Sunday Musings: Season winding down, but Kings just getting started

Kings play-in dreams dealt death blow, but things are about to heat up

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How long is a fanbase supposed to wait for a winner? What is the proper amount of time before they are allowed to either demand change or at least question their own loyalty?

The Sacramento Kings are testing the threshold. They pushed their losing ways to 15 seasons last year and after Saturday’s brutal loss in Dallas, a 16th straight season without a playoff appearance is all but guaranteed.

There was a glimmer of hope against the Mavericks. The Kings played extremely well for most of the game. De’Aaron Fox once again looked like a superstar in the making and an identity is forming around Domantas Sabonis. 

But the loss, in conjunction with wins by both the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers snuffs out almost all of the remaining light, even for a play-in game. 

With 16 games remaining on the schedule, the Kings trail the Pelicans by six games in the loss column and the Lakers by seven. With games against teams like the Nuggets, Jazz, Bulls, Bucks, Celtics, Suns (twice), Heat, Warriors and Clippers, the Kings will be lucky to reach the 30 win plateau.

Outside of Davion Mitchell and perhaps two-way player Neemias Queta, the Kings don’t have a bunch of young players to feed minutes down the stretch. Mitchell already plays a lot and Queta plays a position that is completely overloaded at the NBA level.

So with the season winding down and postseason prayers not being answered once again, what is there to look forward to? Why should you continue to tune in, listen, read and take part as a fan of this Kings team?

Chemistry

Leading into the trade deadline, the word around the team was that general manager Monte McNair “hoped” to build around Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. That thought ended when Haliburton was shipped to the Pacers.

In the final 16 games, the plan now should be to build an on-court bond between Fox and Sabonis. We’ve already seen how Sabonis can impact Fox’s play. We are still waiting for Fox to completely unlock the potential of Sabonis.

In the 10 games since the trade, Fox is averaging 28.2 points, 6.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor and 32.6 percent from 3-point range. His 44-point outburst against the Mavericks tied a career-high and acted as a reminder that there is no ceiling to Fox as a player. 

Sabonis has been really good since joining the Kings, posting 17.2 points, 12.8 rebounds and six assists in 32.6 minutes per game. He’s turned the ball over too much and found himself in foul trouble, but both of those issues are fixable.

Fox has set Sabonis up for some really nice buckets in the halfcourt, but this duo has room to grow. Interim head coach Alvin Gentry should focus on these two spending major minutes together down the stretch, with an eye toward the future.

Harrison Barnes can be a part of this discussion as well, but the clear foundational pieces of this franchise moving forward are Fox and the Ox.

Coaching search

Gentry took on a mess when he stepped in for Luke Walton 18 games into the season. He’s done his best to steady the ship and he brought the team through a major transition at the trade deadline when six new players were brought in.

Saying all of that, the Kings should and likely will hold a full coaching search this summer. 

It’s not that Gentry is doing a poor job. He is a steady veteran hand who has tried to walk a broken roster through a very rough season. The team reacted poorly to Walton and even worse to his firing. 

What we can tell you is that during Gentry’s 49 games at the helm (which includes five games that Doug Christie coached as an interim to the interim), the Kings have posted an offensive rating of 109.7 (24th in the NBA), a defensive rating of 115.6 (28th) and a net rating of -6. 

Sacramento is playing with slightly more pace than they did under Walton (100.9 vs. 100.32), but the defense has regressed dramatically from 110.5 (26th) to 115.6 (28th).

McNair’s trade that brought in Sabonis should earn him an opportunity to choose his own coach this summer. If that’s Gentry, then fine, but McNair should hold a search that includes coaches that fit the style of play moving forward. 

Draft

When you miss the playoffs 16 consecutive seasons, you also have an opportunity to select in the lottery for 16 consecutive seasons. The Kings have made all but one of their selections between 2007-2021, which came in the 2019 draft when they lost a pick as part of an earlier trade.

As of Sunday, March 6, the Kings sit at No. 6 in the lottery. They have a 37.2 percent chance (7.0 of No. 1, 7.2 of No. 2, 7.4 of No. 3 and 7.4 of No. 4) of moving up into the top four. 

The current crop of players have yet to fully establish a pecking order, but the top end of the draft includes players like Jabari Smith Jr., Chet Holmgren, Paulo Banchero, Jaden Ivey, AJ Griffin, Shaedon Sharpe and Keegan Murray. 

A few other names could jump into this group, but this is a solid top 7 and a really solid top 3. Smith Jr., Holmgren, Banchero and Murray would fit perfectly on the Kings’ frontline next to Sabonis and Barnes. Griffin would work as well, if Barnes transitions to the four. 

McNair has shown a knack for finding talent in the lottery. The higher the pick moves up in the lottery, the more value it will have, either as a way to add young talent or as a trade chip.

The next big move

When McNair took the job in Sacramento, he promised to be aggressive and take a big swing. When he landed Sabonis, he fulfilled step one of that promise, but clearly this team needs more additions in the upcoming offseason.

McNair’s moves at the deadline opened up plenty of cap space and also gave him a handful of moveable trade chips. Sacramento has just $102 million in dedicated salary for next season with the cap set to hit $121 million.

In addition to cap space, the Kings have a stack of expiring contracts in Alex Len ($3.9), Moe Harkless ($4.6M), Justin Holiday ($6.3M), Terence Davis ($4M) and a team option on Trey Lyles ($2.6M). Barnes is also on an expiring contract at $18.6 million next season and a decision will need to be made about his future as well.

Lastly, the Kings have Richaun Holmes and his three-year, $36 million contract that they can easily move on from. The veteran center has struggled this season with injury and illness and Sabonis is considered the long term answer at his position. He's a quality player and there should be a market for his services.

McNair also has all of his first round selections moving forward and a handful of additional seconds in the next few drafts. He might have enough ammunition to pull off another franchise altering trade, if the right partner comes along. 

Conclusion

The season is winding down. It has been disappointing for sure, but in the NBA, and for a team like the Kings, we are only getting started. 

We’ll watch the final 16 games looking for chemistry and maybe studying to see how a few of the new pieces might work moving forward. But changes are just on the horizon. The real start of the offseason begins on April 11 and will only build from there.

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