Will a Three-Guard Lineup Work in Sacramento?

There were apparently a lot of options to think about for the Kings at the 9th pick in this year’s draft, yet not a single prediction suggested that Davion Mitchell could be an option. Despite the prophecies of draft wizards everywhere, Sacramento selected Mitchell in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft.

Of course, there were viable reasons to think about a big man or a wing player considering the Kings are a guard-heavy team. Not to mention the guards providing the majority of that weight are De’Aaron Fox—who’s the franchise cornerstone and a star-to-be—and Tyrese Haliburton—who shined throughout his rookie campaign.

Even so, when Mitchell was still on the board as the Kings were up, Monte McNair saw no issue with adding more weight in that department.

Fresh off winning a national title and the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, Mitchell doesn’t have too many doubters, and the few out there were given little to clutch on to when, just five days after being drfated, he opened the California Classic with a 23 point performance.

Mitchell continued with that trend, shining throughout his time in Las Vegas where he played exemplary defense and took home Summer League MVP honors after leading Sacramento to the offseason title.

“He’s an older rookie, so he’s more NBA ready and he’s a stronger guy,” De’Aaron Fox said of his new teammate. “He’s over 200 pounds at like 6-foot or 6-1, so I think he’s ready. I think he’s ready to contribute to the team now. We’ve played pickup and he’s an NBA player.”

Ability, performance, and chops aside, the question remains: What kind of lineup will Kings fans grow accustomed to seeing with all this talent at the guard position?

According to some of the players, it’s simple: fans and teams around the league will quickly get used to seeing all three of the guards on the court together.

“It’s going to happen. I don’t think that’s a secret,” Harrison Barnes said of a three-guard lineup. “It’s a lineup in today’s NBA that is going to be played, and is likely going to be played a lot.”

Barnes, of course, played on those early Golden State teams where “The Lineup of Death” consisting of Curry, Thompson, Igoudala, Barnes, and Green dominated the league and ushered in a new era of smaller, positionless basketball.

There’s certainly confidence in the strategy.

“For us, we all want to play together,” Fox said at a press conference. “We know we can do it. OKC did it a few years ago.”

Fox was referring to Billy Donovan’s 2020 trio of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroeder, and a sophomore Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This very OKC team finished 5th in the Western Conference in a year they were predicted to finish at the bottom of the league, and it was these three guards that had a lot to do with their shocking success.

In 20 different lineups that consisted of Paul, Schroeder, and Gilgeous-Alexander, only three of those lineups had a net rating that was below zero. Those three lineups that had a negative net rating only played a total of 12 minutes on the floor altogether.

One particular lineup featuring Paul, Schroeder, and Gilgeous-Alexander had the best net rating in basketball, having played over 35 games and more than 175 minutes together.

Simply put, we are way past the era where fans wince at the thought of a three-guard lineup being featured by their favorite team.

Even the Kings saw their best basketball being played by a smaller lineup just this past season. That lineup was so good—third best in the league according to Bleacher Report at one point—that they became the closers and deemed the “Night Shift.”

Last season’s “Night Shift” was comprised of Fox, Hield, Haliburton, Barnes, and Holmes, and if Kings fans thought that was good then they should consider a few things that’ll be different with a slight alteration.

Although replacing Hield with Mitchell appears to mean that the Kings will lose size in their premier lineup—Hield has four inches and twenty pounds on the rook—they actually got bigger in a few ways.

For one, the two feature players got bigger.

It was reported that Fox is 12 pounds heavier than the start of last season and that Haliburton has put on 10 pounds of muscle. While both of the individual boosts in heft is good news for the Kings, this is particularly beneficial for Haliburton who, at 6’5″, will be viewed as the three in the lineup and will be tasked with guarding lengthier guys on the wing.

More importantly, even with a loss in physical size, that lineup is actually more imposing because it immediately becomes more dynamic. That’s the key.

Yes, Buddy is an elite shooter, but three point shooting for that lineup won’t drop too much due to the incoming rookie’s range. Plus, not only is Mitchell coming out of college as the best defender, but he’ll be replacing a defensive liability in Hield.

It was, after all, Mitchell’s elite defense that excited McNair and company. The Athletic reported that Mitchell’s defense on Cade Cunningham last season convinced Sacramento that he can guard bigger players.

Here’s exactly how Mitchell fared against the number one overall pick in college:

According to Jason Jones, McNair is wholly convinced that Mitchell can guard four positions. So really, in a way, the Kings almost got bigger.

If indeed Mitchell’s versatile defense translates into the NBA, then consider the defensive weight taken off Fox and Haliburton’s shoulders. With less of a load on one end, it’ll open up for better, more energized play from those two on offense.

This confluence of pieces could be signaling something special for this team.

Much like the evolution of small-ball’s acceptance and efficacy in the NBA, the Kings may be in the midst of cultivating the next great “lineup of death.”

If Mitchell can truly guard the opposing team’s best player in the one through three positions or at least their best guard, Sacramento may have a big three worthy of national notoriety.

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