Over the last week, the Kings have gone from losing three straight with plenty of questions surrounding them to a team that’s won two straight on the back of the team’s connectivity.
All five of those games have been without All-NBA point guard De’Aaron Fox and while the two contests in Houston brought up concerns about Sacramento’s identity, it’s clear who they are and what their biggest strength is.
This stretch has illuminated the preparedness of the group, its togetherness, and its confidence.
The Kings have witnessed guys like Kevin Huerter regain his three-point rhythm after leaning heavily into rebounding and trying to make defensive adjustments in order to make an impact. They’ve seen Keegan Murray make similar strides in those areas with his added strength while the shooting works its way back.
They’ve seen guys step up, namely Keon Ellis, whose defensive prowess has made a large impact over the previous two games. Even guys like Alex Len and Kessler Edwards have earned minutes with energy and effort.
And with earned opportunities come reduced one’s. Davion Mitchell came off the bench when Ellis got the spot starts over him, but he’s played well since, especially in that first game not starting for Fox when he was a major difference-maker against the Trail Blazers. Sasha Vezenkov lost rotational minutes, but in an abrupt chance on Friday, he hit two big three’s. And JaVale McGee, perhaps predictably, has been a world-class professional about Len’s recent minutes in place of him.
“I mean, JaVale wasn’t even playing bad at all, right, but Alex (Len) had come in in that Houston stretch and played really well, so I wanted to reward him,” Mike Brown noted postgame on Friday. “So I had to go to JaVale and say, ‘JaVale, you’re going to sit down.’ And JaVale, being a three-time Finals guy, embraced it and he’s been supporting Alex and whoever else is is in front of him.”
Players are remaining ready at all times, they’re also supporting and respecting each other in their collective goal, and, as seen in particular on Friday, they’re embracing the “right way” to play.
Against Oklahoma City, the Kings had their best performance in terms of physicality without fouling. From Ellis to Domantas Sabonis’ verticality to Huerter and Murray’s rebounding, the win “thoroughly impressed” coach Brown because they played with their chest and played on a string.
Clearly, the Kings are a better team when Fox is out there: two all-stars is better than one, and having the fastest players and one of the best scorers speaks for itself. However, while that’s true, these last two wins have underlined that coach Brown and the whole team, regardless of injuries, are confident that anyone can put them in a position to win.
“It really helps us believe that, no matter what five we have out there, if we play the right way, we can get it done kind of along those lines,” Brown said after Friday’s victory, referencing Ellis’ and the team’s collective performance.
As much as Fox can catapult this team forward, the Kings are buying into what is the “right way” to play.
“We should have the confidence and belief that if (Fox is) out or Domas is out, we can go out there and still perform and give ourselves a chance to win … if we do the little things,” Brown added after practice on Sunday, highlighting that they “collectively” achieved that against the Thunder, and more broadly, the past few games.
Sacramento has to keep this train moving in this direction, but the conviction that they can be a great team—whether their best player is there or not—is the root to success and it appears deep at this point. It allows them to stay ready for new opportunities, to remain graceful when minutes are diminished, and to be all-in on a common goal.
Furthermore, it allows for accountability.
Mike Brown has noted before how he gives his players a lot of credit for allowing him to coach them. He said it about Fox and Sabonis, his stars, specifically a lot a season ago, but he’s really drawing a bigger circle around the group in that regard.
“They allow me to coach them and they understand that, at the end of the day, there’s no absolute for anything within the roster,” Brown said pregame on Friday. “Part of what we talk about when we say, ‘Hey, are we all-in, are we gonna embrace our role,’ is to put the team first.”
It’s partly familial, it’s partly business. There’s love, but there’s a standard.
Since Mike Brown has taken over, the Kings locker room has been a nexus of connectivity with streams of accountability and self-belief flowing in every direction. It’s grown over the last year-plus, and if it can continue to become stronger, then Sacramento can feasibly climb to the highest peaks.
They’re not there yet, but the plan for getting there has all hands on deck. Everyone’s all-in on the ride, and that’s a huge portion of the challenge.