After their slow start, can the Sacramento Kings still be regal?

After their slow start, can the Sacramento Kings still be regal?
Rocky Widner / NBAE / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

Love them or hate them, the Sacramento Kings were one of the feel-good stories of the 2018-19 season. Their young, exciting core powered the team to a 39-43 record, their best since 2005-06. It saw them finish ninth in the ever-difficult Western Conference. And while they didn’t quite succeed in ending their 13-season playoff drought (which is currently the longest in the NBA), they did go a long way to convincing fans and critics alike that they weren’t far off doing so.

Fast forward to this season and that optimism’s already been called into question. Not least because their 0-5 start was reminiscent of, yet somehow worse than, so many failed seasons passed.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Particularly after the front office added hard-nosed big man Dewayne Dedmon, wily veteran Trevor Ariza, and crafty guard Cory Joseph to the fray on fairly affordable, cap-friendly deals. Meanwhile, Harrison Barnes signed a four-year, $85 million contract and Buddy Hield committed to a four-year, $94 million extension just before the regular season began.

And yet, it still began on a bum note. Opening night saw them travel to Phoenix, where they allowed the Suns to shoot 50 percent from the field en route to a 124-95 blowout win. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Kings logged a devastating 26 turnovers during the game. Oh yeah, and to compound matters, forward Marvin Bagley III fractured his right thumb. He’s expected to miss four to six weeks, while the Kings are expected to miss him badly.

In his absence, they were beaten fairly comprehensively by the Portland Trail Blazers, the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets, before losing in embarrassing fashion to the Charlotte Hornets. Since then, a one-point win against the Jazz, a closely contested loss to the Toronto Raptors and routine wins against Eastern Conference-strugglers the New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks have given the team something to build on. Regardless, the Kings still have plenty of questions to answer over the coming weeks.

Let’s take a look at some of the most pressing:

Is Luke Walton the right coach?

Firing head coach Dave Joerger after last year’s 39-win season was vintage Kings. He may not have succeeded in reaching the promised land, but the team certainly appeared to be in a good place. The young core assembled by Vlade Divac had a run-and-gun identity and played hard for their coach on any given night. The players bought into the system, which revolved around the explosive talents of De’Aaron Fox, and it yielded results.

But the Kings got greedy, and moved on from Joerger in the hope that someone else could deliver the postseason appearance the franchise so desperately needs.

They hired a veteran NBA coach with a ton of postseason experience, right? Wrong. They hired Luke Walton, a guy who entered the season with a record of 98-148. He may have been a two-time NBA champion as a player, but his coaching resume revolves around three losing seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The fact that the front office thought he’d fare better with the Kings’ less talented core is on his good buddy Vlade. While Bagley’s injury, which occurred during garbage time in a game the Kings were already losing, is firmly on Walton, who hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the Sacramento faithful (assuming such a thing exists). Through those first five defeats, the team was 28th in offensive efficiency and 26th in defensive efficiency. It was also 23rd in pace (101.5 possessions per 48 minutes), having finished third best in this category (103.88) last season.

The team has shown signs of improvement over the past few games, but Walton’s system is still hard to get a handle on. The team’s still playing slowly (97.70, which is 28th overall, over the past five games) and if they’re to build on their recent 3-2 run, they need to recapture last season’s high-tempo style. That shouldn’t be beyond Walton, given that his Lakers teams finished in the top five in pace during each of his three seasons in charge, but if he’s unable to pick up the pace, it could be a long tenure for all concerned.

Is it too early to talk about trades?

As the Kings play nine of their next 16 games on the road, things may get worse before they get better. And in turn, that may result in a roster shake up or two in the not so distant future. As mentioned, Walton, who signed a four-year deal with the team this summer, is probably here for the foreseeable. As for the players, there are a handful (not including Harrison Barnes – sorry) whose time with the team may be limited.

Take Bogdan Bogdanovic, for example. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and seems unlikely to break into the starting five now that the Kings have extended Buddy Hield. As a 37 percent career three-point shooter, who’s already attracting interest from a number of teams, there’s definitely a market out there for him. He reportedly failed to act upon the four-year, $51.4m contract extension the Kings offered him recently.

Other names that are likely to be linked to moves away from Sacramento include Dedmon (who doesn’t seem to be a great fit on a team that needs speed and shooting), Nemanja Bjelica, and perhaps even Cory Joseph.

That said, Dedmon and Joseph are set to earn approximately $13 and $12 million, respectively, this year. Meaning, there probably aren’t many teams out there who’d be able or willing to take them on for a fair return. That may be less of an issue if the Kings find themselves in a position where winning becomes less important than improving their lottery odds though.

Are the Kings even ready to compete?

On the evidence of this season’s short sample size alone, no. But when you consider how close they came last season, it’s hard to understand why they’ve taken such a step back this year.

Through the first games this season, it’s clear that the veteran additions they made over the summer haven’t been anywhere as good as they were supposed to be. Dedmon has been a disappointment, shooting 34 percent from the field (which is terrible for a big man) and a lowly 21 percent from deep. He offers some much-needed rim protection, but is currently averaging fewer boards per game than Harrison Barnes (5.0), failing to fill the gap left by Willie Cauley-Stein. As for Joseph, he’s averaging just 6.4 points and 2.2 assists off the bench, while Ariza’s 5.1 point return isn’t a fair reflection of his outside shooting threat.

Assuming all three continue to bomb, it’ll be up to Fox, Hield and Barnes to carry the load once again. At least until Bagley returns from injury. All three have looked pretty good so far, as has Richaun Holmes, who seems content to be a part of the team’s young core. They will need help from a supporting cast and clear direction from their coach if they’re to take things to the next level.

The next 10 or so games should give us a sense of whether that’s a reasonable goal, or if the NBA’s longest playoff drought looks set to continue.