The Phoenix Suns find themselves down seven with 32 seconds to go on an electric Saturday night. Their chances are slim, but a quick bucket would tilt the scales more in their favor.
Suns guard Devin Booker sprints up the court, then retreats left with Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes on his hip. A pair of staggered screens don’t help Booker create separation, so he hits sharpshooting Troy Daniels with a pass.
Or at least he tries to.
Kings guard D’Aaron Fox darts in like a bullet, deflecting the ball with his off hand before gaining possession. He whirls around, jets to his basket and rises up for one of the cleanest windmill flushes you’ll see. Fox had struggled to that point (11 points on 2-of-11 shooting), but the dunk gives the Kings a nine-point cushion. They will hang on for a 112-103 win, their 36th of the season.
On one hand, it means next to nothing. Their 36-36 record places the Kings ninth in the West. They’re 5.5 games back of the 8-seeded San Antonio Spurs with 10 games to play. It would take an epic collapse by the Spurs for the Kings to sneak in. Crazy things have happened in the NBA, but it’s pretty safe to say Sacto’s playoff hopes for this year are done.
On the other hand, the fact that this is even a discussion is a major plus for the Kings. 36 wins is the most Sacramento has racked up in a season since the 2007-08 campaign (38). They may finish .500 or better for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
They’ve been relevant and fun this year: a major change after a decade-plus of (boring) instability.
There’s an identity now
The most difficult thing—and arguably the most important thing—for a rebuilding team to establish is an identity. Core principles that shine through no matter how a game is going. The Spurs are going to grind you to death, the Heat will scratch and claw through every screen, etc.
And the Kings have found their niche: running 200 miles per hour.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. De’Aaron Fox really grabbed a rebound, dribbled once and chucked the ball up to Buddy Hield for a layup in roughly three seconds. It happens that fast.
What makes the Kings even more difficult is that they just don’t let up. Their first-quarter pace (105.04, 6th in the NBA) is only slightly higher than their pace in the fourth (102.3, 1st). Compare that to the Los Angeles Lakers, who have the NBA’s top pace in first quarters (107.26) but fall to 10th in the fourth (99.12).
When “clutch” time hits, most teams slow down to ensure themselves a look. The Kings do the exact opposite. They play roughly six possessions faster than their overall fourth quarter mark. Opposing teams just don’t get a break, and that fatigue leads to mistakes. The Kings force 16.8 turnovers per 100 clutch possessions, the highest mark in the NBA.
In short, make sure you’re plenty hydrated when you Sacto on the schedule.
a budding star BACKCOURT
The Kings’ resurgence begins with Fox, the electric second-year guard out of Kentucky. Calling a team’s point guard its engine is typically cliche, but take it literally here.
Fox is a dangerous pick-and-roll player—he ranks in the 61st percentile as the ball-handler (passing included)—because of how quickly he can get downhill. He puts an unbelievable strain on defenses, forcing them into rotations when he turns the corner:
His driving ability sets up the rest of his game. When the rotation comes, he has the vision and passing chops to make defenses pay. If they duck under screens to cut off drives, he now shoots well enough to keep defenses honest. Via Synergy, Fox ranks in the 78th percentile as an off-the-dribble shooter (0.979 points per possession).
Buddy Hield lands on the opposite end of the spectrum. He’s always been a deadly shooter, converting 41.2 percent of his triples (4.9 attempts) entering this season. He has canned a career-high 43.2 percent of his threes on 7.9 attempts this year. Among 139 players that have taken at least 200 threes, he ranks sixth in three-point percentage.
Teams know Hield can get busy on spot-ups or pull-up triples. Yet, he is now leveraging that threat to get downhill. He has a reliable pull-up middy, and he’s eclipsed the 60 percent mark at the rim for the first time in his career.
The Fox-Hield combo has played 1,829 minutes together with a plus-1.1 net rating. That isn’t a world-beating number, but it’s impressive considering where they were last year (minus-10.3 in 700 minutes).
Intriguing pieces Up Front
Dynamic backcourts need play-finishers up front to complement them. The Kings seemingly have 37 of those, though they somehow don’t overlap as much as you’d think.
Willie Cauley-Stein remains one of the most interesting big men in the league. His tools jump off the screen when you watch him. Guys his size aren’t supposed to be that mobile, and it’s why teams can’t really afford to trap pick-and-rolls when he’s screening.
He slips so darn quickly that it’s near-impossible to recover:
He’s shown flashes of being the rare big that can protect the rim as well as he defends on the perimeter. His rim protection numbers are down this season—he’s posting a career-low 2.0 block rate, and opponents have shot 65.4 percent inside of six feet against him—but he’s forced more turnovers (career-high 2.1 steal rate) thanks to his active hands.
The signing of Nemanja Bjelica has been a steal. (Technically, it was literally a steal considering he backed out of a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers over the summer.) His long-range shooting has been a godsend for the Kings.
He’s drilled 40.3 percent of his triples on 3.4 attempts, joining Davis Bertans, Danilo Gallinari and Karl-Anthony Towns as the only players 6’10 or taller knocking down 40 percent of their threes (min. 200 attempts).
Front Court of the future
In the event that a team throws a too-rich-to-match offer sheet at Cauley-Stein this summer, the Kings have options. Chief among them is handing the front-court keys over to their rookie bigs, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles.
Bagley III has flown under the radar all year. Not taking Luka Doncic second overall still stings a little, but that says more about Doncic’s play. Bagley III ranks fifth among rookies in points (14.7), third in rebounds (7.4), and sixth in blocks (1.0) despite falling outside the top ten in minutes (25.0).
Bagley’s motor revs high and never stops. It’s why he’s such a menace on the boards, why opposing bigs struggle to keep up with him in transition, and arguably his best trait.
But that doesn’t mean he’s just another Nuggets-era Kenneth Faried type (no disrespect intended). He’s comfortable with his back to the basket, and he’s flashed enough as a ball-handler to see the rough outline of a face-up threat.
Giles is more of an unknown, though that can mostly be attributed to his extensive injury history over the past couple years. His per-game numbers—7.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists in 14 minutes—don’t jump off the page. But watch him for a few minutes, and you’ll come away intrigued.
Even after multiple ACL injuries, Giles is an impressive athlete and uses his re-jumpability to beat opponents to offensive rebounds. He’s converted 67 percent of his shots in transition, mostly because few players his size can hang with him. As physically talented as Giles is, his passing ability stands out more than anything.
The Kings already trust him enough to station him at the elbow as a facilitator. He has superb vision and great touch on pocket passes. In fact, his vision works against him at times.
There have been more than a few occasions where Giles has committed a passing turnover simply because his teammates aren’t at all prepared for the pass he’s delivering:
That looks like an ill-advised pass from Giles, but look at that possession through his eyes. As Fox is curling around the screen, Giles recognizes Jimmy Butler face-guarding Fox. Butler clearly wants to funnel Fox downhill. Giles attempts to use Butler’s preference against him and throws an on-target pocket pass that would’ve led Fox to the basket.
Fox understandably isn’t looking for the ball: Not many big men see that angle, much less dare to try fitting a pass into it.
The Bagley-Giles pairing has logged 127 minutes together since the All-Star break. The Kings have outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in that frame. The high-low passing chemistry between the two is there. If one of them can develop a reliable outside shot, the Kings will quickly sport one of the league’s most athletic frontcourts.
Fox and Hield represent the backcourt of the future. Bagley and Giles could be an interesting pairing up front. So in terms of archetype, the Kings are only missing a dominant wing scorer. Harrison Barnes is not that guy, even if his shot (and assist) profile leans that direction (in a bad way). Bogdan Bogdanovic is a jack-of-all-trades wing, but not the scorer the Kings need.
Following a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the Kings are now 6.5 games out of a playoff spot. They won’t make it in this year unless the apocalypse happens, but that’s fine. The fact that there is clarity and direction for this team is the biggest win they could’ve achieved this season.
They’re a year and one or two key pieces away from an exciting postseason return.
Stats are accurate through games played on March 25th
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.