The 2019-20 Sacramento Kings season reached its turning point (at least before the global pandemic hit) in January against the Detroit Pistons. The Kings lost in Detroit to a lottery-bound team, and it wasn’t even particularly close. It was the team’s sixth loss in a row to fall to 14 games under .500, and the playoffs seemed like a pipe dream.
The next game, Luke Walton decided to bench Buddy Hield for Bogdan Bogdanovic, and the Kings reeled off 13 wins in their final 20 games before the hiatus. That move seemingly saved the season.
Evidently, it wasn’t Walton’s idea alone to bench Hield. As Jason Jones of The Athletic said on the “Hoops, Adjacent” podcast, that thought process was percolating in Sacramento long before Walton even arrived, and long before the team’s disastrous loss to the Pistons:
“It was horrible, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay this team is done’, and then Luke says, ‘Okay you know what I’m going to do?’ He does what the previous coach wanted to do, Dave Joerger, he benches Buddy Hield and makes him a sixth man.”
Joerger and Hield didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye for the entirety of their time together in Sacramento. There was the time Hield sat for the last 5:42 of a loss to Minnesota, or the time the two got into it down the stretch of a Warriors game, and Damian Lillard came to Hield’s defense on social media. But Joerger never acted on the idea of benching Hield, who started all 82 games in 2018-19.
Maybe he should have. De’Aaron Fox had a plus-1.0 point differential with Hield on the court last season, per Cleaning the Glass, but that jumped to plus-2.6 with Hield off the court. As Jones noted, Hield’s lack of ball-handling gives Fox a lot of creative responsibility within the Kings offense. He functions better next to another perimeter player like Bogdanovic , who allows Fox to play off the ball a little, and thus use his speed to devastating effect within the halfcourt.
“It’s weird, as angry as Buddy was — and probably still is not to be starting — Buddy plays much better off the bench,” Jones said.
“I think part of it is, as good as Buddy is, and if you’re talking about tiers of two guards, shooting-wise, Buddy is tier one, but there's other areas like defensive assignments, ball handling is not his thing. In a lot of ways his skill set says specialist, and I’ve talked to a lot of scouts and coaches and they all said Buddy can play 15 years in the league basically as a hired guy off the bench.”
The Fox/Bogdanovic combination in the starting lineup has helped revitalize Fox, though some of that can be attributed to improving health as the season wore on. The point guard had a net rating of -5.1 before the lineup switch and was net neutral afterwards. Hield’s efficiency improved off the bench, and Bogdanovic saw a similar leap in his production, so as Michael Scott would say, it was a win-win-win.
The Kings outperformed expectations in 2019-20, but it’s interesting to think if their ceiling was artificially capped by keeping Hield in the starting lineup. Joerger may not have the stones (or front office buy-in) to make the switch, but Walton does, and the team is better off for it.