In his second NBA season last year, De'Aaron Fox was a breakout star.
On a Sacramento Kings team that won 39 games - their highest mark for 13 years - he was at the head of the snake, the offensive leader of a team that ranked fifth in the NBA in pace, something well-suited to his own breakneck speed with the ball in his hands.
One year and one coaching change later, and in their 11 games thus far this season, the Kings have dropped all the way to the league's third-slowest pace. And after a very difficult 0-5 start to the season, including two absolutely emphatic drubbings at the hands of the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, it looked as though they made a grave error in going away from the very thing that had given them some hope where for so long there had only been disillusionment.
Fox was the first-round pick of the team back in 2017, drafted fifth overall; one of the upsides to losing in the NBA is that the draft system allows teams to draft high, get quality young players and start again.
After losing a lot in his first NBA season, the Kings last summer drafted again very high up, this time landing the #2 overall pick, which they used to draft Marvin Bagley. They picked him ahead of Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr and Luka Doncic, a very strong trio of young stars; Bagley being picked ahead of players of this calibre speaks to his own high talent level, and of how much the Kings see in him.
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Jarring core pieces
Bagley's talents are mostly offensive. Although he demonstrated defensive improvements throughout his rookie year, he is not well-equipped to be neither an elite rim protector nor a perimeter defender at the big man spots, and thus he needs to get touches and score the ball. Perhaps problematically, though, Bagley's offensive game comes largely down in the low post areas, using 24.3 per cent of his possessions as a rookie in post-up plays.
The whole reason for the NBA getting so much quicker in recent seasons is because it has sought to get away from this type of play in favour of the mathematically desirable semi-transition and stretch pick-and-roll opportunities, and the high yield of lay-ups and three-pointers they result in. These plays favour the Fox types, not the Bagleys.
Sacramento also traded for Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline back in February, and although this added a significant infusion of talent at what had been a small forward position of some weakness for some years, he is also an isolation and post-up heavy player.
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It is a brave rebuilding team that defies orthodoxy and consensus embodied by all the teams higher up the rankings that they aspire to be; it also is an interesting strategic decision to put your team in a position where your two best offensive talents, future pieces and draft picks who were supposed to make all the losing worthwhile may not have the most harmonious on-court playing styles.
Adding this to the fact that there is a difficult reconciliation still to be worked out between Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, given that both play the shooting guard position only, and it was unclear where Sacramento were headed even during the strong first half of last season.
Since the 0-5 start this season, however, the Kings have improved. They have won four of their subsequent six games, none of which apart the return fixture over the Utah Jazz were against particularly high-level competition, but all of which looked far better than the repeated heavy losses. Their only losses in that span were to the Toronto Raptors and LA Lakers, two of the NBA's very best teams, and even then by an aggregate of only six points. Of note is the fact that Bagley has been absent for this stretch, appearing in only the season opener before fracturing his right thumb.
During this purple patch, the Kings have been hitting more shots from outside. It is a requirement of a slower half-court offense - which, remember, is what is being run even with Bagley out injured - that a team shoots well enough against relatively set defenses so as to prevent getting bogged down. Hitting outside shots also limits transition opportunities going the other way; with players, particularly summer acquisitions Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, missing as many looks as they did, the attempts to play slower were nullified and the defensive frailties more acutely exposed.
In putting together these wins, the Kings have not got noticeably faster. They have however hit more shots and grabbed more rebounds, both imperative to a half-court grind. There have also been rotational changes, partly due to high volume of early-season injuries but also due to new head coach Luke Walton trying to find the right balance.
Down the stretch of last season, there was famously an edict by the team's management and ownership to then-head coach Dave Joerger to bench veteran power forward Nemanja Bjelica in favour of Bagley, no matter how well Bjelica had played, so as to not block the growth of a man whom they need to come good. It has however been the steady and vital contributions of Bjelica, plus the athletic prowess of another summer acquisition in Richaun Holmes, that have added the shooting (50.0 per cent from three from Bjelica) and the rebounding (7.3 per game from Holmes in only 25.7 minutes) that have made the difference.
While these are welcome contributions, neither player is the ideal partner for Bagley when he returns. Holmes is an athletic shot-blocker but gives up position in the post defense to do it, while also not being an outside shooter or savvy perimeter defender. Bjelica meanwhile does not protect the rim. The theory was that Dedmon, who had grown into the prototype stretch five over the past couple of seasons, would be a good fit with Bagley considering he can both stretch the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense; for that to work, though, he will need to play a lot better than he has done so far.
When Bagley returns, there is no reason to believe that the edict to prioritise his minutes and development will have changed any. He will be slotted back into the starting lineup immediately, almost certainly, which means the loss of either Holmes's finishing and defence, or Bjelica's spacing, passing and IQ. If putting him back into the line-up is a requirement despite the right balance being found, then getting him enough touches to be an overall positive means slowing the game down and getting into the post. And that plays away from Fox's strengths.
The relatively slow nature of Bjelica, Barnes, Dedmon and veteran swingman Trevor Ariza requires slowing the overall pace anyway. In theory, maybe being able to play more regular half-court possessions and instilling the right principles with veterans who know where to be pairs well with Fox's one-man fast breaks, making for a more complete offensive balance. In practice, though, if Fox has not got people to run with him, then the best attribute of your best player is going underutilised.
Now, after an ankle sprain, Fox will also be out for the next month or so. Backup point guard Cory Joseph, while a good defender and solid shooter, is not nearly the playmaker or dynamo that Fox is, and so the pace is likely to get even slower.
More touches for Bagley and, to a lesser extent, Barnes will only slow the game further, and while Fox's injury will mean a larger role as a playmaker for Bogdanovic - the next best shot-creator and passer available - what do Sacramento do about a situation in which one of their three best young core talents have to be injured for the other two to shine?
The Kings have been able to reverse a rough start by finding the right balance of veteran role-playing options to shore up their weaknesses. In doing so, though, they have papered over cracks.
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It is still not clear how the team's two core talents will cohere, and it is still not clear how they intend to get the best out of their players offensively. When combined with the long-standing defensive concerns, the four wins-in-six run, while much more savoury, has not salved the longer-term questions facing the franchise.