Shot Rob” over the course of his career, scoring 18 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and helping the Lakers gradually crawl back and eventually win by a point.

The series went back north for Game 5 and now it was the Kings’ turn to show they could win a close game. Webber had a big 29/13 night, Bibby knocked down 23 and if nothing else, the return of Stojakovic—even if he didn’t make an impact—had to be a psychological lift. A 92-91 win placed Sacramento on the brink of clinching.

Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals holds a unique place in the annals of NBA lore and for all the wrong reasons. Sacramento played its guts out on the road. While Shaq was a beast, at 41 points/17 rebounds, Webber was strong and the Kings had control of the game in the fourth quarter.

The league was now on the verge of a Sacramento-New Jersey matchup in the Finals and the terror they faced at the idea of such a matchup from a marquee standpoint is the only possible explanation for what happened next.

The officials took over, and essentially banned Sacramento from playing defense. The Lakers were given 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Now, I am not one who believes that a free throw disparity is prima facie evidence of officiating bias. But it’s simply impossible for a quality NBA team to commit that many fouls in a quarter, to the point that the Lakers shoot a game’s worth of free throws in a single quarter—coincidentally, the defining quarter of the season.

Los Angeles’ cheap 106-102 win was criticized throughout the country afterward, with even political activist and occasional presidential candidate Ralph Nader calling for an investigation. It might be fair to say that Nader and other politicians should have bigger fish to fry, but anyone who cares about the integrity of play—and let’s face it, the NBA has justly earned its share of criticism over the years in this regard—should have wanted some type of inquiry for the way the men in the striped shirts took over Game 6 and handed it to the Lakers.

The unfortunate way the league chose to handle Game 6 obscures what was an epic Game 7. The two best teams in the game went to overtime with everything on the line. If the Lakers were giftwrapped the previous game, they did what champions do this time around—they got solid games from every key role player—Fisher, Horry and Fox were all big contributors in the decisive game, while Kobe got 30 and Shaq 35.

Sacramento couldn’t get a trey to save its life, going 2-of-20 from behind the arc. Stojakovic’s inability to get his shooting rhythm back is another part of this series that’s been lost to history, obscured by the farce that was Game 6. Los Angeles won 112-106 and quickly dismissed New Jersey for a third straight title.

There are other instances of bad officiating playing a key role in a championship situation. You only need ask the St. Louis Cardinals about the 1985 World Series and a call at first base, or the Dallas Cowboys in 1978 over a nonsense pass interference call in the Super Bowl or the 2012 San Francisco 49ers and a mauling in the end zone that was ignored on the game’s decisive play.

But those were the kinds of bad calls that, as much as they suck if you’re a fan of the team getting robbed, do happen in the course of sports. They are isolated incidents and not systematic efforts stretching over a long period of the game.

What happened to the 2002 Sacramento Kings was a travesty. When I think of the 2002 NBA season I think of them as the real champs. Small consolation, but it’s the least the Kings and their fans deserve.