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The Kings Have A Frontcourt Problem

Luke Walton has some tough decisions to make.

Kimani Okearah

Heading into the 2019-20 NBA season, the projected Sacramento Kings starting lineup and rotation made a lot of sense on paper. De’Aaron Fox and Cory Joseph were your point guards, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bodganovic were your shooting guards, Harrison Barnes and Trevor Ariza were your wings, and Dewayne Dedmon and Marvin Bagley were your starting bigs with Harry Giles, Nemanja Bjelica, and Richaun Holmes ready to battle for the backup frontcourt minutes.

The paper only lasted one game.

Marvin Bagley fractured his right thumb and missed most of the season. Dewayne Dedmon started the year so poorly that he went from starting center to backup center to out of the rotation completely in about 20 games. Richaun Holmes emerged as an irreplaceable defensive anchor and a superbly efficient offensive contributor. Dedmon’s disappearance made Nemanja Bjelica’s ability to space the floor more valuable than it should be. Harry Giles has been a non-factor.

To the Kings’ credit, they overcame it all. Semi-long-term injuries to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, along with Dedmon’s struggles, could’ve tanked the season, but it didn’t. It’s December 18, 2019, and the Kings are 12-15, but more importantly — they currently hold the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race. De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have finally returned, and the Kings are still playoff contenders. That’s no small feat.

Integrating De’Aaron Fox back into the lineup is easy. He’ll takeover starting point guard duties from Cory Joseph, and the Kings will be better as a result.

Integrating Marvin Bagley into the lineup, as we’ve seen in his first 4 games back, won’t be so simple.

Dewayne Dedmon was supposed to be Marvin Bagley’s safety net as a low usage floor spacer on offense, and a rebounding rim protector on defense. Without Dedmon, Luke Walton has had a difficult time optimizing Bagley.

According to Cleaning The Glass, Marvin Bagley has played 90% of his minutes at center and 10% of his minutes at power forward this season. Last year under Dave Joerger, Bagley played just 26% of his minutes at center with 74% of his minutes coming at power forward.

Marvin Bagley can be a devastating center in the modern NBA. It’s something I’ve certainly advocated for, but you’ve got to have the right personnel to do it, and most importantly, Bagley needs to be able to handle that role defensively. It’s early in the process, but I don’t think either is true right now.

For Luke Walton, managing Marvin Bagley’s role is tricky. The Bagley camp wasn’t particularly thrilled with how Dave Joerger utilized him in a bench role during his rookie season. I think that’s understandable even if I disagree with how public those frustrations got. Bagley had Rookie of the Year aspirations and the #2 pick clout to fuel those expectations, and he didn’t get the same opportunities and promotion that fellow rookies Luka Doncic and Trae Young got. It’s perfectly human to think you have more to offer than what you’re being asked to do.

It was supposed to be different for Marvin Bagley this season, but in this moment it looks like Luke Walton is struggling to figure out how to optimize him just as Dave Joerger did.

Bagley wasn’t supposed to play 90% of his minutes at center this season. With Dedmon penciled in as the starter next to him, it’s clear that wasn’t the plan, but it’s been the reality.

To make matters even more complicated, Luke Walton has been incredibly reluctant to play Marvin Bagley and Richaun Holmes at the same time. They have played less than 2 minutes together this season.

Holmes is two things — a center, and the best big on the Sacramento Kings right now. If Marvin Bagley is a center, and Richaun Holmes is a center, and Holmes has been the best big on the roster by a wide margin this season, and Walton isn’t going to play them together, and Marvin Bagley thought this was going to be his opportunity to breakout, well, you can see where this starts to gets messy.

Luke Walton’s concerns about a potential Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley pairing are not unfounded. Offensive spacing could be a major problem for that unit, but the alternatives present major problems, too.

Since Bagley’s return, we’re already seeing Holmes’ minutes suffer. Holmes was playing 29.8 MPG before Bagley’s return to the lineup, and that has gone down to 24.8 MPG since. Less Richaun Holmes is not the answer right now. He has been instrumental in the Kings’ success this season, but if Walton isn’t going to play them together, this trend will continue.

The Kings could continue using Marvin Bagley off the bench, but you have to wonder how long that can comfortably last. The Kings used the 2nd overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft on him. We’ve spent plenty of time talking about the player the Kings didn’t pick. At some point, you have to see what Bagley can do in a bigger role.

Luke Walton could turn back to Dedmon, start him with Bagley, and pray he contributes, but that seems like a wholly unnecessary gamble with a real shot at the playoffs on the line.

The Kings could theoretically bench Holmes and start Bjelica with Bagley, but Holmes deserves better than that, and it would result in one of the worst defensive frontcourts in the NBA.

Considering every answer to the frontcourt problem has its drawbacks, it remains strange to me that Walton has seemingly determined that Bagley and Holmes just will not play together. It’s not a perfect solution by any stretch, but again, none of them are.

There is still time (and hope) that this works itself out in one way or another. Bagley living up to his draft position with his play on the court would alleviate a lot of concerns no matter where his minutes are coming from, and it’d be much easier to justify giving him a bigger role if his play supported that decision. It hasn’t thus far, but he’s only been back for 4 games. It’s a process.

At the same time, it’s easy to look at a game like Tuesday night’s 110-102 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, where Marvin Bagley was riding the bench during crunch time — as a bit awkward. You could make the case that developing Bagley is more important than winning games right now, and that crunch time experience is absolutely essential for him.

If there was an obvious solution to the frontcourt problem, I’d offer one, but that hasn’t materialized yet. In the meantime, I’d like to see Luke Walton be more flexible with his decision to separate Holmes and Bagley. It may not be the final resolution, but there is value in trying it before you rule it out.