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Maybe Luke Walton doesn’t suck

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The Kings have been playing much better as of late. How much credit does Luke Walton deserve?

Kimani Okearah

The Sacramento Kings started the 2019-2020 season about as poorly as one could imagine, losing their first five contests by an average of 17 points, including a 29-point loss to the Phoenix Suns and a 32-point loss to the Utah Jazz. Their negative 85-point differential through that span was the second-worst mark in the Sacramento era, as well as the second-worst of any 0-5 team in the entire NBA in the last 20 years. The Kings weren’t just losing; they were getting their asses kicked daily, nightly, and ever so rightly.

That inauspicious start to the year didn’t exactly build confidence in the already shaky belief that Luke Walton was going to represent an improvement over his predecessor, Dave Joerger. It was assumed that Walton would incorporate Joerger’s run, run, and run some more philosophy with a more structured half-court offense, more three-point shooting, and more focus on the defensive end of the floor. Instead of that hybrid developing, every bit of Sacramento’s scoring prowess vanished, as the Kings ranked 28th in the league in offensive rating at 97.2, their effective field goal percentage sat at just 47.5%, and the De’Aaron Fox led-attack paced slower than all but six teams. Luke seemed determined to install his principles into this team, even if that meant he was sacrificing wins on the altar of foundational learning.

The lack of transition scoring, the poor shooting, and the awful results led a cacophony of complaints to rise across the Sacramento community, with nearly everyone’s voices joining in, mine included. And yet, the Kings have started to win some ball games. They’re 3-1 over their last four contests, with their only defeat being a four-point loss to the defending champion Toronto Raptors. They also edged out a close win over the playoff-projected Utah Jazz, spanked the New York Knicks, and handled the Atlanta Hawks after a mini-collapse in the third quarter. And this has all been without their second or third-best player, Marvin Bagley III.

Perhaps even more surprising than the victories themselves is how the Kings have been going about those wins. Although the belief held strong that if this team would just get up and down the court, they would start adding some numbers in the win column, the results don’t agree with that hypothesis. Over their last four games, the Kings have ranked dead last in pace at 96.63, a number far lower than their pace of 101.5 to start the season.

Despite that surprising dip in possessions, Sacramento has recorded the best offensive rating in the league during that stretch, 118.4, as well as the second-best effective field goal percentage at 57.8%, trailing the Phoenix Suns by just one-tenth of a percent. The largest difference maker in production hasn’t been the change in game plan that everyone begged for; rather, it’s been the players’ execution of the original game plan, especially in shooting and rebounding. Walton’s half-court offense has generated a plethora of open (nearest defender 4-6 feet away) and wide-open (nearest defender 6+ feet away) opportunities for Sacramento’s vaunted three-point snipers; they just weren’t sinking those shots at the beginning of the season.

Through the 0-5 start, the Kings attempted 32.6 open or wide-open long-balls per game, making 10.8 of those shots, good for an accuracy of just 33.1%. Over the last four games, the team has increased their attempts by just 0.4 shots per game, yet they’re making 3.3 more three-pointers (try saying that five times fast), which has resulted in a much higher make-rate of 42.7%. Most notably, Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic have found their groove from beyond the arc:

Open Three-Point Shooting

Player First 5 Games Last 4 Games
Player First 5 Games Last 4 Games
Bjelica 50% 53%
Hield 39% 42%
Bogdanovic 25% 48%
Barnes 33% 45%
Dedmon 9% 23%

The Kings have also turned up the dial on their rebounding efforts over the last couple of weeks. Following the common theme of the day, they were terrible at the onset of the season, corralling just 70.5% of their opponents’ misses, a ratio that placed them 25th in the league, and that inability to clear the defensive glass had the team surrendering 13.8 second chance per game. Over the last four games, that defensive rebounding percentage has climbed to 75.3% (8th in the NBA), and they’ve decreased their second chances allowed by more than 20%, down to only 10.8 per game. The on-court execution and effort has dramatically increased, resulting in much higher levels of production as well.

Luke Walton’s in-game adjustments also received some justifiable criticism early in the year. He foolishly left the starters late in the game in the blowout loss to Phoenix, resulting in a serious injury for Marvin Bagley and a minor hip ailment for De’Aaron Fox, and his reliance on Trevor Ariza over Bogdan Bogdanovic irked the majority of folks watching the games. The Kings were playing slow, shooting poorly, and the rotation seemed questionable at best.

Yet, some impressive alterations have been made recently as well. The first sign of flexibility was demonstrated when Walton made the decision to swap Dewayne Dedmon, the $47 million free agent acquisition, in favor of Richaun Holmes, the last rotational player signed by the Kings in July. That change has worked wonders for the starters, as the lineup of Fox-Hield-Barnes-Bjelica-Holmes has posted a net rating of +15.3 in 86 minutes together this season, while that same group with Dedmon instead of Holmes has recorded a net rating of -44.5 in 32 minutes. It’s easy to look back on that decision and say it was the obvious choice, but how many times did the fan base beg Dave Joerger to push Marvin Bagley into the starting lineup last year?

Sacramento’s victory over the Atlanta Hawks also provides an example of some of Luke’s coaching savvy. In a story that’s become all too familiar, the Kings led the Hawks by a comfortable margin of 16 points heading into the half, but a third quarter collapse allowed Atlanta to work their way right back into the game. No one played particularly well during that awful period, but the two most culpable players were De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, who combined for five turnovers in 23 minutes in the second half, as well as a total plus-minus of -25. Hield was removed from the game with a few seconds remaining in the third quarter, never to return, while Fox was given a shot to redeem himself in the fourth, but a quick foul and a bad turnover ended his night almost immediately. At that point, Sacramento’s lead was down to one point, but once that pair was removed from the game, the Kings outscored the Hawks 27-16 and secured the win. Walton benching his young stars was a gutsy gamble that paid off, and hopefully one that taught the starting backcourt a lesson in execution.

The final indication of an uptick in production has been the defensive rating of the team. Sacramento recorded the fourth-worst defensive rating (113.8) through the first four games, and that number has looked much better over this 3-1 stretch, sitting at 109.8, good enough for an acceptable 19th place. A surface-level comparison between those two results seems to project a much better performance on that end of the floor, but those results might be a bit of fool’s gold. While the numbers are accurate, the opponents are drastically different between those time frames. Three of Sacramento’s last four opponents rank in the bottom-five in offensive rating this year, meaning those teams aren’t scoring against anyone. Meanwhile, the one team who is actually competent on offense, the Toronto Raptors, dropped 124 points on the Kings. It’s far too early to call the defense anything resembling a success.

The early season start for the Kings was about as bad as it could have been, and the alarm bells that rang throughout the Sacramento community were perfectly valid. However, now that a few games have passed and the team is performing at a much more acceptable level, those claxons of panic can probably abate. Things are far from perfect, from the defense to the lack of third quarter execution to some rotational decisions, but the Kings have shown they can win games using Luke Walton’s strategies. If this team can continue to defeat opponents using sound basketball philosophies, rather than simply trying to outrun everyone, the potential combination of a competent half-court offense with the deadliness of this core in transition should have fans salivating. Once things are running more smoothly on a nightly basis, all the coaching staff is required to do is let this team out of the gate at full speed and then fall back on the basics when the defense gets set. A four game sample size is far too small to declare everything as copacetic in Sacramento, but maybe, just maybe Luke Walton doesn’t suck after all.