April 22, 2020, 12:24 pm
The Kings were riding a wave of positive momentum coming into the season, closing the 2018-19 campaign with a flourish and establishing themselves as a team on the rise. Because the Kings are the Kings, they had to do everything in their power to stem that tide, opting to dismiss Dave Joerger amid a reported disconnect between the coach and front office.
Sacramento would pick Luke Walton as their next coach, and he wouldn’t come in with the slow-ramp rebuilding expectations that had given his predecessors some presumed leash. The Kings liked what they saw down the stretch last year and had eyes on a playoff berth this season, making some veteran free-agent additions to match, only to stumble out of the gate.
A recent run of play against weak opponents has vaulted the Kings back into the playoff race, but their season has been anything but smooth.
Pumping the Brakes
Last season, the Kings found success in unleashing their run-and-gun game, fueled by the quickness of De’Aaron Fox. Pushing the pace is more than trying to rack up fastbreak points, and Sacramento was able to gain a huge advantage by Fox forcing defenses to scramble or set quickly, allowing the team to probe for mismatches and openings that could be attacked decisively, even in the half-court.
Under Walton, the Kings have noticeably slowed down, even if they’re still offering up soundbites about how they need to play with more pace. Last season, the team ranked third in the league with a pace of 103.88. Prior to the league’s suspension, the Kings ranked just 23rd this year, with a pace of 99.08.
And although the spirit of playing quickly is manifested in more than transition scoring, that’s an area where Sacramento has suffered mightily this season. Last year they led the league with 20.9 fastbreak points per game, and this year the Kings sit a mediocre 18th, scoring just 12.9 points per contest on the break.
The decision to play against one of the team’s natural strengths reeks of a preemptive move to get comfortable in more bogged-down, “playoff” basketball in the half-court. That certainly looks like a case of putting the cart before the horse, as the Kings should put more effort on simply getting to the playoffs at this point in their collective development.
Last summer saw the Kings try and buttress their young core with some veteran additions, and things haven’t gone according to plan. The trio of Cory Joseph, Dewayne Dedmon and Trevor Ariza were supposed to round out the rotation and give the team some steady hands as the youngsters dipped their toes into competitive, late-season games.
Two of those three are no longer on the roster.
Joseph is the one that remains, and while he’s been generally fine, it’s clear that he’s lost a step, and there have been situations where he gets minutes ahead of Yogi Ferrell even with circumstances that favor the third-stringer.
Ariza, as he did in the summer of 2018 with Phoenix, signed with a team that offered a big check but a questionable path to playing time. The Kings mistakenly expected the aging Ariza to be capable of handling extensive minutes as a small forward, and injuries forced the veteran into 24.7 minutes per night with Sacramento. In trading him to Portland for Kent Bazemore, the Kings also opened up a roster spot, which helped facilitate the trade of Dedmon, undoubtedly the franchise’s biggest whiff of the summer.
Dedmon inked a three-year, $40 million deal to start for the up-and-coming Kings. It took him a few weeks to lose the starting job, and he quickly fell out of the rotation entirely, only reemerging when the other options were sidelined by injuries. One public trade request later and the disgruntled Dedmon was dealt to Atlanta in exchange for the expiring contract of Alex Len and Jabari Parker (who has a team option for next year).
Given that Parker has been out of Sacramento’s rotation, he may be willing to accept that $6.5 million for next season rather than risk a cold market in free agency.
With the Kings looking to put their best foot forward, the front office had to spend the first few weeks of the season watching their prized acquisitions fail to gel, and then admit defeat by pulling the chute on their two highest-paid free agent adds.
The free agent foray was not a total lost cause, however, as the Kings were able to pick up the best value of the class in Richaun Holmes. It was no surprise to hardcore basketball viewers that the athletic Holmes would be a great fit with Fox, clearing space with screens and then providing a rim-running presence that the Kings completely lack otherwise.
Holmes played 17, 17 and 15 minutes in the first three games of the season, even though Marvin Bagley was injured in the first game of the year, but a 24-point, 13-rebound, two-block explosion in Sacramento’s fourth contest was the turning point. Holmes continued to outplay Dedmon and never looked back, becoming the clear and obvious choice at center. He would see over 20 minutes in every game aside from his two most recent contests, his first games back after a 25-game absence.
Fox’s ability to blow by defenders and Holmes’ sense of timing has resulted lots of easy connections between the pair in the two-man game, and that on-court success has also carried over into fantasy.
Holmes, forever a Hoop Ball favorite and per-minute stat machine, has blossomed in a career-high 28.8 minutes per game this season. On pace to set new personal bests in every standard fantasy category, Holmes was rolling along as the 45th/33rd ranked player on a per-game basis in 8/9-cat leagues. A right shoulder injury took the wind from Holmes’ sails, especially as it coincided with another Bagley absence, bumping him down to 124th/98th on in terms of total value, but that’s still a massive win for fantasy GMs.
Holmes has an ADP of 118.2 (ESPN) and 116.3 (Yahoo), though he was essentially going undrafted in 10- and 12-team leagues until a late swing from leagues that drafted shortly after the season opened (remember, Bagley lasted just one game before hitting the shelf) pushed him into late-round territory.
An elite per-minute producer finally getting big minutes is an easy recipe for fantasy success, and Holmes has delivered in spades. He’ll look to build on a career season if and when the league resumes, aiming to improve on averages of 12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game on .654 from the field and .800 from the line.
For as much of the Kings’ mediocre 28-36 record can be explained by runs of poor play, it has to be noted that they’ve rarely been able to operate at full strength.
Holmes’ 25-game absence was a crusher, even though the Kings were able to improve by racking up wins in a softer portion of the schedule. Even then, Holmes’ initial ascendance to the starting lineup was followed up by Fox’s ankle sprain just five games later. With the team’s star guard missing the next 18 games, it was a lot of patchwork in the rotation, even if that helped get Bogdan Bogdanovic going. Bogdanovic himself would miss nine combined games in December in January.
Three chunk injuries have limited Bagley, the team’s first-round pick last season, to just 13 appearances in his sophomore season after missing 20 games as a rookie. A persistent left foot problem has prevented him from getting into any sort of rhythm, and while the extra opportunity up front has enabled Holmes to flourish, the Kings need to see how Holmes and Bagley fit together to assess a long-term fit.
For fantasy players, Bagley’s absence has been particularly disappointing. After flashing great potential as a rookie, the big man was drafted firmly in the middle-rounds with lofty expectations. Considering his deployment was said to be one of the chief sticking points between Joerger and the front office, it was expected that Bagley would have every opportunity to shine. Perhaps this hiatus will prevent his latest left foot issue from being season-ending, but he’s a longshot to come close to his ADP with his per-game value currently at 151/161 (8/9-cat) and his total value a horrid 357/352.
The big culprit in Bagley’s value drop is his shooting percentage, as he’s hitting just 46.7% of his shots from the field (in an admittedly small sample) after shooting .504 as a rookie.
All told, that’s 103 combined absences from four of Sacramento’s core players. Fox and Holmes have only started 13 games together. Holmes and Bagley have only appeared in the same game nine times all year, with the pair sharing just 25 minutes on the court.
It’s a ready-made excuse for the Kings if their season ends without a playoff appearance, but hopefully the organization chooses to focus on the fixable issues that have permeated the team regardless of which players are available.
The Buddy Hield Situation
Perhaps no situation has been more curious than Buddy Hield’s changing role. After emerging as one of the league’s best shooters and half of one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourts last season, Hield has struggled this season. More pressingly, he has butted heads with Walton repeatedly.
After Sacramento’s double overtime loss to the Wolves on December 26, in which Hield played just five minutes between the fourth quarter and both OT sessions, he said, “Seems like we’re all over the place — coaches and everybody. Trust issues going on, I guess. Guys stop believing in players. It is what it is. They have who they have playing out there and I just have to be supportive.”
Playing time has seemingly become a major sticking point, with Hield’s minutes shrinking substantially over the season. Since peaking at 35.2 minutes per game in the month of December, Hield averaged 32.8 in January, 27.8 in February and was at just 24.6 minutes a night through five games in March before the season was suspended. It hasn’t helped that Hield has recently been removed from the starting lineup in favor of Bogdanovic, although a hot shooting run has actually improved his numbers over Sacramento’s last handful of games.
Not only has Hield been playing less; he’s also been playing a role that doesn’t look like it’s suited to his strengths. His shooting percentage has plummeted from .458 to .429, and his 3-point efficiency has dipped from .427 to .395 – still an elite mark, but damaging considering Hield is taking a whopping 58.2% of his shots from beyond the arc. He’s also taken just 13% of his shots within three feet from the rim compared to 19% last season.
Hield has been a pick-and-roll ball-handler 26.7% of the time this season, up from 16.4% the 2018-19 campaign. Predictably, that’s led to a spike in the number of pull-up shots that he’s taken. They now comprise 48.2% of all Hield’s field goals, up from 41.0% last year. He’s managed to shoot at the same level on those looks (.398 to .394), but that shift has also detracted from Hield’s most efficient shots – those within 10 feet of the hoop (from 26.3% of FGA to 19.6%).
Of course, Hield is also dealing with some natural shooting regression, shooting just .405 on catch-and-shoot looks this year after hitting at a clean .460 clip last season.
Despite all that, Hield is still delivering top-55/65 per-game value (8/9-cat) and his durability has him sitting inside the top-35 in terms of total value. While fantasy GMs expecting a top-40 season might be disappointed with their returns to this point, if this is what Hield is capable of on below-average efficiency, it’s a nice reminder that his stat set gives him an easy path to steady, potentially overlooked value.
Whether Walton can put him in a position to excel is the much more important question, this season and beyond.