First Half Report: Positives, Negatives, and Where To Go From Here

With 36 games played and the first half of the season wrapped up, the Kings hold a 14-22 record which is either good or bad depending on whatever direction you prefer the Kings to take at this juncture. Here at this point, many Kings fans find that they’ve stumbled upon a fork in the road: make a push for the playoffs or tank to secure a high lottery pick?

Regardless of whichever road is ultimately taken, this season has had plenty of ups and downs.

Recap

The Kings started off the year on the perfect note: a buzzer-beating game winner by Buddy Hield to take down the Denver Nuggets who were fresh off a Conference Finals appearance.

Sacramento continued this initial success with a 3-1 record to start the season before their momentum slowed down and the Kings KANGZED, looking more like the imminent 15th installment of a growing playoff drought than a contending team. 

After a second loss to the Clippers in the span of 5 days and dropping to 5-10, the season was dimming fast. That is, until all of a sudden, the Kings won 7 of 8 behind all star-level performances by De’Aaron Fox. The Kings could taste the playoffs and had even reached the 7th spot in the Western Conference.

But a runaway train can’t plow ahead when the wheels fall off. 

Following the 7 of 8 run, the Kings lost 9 in a row and are currently in the midst of a 2-11 stretch. Injury, fatigue, and characteristically non-existent defense are all to blame for this abysmal run.

Positives

In the face of a 14-22 record and a continuously horrid streak of games, there have been plenty of bright spots.

De’Aaron Fox

The franchise centerpiece has delivered this year with his Western Conference Player of the Week honors and serious all star consideration. The team’s most successful stint— the 7 of 8 stretch— was entirely due to Fox’s great play.

There is no question De’Aaron Fox is one of the top point guards in the league and his numbers back it up.

 MINFG%3P%FT%REBASTSTLPTS
D. Fox34.2.466.342.6723.27.61.223.0

What’s great about Fox is that he is only 23 years old and still climbing towards the peak of his potential. With Fox locked up in Sac for a long time, it is and will continue to be thrilling to watch him grow closer to taking his team to the postseason.

Tyrese Haliburton

Going into the draft with the 12th pick, no one expected Sacramento to draft a top-two talent, but that’s kind of what happened. Not only was Haliburton a steal, he’s perhaps the team’s most radiant bright spot.

Two and a half months into the season, and two Western Conference Rookie of the Month Awards later, Haliburton is a key player for the franchise today and going forward with his smarts, two-way versatility, and clutch factor. 

Arguably a top-three player on the team already, the duo of Fox and Haliburton in the backcourt has the potential to take the league by storm for years to come.

Richaun Holmes

Richaun Holmes is not only the heart and soul of the Kings, he is posting solid statistical numbers. Currently, he’s second in the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting 65.1%. He is also the anchor of this defense as the team goes from a -0.8 net rating when he’s on the floor to a -11.0 when he’s off, the largest on/off jump for any regular rotation player on the team.

 MINFG%FT%REBASTBLKPTS
R. Holmes29.4.651.8068.31.71.513.0

In a contract year with the trade deadline approaching, it’ll be interesting to see if Holmes gets shipped off for assets or if the organization views him as an important piece for the future.

Harrison Barnes 

Another player doing wondrous things this season is Harrison Barnes, who is having his best season. He is performing well above his career averages and has stepped up to play an elevated role for the team compared to his past roles.

 MINFG%3P%FT%REBASTSTLPTS
H. Barnes35.7.492.392.8266.13.60.816.7

It’s just icing on the cake that Barnes is great for the locker room and vital in developing younger players. He is an excellent role model who works hard, takes care of his body, plays both sides of the floor, and is a great leader— all of which are contagious. 

However, with his great play and the approaching deadline, and with the franchise in a position to unload some heftier contracts, Barnes’ time in Sacramento might be coming to an end soon.

Marvin Bagley

Marvin Bagley had a lot of pressure on him coming into this season being labeled a bust at just 20 years old and heckled by Kings fans repeatedly while supposedly struggling in the shadow of Luka Doncic.

While injuries once pervaded Bagley’s life, he has missed only two games this season, allowing him to play fantastic basketball, especially as of late.

M. BagleyMINFG%3P%FT%REBASTBLKSTLPTS
Last 12 Games27.9.549.387.6008.11.10.40.617.0

If his upward trajectory continues, then the Kings will have another young, valuable piece alongside Haliburton and Fox for the future.

Starting and Closing Lineups

Aside from individual performances, the way the Kings start and close out games has been immensely encouraging.

The Kings’ starting lineup— consisting of Fox, Hield, Barnes, Bagley, and Holmes— has looked like a solid unit this year. They have a positive +/- rating of 1.5 and have a positive net rating of 6.1.

Better than that has been the closing lineup, the “Night Shift.” Consisting of Fox, Hield, Haliburton, Barnes, and Holmes, this unit has a +/- of 2.4 and an incredible net rating of 16.8. They’ve played so well that Bleacher Report named it the third best lineup in the NBA.

Negatives

Despite the bright spots, a 14-22 record indicates no shortage of problems.

Defense

When I say the Kings defense is the worst of all time, it’s no joke: their team Defensive Rating of 119.1 would be the worst of all time if the season ended today.

The team often gets caught ball watching and can’t seem to crack the code on stopping the pick and roll. On the year the Kings rank last in:

Defensive Rating – 119.1

Opponent FG% – 49.3%

Opponent 3P% – 40.3%

Opponent Points Per Game – 120.4

Points Allowed in the Paint – 52.4

What makes their defense, or lack their of, even more frustrating is the fact that the Kings are a top 10 team in the league when it comes to offense. Their defense is just so atrocious that even a team like the Knicks who average 104.9 points a game (0.3 more than the league worst) dropped 140 on Sacramento.

It’s difficult to say who’s to blame for their lousy defense. The Kings have some terrible defenders like Bagley and Hield, but you’d think the coaching staff would implement some adjustments to limit the damage. Until that happens, Sacramento will continue to lose.

Buddy Hield

Perhaps you noticed that of all the starters were listed in this year’s positives, Buddy Hield was the one exception.

Although Hield is scoring 16.4 points a contest, his shooting has really declined, shooting a poor 39.1% from the field and a career-low from three of 37.8%.

Frankly, Buddy is a one trick pony, and with his one trick of shooting the ball efficiently missing, I’m not sure what to label Hield other than a mass of dead weight.

This is a gradual decline that dates back to when Walton tried turning one of the game’s best spot-up/catch-and-shoot players into a combo guard. Unfortunately for Buddy, he has neither the ball handling nor the basketball IQ to excel in this role.

Now, Hield is a non-factor, lacking much contribution to a top-10 offense, and contributing far too earnestly to achieving the worst defense in history. 

But luckily, Sacramento is not stuck with him. In the three games before the all star break, Hield shot the ball the way we were once used to seeing. With that and a hefty contract, Buddy is another player that may very well be on another team come March 25.

Bench

Another negative for this season has been the bench. 

Even with the offseason additions of Hassan Whiteside and Glenn Robinson plus a healthy Bagley that moved Bjelica to the bench, the Kings second unit has not contributed nearly enough. The Kings bench ranks:

24th in points per game – 32.6

28th in rebounds – 13.3

26th in steals – 2.4

27th in defensive efficiency – -5.5

Despite a stellar year for their starting and closing lineups, the Kings clearly lack any depth that could translate into productive minutes while the starters rest. Even with Haliburton, the bench isn’t enough. CoJo isn’t the player he once was, Whiteside has trouble fitting into today’s NBA, and the rest of the bench plays spotty minutes.

Free throw shooting

Another category Sacramento ranks dead last in is their collective 71.8% shooting from the charity stripe. What makes you want to tear your hair out is that the team averages the sixth most free throw attempts per game at 23.3.

This has a lot to do with De’Aaron Fox who can’t seem to overcome his free throw shooting struggles. Fox currently ranks 13th in free throw attempts per game but is only making them at a 67.2% clip.

Bagley and Whiteside, who average the third and fourth most free throw attempts per game for the team, are shooting a combined 53.7% from the free throw line.

Missed opportunities at the line can often make the line between winning and losing a thin one. Most recently, the Kings had an eight point lead with a minute left to go against the Hornets before going 1/5 from the stripe in that closing minute and losing by one.

Going Forward

The Kings sit at 14-22 with exactly half a season left. They are currently four games out of the 10th spot which would earn them the final spot in the play-in tournament. 

So the question is: will the Kings go for the play-in tournament or tank in the hopes of grabbing a player in what is said to be one of the most stacked draft classes in years?

Strength of Schedule

Before going all in on tanking, consider this: the Kings had the most difficult schedule through the first half. 

By contrast, in the second half, the Kings will have the 6th easiest schedule. So don’t be surprised if the Kings start turning their season around in the second half due to this luxury.

Trade Deadline

Just as the calendar suggests an easier schedule ahead, it also highlights the upcoming March 25 trade deadline. And many Kings have been tied to trade talks around the league including Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, Marvin Bagley, Hassan Whiteside, Buddy Hield, and Nemanja Bjelica.

A trade would likely signal the end of any playoff push considering the Kings would probably get young assets or draft picks in return for a number of these players.

I do believe a few of these players will not be on the team by the season’s end and it will be up to McNair to maximize each player’s value in trade discussions.

Coaching

When a team is on track to post the worst single season defensive rating in NBA history, it’s difficult to not point to the coaching staff.

Two seasons ago, under Dave Joerger, the Kings were one of the notable up-and-coming teams, packed with a plethora of young talent. A season and a half later, under Luke Walton, the team has only regressed despite having an arguably better team on paper compared to then.

Fans have been calling for Walton’s head for some time now, but little to no rumors have surfaced regarding any coaching change.

He seems relatively safe for the remainder of this year, but will Walton be the coach of the team next year if the Kings do in fact finish with one of the worst records in the NBA? The answer remains to be seen, but a better question with tanking in mind would be: Do the Kings want to risk spoiling a top draft pick under Walton?

The Question Remains

This has hardly felt like a shortened NBA season with the flurry of ups and downs for the Kings. Sacramento has had their bright spots, but at the same time, have seemed to match each positive with two negatives. 

Although a 14-22 record looks characteristic of a team inclined to tank, the Kings may start winning games and climb their way back into the playoff picture amid a lighter load of difficulty in the second half. However, even with that possibility, the urge to trade away pieces in order to to tank for a top prospect is there.

Whether you put your chips on one side or the other, it’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds. I do believe the Kings are a better team than what they’ve shown so far, but it might be too late to turn their season around. Plus, trading players for assets and tanking for a high lottery pick may be the best option at this point.

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