Marvin Bagley III. Harry Giles. Skal Labissiere. Willie Cauley-Stein. The Sacramento Kings have four bigs taken in the first round from the past three years still on the roster. This does not include Nemanja Bjelica, Kosta Koufos, and Zach Randolph, who were all recently added in free agency. And yet still, it doesn’t include Wenyen Gabriel and Deyonte Davis, who may or may not be hidden gems at the bottom of the roster.
The point is that the Kings have a lot of bigs in an NBA era that is trending increasingly small. The league’s top obsession is the versatile wing, the 3/4 tweeners who can both defend the post and switch onto the perimeter. The bruising PF archetype has virtually gone extinct because of these wings, and they are coming for the center position next. Over the past few years, big wings like Draymond Green, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and P.J. Tucker have all logged time at center. Even looking at the next crop of draft prospects, you’ll find players like Zion Williamson, who is a bona-fide flying refrigerator at 6’7 285 pounds, ready to terrorize the center position for the next decade.
Flying in the face of league trends, the Kings have a lot invested in their bigs. It’s not that this crop is completely unsuited for the modern era. Cauley-Stein, Bagley, and Giles are blessed with great lateral quickness to switch and defend the perimeter. And, with Cauley-Stein’s aerial threat, Giles’ offensive versatility, and Bagley’s inside/outside scoring talent, each has both offensive and defensive upside in even an increasingly perimeter-heavy league. Labissiere has shown promise shooting the ball and blocking shots, a potential a unicorn big who can both stretch the floor and protect the rim. Bjelica is the closest the Kings have to the versatile wings taking over the league, able to defend multiple positions and shoot the three. Randolph and Koufos are expiring contracts, and both Davis and Gabriel are longshots to make the rotation.
The problem is that finding minutes is going to be a challenge. The Kings may not realistically be able to run three bigs in the regular rotation if so many opposing teams are going to play bigger wings at power forward and center. Somebody is definitely to lose out; several others are likely to get the axe as well. And with so many roster spots and assets (draft picks and capspace) invested in big men, there’s a lost opportunity to find talent at other positions.
As for this season, there’s a myriad of ways this thing plays out. Bagley, as the prize #2 pick, is guaranteed a slate of minutes, even if it’s not a starting role. The Kings have hyped Giles for a whole season, and he looked good in summer league, so it’s safe to say he’s getting playing time. Bjelica is a finished product, a solid player entering his prime, and is imminently more useful than the other Kings veteran bigs with his offensive and defensive versatility. That’s about all we know. Who will start? Will Cauley-Stein, the elder statesmen among the young bigs, play due to his relative experience? Will “Buff Skal” make a third year leap? Do the salaries and locker room cache of Randolph and Koufos entitle them to playing time? Are Gabriel or Davis a diamond in the rough? And how much will Dave Joerger be forced to play small, at the expense of all of these guys, to match up with opponents?
And this isn’t even touching the long-term tension between playing a big-heavy rotation and the direction of the league. Maybe the Kings zigging while the rest of the league zags pays off; maybe the Kings punish teams inside and dominate the glass with their bigs without sacrificing in perimeter defense and floor spacing. Its possible that the future of the league is super-athletic bigs who have guard-like mobility and can shoot the three. But its notable that nobody else in the league is doubling down on bigs. And there’s no guarantee that the Kings’ crop is the kryptonite to the NBA’s smallball obsession.
In any case, without their first round pick this year, the Kings have to nail it this season with their bigs. Whatever the answer is, the Kings have to find it. The fate of this front office, or even this ownership group, could depend on it.