Is Haliburton’s Recent Play Making Fox Expendable?

When the rumor mill was propagating reports that the Kings were in pursuit of Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons in August, Sacramento made it clear that neither of their young guards were on the table, thus foiling the opportunity before the start of the season.

This was the franchise’s stance even after they drafted point guard Davion Mitchell in what was a pleasant surprise to draft board wizards and fans alike, but was nevertheless a surprise.

Fast forward to Christmas and the Kings are still in the mix for Simmons, but adding to the intrigue is the fact that Fox is no longer as entrenched in the hearts of the Kings front office, according to reports

“It was widely reported going into the season: De’Aaron Fox is off the table. Sir, I’ve heard a lot of smoke that that might not be the case at this point,” noted ESPN’s Tim McMahon on Brian Windhorst’s podcast (you can skip to roughly the 49 minute mark to listen to that part of the episode).

Whether or not one can actually hear smoke is beside the point here because trading De’Aaron Fox might actually be a smart option.

That’s not to say it’s a no-brainer, or the proverbial do-or-die. Trading him right this instant wouldn’t exactly be selling at the peak value he was worth prior to the year, and Fox is also still a good player who likes the city that drafted him and is only bound to get better. But how much better? 

Considering his slowing ascent, his hefty pay, and what else the Kings have in stock, a trade of Fox may do more for a propulsion towards winning than anything Fox could generate on his own. He may very well become an all-star one day, and he may get league recognition as a top talent at point guard, but it’s less than certain that he’s the player this franchise can rely on to create a winning culture.

This was supposed to be the year of lift-off for Fox, but that has not been the case. Windhorst noted that Fox “came to camp about 15 pounds heavier than he left in, and he hasn’t had the greatest year.” In addition to that, it was to everyone’s chagrin that Fox had a suboptimal start to the year and hasn’t exactly righted the ship though he has improved his play. Overall, Fox is down in scoring, field goal percentage, and his three point shooting—the aspect in most need of improvement in order to keep progressing—has seemed to hit a brick wall.

Most of all, the Kings don’t look any better this year, another year with Fox leading the charge.

In what seemed like pure symbolism for this Kings team, Fox went to the line earlier this month against Charlotte with just a few seconds remaining, his team down by one. He had made all eight of his free throws in that game and seemed poised to send his team home with a win. Yet on the precipice of success, Fox missed both attempts, not only wasting the opportunity to win and the chance to tie, but sealing the team’s defeat, finalizing their horrid mediocrity.

Fox just hasn’t shown anyone that he should lead this franchise’s transformation.

Sacramento is paying De’Aaron Fox like he’s a league-renowned, go-to talent, though– even as former champion and veteran big man Tristan Thompson said last month that the Kings, in reality, “don’t have the luxury of having that go-to guy, like a LeBron, a Kawhi, a PG, or a Jayson Tatum, or Luka.” 

Throughout this season, Fox is set to make the ninth most money of any point guard, and among total contract values among that position, Fox’s ranks sixth, amounting to about $163 million in value. That total contract value is tied for 16th highest among all positions, and present in that four-way tie are the contracts of fellow 2017 draft class members Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Bam Adebayo. 

In September, Bleacher Report thought it’d be fun to do a re-draft of the 2017 class, and in doing so, they insisted that Tatum, Mitchell, and Adebayo should have been the top three—which isn’t to be argued with—and that instead of going fifth to the Kings, Fox was more worthy of the sixth pick, behind Lonzo Ball and John Collins at fourth and fifth.

Kings fans were right to question the four through six rankings of that re-draft, but there wasn’t any room for argument that Fox should be among the top three, and there’s even less room now.

The Kings may have paid Fox like he’s the star the franchise so desperately needs, yet as of now, despite paying that price, the Kings still lack that transformative piece.

Further validating the plausibility of such a move has been Tyrese Haliburton’s play of late. Fox has missed the last four games due to health and safety protocols, and in that time Haliburton has substantiated the allure of potentially trading Fox. 

In other words, the second year guard has been tearing it up, arguably playing better than Fox, albeit in a small sample size. And it’s on top of the fact Haliburton had an awesome rookie year where he played like a seasoned vet.

Fox and Haliburton share the backcourt. They’re both point guards who thrive with the ball in their hands, so they’ve had to split playmaking duties, which in turn prevents the Kings from seeing their max potential.

There’s an argument to be made that Fox is the better scorer and thus the player with the best overall outlook among the three young point guards. But that is an argument made based on the opportunities that Fox has had as the primary option. After four games with full reigns of the point guard duties, Haliburton has amassed some remarkable statistics and has sparked a real debate regarding the two guards.

Many have looked at his last four games and insisted Haliburton can produce the same numbers alongside Fox, but that seems unlikely. Fox averages 79.4 touches per game, and before this four game stretch, Haliburton was averaging 66.2; but in these four games with Fox out, Tyrese is averaging 106.3 touches, a 71% increase. Not to mention he’s more than doubled the average amount of minutes of possession per game in the previous four. Without sharing the backcourt with Fox, Haliburton has been given opportunities to shine, and he has not let those opportunities go to waste.

In the last four, with more shot attempts, Haliburton is averaging 23.5 points a game on 52.9% shooting from the field. His true shooting percentage (which factors in the value of three-pointers, two-pointers, and free throws) is 63.8% in Fox’s absence.

His shot already looked miles better than Fox’s to begin with (think 26.3% vs. 38.8% from three on the season about a week ago) and that’s been underscored by Haliburton’s 50% clip from three within this stretch which has brought his overall percentage to 41.1%. In the last four, it’s not an exaggeration to say Haliburton has shot the lights out since he’s shot a whopping 69.2% and 52.0% from the 10-19 foot range and the 20-29 foot range respectively.

It would be ludicrous to think Haliburton can maintain such sky-high numbers from distance forever, but think about the added element he adds to spacing and opening things up for a long list of players, and that attribute becomes even more valuable when you consider how he spreads the ball around.

Not only is he generating team points through his own shooting, but also with his passing. Sure, Fox, and most any point guard, does that to varying degrees, but Haliburton has been special in his last four, averaging 11.3 assists. Taking a closer look between the lines, he averages 13.0 adjusted assists (which account for free throw and secondary assists as well).

Most striking from these past few games is the fact that Haliburton has, on average, created 29.0 points a game from assists. For reference, he is averaging 15.9 assist points created per game to Fox’s 12.8 on a whole this year. Not only does Haliburton have the playmaking ability to make up for Fox’s points per game, but he can run circles around his teammate in terms of overall generation of offense.

Topping things off, Haliburton has flaunted a 15.7 Player Impact Estimate (PIE). Not only is that better than both his season average of 11.3 and Fox’s 10.2, but if that were indeed his stat on the whole season, Haliburton would be ranked in the top 15 among the league in that statistical category. Another way to put it is Haliburton is playing an awful lot like a star talent.

After these four games, one could feasibly make an argument Haliburton is the better option—one could also still make the opposite argument—but it’s important not to get too far out ahead of this with self-assured glances into the crystal ball.

The argument to be made is not that Haliburton is visibly better than Fox, or vice versa. The argument to be made is that Fox is not the only guard with tremendous upside and promise, he merely has the highest value at this moment. In fact, as is well known, the Kings have a surplus of talent around the perimeter, namely those two recent first-round picks, Haliburton and Davion Mitchell, as well as sharpshooter Buddy Hield.

Therefore, since Fox has the highest value of the talented four, it makes sense to consider trading him so as to upgrade the team with a talented big man, particularly a stretch big, or with a versatile, dynamic talent like Simmons. 

After another disappointing start to a season that risks handing the Kings the record for most consecutive seasons without a postseason appearance, something clearly needs to change. Since Hield has been available for longer than one can hope to keep track, that sets up for a potential Kings package that offers two guards with excellent value– a package, no less, that can produce a splash.

Creating a winning franchise is tough: there’s no one way to do it. But if the Kings are in the habit of parting with Vlade Divac at GM (as was warranted), firing Walton, and giving further control over to Monte McNair, then trading Fox might work best for the team’s team-building trajectory in the long run.

With a surplus of young talent at the guard position, McNair should at least be thinking about trading one of his two point guards in hopes of sending this franchise down a better path, and with Fox’s value, that potential exists.

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