Interim Head Coach Alvin Gentry has reiterated several times before what his goals are for this team in the final stretch of the season with a spot in the play-in tournament out of the question. He wants to see a culture established, one grounded in defense, one that protects the home floor, and most of all, one that is all in on competing.
Although Sacramento isn’t where they’d like to be record wise, there’s no sign of overarching discouragement. Really, there’s nothing to be discouraged about.
“Obviously there’s no training camp or anything like that, or we really don’t have two days where we can practice, but you know we just have to try to do it on the fly as much as we possibly can,” Gentry repeated this week in regards to the difficulty of trying to kick things into high gear off of such a sharp turnaround. In the matter of days last month, half of the Kings roster was completely new to the building.
More than that, take yourself back to November when the Kings had lost 7 of 8, looked like it had no answer, and fired head coach Luke Walton seemingly as a last resort. It was clear Walton’s leadership was not yielding the results in the win column, but moreover, it was evident that the fire, at such an early point in the year and for a coach with significant player support, seemed to be a sort of cover move for the rest of the front office.
Without a doubt, whether Walton was there at the helm or not, the Kings looked like a disheartened, disorganized bunch. The firing of Walton, more than anything, was the front office—particularly GM Monte McNair—waking up to the fact that the team needed a solid foundation and a direction to move in.
It’s hard to say McNair is deserving of scorn, he’s certainly delivered good draft picks, but until just over a month ago, it seemed like he had lacked any credentials in the acquisition of talent. The big acquisitions coming into this season were Tristan Thompson and Alex Len— Thompson, until he was traded, was an excellent locker room presence, and Len has some talent, but were they comprising a recipe for success? Evidently not.
Again, the Kings had drafted well, and McNair seemed content to see where a group of young guards could take the team. He hadn’t been there very long, but it took the ostensible death of Sacramento’s drive as a team in November for him to wake up to the reality of how tough putting together a team in this league is and how it requires pulling the trigger on tough decisions.
Prior to the season, the Kings were adamant about not trading their young guards. Seeming to levitate with crossed arms and a smile, it looked as if Sacramento saw something the rest of the NBA couldn’t. So they rolled into the year and got off to a promising 5-4 start. That was, of course, before they let gravity get the best of them.
Fox is a great player. The last month or so alone speaks for itself as to his ability to score points when he wants as well as his commitment to improving his leadership on this team. However, at the start of the year, with a point guard taken as the Kings’ first pick for the second year in a row and his own slow start statistically, Fox had space to question his place on this team. There is no question he still wanted to be a guy to help out this franchise as he is now and always has been. It’s just that in the situation leading up to the season, it was McNair’s folly to assume Fox would lead a few young players, Barnes, Hield, and the rest to the playoffs essentially by himself and without any binding factor.
It’s fair to say it’s all part of the process of learning on the job, though, because McNair did make the tough decision that he’d been needing to make. Of course, it came as a shock, and resulted in some skepticism because fan-favorite Tyrese Haliburton was traded, but along with that, it was also the kind of move Kings fans are not used to.
The words Sacramento Kings and all-star don’t often chain together in the musings of NBA fans. In recent memory, the Kings had shipped out their only all-star. But to get an all-star? What would that be like? The answer had to be found out.
The response was a little crabby at the offset, but with time, the rationale revealed itself like the sun at high-noon.
The Kings added six new players in total just before the all-star break, namely two-time all-star Domantas Sabonis, Justin Holiday, Donte, DiVincenzo, and Trey Lyles, who are all either starters or de facto closers. Without question the lack of time together as a roster, as Gentry observed, prevented a propulsion into the play-in, but even more unmistakeable was that this was indeed a different team that was producing an on-floor product immediately more appealing to watch.
Now, at this point, the viable complaint to be made is to ask: Why was this not done earlier? That’s because even as their season will end with the final buzzer of the last regular season game in Phoenix, there is still so much to look forward to.
That gets said week after week now, but the important thing is that its believability increases in value with each week.
It feels almost simple: add a few additional difference-makers and have everyone on the same page after a few weeks of training camp. The reason for that simplicity is the fact that in this final span of the season, the Kings are already in the midst of constructing the kind of culture Coach Gentry was talking about. They are putting themselves in a position where they’ll be just a few ingredients away.
“At the end of the day, we played well, but we still lost, so it still hurts,” DiVincenzo said while addressing his comfort on the team after the loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night. “And coming in tomorrow let’s watch some film, let’s try to get better. And we have another good team coming in on Friday, so for me, it’s not about my personal stuff. For me, it’s about trying to win games and trying to create good habits. So, like I said, it still stings taking a loss, but if we can get better, that’s what I’m trying to focus on.”
Clearly, Sabonis and Fox now make up the two pillars of this team’s foundation, as James Ham put it. Their ability to play through one another is astoundingly effective and has been responsible, in large part, for the better-looking Kings. But DiVincenzo, in his own right, has radiated his confidence to be positive and it’s affecting the whole team’s self-belief.
The confidence spreads throughout the locker room because of it. It’s safe to say it’s encouraging to his teammates, too. Just the other night, it was evident how much of a role he played in Davion Mitchell’s performance over the last two games, calling the rookie “a special player.” And by all accounts, the motivating effect is mutual.
“As soon as I got here, I could just feel his love for the game, his love for the defense, and it reminded me so much of the energy that Jrue Holiday played with in Milwaukee,” he said after the loss to the defending champs. “And with that, I got to read off of how Jrue was playing over there, and I go off with Jrue. So now, coming here, [I’m] reading off of Davion.”
Mitchell spoke to the press that night, too, articulating the benefit of such positivity.
“It makes the game easier when everyone’s believing in you,” the rookie admitted.
They’re clearly feeding off one another, building an understanding to accompany the common respect, and the two of them were absolutely spectacular on the defensive end in front of the home crowd these last few games.
“I don’t care that he’s a rookie, the kid can play, and the dude is ready for big moments,” DiVincenzo said of his teammate. “We talk a lot on the court and that’s just that relationship that is building. That trust is building on the defensive end.”
When things were at their lowest point for the Kings this season, Tristan Thompson had notably said an NBA player doesn’t need a coach to be motivated to compete. Frustrated with the defense, he expressed how that end of the floor is hard if there’s no activity, no communication, no trust.
“Your teammate’s gotta have your back,” Thompson said at a postgame presser in November shortly before Walton’s firing. “If I get beat and I want my teammate to get there, I gotta be there for him. That’s part of being on the string and that’s how you build a defensive mentality. And the league is f–cking hard — it’s hard to win… We gotta win collectively.”
That’s what the Kings are trying to do. They’re playing collectively, and while the wins aren’t coming in droves, they are laying that groundwork, forming connections, building rapport, and committing to a philosophy of play.
“We got a group of guys who compete,” Gentry said of his team Wednesday night.
“When you have to coach effort, that’s when things get really tough,” he added with probable reflection on the memories formed from decades of NBA coaching experience, both distant and recent.
This Kings defense has had its moments of improvement, but right now, the way DiVincenzo and Mitchell are approaching it, the expectations should rise for next season.
Already, Kings fans have witnessed a flurry of players who are wholly attached to the idea of playing a kinetic style of defense. That’s exactly how the active bodies and hands of DiVincenzo, Mitchell, Justin Holiday, and even Chimezie Metu are playing.
At the same time, there’s an element of more meticulous style of defensive presence. Fox’s attitude lately on that end, has put him in a position where he’s suggesting different defensive looks for opposing sharpshooters. It’d be wrong to underestimate Sabonis’ ability to secure defensive stops has played in this team going from allowing an average of 15.2 second-chance points a game before the trade (which was last in the league) to 11.9 in the games since (which ranks sixth in that span). And Barnes and Trey Lyles always put themselves in the right position— Lyles, in fact, drew two offensive fouls himself against Milwaukee Wednesday.
That defensive growth over the last few is a major indicator of the improved connection throughout the rotation, and much of that can be attributed to the trust evoked from the air of professionalism that has all of a sudden shown up in this team.
Not that the Kings were ever overtly unprofessional in the McNair era, but bringing in a few veteran guys have been huge for this team in terms of remaining consistent and focused.
Harrison Barnes has been a steady figure in that regard for a while, Sabonis has been here for over a month, Fox’s leadership is growing into true form, but in addition to them, a guy like Trey Lyles makes a huge difference.
The same way DiVincenzo helps this team’s confidence by being a force of encouragement to both himself and his teammates, Trey Lyles demonstrates how his own confidence to utilize experience, effort, and the little things can be “an x-factor” for this team, as Sabonis said of him earlier in the week.
Raised by a father who, as Kyle Draper noted on the recent broadcast, taught him that “nobody can out-work you,” Lyles takes pride in his good habits. Because he’s a hard worker, he’s got a lot of them.
“We got three top tier scorers out there on the court all the time, so I’m just trying to go out there and make shots when I get them, be aggressive, and try to make other plays for our teammates, and just try to make things happen,” he said at practice this week. He went on to explain that you have to be aggressive when finding a “niche.”
That’s the sign of discipline within him.
And just watching his pump fakes, his passing decisions, and the fact he seems to always know what to do with the ball when it comes his way—not getting shy, but not trying to do too much—is a joy for any basketball fan to watch.
Fox noted the intention for Kings teammates to stay “connected” in order to “hit the ground running” when talking to James Ham, “especially people who are still signed through next year.” Lyles has a $2.6 million team option for next season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll be back.
The value of mixing in Lyles with this group, even if Lyles doesn’t work out as a long term option at the starting four (there’s no way to tell right now), is no doubt going to add to this team’s list of good habits with all the little things he does.
By doing the little things, Lyles enhances the team trust, which builds the team-wide habit of going for the extra pass, the extra effort, the great look over the good look. And in games where wins come down to a few possessions, it makes all the difference.
Game by game, this team looks more comfortable, more immersed defensively, and more competitive. For that reason, this product is so far already checking the other box on Gentry’s agenda for establishing a culture: protecting the home court.
Sacramento’s head coach said that Kings fans “will accept this team here if they know that we’re playing hard and competing every night.” And based on the last few games at home—despite the ugly reality of opponent’s jerseys in attendance—the fan enthusiasm is already showing improvement in its vital signs.
This is the result of good habits up to this point. As some have rightfully suggested, that is a positive thing looking ahead.
“It’s just a prelude, I think, to things that can happen and things that can come,” Gentry noted optimistically following a tough loss to the Bucks.
Sacramento fans have a right to be weary of optimism, but from the smell of it, the Kings might actually be cooking up something special.