The NBA is slowly entering its final month and while there will be plenty of times to talk about playoff teams, there are good stories written in locker rooms who won’t see the playoffs this year.
As of April 11th, the Sacramento Kings are on a six-game losing streak which severely diminished their chances for the postseason but there is plenty to be excited about in California.
There have been four very interesting teams this year with considerable playoff droughts. Three of them will most likely reach the postseason this year.
The Hornets have not seen the playoffs for 4 years, the Knicks for seven, the Phoenix Suns for 10 and the Sacramento Kings for 14. The first three will most likely end up in the postseason which leaves the Kings.
Ah. The Kings.
Sacramento Kings roster 2021: Years of chaos
At the start of the 2000s, this team was a fan favourite because of their attractive style of play. Nowadays they are mostly a synonym for dysfunctionality, I mean it’s bad when you make the Knicks look like the Spurs.
Since 2006, they have had four general managers and 10 coaches. The only success during all of those years was keeping the franchise in Sacramento, which was a matter mentioned more than once. Everything else was a disaster: the results, the owner with his silly ideas, the draft, the free agency acquisitions and especially the culture.
In 2021, the Kings are having a very solid year. They are competitive in a brutal Western Conference. Their chances of getting to one of those play-in games are small but there is still a chance. That result would be a success.
People close to the franchise are reporting that after a long time the franchise is in a stabilizing phase. The new GM Monte McNair is a man who spent multiple years as Daryl Morey’s right-hand man in Houston. His vision for the season was not predicated upon results but mostly on team growth. That approach is working so far, probably even better than the FO hoped.
McNair’s fingerprints are all over that and he is the main stabilizing factor in Sacramento. He handled the Vlade Divac mess pretty well and not many people could have cleaned it up better.
His first decision was not to match the offer sheet Bogdan Bogdanovic received from Atlanta. In doing so, he preserved the cap flexibility moving forward. He also did some trade deadline moves which were positive.
Speaking of performances on the court, the team is prone to hot and cold stretches. At the end of January, they won seven out of eight games. True to their motto this season they followed it up with a 9-game losing streak.
After that, they had another strong two-week stretch and now they are enduring another bad stretch. One thing sticks out this year and that is their record against teams with a losing record. Against those teams, they are 15-7 on the year, which is good.
It means they are beating teams they are supposed to beat which is the first step to getting better. During one of their winning streaks, they beat teams like the Wizards, Warriors, Hawks and Cavs.
It won’t sound pretty but the key thing for Sacramento was the Marvin Bagley injury which happened on March 15th.
When he got injured their play improved considerably.
Bagley played well this year so why is that? Well, it forced head coach Luke Walton to insert Tyrese Haliburton into the starting lineup giving the Kings an additional shooter and shot creator on the court.
Harrison Barnes started playing as a power forward which opened up his game as well. Their defence is still the worst in the league and that won’t get better any time soon but their key weapon is their offence.
The new starting lineup with Fox, Haliburton, Hield, Barnes and Holmes is one of the best in the league. This lineup is a +11.3 per 100 possessions which is close to the top lineups in the league. What’s even more impressive is the fact that this lineup is one of the most efficient ones in the league. They are scoring 123 points per 100 possessions, beating out the Jazz.
They play fast, score a bunch of corner threes while also dominating in the paint and midrange. Their best scorer is Fox who puts a lot of pressure on defences with his drive and kick plays. Haliburton is a secondary creator and spot-up shooter. Hield is a shooting specialist who has scored the most threes after Steph Curry. They have a pick and pop option in Barnes while Holmes is a great roll finisher.
Fox and Haliburton are the cornerstones of the future Kings and the main reason why they could easily be the next Suns, Knicks or Hornets.
Fox has quietly made a significant leap this season in almost all categories of his play and we can talk about him as one of the best guards in the Western Conference.
After an average rookie season, he seemed like another wasted pick in the long line of wasted picks by the Kings. But he made sure he was not the next Jason Thompson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas or Willie Cauley-Stein.
He got better year after year both as a point guard and as a scorer. Each year he added a new weapon to his arsenal and his studying of Chris Paul’s game is well known. He improved his pick and roll game, he worked hard in the gym to build up muscle mass and he became a much better shooter. He averaged around 11 points per game in his rookie season while shooting 44 % from the field. Now, in his 4th year, he is averaging 24.7 ppg with a true shooting of 53%.
He is one of the fastest players in the league as he can cover the court in just a few seconds. Watching him play gives a new meaning to “speed kills”.
Because of his speed, the Kings employ one of the fastest paces in the league. Despite that, his speed is only an advantage in the open court during a fast break. In the half-court, his play is entirely based on pick and roll. His drives open a lot of space for the shooters of the team.
And that is not all. Because his drives are one of the most efficient in the league. Only six players averaged more drives per game and out of all of them, only Doncic has a better scoring percentage. He is first in drawing fouls, besting the maestro James Harden at his own game. When you combine all of that, he is number one among the guards.
He doesn’t even have to drive to terrorize defences. He has a solid repertoire of floaters and runners from the midrange and he is pretty efficient shooting them. Despite all the improvement teams still bait him to shoot.
He is an above-average mid-range shooter but a below-average three-point shooter. He is only hitting them at 33% with catch and shoot threes being good at 44% while pullup ones are bad at 29 %. For a pick and roll guard, the pull-up three is essential.
Keys of the Kings franchise
By accident or not, Fox has played his best games of the season after Haliburton got inserted into the starting five. He is the atypical guard (taller than usual) and has skills that perfectly fit in today’s positionless basketball.
He can be used as a point guard, shooter or defender who can cover multiple positions. The vast majority of the 11 teams that passed him up are probably nervously scratching their heads right now watching him play.
During his two-season stint at Iowa State, he did not have numbers that stand out and despite being tall and long he is not an elite athlete. He did not have high usage in college so when he entered the draft he was considered as a pass-first point guard.
He was hitting the three at a solid percentage (42%) but many were sceptical of his ability to shoot due to suspicious mechanics. All of that contributed to him sliding in the draft and the Kings snatched him up.
Haliburton’s speciality never was, nor will it ever be, scoring 28 points per night. He will also never dominate the court the way Fox does but in his rookie year, he is showing his biggest qualities to be his veteran style of play and calmness in the game.
Because of his pass-first style and his height, he was compared to LaMelo Ball even though they are very different. LaMelo is a creative trickster while Haliburton is all about efficiency and functionality.
There were plenty of college games in which Haliburton had 10 or more assists with only one or two turnovers. It’s the same in the NBA where he is averaging 5 assists per game to only 1.5 turnovers.
When Haliburton creates, you can be certain that he will make the players around him better.
Despite being a pass-first guy, Haliburton can score. He is scoring 13 points per game on 59% true shooting. He is hitting 42% of his threes on 5.3 attempts per game.
Because of his ability to cover multiple roles on the court, he is an ideal partner to Fox going forward. Fox is destined to be the Kings heart while Haliburton will be the brain.
With their new starting five, which can produce nuclear offence, the Kings found a winning combination for this season and an identity upon which they can rely on. The fate of the franchise is closely related to the development of Fox and Haliburton.
They are holding the keys to the franchise in their hand and they will be the cornerstones of the new Kings.
In a conference that has Paul and Booker, Curry and Thompson, Lillard and McCollum, Conley and Mitchell, Fox and Haliburton have a chance to leapfrog all of them in the next few years. If not, they should at least make the Kings a respectable franchise again.