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Here’s To Another Lost Season In Sacramento

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: Luke Walton head coach of the Sacramento Kings complain on a call against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on March 29, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
Photo: Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Presumably you have done what you need to take care of yourself over the past four endless months of pandemic drudgery, by which I mean I hope that you have protected yourself from prolonged exposure to the 2020-21 Sacramento Kings. They have been quite bad this year, though this should be no surprise to anyone who’s watched hoops at any point in the past decade-and-a-half, or just noticed the words “Sacramento” and “Kings” on the front of the team’s jerseys. But just as every Superfund site features a unique blend of toxic contaminants, each futile Kings season is distinct from those preceding and following it. And while the current campaign is not technically over, the Kings will not do any more meaningful winning or losing, which makes this as good a time as any to compile some tasting notes on this year’s vintage of butt.

The Kings are 24-35, fresh off a split in a baseball series against the Wolves. They will not make the postseason for the 15th year on the trot barring Zion Williamson and Steph Curry each losing a limb, and they will also not wind up with anything better than the seventh-best draft lottery odds (in a draft with five elite prospects) barring a sudden change of heart from any of the teams that were smart or cynical enough to tank on purpose. The Kings sit firmly in the Trough of Mediocrity, or at least just on the rim of the Valley of Purposeful Badness. Every team above them in the standings is still trying to win, and everyone below them was more serious about losing. Sitting astride this grim margin is a pretty clear sign of a team without a strong vision, or a commitment to any sort of plan.

This is not to say that some amount of losing was outside management’s plan for the season. You cannot make up for Vlade Divac’s disastrous time running the shop in one year, and new general manager Monte McNair signaled he wouldn’t be trying to win now when he let Bogdan Bogdanovic, the team’s third-best player, walk for nothing. Perhaps in an attempt to reassure Kings fans that he wouldn’t radically depart from the organization’s traditions and mores, McNair’s agreed-upon Bogdanovic trade with Milwaukee was also canceled after the NBA deemed it mega-illegal. Out went Bogdanovic, in came a handful of players on minimum deals. Only the worst of those—Hassan Whiteside—is still around. To McNair’s credit, he also made probably the easiest pick of the first round when he was smart enough to stop Tyrese Haliburton’s draft night tumble and chose him twelfth overall.

At the outset of the year, the Kings were theoretically set up to pivot in either direction depending how the young core played. If things went really poorly, Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield are competent NBA players on (again) theoretically tradable contracts and as such could probably have been flipped for some sort of value. And if the team started winning, the roster’s construction was such that it would almost certainly be because players like De’Aaron Fox, Haliburton, Hield, and Marvin Bagley (we’ll get to him, don’t worry) showed out. Neither future was realized, although it is worth noting that in defiance of all this mediocrity, Sacramento has had the worst defense in the NBA throughout the entire season. However, I’d really like to start with the good stuff: Fox and Haliburton have distinguished themselves beyond all of my expectations.

I have held off writing about Tyrese Haliburton on this website, because, well, he’s an unflashy rookie on a terrible team. But now that the homerism floodgates have creaked open, I simply must say: Haliburton is just the goddamn best! He’s one of the smartest rookies I’ve ever seen play, and he even managed to distinguish himself as such while spending the majority of the year marooned on a bench unit featuring Whiteside, Cory Joseph, and Glenn Robinson III. Haliburton has to be on it at all times, since he’s not a twitchy first step ballhandler that can beat his man and punish every switch. His game is built to fit into the cracks, all the little pockets of space created by the way modern defenses target modern offenses. In the gaps on the perimeter, he’s a knockdown shooter, hitting 41.5 percent of his five threes per game and posting a 58.7 true shooting percentage despite a thumb-centric jumper that skeptics said wouldn’t translate. While he’s not an explosive first step guy in the way that Fox is, Haliburton is a crafty, sleek dribbler in the lane with a developing floater that he’s been increasingly willing to let fly as the season’s gone on. If anyone ever makes the mistake of overplaying that floater, consider that we haven’t even gotten to the best aspect of his game, his passing.

Haliburton is good for at least one ace no-looker a game, and his pick-and-roll wizardry has been impressive enough to turn Chimezie Metu into a credible lob threat. He always seems to make the right pass, to keep the ball zipping around the perimeter, or ask questions of the defense with an entry ball. Fox is the tip of the spear, and his 7.2 assists per game tend to be the product of his dives to the rim. Haliburton, on the other hand, seems to accrue his five dimes per game by either opening up a gap with his eyes or straining the defense with a drive until they break. And when they break, Haliburton always knows what to do. He’s the epitome of a secondary playmaker, the absolutely ideal backcourt partner for a dynamo like Fox. My only critique is that perhaps he looks to set up his teammates too much.

The following is probably my favorite play of the year. Look at how Haliburton reacts to the ball trickling out of bounds and leaps to the spot where Grant Williams is going to toss it before Williams even touches the ball. Superb.

Fox is already a star, and a known quantity. He has also evolved as a scorer this year, thanks mostly to a newfound ruthlessness. He could always beat people off the dribble, but now he’s learned to slow down when he needs to. Also, he’s shooting a full 10 percent better at the rim this year. I have no complaints about either of these guys!

As for everything else, well, ah. There are exactly five good players on the team. Fox and Haliburton are core pieces, while Barnes, Hield, and Richaun Holmes are mildly replaceable but still very good NBA players who helped the team to their two odd spurts of winning basketball this year. Bagley is out injured yet again—he’ll end his third season having only played one-and-a-half seasons worth of basketball—but it’s hard to say his absence has hurt the team. Poor Bagley really tries on defense, but when he was playing, opponents would put him in pick-and-rolls whenever they needed a bucket. it should be no surprise that a big man defender so bad he got Coach K to install a zone defense for a year is now struggling at the pros, but man, he’s so slow and foul-prone. On the offensive end, Bagley is in the Obi Toppin zone: good at dunking on fast breaks (the easiest part of basketball) and bad at most everything else. He is not a credible enough shooter to stretch the floor, his positional awareness is so bad it’s actually impressive, and he appears to have never passed the ball. I have abandoned all hope that he will become a productive NBA player for a good team, and apparently so has the rest of the league; the Kings aggressively shopped him at the trade deadline to no avail. It has gotten to the point where his rookie-scale salary is a cap problem, which is really some shit.

The Kings’ performance this year has resembled a sine curve, with two extremely impressive winning streaks accounting for 62.5 percent of the team’s wins. Are the Kings the team that beat the Pelicans, Celtics, Nuggets, and Clippers all in a row, or are they the 10-31 horror show of their non-hot streak games? Probably the latter, as the hot periods were built off a very tight rotation with the core five players all logging heavy minutes at the expense of the relative scrubs. Clearly that pace isn’t sustainable, since those players have also been on the bad version of the Kings that’s taken the floor most nights.

The problem is, management and the coaching staff were enamored enough of the good times that they attempted to improve at the trade deadline rather than consolidate around Fox and Haliburton. Had they not watched their own team? Did they really think their deeply flawed and poorly coached squad could actually beat out two of the Spurs, Pelicans, and Warriors? Apparently so, and the results have been disastrous. The Kings just put an end to a brutal nine-game losing streak, a losing streak defined by the bizarre benching of Haliburton for Mo Harkless, a veteran who will not be a part of the team’s future. You simply must laugh when a shitty team decides it’s winning time only to get owned, repeatedly, by proudly bad opponents like the Pistons. There’s no reason why Haliburton should be logging 16 minutes in any game, except for the fact that Luke Walton is a dull, uncreative coach who is probably only still in his job because ownership is still paying off Dave Joerger. Of course, they only fired Joerger and put themselves into this stupid hole because the cranky father of their horrific draft bust got mad and yelled a bunch. The end result of these nested incompetencies is that Alvin Gentry has to watch while Walton runs this team into the ground. He has no more excuses.

The most frustrating thing about all this losing is that it’s not even tanking. Walton has stubbornly refused to play any of the team’s developmental players besides Haliburton, likely in a desperate attempt to win enough to keep his job. And so we are left with promising second rounders Kyle Guy (who might be good, please stop laughing), Jahmi’us Ramsey, and Robert Woodard (who crushed it in the G-League bubble) languishing on the bench while the team desperately looks north on a southbound boat. I will see you all back here in a year when the Kings draft some dingdong with the ninth pick and finish with 29 wins.