Still Waiting on a Killer Instinct in Sacramento

Over a week ago, on a Monday night, the Sacramento Kings lost to another team that was missing one or multiple star players. It was in Brooklyn to a Nets team playing without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, or the then-newly acquired Ben Simmons. In spite of those absences, Andre Drummond, Seth Curry, and LaMarcus Aldridge lead their team past Sacramento. 

Particularly crucial to their loss, however, was the fact the Kings scored just 85 points on 34.4% from the field and 25.7% from three. Add to it a lack of defensive intensity that allowed Brooklyn to shoot 51.2% from the field that night and several moments where Kings players couldn’t get foul calls on the offensive end, and it amounted to the worst loss in the post-Sabonis trade. De’Aaron Fox was the only Kings player to shoot over 40%, scoring 26 points.

A bad shooting night can happen to any team on any night, but if they expect to be regarded as competitors, then they have to overcome adversity. And it’s in moments where nothing feels like it’s going a team’s way—as was the case last Monday night—that a leader needs to show up and start forcing the issue if his team expects to be taken as a serious threat.

After the trade that occurred over two weeks ago, it was apparent that teams were viewing a matchup with the Kings differently. No longer was Sacramento taken as a soft opponent, this was now a team to wrangle with.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue with the fact that this Kings roster has been the best on-floor product in recent memory, but as was the case in Brooklyn, there was something missing in this team. 

It could be the fact the squad is still not fully acclimated, sure, but this felt less like undeveloped chemistry than it did a few holes. 

There is a casual quality to this team going into the final stretch, which makes sense given the uphill battle of trying to wrestle into the play-in tournament amid a crowded Western conference. This team does acknowledge it has some good pieces—better pieces overall than before—but at the same time they seem perfectly content to merely make progress in the remaining twenty or so games. 

Coach Alvin Gentry referred to making the play-in as a “monumental task” this past week.

“Obviously, we got 20 games left and we want it to be a real positive thing,” he said Tuesday after the first practice since the all-star break. “If nothing else, we want to make sure when the season’s over that we’re on the upswing and we’re playing good basketball. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Given the low points this team ventured through this season, ending it on a promising note and heading into an offseason where Monte McNair can add more pieces and make further adjustments to make the Kings better is not a bad place to rest your cap. As long as Sacramento does play out the remaining games with heart and purpose—something they seem intent to do—then there is no shame in recognizing some positivity despite missing the play-in if next season features upgrades.

That’s a major key: adding more pieces. Developing a team-wide killer instinct.

In addition to the loss to Brookyln came two losses where the Kings just fell short—not in the score, but in overall performance—first to the Bulls, then last night to the Nuggets. 

Chicago, in an all to familiar tune, was without LaVine, but DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, and Coby White carried them past the Kings. Fox, Sabonis, Holiday, and Barnes all contributed to Sacramento’s offense, but it wasn’t enough of a collective effort.

Against the Nuggets it was more of the same, just worse, with nothing coming beyond Sabonis’ great game and Fox’s 20 points for the Kings.

The talent on the team is without a doubt better and at the very least having competed fairly decently with Chicago and Denver, but it seems without additional pieces, they won’t break the playoff drought. 

The lack of talent may have to get fixed in the offseason, but the chance to plant the seeds right now to produce that killer instinct exists. 

A team that is motivated, relentless, and aggressive is usually led by a guy made up of the same qualities. Nikola Jokic showed why he was one of the best players in the league last night. The Kings were working hard to shut him out of the offense and secure the paint, but by the end of the game he scored 25 and was one assist short of a triple-double. Jokic’s offense and defense, Will Barton’s 31 points, and a good Nuggets team effort for Michael Malone’s squad carried this team to victory (his 300th win as a head coach).

It’s the whole identity of the Nuggets, and some could argue it comes partially or entirely from Malone, but none of it exists without Jokic. Everything he does is indicative of his team—it’s obviously packed with talent, but he is the driving force.

In the interest of getting the ball rolling in terms of developing a winning attitude for next season in Sacramento, part of that development needs to come from the emergence of a clear leader on this team, someone who can either rally the team or take control on their own when things are looking low for the team.

Domantas Sabonis was asked if he felt a responsibility to fill a leadership roll for this team at that same practice this week.

“I don’t feel a responsibility,” Sabonis said. “But I would say with Fox, HB, me, Justin [Holiday], a couple of the older guys — I feel like everybody listens to us more, so we gotta set the example of how to play the right way.”

That’s great that a large chunk of the team wants to set an example of how to play the right way. However, that does little in the way of developing a dagger-wielding leader.

Sabonis is right to say there is no responsibility to be a leader—his job is to go out and play. And it’s also fair to mention that things are “still new” for Sabonis in Sacramento, but that was a good opportunity to start rolling that developmental ball a little. There’s no need for arrogance, but a little assertiveness could have been encouraging.

The former Pacer has already done an exceptional job of boosting cohesion on a new team by running a large portion of the offense through him and increasing the volume of passes and cuts on that end. Going a step further and becoming a leader beyond the schemes and game plans is an opportunity that Sabonis could fulfill.

Not to mention the type of performance he had against Denver where when he was rolling he was getting the team involved to the best of his ability, even if it was just creating contagious energy. There are sparks of the necessary leadership qualities in Sabonis that show he could step up here.

Looking in another direction, that role Sabonis fills on the court does allow room for Fox to become a killer because Fox can focus more on scoring than anything else. If ever there was a candidate to be one of those 4th quarter killers, equipped with the ability to score quickly and with intensity, it would be Fox paired with Sabonis. 

Again, the key word is candidate. Fox showed to be a killer late in the game last season, finishing in the top 5 in 4th quarter scoring. However this season has been different as Fox has dropped to 29th in the same category.

Earlier this year, reports described a less engaged De’Aaron Fox. About a month before that report, Fox made a passive complaint when he said he hadn’t lost until he got to the Kings “First 18 years of life, 19 years of life, every step that I played basketball I was winning something,” he commented. 

Even when reporters asked him about trade rumors that included his name, Fox seemed more than casual about the whole process, saying he was “not worried” about anything. Again, that’s fine, but being so casual is not the attitude to take a step forward in forming a killer instinct—something he has the tools to do and has proven in the past.

Think of that Nets game. He was scoring the ball effectively, and one can’t help wondering whether he could have turned up the jets. Same applies to Sabonis, to any of those “older guys.” 

And in the Nuggets game last night, Fox was shooting well with an opportunity to turn it up while his teammates—minus Sabonis—were not major factors. It can be difficult to argue that Fox should be more aggressive when it is the team’s passing since the Sabonis addition that is making the Kings look better, but Fox only got to the line twice last night and put up just 18 field goal attempts compared to Sabonis’s 23—obviously overshooting isn’t the idea, but when the situation calls and there is room for more effort, an aggressive instinct has to take hold.

Sacramento gave up Haliburton, the closest thing to a visceral leader this team had in a while, but they did so to get a roster that was more structurally sound for success going forward. So the reality of making one addition, may have just left another hole to fill.

Obviously, the Kings have a missing drive to take control, and that has got to be a focus for this team going forward, whether in a late season push, going into next season, or some mix of the two. Again, this has the potential to grow from some of the pieces already present, but further additions will be necessary.

Nevertheless, in the last twenty-something games, the opportunity presents itself for someone on this team to step up in this department and get the ball rolling in the right direction. The earlier the better if a killer instinct is surely to come to Sacramento.

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