'The goal was to change the franchise': Domantas Sabonis, De'Aaron Fox and the rise of the Sacramento Kings

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

AS DOMANTAS SABONIS and Justin Holiday flew to Sacramento last February -- hours after being traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Kings in a blockbuster deal for Tyrese Haliburton -- they decided to scan social media for reaction to the trade.

"The comments," Sabonis says, laughing, "were horrible."

Haliburton was beloved in Sacramento -- a rare lottery win for a team that had 16 lottery chances in 16 years amid one of the longest losing runs in U.S. pro sports history.

"Oh my god, we are gonna get booed!" Sabonis recalls exclaiming.

"Dude," Holiday remembers saying, "they are gonna boo the crap out of us!"

The comments stung because the trade had excited Sabonis -- even though it marked the third major trade of his young career. Sabonis' father, legendary center Arvydas Sabonis, who played for the Portland Trail Blazers during the Kings' early-2000s glory days, told his son about the atmosphere he could expect if the team turned around.

"He was saying, the noise level, the intensity -- it was just different," Sabonis says. Sabonis' agent, Greg Lawrence, told him that 15-plus years ago, the Kings were a prime destination -- and the Golden State Warriors, their Northern California rivals, the dead zone.

"That's how things can switch," Sabonis says. "As a competitor, there's nothing I like more than a challenge -- to help change the direction of a franchise. All of that was very exciting. It added spice to my career."

The turnaround has happened, faster and more dramatically than anyone expected. Behind Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox -- both All-Stars -- the Kings are 43-28 and No. 3 in the West. They have clinched their first winning season since 2005-06, and are days from snagging their first playoff spot since that season -- and ending the longest playoff drought in NBA history. As the West wobbles around them, they are beginning to contemplate bigger goals.

"Everyone has done a great job getting us where we are," says Mike Brown, Sacramento's first-year head coach and among the Coach of the Year favorites. "But now we have to try to sustain it -- or even surpass it."

WHEN SABONIS ARRIVED, Fox assured him fans would be welcoming.

"We never even talked about the trade," Fox says. "I told him how crazy our fans are -- how much they cheer our team."

Still, Sabonis was nervous about the crowd response before his home debut against the Minnesota Timberwolves. As he taped himself up the way he always did before games, Sabonis was surprised to see the rest of his teammates jog to the court without him; the Kings followed a different pregame routine, and hit the floor earlier than the Pacers had. Sabonis would come out alone, all eyes on him.