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The Kings are at a crossroads at the NBA trade deadline

The Kings have been dysfunctional for more than a decade, but the current group has potential to be more than it has been.

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No single team in the NBA has caused me more headaches and frustration than the Sacramento Kings.

The last time Sacramento made the playoffs was 2005-06. The franchise has gone through through 11 coaches since, and none of them have fielded a league average defense. And yet, there’s an endearing nature that’s kept dragging my intrigue back, “maybe it’ll be different this time!”

The Kings have never bottomed out, and there’s always been encouraging talent on the roster. Kevin Martin honed the art of foul-grifting before you even started yelling at your TV about it (the man averaged 8.7 FTA per game from 2007-09!). There was a time when Tyreke Evans won Rookie of the Year in a class that featured Stephen Curry, James Harden, and DeMar DeRozan. Isaiah Thomas once rocked the headband and dazzled off the bench as a rookie.

I’m still convinced that the Michael Malone-led squad in 2014-15 makes the playoffs if he isn’t inexplicably fired after an 11-13 start. They were off to a 9-6 start prior to DeMarcus Cousins contracting viral meningitis and missing three weeks of play. Malone was the first coach Cousins had synergy with, Rudy Gay was playing well, and Ben McLemore looked like he was figuring out some things.

It wasn’t the first time they’d cut off their nose to spite their face, and it wouldn’t be the last in recent history.

Draft picks were made in the mid lottery.

The Cousins era blew up by 2017, but the Kings selected another promising Kentucky player, De’Aaron Fox, with their highest selection since 2012. By Fox’s second season, he appeared primed as a future All-Star and the Kings put together their most successful season since Reggie Theus’ short-lived tenure, entering the All-Star break with an above .500 record for the first time since the Chris Webber trade.

The Kings would finish in the 9th-seed, just shy of the playoffs, but this year was a monumental victory.

And then another shocking move.

This one was at least more understandable than the Malone firing given communication problems with both front office and players.

Next, it was Luke Walton’s turn.

Injuries compounded and hampered his first season undoubtedly, but the high paced freneticism and transition play that had buoyed the offense under Joerger disappeared — the Kings slipped from 2nd in transition points per 100 possessions in 2019 to 13th per Cleaning the Glass. While the transition play was reignited in the subsequent season after an overall regression to 31 wins, the Kings’ defense cratered from below average to worst of the league and literally the worst of all-time.

The defense has been better this season, but stepping up from the literal worst to the second worst of the current season played a significant part in Walton’s early season firing. Veteran assistant Alvin Gentry took over and the Kings are 12-21 since, on track for another season outside the playoffs (the play-in does not count, dude) and another season under .500.

Being bad is one thing, being bad without the intent to be so is another.

You can’t tell the story of where the Kings are now and where they might be headed without pointing out what’s gone on for the last decade and a half. It runs that deep. It’s not as simple as saying “Kangz gonna Kangz,” because in spite of the current record, there is the potential for something more with this group. The question is whether or not the roster is yet again doomed by the consistent malpractice of ownership and the front office.

Where are the Kings now and where do they go from here?

It’s too early to call for De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton to be broken up

This season has been headlined by the continued emergence of second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton. Selected No. 12 overall in the 2020 Draft, he made an immediate impact as a rookie and has fashioned himself as perhaps the brightest aspect of the Kings’ roster alongside Fox.

Haliburton took the keys to the offense in late April last season after Fox went down with injury. In five games prior to his own season-ending injury he shined, particularly impressing in a close game against the Warriors. He flexed on-ball chops and off-the-dribble abilities that I frankly wasn’t expecting in his career after spending the majority of his rookie year as a connector on the perimeter and with legitimate questions about his on-ball shake pre-draft.

After a sludgy start to the season from Fox and Walton’s firing, Gentry shifted the offense, opting to run more through Haliburton as a facilitator and Fox as a scorer in the half-court.

Fox/Hali Role Changes

Player and Coach Points Per Game Assists Per Game True-Shooting Usage
Player and Coach Points Per Game Assists Per Game True-Shooting Usage
Fox (Walton) 19.7 5.8 48.90% 30.70%
Fox (Gentry) 21.9 4.7 56.10% 29.70%
Haliburton (Walton) 12.9 4.8 55.80% 18.60%
Haliburton (Gentry) 14.2 8.3 58.80% 22.20%
Data courtesy of Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass

Haliburton is an incredible pick and roll playmaker, blending his pull-up shooting with one of the better floaters in basketball (which he uses to disguise lobs: incredible), getting to all three levels and leveraging the most out of his all-encompassing court vision. He’s distinguished himself as one of the better passers in the NBA this season, aided by increased reps on the ball.

There’s been some clunkiness in the halfcourt, largely because Fox’s shot has been a rollercoaster. He’s been a decent spot-up shooter for most of his career (37.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes since 2018), but he’s taken 64.3 percent of his threes as pull-ups in that time frame. There have been spurts of it falling at a solid clip, but his pull-up jumper died this season (18.9 percent) and opposing defenses have responded accordingly by not chasing over ball-screens with regularity.

Fox is one of if not the fastest and burstiest players in the league. He can get by in pick-and-roll even if the defense goes under on ball-screens, but it can at times clog up the offense. He’s such a good interior finisher with real craft as a mid-range scorer that it doesn’t matter most of the time, but it can minimize his passing windows considering how the defense is already able to crunch in on the paint (more on that later). Fox’s passing is pretty loose, he can make reads late routinely, but his ridiculous downhill gravity exaggerates windows.

I don’t entirely know what to make of his passing, because he’s kind of diminished in some of his reads by my eye. This is not intended as Fox slander, rather that it makes sense to see the shift in focus to him as a scorer in a way that simplifies his reads and puts the onus primarily on putting the ball in the basket.

What’s made the fit odd with Haliburton is that Fox hasn’t really figured out playing off the ball yet. Alvin Gentry has started to utilize some quick-action hand-offs in early offense and actions bringing Fox more off of screens to get the most of his gravity. It looks good in sets, but when Fox is spotted up, it’s often kind of bland. Defenses don’t really respect him as a shooter naturally, but rather than punishing with opportunistic cuts and flashes to the paint, he tends to park beyond the arc. This isn’t an indictment of his effort; shifting off the ball when you’ve never really been an off-ball player is supposed to be awkward to an extent!

They haven’t figured out their dynamic with one another in the half-court yet, but the potential of Fox attacking second-side, slicing up defenders already in rotation has shown enticing flashes.

And Fox crashing the defense to create open looks for Haliburton from deep have been equally inspiring.

Transition between the two has shown shades of the 18-19 season and leaves you wanting more of the defense to offense flashes the pair could feast upon.

If more of those flashes are going to happen, it has to come from getting better defensively. It’s hard to not have a modicum of sympathy for Fox being put in a poor environment defensively, but the point stands that he has played quality defense at the NBA level before, and what he’s doing right now on-court is so far from that.

He’ll have some moments where he can really play well in passing lanes or navigate off the ball, but he just dies on screens routinely. While he is certainly better utilized as a rover (akin to Victor Oladipo in Indiana), mucking up the offense and playing safety, the roster requires him to play more at the point of attack, and he’s capable of doing better than he has. For a team fully lacking in rim protection, consistently letting up the first rotation in a defense is killer.

Haliburton factors in as well. He’s much more active off-ball than Fox, with quick hands and quality stunts at the nail and weak-side contests. But, his high base and lack of strength can be absolutely killer when picked on on the perimeter.

The backcourt is flawed defensively and both need to make strides, but this is par for the course on a roster that’s poorly constructed to get stops of any sort.

It’s way too early to call for the pairing to be broken up. Through two seasons together, the flashes have intrigued and neither player has peaked or shown that playing alongside one another will hinder the ability to reach their ceiling. Fox just turned 24 and is on guaranteed money after a borderline All-Star season last year and Haliburton is still on his rookie-scale deal, turning 22 in February. We simply haven’t seen enough to warrant moving on from one to benefit the other.

It’s one thing to poke around the likes of an established star player or supreme talent, but talks around Ben Simmons have reportedly died out after both guards were rumored in negotiations. Shipping one for picks seems unnecessarily preemptive. Regardless, the issue remains that Sacramento is not some plug and play star scenario, elevating the team to the playoffs simply by sending out the top usage player on the team for an established star.

A Roster Stretched Thin

The Kings have a lot of players that I find intriguing. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen me tweet about Chimezie Metu developing into knockdown face-up four this season.

The issue so often is that the majority of the players on the roster are overtaxed, asked to do things they frankly aren’t capable of to paper over personnel gaps, or incapable of being maximized due to the personnel that is on the court.

Tyrese Haliburton or De’Aaron Fox can perfectly run a set, with properly executed secondary movements, only to have a wide-open shot they generated be taken by a non-shooter.

Part of that is on coaching, but that’s a microcosm of the roster problems that persist.

Wings just don’t exist on the team, greatly hindering the lineups the Kings can play. Terence Davis (6’4) was starting at the three prior to a wrist injury. Harrison Barnes, who is pretty thoroughly a four, is often shoehorned to playing the three out of necessity, as well, mostly because the Kings have a jam-packed big rotation. There are six bigs on the roster who have started games, partially due to an injury to starter Richaun Holmes, but routinely the Kings will trot out double-big line-ups that struggle to play neutral on one end while sacrificing the other entirely (I’m still very confused by the Tristan Thompson addition).

This whole roster is a Rubiks cube with a third of the stickers removed.

Davis was on a heater since getting his first start, but has collected DNP’s, missed time, and largely been inconsistent. Davion Mitchell has impressed defensively as a rookie, establishing himself as one of the better guard defenders in the NBA immediately. Not an easy thing to do!

You can envision him bumping up and playing three guard line-ups with Fox and Haliburton (we haven’t seen it much this season, 139 total possessions), but he’s struggled with his shot.

He’s had nice flashes offensively, especially in a recent game against the Hawks, and I’m really interested to see how he can grow as a playmaker. He has such a knack for getting downhill along with the actual ability to convert around the rim. Many scoffed at that pick, and I didn’t see the vision myself on draft day, but his fit and what he brings to the team as a tone-setter has grown on me.

Don’t totally write off Marvin Bagley III yet

His shot isn’t falling from outside with regularity, and he hasn’t seemed as comfortable taking them which is quite the opposite of last season. Yet, I’m still here on Bagley island.

If you haven’t been able to keep up with him from afar, you might not see it perusing the box scores. This is by far the best defense his played in his career, nothing mind-bending, but he’s trying like heck to be in the right place and he’s done a good job with his positioning and physicality. He still can be kind of in no man’s land when asked to be a primary rim protector or rotate as the low man, but he’s starting to find himself there, and that’s a massive development in my eyes.

He’s finding his touch in the paint again. He can still struggle with finishing through contact, but he’s been better at getting to his spots quickly out of face-ups and finishing.

I’m really encouraged by his growth this year and would honestly like to see the Kings try and keep him around (he has a qualifying offer this summer) and prioritize him. Health is a major factor with Bagley, but for a team truly lacking in top end talent and talent in general, letting go of a player who might just figure things out feels like the wrong move unless there’s a trade that makes that much sense.

Management & Direction

The Sacramento Kings need to stop trying to make a postseason push happen.

Every time the Kings start to find something, they squander it. The hope is it doesn’t happen to this group. Haliburton popping the way he has with outlier development and Fox’s effervescent freneticism are not netting you a title, but they provide legitimately good building blocks for a franchise looking to build something.

The Kings have been mentioned as both buyers and sellers at the trade deadline. With trade markets sapped by the addition of the play-in games in recent years, the Kings have a real opportunity to position themselves better for the future.

As important as Harrison Barnes is to the Kings, that’s part of the reason why it’s probably time for them to move on. I could go on an on about my love for Barnes catching and driving from the slot, using angles and power to bully his way to the rim, but not as a King.

Similarly with Buddy Hield, it’s time to move on (and probably has been for some time). Hield is a much better player than he generally gets credit for, is one of the greatest shooters of all-time, and a high caliber offensive threat. But his warts are so overly exposed on this team. On a better defensive team, his poor defense could be buffered and his ability as an elite outside scorer could shine through on a good team.

Personally, I’d like to see Richaun Holmes stay in Sacramento simply because of his chemistry with Haliburton. Their pick and roll game is something you build an offense around, it’s that good. However, I question whether or not he can be the center of a defense for the Kings moving forward. He’s a solid defender who can play in multiple coverages, but limitations as a rim protector inhibit his ability to consistently lift the defense above the sum of its parts. It’s asking a lot, but that’s where the Kings are right now.

What this team needs so often seems to run counter with what the organization wants, and therein lies the largest dilemma of the Kings.

I don’t know if Alvin Gentry is the answer as head coach. I do know that if the Kings don’t plan on offering him a multiyear deal and investing in him, and then bring him back anyways, that would be a mistake. Bringing back Luke Walton only to axe him a month and a half in was beyond questionable.

This team needs a clear direction, and an attainable one. They don’t have to tank, but can they just focus on maximizing Fox and Haliburton, figuring out what they have between the two while playing competitive basketball. There’s still some fight left in this group.

There is something here, but if they play this same game over and over again, by they’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.