It is “What If?” week at SB Nation and we are looking back at how specific games, moments or decisions impacted a franchise.
After a record-setting season in 2001-02 where the Sacramento Kings went an NBA best 61-21 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals, the team went into 2002-03 with championship aspirations.
The Kings struggled with injuries throughout the lineup the entire season. Not one player suited up for all 82 games, although Vlade Divac, Doug Christie and Keon Clark each played in 80, but the team’s three stars missed extended periods.
Point guard Mike Bibby missed 27 games, Chris Webber sat out 15, while Peja Stojakovic missed 10. Eventual Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Bobby Jackson and key reserve Hedo Turkoglu also sustained injuries that forced them to miss multiple games as well.
Despite all the injuries, Sacramento went 59-23, finishing a game behind the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, for the best record in the league. Because of the seeding rules, the Kings went into the playoffs No. 2, but wouldn’t have home court if they played the Mavs.
After dispatching the Utah Jazz in five games in the first round, ending the Hall of Fame duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone’s time with the organization, Sacramento moved onto a second-round showdown against Dallas.
The Kings and Mavs were two of the best offensive teams in the league. Each squad was loaded with shooting and firepower coupled with creative coaches who knew how to get the most of their players.
Don Nelson had a ton of talent on his squad. Dirk Nowitzki was just 24 years old at the time and put up 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds during the regular season, while Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Nick Van Excel were the secondary options.
Sacramento took out Dallas in five games during the 2002 playoffs, and the Kings carried that success over to the 2002-03 regular season, beating the Mavericks in three out of four meetings.
Game 1 was an offensive masterpiece from Sacramento. Webber, Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson combined for 73 points, and the Kings shot 55% from the field, going on to an easy 124-113 win.
Dallas came out swinging in Game 2 and had 22-point lead at the half. The game was out of hand late in the third with the Mavericks holding a 104-78 lead with just over three minutes left in the quarter when everything came crashing down.
Bibby had the ball at the top of the 3-point line and saw Webber had a step on Raef LaFrentz. As Bibby threw the pass, Webber went down with a non-contact injury that resulted in torn cartilage in his knee. He was done for the playoffs, and so were Sacramento’s title hopes.
The Kings still battled and took the series to a deciding seventh game, where three of their starters had terrible shooting nights. Christie (no surprise,) Divac and Torkoglu combined to shoot 5-for-25 as Dallas went on to a 112-99 win. The Mavericks would go on to lose in six games to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
It is obvious that if Webber didn’t go down in Game 2, Sacramento wins the series and advances to play the Spurs.
It would have been a great series between two teams with contrasting styles. The Kings and Spurs met four times in the regular season, with San Antonio winning three times, but the three losses came by a combined 13 points.
The 2003 San Antonio squad was the weakest of its championship teams. David Robinson was on his way out while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobilli were just starting to come into their own and weren’t quite at the top of their games.
Tim Duncan would have been the best player on the floor in the series, but the Kings had more depth. Sacramento had four players averaging more than 15 points per game, while San Antonio’s fourth leading scorer was Malik Rose, who was at 10.4.
The Spurs would have tried to play a slow, grinding style with a ton of Duncan post ups, the opposite of the Kings fast-paced, ball movement based offense.
Sacramento ranked first in pace that season, while San Antonio was on the opposite end of the spectrum, ranking 29th in the league. The Kings were third in scoring, while the Spurs ranked 12th in points per game, per NBA.com.
Both squads were tough on the defensive end. The Kings were second overall in defensive rating, with the Spurs one spot behind them, so offense was going to be the determining factor in who came out on top.
Ultimately, it would have been a close one, but I think Sacramento’s depth and ability to play well at both ends of the floor would have been the difference in a six or seven-game series.
In 2002-03, like much of the decade, the Western Conference was much deeper than the east, with six 50-win teams, compared to just one (the Pistons) in the east.
Although the Nets were stout defensively, ranking first in defensive rating and points against per game, they lacked the firepower to keep up with the Kings. Jason Kidd is one of the best point guards of all time, but the supporting case of Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles wasn’t going to be enough to beat Sacramento.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Kings would have won the championship in 2003 if Webber didn’t get hurt. The long-term effect of his injury hurts as well. It robbed the team of an extended championship window where they would have been among the favorites for the following two-to-three seasons.
Webber was never the same player after getting microfracture surgery. He lacked the explosiveness that made him a matchup nightmare and became more reliant on his jumper and passing abilities.
When he returned after missing 59 games, he slowed things down when he was on the court for a potent Kings offense. Webber ranked ninth on the team in win shares, just ahead of Tony Massenburg and 10th in true shooting percentage, per basketball reference.
The Kings went 44-15 without Webber in the lineup and were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. The team went 11-12 after he returned and fell down to fourth in the standings going into the playoffs.
Sacramento made quick work of Dallas in the first-round, bouncing the Mavs in five games.
The Kings would lose their second-round series in seven games to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2004, with Webber missing a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. What we didn’t know at the time was that it would be his last playoff game as a King.
The team traded Webber to the Philadelphia 76ers during the 2004-05 season as the team transitioned to be built around Stojakovic, Bibby and Brad Miller, ending the greatest stretch in franchise history.