Just one month into the 2018-19 campaign, one thing has already been made abundantly clear: these Sacramento Kings have undergone a complete transformation from a season ago, both stylistically and personnel wise.
This time last year, the Kings’ offense revolved around feeding 36 year old PF Zach Randolph early and often, with 31 year old George Hill directing the league’s slowest pace. Fast forward to today and coach Dave Joerger and his staff have given the keys to the franchise to sophomore phenom PG De’Aaron Fox. Joerger has encouraged him to run at every opportunity, off of a make or a miss. Fox has responded with All-Star caliber play on both ends, providing night-to-night consistency and leadership to a team in desperate need of both. While Sacramento has been pushing the pace at one of the league’s fastest marks, enough can’t really be said about the tremendous improvement De’Aaron Fox has made. Already blessed with game-changing speed and athleticism, he has shown an enhanced basketball IQ with his handling of running pick and roll’s seamlessly, pinning his defending on his hip and probing defenses and getting exactly what he wants, plus his improvement from three. To this point the only major blemish has been his inconsistency at the free throw line.
Though it has been just 16 games, the Kings offense and their pace has been the story of the young season. Sacramento is averaging 113.7 PPG, blowing last year’s mark of 98.8 PPG out of the water. In addition to Fox’s growth and massively improved efficiency, the team has seen another jump from third year SG Buddy Hield. A knee injury cost guard Bogdan Bogdanovic the first 10 games of the season but that served as a blessing in disguise for Hield, who took that opportunity as the team’s starting off guard and ran with it. Hield is scoring nearly 19 a night and has established himself as one of the league’s most lethal 3 point shooters. Another positive thus far has been the play of center Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein spoke at length at training camp of his desire to get paid, and has certainly made his case in the first few weeks of the season. He has served as the defensive anchor, providing outstanding post defense against the league’s best big men. Additionally, Willie has contributed career bests in both points and rebounds.
Free agent signee Nemanja Bjelica has also played a large role in Sacramento’s early success. Bjelica is shooting a blistering 48.3% from distance, and has proven to be much more than just a stretch four. Bjelica is very adept at putting the ball on the floor and creating shots for himself and for others. The impressive play of Nemanja has kept Sacramento’s prized rookie Marvin Bagley out of the starting lineup to this point. Bagley has performed quite well in a somewhat limited role, however. In just 22 minutes a night, Bagley has averaged nearly 12 PPG and 6 RPG. Despite the impressive and somewhat surprising production from Nemanja Bjelica, the starting PF spot figures to belong to Marvin Bagley sooner rather than later. With Bogdanovic’s return, I am very intrigued to see a starting five of Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic, Bjelica and Cauley-Stein. That is a unit that boasts a lot of skill, a lot of shooting, and would be a nightmare for opposing defenses to deal with. Bogdanovic has been brought off the bench since his return, but in my opinion he is too talented and too valuable to the Kings for a reserve role.
Sacramento has had the ninth toughest schedule in the NBA, and is far ahead of where they were last season. They owned a 4-12 record through 16 games, and didn’t record their eighth victory until December 8, 2017. By any measure, the Kings are well ahead of last year’s pace and look like a vastly improved team. Unfortunately, they still reside in the Western Conference, where seemingly every year there are teams who are several games over .500 and don’t qualify for the playoffs. Top to bottom it’s an unbelievably loaded conference. If the Kings do make the playoffs, it would be house money. It would defy all odds. But in my opinion, it shouldn’t be the expectation. This start has been unforeseen and a joy to watch, but whether the Kings end their 12 year playoff drought or not won’t determine whether or not this season is deemed a success. Success should be based on the growth of this young core, what they get from De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles and what they can become. Can another one or two of the above mentioned players take a leap and lift the Kings up among the conference’s best?
Due to an ill advised trade made with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2015, Sacramento doesn’t own their 2019 first round pick. They do project to have an enormous amount of cap space next summer, so perhaps that can be an avenue explored to improve the roster from the outside. They aren’t going to be inking pending free agents Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson to contracts, but it is conceivable that a couple of starting caliber player in the league sees the exciting brand of basketball being played in Sacramento, coupled with their gorgeous new venue the Golden One Center, and signs here. But until we get there let’s enjoy this team for what it is; a young, talented core that competes hard and is growing their chemistry by the day. All in all, not a bad place to be.
Photo courtesy of Sacramento Kings Facebook page.