After starting off the season strong, the Kings momentarily scuttled down to a 5-10 record showing signs of another case of signature Sacramento low-balling. The tanking theory, now, is like any other mediocre memory as the Kings are one of the hottest teams in the league and show no sign of cooling off. It’s not just that they’ve won 7 of their last 9, but that they’re beating teams like the Celtics, Nuggets, and Clippers.
Since their recent spark of solid play, the Kings have skyrocketed in the standings, momentarily claiming the 7th seed, but now currently resting at the 9th spot in the Western Conference, 1 game back of the 8th seed, and among the top 10 in NBA power rankings.
Even the 2 games they have lost in their recent run have been close. The losses came in the form of a one point defeat to the Heat and a punch-for-punch bout against the East’s best 76ers that came up just short, proving that the Kings are a worthy opponent, unafraid of anyone.
So enough with the tank talk and the fade for Cade because this team is the real deal, and it’s time we starting acting like it.
A Star is Born
Without a doubt, De’Aaron Fox—who has gone absolutely ballistic over the past month and is making a late push for an NBA all star nod—is the propelling force for their recent success.
In a competitive league where many contenders have a surplus of talent, having a proven star on the team is crucial to success. Well, the Kings finally have their game-changer, their not-so-secret weapon. Fox is equipped with an ability to score in a number of ways, an eye for pinpointing the open man, and has vastly improved his defense and leadership.
His stellar play over the past week landed him Player of the Week honors having led the Kings to a 4-0 record while averaging 31 points, 8.8 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per contest.
Expect this kind of heavy-handed impact to continue, and considering he’ll only improve with time, expect the rest of the Kings train to pick up some speed and chug behind him in full force.
Of course, it’s not just Fox who has made a giant leap this year. This newfound success is clearly attributed to other key players who have stepped up their game to contribute to the formation of a playoff caliber team.
Harrison Barnes looks like a man amongst boys when he’s out on the court with expert knowledge and a honed set of skills. He is arguably having his best season as a player this year, and his stats back it up:
Efficient and aware, Barnes has showcased the valuable offensive combination of execution and high IQ with his career-high three point shooting and mature presence.
His play on the defensive end, which has often been an obscure strength of his, has contributed to the Kings’ recent trend of winning games. Able to guard both the 3 and 4 positions, and at times the best player on the court, Barnes does about as well as any coach could want with his length, physicality, and fundamentals.
With his impressive pairing of veteran demeanor and great play, Barnes has proven to be an imperative leader by example for this team that’s rolling.
Coming into this year many felt the big man had to prove that last year was no fluke. While fulfilling that task, he’s also made everyone forget that the word “fluke” could ever be in the same sentence as Richaun Holmes.
Holmes is the de facto heart and soul of this team. He hustles on every play and gives it his all with every second he spends on the floor.
He’s a tremendous rebounder, almost automatic with his push shot, and has proven a viable rim protector, ranking 7th in blocks per game to go along with three outings with 6 blocks.
That push shot has really opened up the floor for the Kings since any pass to Holmes near the free throw line forces defenders to cover him out of respect for his shot, opening up a lane for Fox or other perimeter players.
Since joining the Kings, Holmes has ran miles beyond any of his modest expectations, making the case that he has earned a nice payday in a contract year.
After coming off the worst season of his career, Buddy is still struggling when shooting the ball, making only 37% of his looks and posting the same percentage from deep. But what has been most impressive about Buddy is that he has ventured out in finding other ways to impact the game.
Last year, when Buddy would find himself in a slump, he would just keep shooting. This year, especially over the last handful of games, he is showing he is not a one-trick pony.
On top of his improved defense and passing, Buddy has continuously fought to get involved on the boards as a guard. The increase in aggressive play, in part, showcases why he might be the most durable player in the league. He never misses games, never shows fatigue in the face of heavy minutes, and hustles every second he’s on the floor.
Buddy’s basketball IQ seems to be rising steadily, as well, and he’s becoming more than just a pure shooter. Although he still has some learning to do, it’s nice to see his game trending in the right direction.
Once—not if—Hield finds his shooting stroke, the Kings will certainly reach new levels.
After spending a majority of the time injured throughout his first two seasons, Marvin Bagley has escaped the injury bug so far this year and has yet to miss a game. Playing through a sore wrist without it even looking like a problem, he may be hinting at an open road for his career, free of nagging injuries. And if Bagley can stay healthy and keep his mind clear, he will be able to prove his immense upside.
Although he has faced some drama this season, mostly from his dad, Bagley’s play has not indicated any resulting hinderance. His 12.5 points on 47% shooting and 7.4 rebounds per game are nothing to down play. He has also shown to be a solid three point shooter, hitting 37% of his looks from deep.
Although his defense needs improvement, he showed a lot of grit last game when Holmes got into early foul trouble against the Sixers. Tasked with guarding Embiid, Bagley didn’t back down from the challenge and matched up with Joel much better than expected.
Hopefully last game’s defensive focus can continue to be a part of Bagley’s game moving forward because it will open up a lot more playing time for the third year pro.
Having been a solid contributor for Luke Walton so far this year, it will be fun to watch Bagley grow and get better as the season progresses.
It’s fair to note that the Kings have had help winning ball games due to injuries on opposing teams. The Celtics were without Pritchard, Smart, and Walker, the Nuggets were without Murray, and the Clippers didn’t have Paul George or Patrick Beverly.
On the other hand, the Kings have been primarily healthy for the year—so much so that even Marvin Bagley has yet to miss a game.
So, yes, maybe the Kings have had some help from some opposition injury, but you can’t sue them for staying healthy. After losing Bagley for the majority of last year and having Fox and Bogi sit out a good chunk of games due to injuries, the fact that the injury bug has not been a problem (knock on wood) is great news for this team’s prospective success.
On top of that, the Kings are winning the games they should be winning against short-handed opponents. This is a very different trend from years past where they might have lost to a George-less Clippers or a Walker-less Celtics.
Health will remain key for the Kings through the rest of this season. We saw how bad they were last year dealing with injuries—hopefully the team can stay strong and avoid injury.
Haliburton and the Bench
Sure, the Kings lost their sixth man in Bogdan Bogdanovic in the offseason, but they gained something far more valuable: Tyrese Haliburton.
As the 12th pick in the last draft, Haliburton’s play has been reminiscent of a top-5 pick and it would be an understatement to say he has been absolutely critical to the Kings’ success. More than a top draft pick even, he looks like an established veteran who’s been playing the game for 15+ years, plus he has already been compared to the likes of Chris Paul.
Haliburton is perfect off the bench for the Kings. With that kind of depth, with that punch coming off the bench, the team gets even better when he comes in. In a mere 22 games, he’s established that he’s well-equipped to grab the wheel and steer his unit in the right direction.
He was the December/January Rookie of the Month for a reason and will remain essential to the Kings’ success for a long time.
But not only has Haliburton been an amazing individual piece for the Kings, but the bench has followed his lead.
The Hassan Whiteside backlash has got to stop. Sure, he slows down the up-tempo offense when he’s on the floor, but he was never expected to be a cross-country star. What he is expected to do and what he does is provide excellent rebounding and rim protection.
Particularly in moments when Holmes is in foul trouble and Bagley struggles guarding larger opponents, Whiteside has been a dependable option for bodying up opponents, shutting down easy layups for the opponent, and scoring efficiently on the other end.
The Kings are 10-7 in games when he’s seen action. He is second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and fourth on the team in Player Impact Rating (PIE). It’s time to stop acting like Whiteside isn’t a valuable contributor for this squad.
Cory Joseph and the Rest
Cory Joseph isn’t making the same impact he did last year, especially with Haliburton’s meteoric rise to success, but he has been playing key minutes when needed.
The rest of the bench always seems ready for their numbers to be called. Glenn Robinson has shown that he can score in the few minutes he’s afforded each game while Guy and Metu have answered the call in the rare instances where Walton throws them into the game.
The Kings bench might not be perfect, but they do the trick. It’s even hard to call Haliburton a bench player considering he plays key minutes with the key guys, but he does an effective job at leading the second unit and has even established a nice relationship with his bench partner Whiteside.
The second unit is good enough to give Fox, Barnes, and others ample rest since they are capable of not letting the game slip away. This is key for the success of Walton’s rotations since he has enough confidence in the second unit to let them play extended periods of time in order to distribute necessary rest to the others.
If the Kings want to continue to prove that they are a top team in this league, the bench will have to continue to perform well behind Haliburton’s dazzling play.
What has been exceptionally noteworthy about the Kings’ success is the way they open and close games.
Their opening lineup—comprised of Fox, Hield, Barnes, Bagley, and Holmes—has been terrific. They currently lead all Kings lineups with 14 minutes per game and post the team’s second best +/- at 1.5.
This unit produces a mediocre 112.3 defensive rating but a great 118.9 offensive rating, amounting to a solid net rating of 6.5.
As previously mentioned, each one of the players in this unit have individually improved this season and as a result, the starting lineup has become a formidable force. This unit is responsible for getting the team some early leads as well as holding off their opponents to start the second half.
Even better than their starting lineup, however, is their closing lineup.
Similar to the fabled death lineup of past Warriors teams, this lineup has consistently impressed to the point where they have been dubbed the “Night Shift” for the way they close out games. And like those Warriors lineups, it consists of four out of the five starters plus the captain of the bench— Fox, Haliburton, Hield, Barnes, and Holmes.
This lineup is posting a Kings-best 2.6 +/- and has garnered attention from around the league for their stellar performance. In fact, Bleacher Report ranked this unit the third best lineup in the whole NBA.
They hold a net rating of 18.9 comprised of a 101.1 defensive rating and a 120.0 offensive rating. This has a lot to do with switching out Haliburton for Bagley since the rookie plays much better defense and is a key orchestrater in fourth quarter scenarios.
But on top of Haliburton’s epic fourth quarter performances, De’Aaron Fox, too, has kicked it up a notch each time he enters clutch time.
|4th Quarter/Last 9 Games||9.9||.478||.364||.750||1.4||1.3||0.3||9.7|
The late game heroics on behalf of Fox and Haliburton have served as a huge reason why this lineup thrives. Together, the pair are able to take the team to another level in the fourth, and all teams should fear playing a close game against the Kings.
In addition to the two at the top, Barnes and Holmes add depth to this lineup with great defense and the ability to score when needed. While Buddy stretches the floor and is known to knock down big shots, Barnes has the experience and presence to hold the unit together at the core.
So, Who are The Kings?
Whether or not you’ve accepted it, this Kings team is legit. Fans may still be careful about getting overly excited because of this team’s track record over the past decade and a half, but this team is proving to be different than the rest.
They have a proven star who has the skill to score in bunches, the desire to share the ball, and the dexterity to take over games in the clutch.
Additionally, their starting lineup is proficient, but their closing lineup is absolutely deadly, leading the team to hard-fought and narrow-margined wins—hurdles they have struggled with in the past.
They also have just enough support off the bench led by star rookie Tyrese Haliburton to give Walton the luxury of resting players like Fox and Barnes.
None of this means anything if they don’t stay healthy, and the health of the Kings has proven integral to their string of excellent play since they can lockdown weak or injured squads as well as be prepared to lock horns with elite teams.
The Kings have all the makings of a playoff team and they are finally showing us their true potential. Even after a rough start, they have bounced back stronger than ever and have played the best basketball Sacramento has seen in a long time.
So stop with the tank talk, quit the calls to fade for Cade, and enough with the trade scenarios because this team has what it takes to win, and with their great supporting cast around their new star, Fox, nothing should feel impossible anymore.