OPINION: Stern: Kings' underdog story must result in first-round win

Sacramento Kings
Photo credit Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Any story that involves an underdog or a resurgence often has a disappointing conclusion. Even after overcoming several obstacles, the feel-good nature of a situation comes crashing down to reality, in unsurprising fashion. But for the Sacramento Kings, which snapped a 16-year playoff drought this spring, a trip to the NBA postseason simply isn't good enough. And outlasting the league's defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference's first round is a bare-minimum standard for attaining success.

From stars Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox, to bench hero Malik Monk, the Kings have finally meshed together in an uplifting manner and made the Northern California hoops scene cool again. Their dramatic Game 1 home win over the Warriors on Saturday should've been enough reason for fans who'd sobered up after a memorable regular season to party the weekend away.

Taking the opening game from the Bay Area Splash Brothers, in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, was all that Kings fans could ask for, right? Not exactly. Although the Warriors have won four NBA titles since 2015 and are vying for back-to-back crowns now, the Kings are playing at the millionaire blackjack table -- with house money.

Yes, from a seeding perspective, Sacramento is the on-paper favorite as the West's three-seed. But it'd be difficult to find anyone who seriously believed the Warriors entered the series as heavy underdogs, especially after winning five of six games to end the regular season. One of those victories also came in Sacramento at the Golden 1 Center, less than two weeks ago.

So, with this in mind, the extreme weight of winning a playoff series should be felt squarely on the Kings' shoulders. They have an elite coach in Mike Brown, who won Coach of the Year with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and took the franchise past the first round of the East playoffs in five consecutive seasons. After spending five seasons as Steve Kerr's right-hand man on Golden State's coaching staff, Brown's redemption tour can't include an early-round exit. Not with one of the deepest rosters that has ample talent to reach the West Final.

Damantas Sabonis
Photo credit Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Furthermore, the land of the wild, wild Western Conference doesn't feature a leading cowboy, unlike previous seasons. And although the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies finished ahead of the Kings in the West standings, the Grizzlies suffered a brutal Game 1 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. And despite featuring two-time MVP winner Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets don't exactly invoke fear into their opponents either.

While any of these teams could realistically go on a run, victories are there for the taking for the underdogs. And with all the tools in place, there's simply no reason why the Kings could accept a one-and-done outcome against Golden State as a successful campaign.

Maybe it's too late to avenge the controversial exit from the 2002 West Finals against the Lakers, which resulted in the conviction of longtime NBA referee Tim Donaghy for fixing games. But the Kings' ability to reestablish themselves as one of the league's bullies could make this revenge chapter even sweeter for the organization and its fanbase.

The ghosts of failed Kings coaches and players have long haunted a franchise that's long been regarded as the irrelevant laughing stock and poster child for league dysfunction. Although Fox and Sabonis are establishing themselves as one of the NBA's best one-two punches, their success can't compare to what basketball fans witnessed from the Mike Bibby-led Kings teams of the 2000s.

What's happened is in the past, which makes narrative-changing all the more crucial. If the Kings knock off the Warriors -- regardless of what happens the rest of the way -- they'll be held in a much higher regard than they're in right now. Even if disappointment rears its ugly head down the line, at least they'll be able to add a first-round win to their organizational resume. And if Brown's squad truly wants to reclaim the kings' throne -- and justify the team name -- it starts with beating the league's reigning champions.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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