Midway through leading the Sacramento Kings to their best record in over 10 years, then-head coach Dave Joerger compared De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III to this generation’s gold-standard tandem of homegrown superstars.
“…We have the next Durant-Westbrook,” he said in December. “That’s how good they’re gonna be.”
Joerger is gone a few months later, the latest victim of Sacramento’s time-honored struggle for cohesion between the coaching staff and front office. But the Kings are on an upward trajectory regardless, sprinting their way toward respectability in a Western Conference as wide open as it is loaded – and if Fox and Bagley live up to offseason hype, that lends some measure of credence to Joerger’s claim, maybe more.
The notion that Sacramento could snag one of the eight playoff spots in the West means a team with more proven postseason ambitions won’t. It’s impossible to make a confident choice about which teams will ultimately be watching the action on vacation among those with plans to be playing next spring and early summer. There are a handful of teams with realistic title aspirations out west, and several more could be subject to seismic – and currently unforeseen – organizational shifts should they fail to make the playoffs.
Neither distinction applies to the Kings.
As training camp looms, they sit beside the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference pecking order as virtual unknowns compared to more established foes at the top of the West. But none of Sacramento’s playoff-hopeful peers can match its blend of last season’s success, core continuity and, most importantly, room to grow in 2019-20.
Fox, of course, is the driving force behind that optimism. He finished third in Most Improved Player of the Year voting last season, an especially ringing endorsement due to voters’ increasing hesitance to reward sophomores for making a leap most foolishly expect is inevitable. Still, it’s undeniable that the broad scope of Fox’s progress has gone mostly overlooked outside of California’s capital.
The Kings ranked first in transition frequency last season, per Cleaning the Glass, by no accident. Fox, arguably the fastest player in the game with the ball in his hands, isn’t James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he owns his team’s offensive identity every bit as much as the league’s last two MVPs.
Such a young player shouldering that type of burden would normally be indicative of a team growing his game through trial by fire. Not for Sacramento, whose newfound emphasis on pace led to Fox upping his usage, true shooting percentage, assist ratio and lowering his share of assisted baskets all while cutting his turnover rate – a rare, telling feat.
Even more encouraging was the ease and patience with which he began manipulating multiple levels of the defense as a ball-screen operator, and how he drained pull-up threes at a solid 35.2 percent clip, more than doubling his amount of attempts as a rookie.
After a two-week stint as a teammate of Fox’s with Team USA, P.J. Tucker came away with the same realization to which the entire basketball world will soon be privy.
“All these young guys like De’Aaron Fox is amazing, he is way better than I thought he was, not saying I didn’t think he was good, but he is really, really good,” Tucker said, per USA Basketball.
Fox received similar adulation from other national program players and coaches, but their assessment of Bagley’s performance with Team USA is what should have the Kings most excited. Fox’s All-NBA ceiling is a known commodity to those who closely followed the team last season. Bagley’s chances at ever receiving that honor, even after a First Team All-Rookie debut, were a matter worthy of much more debate, and frankly, skepticism.
Bagley is stuck between frontcourt positions at this early stage of his career. He’ll never be a game-changing rim-protector and must get stronger, but is still better suited checking opposing centers than chasing shooters around the perimeter. There is some switch potential with Bagley, though. He has good feet for a big man, and the ability to contest shots from behind after getting beaten off the bounce due to the jaw-dropping quickness with which he gets off the floor.
Concerns about his optimal role on defense, for now, take a backseat to the glowing praise he received from members of USA Basketball this summer. Bagley, like Fox, entered training camp in Las Vegas as a member of the Select Team, but left Sin City a week later having been added to the senior roster – the only sophomore to be considered for FIBA.
He decided to leave USA Basketball shortly thereafter, but not before the perception of his place in the league began to change. Bagley, a mega recruit dating back to his days as a high school underclassman, has long possessed the raw tools of an impact player. If so much talk of his refined shooting stroke and additional strength manifests itself on the floor, he’ll show more than flashes of fulfilling that long-held expectation on a game-by-game basis come the regular season.
Disclaimer: Sacramento’s net rating with Fox and Bagley on the floor was just a hair worse than its season-long number of minus 1.2, per NBA.com. Even in a perfect world of linear development further accelerated by ballyhooed summers, they won’t be ready to lead their team to the playoffs all by themselves. But it’s not like the Kings went a surprise 39-43 last season on the backs of their franchise cornerstones alone, either.
Buddy Hield is coming off one of the best long-range shooting seasons of all time, having drained 278 threes at a 42.7 percent clip – a blend of quantity and quality only ever surpassed by Steph Curry, according to Basketball-Reference. Bogdan Bogdanovic further staked his claim as one of the league’s most dynamic reserve playmakers, and Harry Giles III – finally getting his feet back under him after multiple ACL tears – at times flashed a higher degree of two-way potential than Bagley.
Sacramento overpaid for Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza in free agency. The same goes for Harrison Barnes’ wink-wink four-year, $85 millon deal, signed after he declined a $25 million player option on his existing contract. But it’s not like the Kings have ever been major players on the open market, and the final season of each contract given to those new additions is only partially-guaranteed, while Barnes’ declines in value over its duration.
More importantly, it’s impossible to put any price on what a playoff berth would mean for this franchise. Bonzi Wells was Sacramento’s leading scorer the last time it advanced to the postseason, all the way back in 2006.
Even so, none of the Kings’ offseason acquisitions is a panacea.
Dedmon’s solid rim-protecting numbers last season figure to help a team that finished just above dead last in that regard, but the Atlanta Hawks were actually stingier in the restricted area when he was on the bench, per NBA.com.
Joseph’s limitations as a shooter make him a tricky fit against certain matchups, especially given Fox and Hield’s need for major minutes, despite his rippling defensive value.
Ariza quietly made just 34.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, and in his mid-thirties, usually saves his utmost defensive intensity for drastic circumstances of time and score.
But the Kings don’t need those guys, or even Barnes, to be something they aren’t to make the playoffs. Sacramento was just a game back of the LA Clippers for eighth in the West heading into the All-Star break last February. The difference this season between the Kings crumbling down the stretch and making a postseason push in March and April could be as simple as subtle improvements sparked by their offseason acquisitions, the hiring of Luke Walton or the marginal growth of young players.
Sacramento was 24th in transition defensive efficiency last season, per Cleaning The Glass, a finish that would be disappointing in 2019-20 due to the presence of defensive-minded veterans and a coach with years of experience managing solid defense despite his teams pushing the pace.
Fox already draws fouls at an elite rate for a point guard; the Kings will be better on offense this season merely by virtue of him getting more easy points at the free-throw line. With a versatile defender like Barnes and stretch big like Dedmon, they have an extra dose of lineup and stylistic flexibility up front, too.
The ugly truth is that Sacramento’s playoff hopes are largely out of its control. In a vacuum of on-paper rosters and perfect health, Walton’s team isn’t among the top eight in the Western Conference. But the regular season never goes according to plan. Some teams with especially active offseasons will struggle to coalesce, and star players, unfortunately, will suffer serious, season-changing injuries.
The Kings, finally, are in a position to take advantage once those opportunities present themselves. Long-term, though, they’re thinking bigger than ending the league’s longest postseason drought, and rightfully so considering the presence of Fox, Bagley and an enviable blend of young talent and veteran depth surrounding them.
“I didn’t come here three or four years ago to make the playoffs,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac, a key member of Sacramento’s last title contender, told Bleacher Report in December. “I came here to do some unfinished business, to build a championship team.”