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Suns vs. Kings: A rivalry born in the basement of the NBA

There is no signature moment in the history between the Suns and the Kings. What is creating this rivalry is the race to be free of mediocrity.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rivalries are born through battles for supremacy. Epic matches with championship implications mold the disdain for an opposing team. Run into this team on multiple occasions, and boom. You have your rivalry.

They typically don’t occur between opponents who face each other just once. You can’t tell me that the Suns and Bulls are rivals simply because they faced off in the 1993 NBA Finals.

No, rivalries take time, with team and/or players developing an animosity for one another. Story lines develop, fan bases begin to turn on one another, and the jokes begin.

“How do you get a U of A fan off of your front porch? Pay him for the pizza.”

Hardy, har, har. Side note: Go Devils.

When you look at the history of the Phoenix Suns, only a couple teams are true rivals. The Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs have faced off against the Suns in the playoff on numerous occasions. Legendary games with weighted outcomes litter the annals of their history.

Yet seeing as the Suns have had such a recent lack of success, those rivalries have faded. Playoff matchups are a thing of the past. The Spurs and Lakers fan bases no longer look towards Phoenix with anger and frustration. They’re too busy counting rings.

It feels as if the days of rivalry are in the rear view, that the Suns are not competitive enough to garner the respect necessary to spark the passion a rivalry brings.

But there is.

Phoenix has been battling a fellow Pacific Division foe for a decade now, although it may not be in the traditional sense. The Sacramento Kings have felt similar struggles, and as a new decade is upon us, both appear to be primed to make a move in the conference. And they most likely will have to go through each other to get there.

Starting from the bottom...

The Suns are currently navigating the basement of the NBA, looking for a light switch, and trying to find the stairs. Stumbling through the dark, tripping on old bicycle parts, bumping in to storage bins, making mistake after mistake, the Suns are trying to get the hell out.

They are not alone down there. For the past decade they have been blindly bumping into another franchise looking for an escape.

There are only two teams currently in the NBA who possess a playoff drought that consists of double-digit years. The Phoenix Suns (10 years) are one of them. The Sacramento Kings (14 years) are the other.

When you first look at the history between these two franchises, the “rivalry” term doesn’t come to mind. The Suns own the regular season record, having won 137 of 234 games between the two teams from capital cities. They have met in the playoffs only four times, with the series split at 2-2 (the Kings winning in 2001 and 1981, the Suns winning in 1980 and 1979). Perhaps in the three-year run from 1979 to 1981 a rivalry was growing, but it never flourished into the Phoenix crowd wearing “I hate Sacramento” T-shirts.

When you look a little harder, however, you begin to see how this rivalry is taking shape. Seeing as they have been roommates in the basement for 10 years, they have many shared experiences.

What makes these two teams rivals in the similarity to their mediocrity:

Both have had numerous lottery picks and missed.

The Suns began their decade of disaster by dipping their toe into the NBA lottery pool back in 2011 with the #13 overall pick. Since that season, here are the lottery picks for each team:

  • Suns: #13 (2011), #13 (2012), #5 (2013), #14 (2014), #13 (2015), #4 (2016), #4 (2017), #1 (2018), #6 (2019).
  • Kings: #7 (2011), #5 (2012), #7 (2013), #8 (2014), #6 (2015), #5 (2017), #2 (2018). The team had no 2019 lottery pick due to trading it in 2015.

They have had to scout the same players, seeing as they have been within 3 picks of each other 4 times in the past 10 years. They have been battling to get the better prospect. They even traded picks in 2016 to give the Suns Marquese Chriss.

Out of all of those first round picks, however, only 1 player has been named to an All-Star team: Devin Booker. Yes, it is early for Ayton, Fox, Bagley, and Bridges, but as they’ve jockeyed for the better picks, they’ve missed on premier talent.

Players such as Nik Staukas, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, Dragan Bender, Thomas Robinson, and Kendall Marshall have been drafted. Miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, and miss.

Both have shared players...and Igor.

Fans of both teams have shared joy and disappointment as of late, with the latter being the primary emotion felt. The journey to the lottery begins each season with hope and excitement. The stadium goes dark. The bass drops. The music begins. We are introduced to the next roster that we hope will end the inferiority.

Suns fans and Kings fans alike have heard these names echo through the arena:

  • Richaun Holmes (Suns: 2018-19, Kings: 2019-20)
  • Quincy Acy (Suns 2018-19, Kings: 2013-14, 2015-16)
  • Trevor Ariza (Suns: 2018-19, Kings: 2019-20)
  • Jimmer Fredette (Suns: 2018-19, Kings: 2011-14)
  • Ronnie Price (Suns: 2011-12, 20115-17, Kings: 2005-07)
  • Alex Len (Suns: 2013-18, Kings: 2020)
  • Isaiah Thomas (Suns: 2014-15, Kings: 2011-14)
  • Marcus Thorton (Suns: 2015, Kings: 2011-14)
  • Anthony Tolliver (Suns: 2014-15, Kings: 2016-17, 2019-20)

We’ve chewed a lot of the same dirt together (sorry, another Heartbreak Ridge reference). We’ve cheered for a lot of the same scrubs.

Then of course there is Igor Kokoskov. How does a franchise celebrate their 50th year of existence? By having the worst record they’ve posted since year one. The 1968-69 squad won a mere 16 games. Igor’s Suns won 19. Break out the party harts and kazoos!

Following his brief time in Phoenix, Kokoskov was signed by the Kings as an assistant coach.

Both are young and talented for the first time in years.

The key here is the term ‘talented’.

Both teams have been young for years, perpetually attempting to improve via the draft. Former players running are running the front offices of each franchise (James Jones in Phoenix, Vlade Divac in Sacramento) and the talent has increased.

It appears that the Suns and Kings have no interest in continuing to improve via the draft. The process of taking one-and-done college players and trying to mold them into productive NBA players is an rigorous one. It is one thing to attempt to do this with stars a-plenty on your team, it is another when you are relying on them to be the star. Both teams are more focused on adding veteran talent than drafting in the lottery.

Young stars are present throughout both lineups: De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley III for Sacramento. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Kelly Oubre Jr. for the Suns. Their records might not be as sexy as their talent this season, but they are headed in the right direction.

Ayton vs. Bagley

They went to Hillcrest Academy together. Deandre Ayton chose the University of Arizona while Marvin Bagley, III chose Duke. They excelled in their freshman years and chose to forgo all other collegiate athletics for a chance to play in the NBA.

On June 21, 2018, in Brooklyn, New York, Ayton went #1 to the Phoenix Suns. Bagley went #2 to the Sacramento Kings. Some even believed that Bagley should have been drafted over Ayton. THose tweets didn’t age well Chris Vernon...

The two will be forever linked.

Ayton and Bagley are modern big men, brimming with talent and athleticism. While many will (rightfully) argue that the legacy of the 2018 NBA Draft will be whether Ayton or Luka Doncic should have gone #1, the opportunity to see #1 vs. #2 is intriguing. Living under the baskets in the Pacific Division, Ayton and Bagley will actually guard each other. The 6’11” Bagley played 88% of his minutes at center this past season.

Both teams have their tickets punched to Orlando for the restart of the regular season. Both teams are long shots to end their playoff drought. Both teams wear purple.

As the blueprints for each GM continue to develop, the hope is more wins will follow. The Western Conference is chalked full of difficult competition, which will assist int he development of both teams as they grow. And grow these teams shall. As the sun begins to set on the elder statesmen of the NBA, these two franchises have positioned themselves to take the reigns.

Yes, it is funny to think that two cellar dwellers are rivals. The potential for a rivalry is growing day by day, however, and soon we may look to California's capital with the same disdain as Los Angeles or San Antonio.

The only way to get out of mediocrity is through each other. The time is near in which one or both of these teams escapes from the basement.

Let the rivalry begin.

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