Last Thursday, when speaking about the ankle sprain that has since kept him out of the previous three games, De’Aaron Fox stated that he doesn’t “want to rush back” and wants to “make sure” he’s “ready,” and the coaching staff agreed.
A factor in all of that, other than it being early in the season, was that they all trusted the rest of the roster to hold the fort, but the fort was rocked in Houston as the Kings dropped two games that featured some of the most nauseating basketball.
Sacramento looked lost.
“We have to play the way that we are capable of playing without letting it impact us spiritually, and I’m not seeing that right now,” coach Mike Brown said to conclude his postgame press conference.
The identity of the team is not necessarily in crisis—after all, Brown says everyone knows they want to play fast and physically—but the effort to harmonize with their identity is.
All game, the primary rotational players looked stagnant on offense, finishing with 22 assists and 13 turnovers while only posting 60 points through three quarters of basketball. The team had two shot clock violations and nearly had a few more.
There were sporadic and lone instances where the pace in the half and full court would look sound; there weren’t many, but they stood out mostly because that urgency was missing for the majority of their performance.
And to top it all off, Domantas, the Kings’ other All-NBA player, managed to get up just 4 shot attempts to accompany 4 turnovers.
On the other end, the team was listless. The Rockets were constantly driving into the paint. Malik Monk, Keegan Murray, and Harrison Barnes in particular were letting opponents inside like realtors at an open house, which allowed for all sorts of high-percentage looks and crisp ball movement for Houston.
They were careless in so many ways. Chris Duarte went under a screen allowing a three. Kevin Huerter—despite having a decent game—was slow on a few rotations. And Sasha Vezenkov at one point left a man unattended on an inbounds play, drawing a shriek of exasperation out of Sabonis.
“What are we doing?” the big man exclaimed to his teammates near the end of the first half.
Adding to it all, the Kings were fouling at an unheralded rate. Monk, Murray, and JaVale McGee all got into early foul trouble.
In the quest to be a more physical squad this year, Brown has described multiple times how a foul with a player’s chest or their verticality are one’s that they can live with, but that was not the reason behind Sacramento committing 22 fouls—17 in the first half—to go along with 27 Houston free throw attempts.
“If you watched the game, we just reach (on defense),” Mike Brown assessed with dismay after the loss. “We do it not just one possession, but possession after possession after possession. We lead with our hands instead of with our chests.”
He added that the guys are reaching when they get beat rather than relying on help, which is to say, they’re not playing on a string.
The Kings look like they’re pressing on defense. As everything unravels, they don’t have an answer.
It’s the same thing on offense. The head coach and some players have noted that the extra emphasis on defense is affecting their shots on offense as they adjust to more output on the other end. But instead of leaning into their style of play to continue generating quality looks, they’re slowing down, sometimes grinding to a halt.
It’s not all lost. The spirit of the team, as Brown would refer to it, evidently still exists.
Keon Ellis and the final unit (which is essentially the Summer League team plus Alex Len) produced a 37-25 fourth quarter. It didn’t matter with such a chasm separating each teams’ scores, but it was a sign that adhering to the right style of play can certainly produce.
There was urgency within Ellis, Kessler Edwards, and Alex Len. There was little urgency from most of the primary guys.
In coach Brown’s assessment, that final unit was doing “the simple things that (the Kings have) been doing the past year-plus.”
With most of the primary rotational players being largely absent from the small mix of guys who played “the right way,” there has to be room for changes.
The head coach said postgame that he’ll sleep on it before making any judgements regarding potential rotational changes, but recently, he has not shied away from mentioning the fact that he’s always prepared to make those sorts of decisions.
Keon Ellis was refreshing on both ends, defending better than Monk and Huerter (aside from fouling a three-point shooter) while also being a far better offensive weapon than Davion Mitchell, who went 2 of 11 from the field. Despite not playing much, Kessler Edwards looked sharper and more decisive than Harrison Barnes and Chris Duarte. And Alex Len was his solid self, focusing on the little things and, more importantly, not hurting the team in the ways McGee did Monday night with his 2 turnovers and 4 personal fouls in 10 minutes.
This isn’t a complete condemnation of some of those said players who currently reside in the rotation, but the outsiders were accompanied by a vibrancy and a hunger that has been blatantly missing. That might be worth tapping into.
Fox may be out again on Wednesday. It’s also possible that he might play, but even still, these two games—as minuscule as that sounds in the grand scheme—have shown that Mike Brown may find some value in mixing it up a little. This doesn’t have to mean big changes, and this definitely doesn’t mean permanent changes. Basketball is a fluid sport that extends to so many areas of the game, and as such, it may be time to shake things up in some capacity.
Besides, this is a fairly deep team—especially if Trey Lyles returns to health—and the whole group has earned the aforementioned trust because of that. But that trust has to move in multiple directions and everyone has to hold themselves accountable to the same degree that they’re held accountable.
“Every one of us — starting with me — should look in the mirror to see what you can do to help make this thing better,” coach Brown explained Monday. “And hopefully I will, all our coaches will, and all our players will do that instead of dropping their shoulders and their head and feeling sorry for themselves because nobody out there is going to feel sorry for us.”