The sudden suspension of the NBA season came right when the Kings appeared to be playing their best basketball of the year. Although the players and coaches unilaterally believe that the league made the correct decision in halting play for the safety of everyone involved, it still stings to have stopped the season directly in the middle of a playoff chase.
Sacramento was 3.5 games back of Memphis, with the tiebreaker in hand, when the NBA suspended operations and had won 13 of its last 20 games. According to Luke Walton, the team’s improved play was a function of players finally coming into their roles, as he told the media in a conference call Wednesday.
“We were excited. Like I said, we were playing high-level basketball as far as a team embracing what it needs to do,” Walton said. “What I mean by that is individuals understanding their roles, individuals understanding what we need out of them and those individuals making sacrifices for the betterment of the team. I think that’s why we were winning games at a pretty solid rate towards the end. As a coach, that is what you’re looking for.
“As you said, Alex [Len], [Kent Bazemore] coming over to add some toughness and physicality that we needed and the defensive level that was being played. A big part of it was having De’Aaron get going like that and getting to the free-throw line consistently. In the last few games, I know it’s a small sample size, he was shooting around 90 percent and if you get there eight times a game, that is going to help. Buddy [Hield] was just really dominating his role for us coming off the bench. [Bogdan Bogdanovic] in the starting lineup was making nice basketball plays. We had a lot of good positive things going for us as a team and we were excited. We were looking forward to every matchup that we had, and our guys were giving us everything they had.”
The defensive impact of the new arrivals has been immediately apparent. Len is the defensive center the team hoped for when they signed Dewayne Dedmon, and the Kings are outscoring opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Sacramento is similarly 7.6 points per 100 possession better on defense when Bazemore plays.
More important than the play of upcoming free agents has been the way Fox, Hield, and Bogdanovic have settled into their current backcourt rotation. As Walton noted, Fox’s free-throw rate has gone through the roof. He draws shooting fouls more frequently than any other point guard in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, on 18.3% of his shot attempts. Fox just needs to be shoot like a Kentucky big man from the foul line to take full advantage of those opportunities.
The Bogdanovic/Hield swap in the starting lineup has also seemingly brought out the best in both players. Bogdanovic’s net rating has jumped from -3.9 off the bench to +0.4 as a starter, while Hield’s has catapulted from -4.5 as a starter to +4.8 off the bench (per NBA.com). Setting aside whatever that means for the future of this franchise, at the present, things were looking up for the pair.
Although it took longer than desired this season for the team to settle into roles that amplified their strengths, at least the Kings had arrived at that point. That bodes well for whenever the games resume.