The Sacramento Kings’ season didn’t appear to be off to a strong start just a couple of months ago. The organization has not known stability under owner Vivek Ranadivé, and GM Monte McNair hired Mike Brown as the team’s fourth head coach in the past five seasons. They decided to part with a future first-round pick and two rotation players to trade for the solid but unspectacular Kevin Huerter. Sacramento didn’t even attempt to re-sign Donte DiVincenzo, who they acquired at the 2022 trade deadline. Finally, the Kings opted not to take the ultra-athletic Jaden Ivey with the fourth pick in the draft in part because of De’Aaron Fox’s presence. Fox was their best player last season; unfortunately, he was the best player on a talent-deficient team that finished 30-52.
So of course the Kings finished the preseason (checks notes)…4-0, with three wins coming by at least 30 points?! And they had the best defense in the league? And the starting small forward who’s been in trade rumors for two years is using a Mike Brown meme as his Twitter avatar? Could there actually, finally be some good vibes emanating out of the Golden 1 Center? And will they last throughout Sacramento’s season? Or will this be a season of Kangzzz yet again?
The Kings have significant work to do to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Their 2021-22 record understates how far away the team was from playoff contention; they finished 25th on offense and 27th on defense. Fox started slow and never fully recovered. He finished with the third-lowest field goal percentage of his career, and the second-lowest three-point percentage and assists per game of his career.
Despite Fox’s struggles, Sacramento remained in the play-in race in February. The play-in pursuit helped motivate the front office to trade budding young guard Tyrese Haliburton and sharpshooter Buddy Hield for two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis. Haliburton was the prize of the trade for the Indiana Pacers; they’ll be able to match any contract he signs when his rookie contract expires in 2024, while Sabonis will be free to sign with any team that same offseason.
Sacramento exchanged the 22-year-old Haliburton for the 26-year-old Sabonis and will hope the swap pays dividends in the win column this season. Previous starting center Richaun Holmes is coming off a down season, but the Kings will have one of the strongest center tandems in the league with him as Sabonis’ backup. New wings Huerter and Malik Monk dramatically improve the team’s outside shooting. Second-year guard Davion Mitchell’s offense started to catch up to his spectacular defense late last season.
Finally, there’s number four overall pick Keegan Murray. The 22-year-old out of Iowa has looked polished and ready to contribute in Summer League and the preseason. He and Harrison Barnes team to give Mike Brown versatile scoring wings that can be used in multiple actions.
It’s clear the Kings will be much improved on this end based on their preseason performance. The usual caveats about the small sample should be heeded, as it’s possible this strong start was an aberration. The Kings’ preseason games do offer great insight into how Brown wants the team to play, however.
He has empowered nearly every player on the roster to push with the ball in transition when they grab a defensive rebound. Kings’ starters Fox, Huerter, Barnes, Sabonis, and KZ Okpala all took turns dribbling the ball up the court at times. They’ll look to take advantage of Fox’s speed in transition. The offense also flowed well when Sabonis grabbed a rebound, dribbled the ball up the floor, and transitioned directly into a dribble handoff for one of the Kings’ perimeter players.
The Kings will continue to play with pace in the half-court. Brown is clearly looking for quick dribble handoffs, split cuts, and off-ball movement with this group. The offense was a blur of quick decisions and body movement this preseason. They piled up points against the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers (who were missing Anthony Davis) in their second matchup. The Kings had a tougher time scoring against the Phoenix Suns and the Lakers in their first game. It remains to be seen whether that was a product of the strong defense or Sacramento’s relative unfamiliarity with the new system in their first preseason game.
This projects to be an above-average passing team, with Fox and Sabonis splitting primary playmaking duties. Sabonis spent considerable time at the elbows making decisions with the ball, which weaponizes him as a perimeter threat even though he isn’t a great outside shooter. Mitchell will handle the ball plenty when he’s in as well. Huerter can handle the ball and initiate offense, while Barnes, Murray, and Monk provide enough passing and secondary playmaking to keep the machine moving.
This is why Mike Brown was hired; his teams have averaged a tenth-place finish in defensive efficiency. Ranadive might go streaking if that happens, as the Kings haven’t finished higher than 18th in defense since 2005-06. Last season’s squad had no strength on defense. They were in the bottom third of the league at forcing misses, creating turnovers, and grabbing defensive rebounds. They avoided sending opponents to the free-throw line but that was due to a lacking of aggression rather than discipline.
Brown is keeping things simple to start. The Kings are encouraging individual accountability on defense (“guard your man!”), with some situation-dependent switching included. They are trying to avoid rotations at all costs. Okpala is starting for his defensive contributions. He guarded both Davis and LeBron James in their first game, then received the Damian Lillard assignment the next game.
Interestingly, Fox got the assignment against Portland’s second-most threatening player, Anfernee Simons. The preseason indicates Brown will ask much more of Fox on defense than previous coaches. Fox still has extreme quickness even when compared to other NBA players, and at 6’3” he has enough size to hold up against bigger players.
Fox is the bellwether. The Kings have few lockdown defenders, but there aren’t many targets if Fox is motivated. If he plays well, they have no obvious liabilities aside from Sabonis. If he struggles, opponents will pick him and Sabonis apart when they share the floor.
The Kings will do everything they can to keep Sabonis away from switches. He plays with effort, but his relatively slow feet and short arms make him a target. We know about Mitchell’s defense, and Huerter and Barnes are solid defenders with good positional size. Holmes can provide defensive stability at center, and Murray is slowly earning trust on that end.
Overall, Sacramento projects to be an above-average offense and a below-average defense. The Kings’ season will be determined by how close to average they are on either end. Offensively, there’s plenty of talent, playmaking and shooting, and Sacramento has enough depth that one or two injuries to rotation players shouldn’t submarine their chances. On the other hand, there isn’t a clear superstar on this roster, and it’s possible the offense could be a bit worse than the sum of its parts with no dominant player to lead.
That makes it doubly important for Sacramento to be a solid defensive squad. If they can get stops, they’ll create easier scoring chances for themselves with their commitment to transition play. For that to happen someone besides Okpala will need to play defense. In an ideal world, the perimeter players around Sabonis get comfortable both guarding their own man and switching to avoid breakdowns that Sabonis cannot clean up.
Murray represents Sacramento’s best chance to finish within the top 10 in offense, and their best chance to exceed to prediction below. He’s already a three-level scorer, combining a pure shooting stroke with advanced footwork for a player his age. Seriously, take a few minutes to watch his feet on offense. There’s never any wasted motion, whether he’s curling around a screen for a catch-and-shoot opportunity or taking two hard dribbles to break the paint on a dribble handoff. Any significant step forward from Murray greatly improves the Kings’ outlook.
Prediction: 10th in the West, loss in the first round of the play-in tournament.