Written by Chris Walker (@cwlkr20)
If you told me in October 2018 the Sacramento Kings would end this season as the 9th seed, I’d have been confused. No one saw a season of teasing at the playoffs coming. The celebration and respect that starts their offseason would be equally confounding. For a team that has missed the NBA Playoffs 13 years in a row, celebrating a losing 39–43 season may sound odd, but it is a milestone. The young Kings were one good month away from the playoffs. This season was a good indicator that there’s work left to do for everyone still involved (more on this later).
Remember, these are the Kings — a team that was one game away from the NBA Finals, if it wasn’t officiated by a dirty referee. They had Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Peja Stojaković leading them to the Western Conference finals. And then they fell apart, became the antithesis of NBA ownership, and made a ton of questionable draft decisions (hi, Georgios Papagiannis). So far, the team has spent 13 years in the lottery slots with only one All-Star to show for it.
Nonetheless, this year they flirted with the postseason; a by-product of smart coaching, improved management, and a small youth movement. Although they were one of the league’s youngest teams, the Kings were also third in pace, meaning that those young legs were getting ahead of the pack and putting up points, to the tune of 114 per game.
An up-tempo style is built on speed, and De’Aaron Fox is loaded with it. As the self-described “fastest player” in the league, there is an air of a young John Wall about him. During his first year, he looked wildly athletic but was clearly adjusting to everyone being at a similar level. As a sophomore, Fox took the reins and became an alpha for his team, leading the break and setting the team up to score within the first seven seconds of the shot clock.
In addition, there’s Buddy Hield, who looked like the lost Splash Brother this year, averaging eight three-point attempts/game, hitting 42.7%. Marvin Bagley III improved as the year went on. He relied on a simple set of offensive moves, but he still got buckets. Taking the Duke alumnus over Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft was a show of faith in Fox, as point-forward Doncic is just as ball-dominant a player. Acquiring Harry Giles III and Frank Mason III at lower points in the draft was intelligent, as they grow into stronger bench options.
California’s capital city squad has the potential to get out of the bottom half of the Western Conference, but more uncertainty has been added to the formula. Back to that “still involved” bit — The Kings fired their head coach of three years, Dave Joerger. It was a somewhat shocking firing since the team had consistently improved from when Joerger was brought in. Many will point to General Manager Vlade Divac wanting to corral power, due to reported tension between Joerger, the front office, and players; also, Divac fired Assistant GM Brandon Williams.
In accord, maybe it was just time to move on. It is notable to point out that Fox and some of the young guns hit the wall as the season went on. In the same vein, look at Toronto. They moved off of Dwayne Casey, right after they were a top seed but still got bounced earlier than they wanted. Even though they replaced him with first-time coach Nick Nurse, they’ve kept their trajectory. Sure, getting Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green plays a big role, but the Raptors hit a wall of success and needed a new lead voice to get them over the wall. We have yet to see the full fruits, but they are the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That said, hiring Luke Walton could be positive. The former Warriors assistant coach believes in an up-tempo style, with the Lakers sitting in the top-10 pace rankings during his reign. At the same time, player development with young teams is important, and there are some players who didn’t get better under Walton’s guidance, like D’Angelo Russell or even Julius Randle. Team owner Vivek Ranadive has wanted the Kings to be like the Warriors, so why not get the guy who helped them to a 73 win season? I honestly thought that the search would have taken longer than 48 hours, but when you know what you want and have a guy’s cell phone number, sometimes things move faster than you think. To note: Walton is currently being sued for sexual assault, by a former reporter. He is still the coach until otherwise said, and the team has issued a brief statement.
So what now? They don’t own their first-rounder, with it conveying to either the Boston Celtics (more likely) or Philadelphia 76ers (less likely), but have three second-rounders. The team has about $37 million in cap room to play with, but Sactown, as a city, isn’t Los Angeles or New York. They should move off of Willie Trill Cauley-Stein to find someone better to pair with Bagley. The Kings should make runs at a proven veteran like Orlando’s Nikola Vučević or a young, restricted free agent like Washington’s Thomas Bryant. Harrison Barnes is probably going to take up his player’s option, so moving him could be necessary. Finding a defensive stopper in the vein of Iman Shumpert would be helpful. Maybe trade Barnes for Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore and another player, depending on how the draft lands for Atlanta. They really have an open book this offseason to add to a growing foundation.
Vlade and the front office have gotten smarter, something I’ve extolled previously. Their improved decision making gives them little more rope to swing on. Actually breaking the active longest playoff drought would have given them even more. However, we don’t live in that reality just yet. One would hope that this team’s path has not stopped because of Joerger’s forced exit, since he and Walton have similar coaching philosophies. What we do know is that the Kings jumped over a bar, and even though it seems low, it is still an accomplishment. Now, they need to raise it.