With the NBA season being shelved for four months due to a global pandemic, the manner with which the 2019-20 Kings’ season concluded was completely unprecedented and unpredictable.
Through the creative genius and ingenuity of commissioner Adam Silver and the league, they constructed and meticulously planned an impenetrable bubble to protect its players, coaches, and key personnel from the dangers of COVID-19. Their work will allow for the show to go on and for the NBA to resume, for the 2019-20 campaign to finish, and an NBA Champion to be crowned.
One thing that seems to be as predictable as the rising sun was the Sacramento Kings again failing to qualify for the playoffs, a streak that now extends back some 14 years. For context, the last time the Kings made a playoff berth, Apple had yet to introduce the iPhone and George W. Bush was still in office. It’s an unimaginably long playoff drought for a league that rewards teams that struggle with draft capital.
Now, it’s not all doom and gloom in the Capital City. This isn’t the doormat Kings from the early 1990s, or even the rock bottom Kings from 2008-2011. Shortly after the Orlando seeding games ended, which saw the Kings finish 3-5, Vlade Divac stepped down from his post as GM, paving the way for Sacramento to hire their third General Manager since 2013. For all of Divac’s faults, and we will certainly get to that, Sacramento’s roster does have some intrigue and desirable assets with which to build upon. As the league has continued its shift to small ball, breakneck pace, and exponential increase in three point attempts, the Kings have the horses to play that style. They just refuse to put the pedal to the metal and go all in on that philosophy.
In my view, it’s as clear as day what Sacramento should do to regain relevance and be successful. When you watch any other team, let alone the consistent playoff teams, there is an emphasis on five men working in unison to search out the best shot, and to work for open threes, particularly from the baseline. The Kings are very fortunate to have one of the most prodigious three point shooters in the league in Buddy Hield. But he doesn’t play enough, and isn’t put in positions to flourish the way other franchises deploy their elite three point snipers. I think the solution is to start De’Aaron Fox with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield. That’s the core, that’s the group that has to be on the floor together as much as possible for Sacramento to be successful.
Given Bogdanovic’s pending restricted free agency this offseason, the narrative is already beginning to circulate that the Kings face the difficult decision between Buddy or Bogi, who will the Kings keep and build around. This shouldn’t be an either or proposition. While Hield and Bogdanovic both play the same position, this isn’t 1985, 1995, or even 2005 anymore. They aren’t vying for the same spot. It is an era of position-less basketball and the best teams understand that, adjust, and play their best players the most minutes (what a concept!).
Now this is not to say the Kings’ triumvirate is equal to that of the Houston Rockets. We all know they’re not. But James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Eric Gordon all basically play the same position. They’re all 6’5″ or under and they are all ball dominant. But they’re also the three best players on the team. As this season concludes, it completed the third year Fox, Buddy, and Bogdan have been teammates. Buddy and Bogdan have alternated the role of starting SG and sixth man, while Fox has had a firm grasp as the team’s starting PG the vast majority of that time.
The underlying point is in three years De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Bogdan Bogdanovic have shared a relatively small number of minutes together on the court. In this era of small ball and three point shooting that’s malpractice as an organization. Their combination of skill, speed, athleticism and three point shooting should give opposing defenses headaches to prepare for. But fortunately for them they never have to deal with that versatile, three pronged attack at the same time. I suspect the internal organizational fear of going small is that Sacramento would get pounded on the boards and become a sieve defensively. I would argue that’s the case anyway. Not in my lifetime have the Kings ever been a standout defensive outfit. But they do have the pieces to finally be a standout offensive unit.
Much has been written about the franchise passing on phenom Luka Doncic in 2018. It’s obviously a decision that will haunt the Kings for quite literally the next two decades, as Luka just turned 21, brought his team to the playoffs, and is already putting up historical production. The reasons behind not choosing a generational talent like Doncic may never fully be known, but it is particularly maddening given Vlade’s first hand knowledge of the European market and how competitive the league was which Luka was slaying as a teenager. But another unintended consequence to that fated decision is the enormous and undue pressure placed on Marvin Bagley. Few players in NBA history have had such a weight on their shoulders. Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, Michael Olowokandi to name a few.
Now, of course, there is no defense for the Kings not drafting Luka Doncic, but fans have to separate that frustration and not take it out on Bagley. He has been cursed with horrific luck from an injury standpoint, with several of them being of the fluky variety. In his limited sample size he has proven to be a very skilled and polished offensive player with tremendous instincts and quick twitch athleticism. There’s a real chance he will battle nagging injuries throughout his NBA career, but also a possibility that the Basketball Gods will spare him and he’ll play 75 games next season. Don’t give up on Bagley, who like Doncic also just turned 21, and has shown a willingness and desire to work diligently to return from a litany of different ailments.
Let’s not forget, Kings fans, this is a guy who was the top high school player of his class, a standout at Duke, and was compared very favorably to Chris Bosh. He can play. The other piece of the equation is the Kings likely won’t get another chance to draft that high again and get a franchise game changer. Though Bagley clearly shouldn’t have been picked ahead of Luka, he was worthy of a very high draft choice for a reason and the Kings should similarly still look at him as a critical piece going forward.
The remainder of the roster has some building blocks and key role players that compliment the core trio of Fox, Hield, and Bogdanovic. I would put Harrison Barnes, Cory Joseph, Richaun Holmes, Alex Len, Harry Giles, Nemenja Bjelica, and Kent Bazemore in this group. We know that the roster will look different when the 2020-21 season kicks off, as fringe guys will be let go and there will be moving and shaking throughout the roster. Bazemore, Len, and Giles are all unrestricted free agents. Jabari Parker has a player option that he is widely expected to opt into. Two way player DaQuan Jeffries is interesting. He impressed in Orlando with his effort level, penchant for tip dunks, and jump off the screen athleticism.
COVID-19 has impacted each and every one of us, our jobs, our children’s schools, and more. The Kings are no different. They’ve been hurt in the checkbook by having no fans in the stands, no sold concessions and in-arena merchandise, and lost revenue from missed games. This very likely will impact how Sacramento makes decisions regarding retaining players since the worst thing to be in the NBA is a bad team that’s expensive. That financial component may factor into the team’s handling of Bogdan Bogdanovic’s contract status, and could create the either/or decision of retaining Buddy Hield or Bogdanovic I mentioned earlier. De’Aaron Fox is also in line to cash in on a very lucrative max deal this summer. As of now the league hasn’t established the salary cap parameters for 2020, but without a doubt there will be a sizable decrease in lieu of coronavirus and the league’s fallout with China last October.
There’s going to be a lot for ownership to juggle in regards to the cap this offseason, and they face a critical decision with whom to replace General Manager Vlade Divac. You could have the best coach in the league, but if your front office is constantly butchering picks and passing on elite talent (and unfortunately Sacramento has a long history of passing on future stars in the draft) then it doesn’t matter. One could argue the most impactful position within an organization is the GM, as they are responsible for drafting well, assembling talent, diagnosing roster needs, inking fair contracts. Whether coach Luke Walton will return after a very disappointing season is another topic that needs answering, though it is likely he’ll return given the significant money and the years remaining on his contract.
In summary, my hope is the Kings as an organization realize what they have with their core. De’Aaron Fox is the fastest player in the league, the head of the snake. De’Aaron’s three has to get more steady, but his continued ascent and night to night consistency will be the lynch pin in getting the Kings back to relevance. Buddy Hield is one of the best three point shooters on Planet Earth, in a league where the three point shot is the most valuable commodity of all. Bogdan Bogdanovic combines the ball handling and playmaking, can score at all three levels, making him an ideal secondary ball handler and creator. Start Harrison Barnes at the PF spot, where he can serve as a post scorer when needed, and capable of stretching the defense out to the three point line, and is a very versatile and experienced defender who brings it every night. At C I would be comfortable starting either Alex Len–who at 7’0″, 250 lb. provided a long, physical presence who was accepting of his role as the screen setting–or rim running big man or Richaun Holmes–who very quickly became a fan favorite with his high motor, and built solid chemistry with De’Aaron in their two man half court game.
And if Marvin Bagley can shake the injury bug and regain his confidence he could be looked at for starting center duties as well. Though lean and inexperienced thus far because of the injuries, Bagley projects as a center in this era of small ball and could be thrust into the lineup to grow and build chemistry with the aforementioned core.
The group is all either about to enter their primes or are firmly in their primes, and though they may struggle defensively early on, through experience, communication, and grown chemistry on the court, they would improve. And from day one it would be a ready made, three point barrage. An offensive firework show that would excite Kings fans and give the organization their best chance to return to the postseason.
Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Kings