The Sacramento Kings have been mired in a playoff drought but made real progress last season. Is this the year they finally make the leap back to relevance?
33, 38, 17, 25, 24, 22, 28, 28, 29, 33, 32, 27, 39.
This is not a LOST-esque sequence of numbers that holds some opaque, secret meaning. It’s a list of the season-long win totals for the Sacramento Kings organization since they last made the playoffs all the way back in 2006. Their 13-season drought is the longest in the NBA by four years, and it’s tied for the second-longest in league history.
There was a brief moment last season where it looked like the streak might actually be broken. Sacramento was just a game out of the No. 8 seed as late as Feb. 10, but a loss in their final contest prior to the All-Star Game followed by four losses in five games immediately after the break knocked them out of the running. Still, they were right in it for 56 games, which is far longer than anybody thought they’d last.
The challenge, now, is actually building on this (moderate) success. And there’s reason to believe they are better-equipped to do so right now than they have been at any point during this 13-year run of futility. Last year’s Kings had a minutes-weighted age of just 24.3 years old, making them the fourth-youngest team in the league. Among the five teams that had minutes-weighted age south of 25 years old, the Kings had the second-best record, behind only the 54-win Nuggets. The three other teams won 17 (Knicks), 19 (Suns), and 22 games (Bulls).
According to my Wins Above Age-Derived Expectation (WAADE) metric, you would have expected a team with the experience level of the 2018-19 Kings to win only 33.31 games. These Kings won 39, which means they outperformed their expectation by 5.69 wins. That marks the first time their WAADE has been positive during this 13-year stretch.
The closest comparisons for the 2018-19 Kings among the 1,170 team seasons since the ABA-NBA merger are the 1995-96 Washington Bullets, the 2008-09 Atlanta Hawks, and the 2015-16 Boston Celtics.
The Bullets had a minutes-weighted age of 24.8 and won 39 games, yielding a WAADE of 5.69, exactly the same as the Kings. The Hawks had a minutes-weighted age of 24.2 and won 37 games, yielding a WAADE of 5.94. And the Celtics had a minutes-weighted age of 25.0 and won 40 games, yielding a WAADE of 5.94. The 96-97 Bullets saw their win total spike to 44, and made the playoffs. The Hawks saw their win total jump to 47, and not only made the playoffs, but won a round. And the Celtics saw their win total rise to 48, and they also made the playoffs.
Those three teams improved by an average of 7.7 wins a year after they performed similarly, at a similar age, to how the Kings just did. If Sacramento can manage to win seven or eight more games next season and get into the mid-to-high 40s, that would give the Kings a really good chance of halting their playoff drought.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Kings play in the Western Conference, unlike the three aforementioned teams who were in situations similar to their own. They also play in the Pacific Division, which is home to the LeBron James and Anthony Davis-led Lakers, the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Clippers, and the Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson-when-he-gets-back-led Warriors. And the Kings are still counting on a bunch of young guys to continue getting better in a linear fashion. But this time, those young guys actually appear to be really, really good.
De’Aaron Fox got better at essentially everything last season.
“His shot distribution has corrected itself, as he’s moved a decent-sized chunk of his shots from the dreaded “long-2” area to either back behind the 3-point line or in the floater range. His finishing at the rim has spiked, as has his conversion rate on floaters, short mid-rangers (he’s got an eye for how to use the glass to his advantage), and 3s. His free-throw rate has nearly doubled. And he’s defending his position far better than he did a year ago. The effects of his improved play are reflected in the Kings’ performance with and without him on the floor: as a rookie, the Kings were 5.8 points worse per 100 possessions with Fox in the game, but during his sophomore season, they were 5.3* points per 100 possessions better with Fox on the floor than off. That is a massive single-season jump.”
Buddy Hield connected on 278 3-pointers, more than anybody not named Stephen Curry, James Harden or Paul George has ever made in a season. And he made those 3s in a wide variety of ways. Marvin Bagley III had an excellent rookie season, becoming only the sixth rookie since 2000 (and 26th rookie ever) to average at least 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while posting a true shooting percentage better than 55 percent. Bagley and Joel Embiid are the only rookies in the history of the league to do it while averaging less than 30 minutes per game, and Bagley played twice as many games as Embiid.
That trio alone should provide a foundation for the Kings to field a solid offense. Add in a full season of Harrison Barnes, plus Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica spacing the floor, Harry Giles doing Harry Giles things, and improved bench play due to the acquisitions of Trevor Ariza, Richaun Holmes, Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph, and, well, you might really have something here.
The thing that might determine whether or not the Kings make the aforementioned leap is whether a team this young can field an above-average defense. Fox has been improving on that end, but has a bit of a way to go before he is a true difference-maker. Hield is still not great there. Bagley was better on defense than advertised, but still looked like a rookie. Giles is probably not ready to anchor a defense on his own. Bogdanovic and Bjelica leave defensive skill to be desired.
Can Barnes’ size and strength, Dedmon’s length and quickness, Holmes’ athleticism, Joseph’s feistiness and Ariza’s experience and guile form the backbone of this team’s point-prevention unit? If that’s necessary, do those minutes come at the expense of players who are more important to the Kings’ future? And if so, what does that mean for their development, and for the team’s offense? All of these are questions that need answering, and it’ll be fun to watch the kids try to figure them out.