Chalk it up to growing pains, an identity crisis, persistently poor injury luck, or all of the above, but the Sacramento Kings that were expected to build on last year’s unexpected mad dash towards respectability have spent the first third of this season unapologetically quashing all signs of the progress their fans waited a generation to see.
Last season Sacramento was one of the NBA’s fastest teams. It finished third in seconds per possession whether their opponent made or missed a shot, and second after a live-ball turnover, per Inpredictable. This year they’re 20th, 23rd, and dead last, respectively, in those three categories. The change is by design, largely thanks to new head coach Luke Walton’s attempt to install playoff-worthy habits in a more controlled environment.
His explanation for going that route, as told to reporters back in November, is sensible: “We’re still not playing, ideally, as fast as we want to, but for us to get there, we really have to understand what we’re doing. Play calls, terminology, we have to have a complete understanding of what all that is for us as a group and we’re getting there, and we’re getting better at it, but I don’t feel like there’s a need to rush to the next thing yet.”
But even though there’s a somewhat-negative correlation between pace and defensive rating (since 2015, no more than three teams have finished top 10 in each category; right now it can only be said about the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers) Walton’s crawl-before-we-walk belief system is an increasingly frustrating gambit that has yet to yield significant dividends with no promise of an ultimate payoff.
Last year’s Kings went up-and-down for a reason. And at the center of this dilemma is De’Aaron Fox, an incandescent frontman who scored the sixth most transition points last season. This year, he’s missed over half of Sacramento’s games and the team is winless since he returned from an ankle injury on December 17th. But in addition to health-related setbacks the 22-year-old has spent his third season trying to prevent his own coach’s stratagem from feeling like a massive self-own.
The Kings are quicker into transition with Fox on the court, but the frequency is still down from his second season. Last year 48.1 percent of his points were scored either off a turnover or on a fastbreak. This year that’s down to 36.6 percent. He’s also averaging fewer fastbreak points per game than Josh Hart, T.J. Warren, and Norm Powell. That is silly. Last year, 57 percent of all his field-goal attempts came with 15 or more seconds on the shot clock. This year it’s 43.5 percent, and an unfortunate byproduct can be seen in sequences like the two shown below. Last year it would be hard to fathom these occurring twice in the same week, let alone twice in the same quarter.
Getting comfortable with a more controlled pulse matters, and for the first time in literally a decade, the Kings don’t have an atrocious transition defense, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s wonderful. But there’s zero reason for them to crawl up the floor after they force a turnover; an area that was arguably their single greatest advantage in 2018-19 has needlessly become a handicap.
Playoff habits are irrelevant when forged on a team that can’t actualize its most distinguishable advantage, and forfeiting easy baskets Fox can pluck out of thin air feels like self-sabotage.
In the meantime, Fox is doing the best he can with the system he’s been instructed to run. Even though his three-point percentage is down at 32 percent, he made 40 percent of his spot-up attempts last year and is at 37 percent when he pops one off-the-dribble this season. Defenses don’t treat him like they did John Wall, which allows Fox to take full advantage of a swift aggression that’s agreeable in half-court settings. His live dribble in tight quarters is a series of composed bursts that make slowing him down as much of a mental exercise as it can be a physical one.
He’s razor sharp on the play below, running towards Nemanja Bjelica’s pass instead of catching it while still, then trying to break Clint Capela down off the bounce. This is a tactic normally used by players who use that extra microsecond of momentum to dig their shoulders past their man’s (think Joe Ingles or Kyle Anderson), but when Fox does it the defense is immediately behind the eight ball.
Fox can steer his team through a designed set, but is also deft in the face of broken plays that allow him to find/create the slits in a defense that thought it was vacuum sealed. Think of him as a taller, blurringly fast Mike Conley. He’s shifty and unpredictable, with sudden power, finesse, and tremendous body control. There’s english on his layups and touch on his floaters.
Scoring is nice, but Fox’s positional namesake is far from nominal. He’s a point guard, after all, methodically organizing the troops as any competent one must. The Kings love when he makes decisions out of a double pick-and-roll, with two screeners up top. Sometimes he’ll split the two with a crossover or quickly turn the corner and get into the paint. But more notable happenings occur when he showcases how credible he is as a set-up man. This no-look pass to Richaun Holmes — how it momentarily buckles Nikola Jokic as Michael Porter Jr. moves in the wrong direction — deserves rhapsody.
Speed is not the answer to every problem — the Kings finished 17th in offensive rating a year ago, and often looked like a new homeowner that put in a swimming pool before they renovated the kitchen — but more of it should resolve some of the skepticism attached to their metamorphosis. There’s still plenty of time this season for Walton to loosen his team’s collar and even experiment with spring-loaded lineups that can jolt the offense.
(What about Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Fox running the show? We’ve barely seen that group this year, but the offensive output in a tiny sample size is encouraging. And while we’re here, why not put Marvin Bagley at the five, just to see what happens?)
There’s nothing wrong with embracing stability. But there’s a problem when it prevents your best player from being the best player he can be. The Kings aren’t dead in the water, but Walton’s plan is requiring the sort of patience most head coaches don’t get. A happy medium is in order, for him, the team, and, most importantly, the dazzling point guard who can eventually take them where they want to go.