It’s official, NBA basketball is back, and the Kings take the floor today for the first time since March 8. The team looks a little different now than it did then, so it’s a good chance to take a step back and evaluate where the Kings stand heading into the league restart.
The Kings have an easy schedule.
The Kings finished the first part of the season 28-36, 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed. If they can stay within four games of the Grizzlies, and more importantly, finish in ninth place, they will trigging a play-in round for the final spot in the postseason.
Sacramento has has an advantage to earn that ninth seed because they have a relatively easy schedule for the seeding games, easiest among all Western Conference teams other than New Orleans. The Pelicans, who are a primary challenger for the Kings, are currently without Zion Williamson, and there is no indication of when he will return. The Suns are without Kelly Oubre Jr. (and also further back in the standings), and the Spurs didn’t bring LaMarcus Aldridge to the bubble, clearing the path for the Kings.
Under the current circumstances, Portland poses the biggest threat to Sacramento. The Blazers have a much tougher path than the Kings, but they are welcoming back two key frontcourt players and have the tiebreaker by the fluke happenstance of having played more games before the hiatus.
The roster isn’t exactly in tip-top shape.
The biggest news is that Marvin Bagley III is out for the season, but Bagley hardly factored into the team’s success before the break, so the Kings should be able to weather his absence. Richaun Holmes missed 10 days of practice, but he is healthy, and Alex Len appears to be coming along, giving the team an adequate center rotation.
The real issue is De’Aaron Fox’s ankle. He will miss the first scrimmage game with a sprained ankle, though he is set to be re-evaluated shortly. The Kings will rise and fall with Fox’s success, as they did during the 13-7 stretch to close out of the first part of the year, so they need him to at his best to contend with the rest of the field. Fox averaged 22 points and six assists per game over his final 24 contests, and the Sacramento coaching staff expects him to build off that baseline.
Harrison Barnes’ absence looms large.
The Kings are also missing Barnes, who is still in Sacramento as he waits to clear the NBA coronavirus protocol. Barnes led the Kings in minutes this season, playing all 64 games before the hiatus. He shot 38.3% on 3-pointers this season and is sort of the connective tissue that makes the team’s best lineups work. He can also capably slide over to power forward, allowing Sacramento to play small — and fast — which is when the Kings are at their best.
There isn’t another player like Barnes on the roster. Kent Bazemore shot well in a Kings uniform, but his career stats suggest that’s not a surefire proposition. He also is too small to reliably play the four. Corey Brewer can play power forward, but he’s nowhere near the shooter or defender that Barnes is. The Kings need Barnes back.
Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic are thriving.
Back in January, the Kings were reeling, and Luke Walton made the controversial decision to bench Hield in favor of Bogdanovic. Hield had been one of the best 3-point shooters in the league over the past two seasons, a seemingly perfect complement to the slashing game of Fox, but Walton moved the sharpshooter to the bench.
It worked. Hield has been a flame thrower against second units and is shooting 47.6% from deep on 9.3 attempts per game compared to 36.0% on threes before the switch. Bogdanovic hasn’t seen the same jump in his efficiency (his 3-point percentage has actually gone down), but his partnership with Fox has allowed the point guard to flourish. More importantly, the move directly led to Kings wins.
There are no expectations.
It is a long-running joke that the national media neglects to acknowledge the Kings’ existence. They’re left out of most discussions for the no. 8 seed, they were not mentioned during the NBA’s schedule release show, and ESPN gave them zero chance of making the postseason.
Rather than view that as a negative, it simply means that there is no pressure on Sacramento during the restart. New Orleans is the media darling, and Portland has a lot of veterans who expect to make the postseason — that luxury tax bill certainly isn’t being paid for a lottery team. But the Kings can play freely without the burden of expectations and maybe even sneak up on some unsuspecting opponents during the seeding games.