Finishing the 2018-2019 season one spot out of the Western Conference Playoffs (39-43), the Sacramento Kings went above and beyond expectations by riding the success of their breakneck offense. Finally, after more than a decade of turmoil and failure to break into playoff competitiveness, Vlade Divac has found a workable core that would hopefully compete for playoff success for years to come. It’s difficult to bet against this plucky group to once again whiff the Playoffs with young building blocks, such as Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox, and Marvin Bagley III, likely hunkered down for the long run. But the question remains: how can the Kings know for sure that the core isn’t a mirage and implode like the modern era Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks (Ironically, you can also add the past Kings team that rolled out an All-NBA talent in Demarcus Cousins, but methodically found their way back into the NBA Draft Lottery)?
Projecting the future of any organization by just one season is always a shot in the dark. What we can do is look at consistent pieces(the core) and the organization’s resources and assets to paint a clearer picture of how the Kings will fair in the coming years.
The new-look 2018-2019 Sacramento Kings rolled out a cast of unassuming, young players that shattered expectations with a 39-43 record in the Western Conference. Many analysts were bearish on the prospects of this core, and it’s easy to see why. De’Aaron Fox recorded a statistically subpar rookie season, Buddy Hield declined in counting stats from the 2016-2017 to the 2017-2018 season, and Marvin Bagley III’s draft decision was marred by more popular prospects drafted after him. The Kings were projected to be a high lottery pick team; however, they ended the season with the 14th pick (went to Boston) and a Simple Rating System of -0.81 (good for 18th in the league). SRS is a metric that shows the average point differential when accounting for strength of schedule. Therefore, the Kings were the 18th best team in the league, finishing far better than fodder for opposing teams they were expected to be. Nonetheless, the future would bring in a multitude of changes that is difficult to predict. Thus, the primary constants of the team would likely most valuable core of players. In this case, the youth and the strong play of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley III makes them the intriguing core Vlade Divac would likely aim to build around in the coming years.
Already, the totality of the core of Hield, Fox, and Bagley grades out fairly average to below-average defensively. Envisioning the trio making monumental strides defensively without offsetting their offensive potency proves difficult. For example, Bagley, who’s perceived to have the highest defensive upside with his springy athleticism and flexible hips, has weak lower body strength, which opposing big men are quick to exploit around the low block and in the paint. He relies too much on his base athletic instincts, biting on the first fakes he sees and trying to out-jump and out-run his assignments. For Bagley’s inability to push opposing big men off their spot, increased weight and strength would be a remedy. Yet, the increased weight would likely offset the advantages of his speed in transition, fluidity, and twitchy athleticism. De’Aaron Fox faces similar challenges. His quick-twitch athleticism already gives him some of the best recovery speed in the NBA as outlined by Ben Taylor in his recent player profile on Fox. When his motor is revving high, Fox can heat up opposing perimeter players as he finished in the top 30 in terms of steal rate (Backpicks.com). Like Bagley, his somewhat insignificant frame and lack of strength can be exploited against by bigger and stronger players. Yet, it’s not just a simple equation to strength to the equation as the added weight can hinder his speed in which much of his gifts as an NBA player root from. For Bagley’s inability to push opposing big men off their spot, increased weight and strength would be the remedy. Yet, the increased weight would likely offset the advantages of his speed in transition, fluidity, and athleticism. Bagley and Fox will have to continue to hone their perimeter defense, an area both players can more reliably leverage their natural skills. Bagley, in particular, will have to translate his high motor on the glass to more nuanced defensive skills such as stunting and weak-side rotations.
On the other hand, the trio of Fox, Hield, and Bagley on the offensive end can be a handful to deal with when enabled in a system that unleashes their speed and athleticism in the open court or on quick possessions. Individually, each player has already demonstrated an incredible aptitude in terms of individual offense skill: Fox has become a knockdown shooter and a passing wizard; Hield, an incredibly dangerous off-ball shooter and isolation scorer; Bagley, a tireless offensive motor with a dangerous face-up jumper and post hook. This team will have no problem scoring the ball, but the skillsets of their offensive centerpiece (Fox and Bagley) requires steady grooming and trust from the coaching staff. Bagley as a second overall pick should have expectations to start; Fox could gain more pick and roll possessions to maximize his ball creation and penetration; Hield already has a knack for taking crucial isolation possessions in crunch time. Both Fox and Bagley’s lack of consistent off-ball skills, such as spacing and off-ball cutting, don’t scale well when paired with other high usage players. Scaling is an extremely important aspect to analyze within an NBA player’s skillset. The concept was popularized by Ben Taylor, who explains that scaling measures the effective output a player can have on a high-level team, which usually results in a sharp decrease in usage. This applies to the Kings because as Fox, Hield, and Bagley continue to develop, it is imperative to consider how introducing another star-level player- who would take the ball away- could impact their effectiveness as an overall player. Because the trio’s skillset in totality relies on being in possession of the ball (lack of off-ball skills), their skillset will struggle to scale and the Kings would be better centralizing the King’s offense off their on-ball dominance. By adding another ball-dominant player, it would be a disservice to a player like Fox who needs the ball to tap into elements of his creation, passing, and scoring. Therefore, the King’s core that lacks skillsets that scale at a higher level would benefit much more from off-ball players willing to play off of Fox, Hield, and Bagley’s gravity on the ball.
Resources and Assets
With the Kings already having their current core infrastructure in place, big game hunting in free agency should not be a high priority (Besides, the Kings’ free agency history isn’t exactly spectacular). As for the draft, the Kings 2019 first-round draft pick belonged to the Celtics, which ended up being Romeo Langford from Indiana. Looking deeper into their draft cupboard, they boast an impressive collection of second-round picks. However, their most valuable draft asset is their first-round pick, which could depreciate corresponding to potential Kings success in the future. Thus, the draft does not pose as a conceivable option to improve upon this roster unless the Kings implode in the regular season or the ping pong balls bounce their way. Looking at their roster for trade assets, potential pieces (excluding the core) compose of Bogdan Bogdanovic ($17,529,386 over two years) and Harry Giles (1+1 team option rookie scale). These chips won’t necessarily move the needle much and would likely become better pieces for the future if nurtured with increased usage and load in the future. This the Kings down to their most valuable asset this year: their payroll (or lack thereof). With Willie Cauley-Stein gone to Golden State and Harrison Barnes declining his player option of $25,102,512 for 2019-2020, the Sacramento Kings only have $46,678,495 of the cap under contract. This leaves the Kings with a whopping $62,321,505 in salary – enough for at least one max agent this summer.
Best Route Forward
It would be difficult to envision a high-level star talent striving to join the Sacramento Kings when looking back at their lackluster free agency resume, making the choice of riding the current robust, young core even more obvious. Since Bagley and Fox’s skillset will not scale properly at higher usage, Vlade Divac would be wise to hand the keys of the offense over to this group, instead of going for another high-usage free agent. By acquiring stretch wings and forwards who have point-prevention ability, the Kings can increase the offensive potency of a De’Aaron Fox pick-and-roll or Bagley/Hield Isolation and cover up their defensive shortcomings.
Looking at the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 offseason acquisitions, it seems Divac has committed to his current core of players. The offseason additions composed mostly of veteran role players like Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph – fitting the role of low-usage, complimentary players. Furthermore, they used their enormous cap space to retain Harrison Barnes at a 4-year $85 million contract. As such, his + 2.2 net rating (basketball-reference) demonstrates his fit with the team. With Bagley’s defensive struggles around the rim, it won’t be optimal to have him start at the center position immediately and assign him to most important defensive assignment on the court. When not accounting for defensive usage rate, Dedmon demonstrated his adeptness as an overall defensive player on all three levels as he reduced opponent efficiency at every distance. Most importantly, Dedmon recorded a -5.0% differential last year in a distance of 6 foot or less, a fairly strong rim-protecting presence. Compared to last season’s starting center Cauley Stein +3.0% when guarding opposing players between 0 and 6 feet (NBA.com), Dedmon would be a welcomed addition with superior rim-protecting and overall defensive acumen. Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza also add value with their defensive reputation on the perimeter and low maintenance style of play that would allow the Kings to increase the bandwidth of their most potent offensive pathways.
When taking all these factors into account, we are left with a promising roster. Still, imagining the Kings shattering their glass ceiling and playing their way into a top-four seed, especially in the Western Conference, seems ambitious to say the least. Their success depends highly upon internal growth without strong draft picks or incumbent free agents looking to supplement the team. Hield and Fox are the focal points, spearheading the offense with off-ball movement, shooting, and playmaking. However, in order to ascend another layer, the growth of Bagley, not just as an individual player, proves paramount. Bagley’s style of play, as of now, leaves much to be desired. His isolations are a strong pathway for the offense to score through, but he has yet to develop effective counter-moves nor has he leveraged that style into higher percentage shots for his teammates. His rebounding is a strong plus for his team, unearthing valuable extra possessions, yet, if Bagley cannot translate individual skills into better shots for teammates, then what impact is he having globally (concept mentioned by Ben Taylor) across the court? When Bagley’s best form of offense is limited by the offense via a double team, not only has his scoring effectiveness been muted, but his team as well. Unless Bagley can drastically improve his style of offense in more scalable skill sets (Taylor) like shooting, passing, and defense, it is unlikely that he would have the global impact that the Kings are looking for in their second overall pick. Thus, barring drastic changes to Bagley’s game, the Kings would likely play the 2019-2020 season as just borderline playoff contenders.
Sports Reference LLC ” Harrison Barnes 2018-2019 On/Off.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 07/22/2019
Sports Reference LLC ” Sacramento Kings Team Payroll.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 06/05/2019
Sports Reference LLC ” 2018-19 Sacramento Kings Roster and Stats.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 06/05/2019
Sports Reference LLC “De’Aaron Fox.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 05/25/2019
Sports Reference LLC ” Buddy Hield.” Basketball-Reference.com – Basketball Statistics and History. https://www.basketball-reference.com/. 05/25/2019
Stats courtesy of NBA.com
Used concepts introduced by Ben Taylor in his book Thinking Basketball