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Luke Walton–Sized Solution No Match For Sacramento Kings–Sized Problem

DALLAS, TEXAS - OCTOBER 31: Head coach Luke Walton of the Sacramento Kings looks on as the Kings take on the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center on October 31, 2021 in Dallas, 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 Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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The Sacramento Kings have started Chimezie Metu in each of their past five games, four of which they’ve lost in a different, humiliating way. It wouldn’t be fair to say the fourth-year big man has pointedly struggled in his starts; by all the metrics, this is his best season so far, though he is also pretty clearly not a starting-caliber NBA player, especially for a team that thinks it can and should be making the playoffs. Metu took the starting spot from veteran Mo Harkless, whose sudden absence from the rotation, paired with the bizarre reemergences of Metu and Marvin Bagley from the deep bench, means the Kings have played exactly one wing player in each of their past four games. As the game has shrunk over the past half-decade, versatile wings have emerged as the most important positions on the court, yet Harrison Barnes is the only competent wing on the roster.

Should blame for this horrific on-court imbalance fall on now-former coach Luke Walton, who was fired this past Sunday? Or is it GM Monte McNair’s fault for handing him a misshapen roster full of ball-dominant guards and severely limited bigs? Should De’Aaron Fox shoulder responsibility for Sacramento’s excremental 6-11 record because he’s harshly regressed this season? Is it ownership’s fault for cooking up this stew of failure?

Though Walton was an incompetent coach who consistently failed to deliver and should not have been coaching the team, the uncomfortable reality is that the franchise’s problems extend far beyond him. Interim coach Alvin Gentry alone can’t fix this. The roster is misconstructed. The pressure of ownership’s unrealistic expectations are compounded by its own financial wobbliness and inability to keep from meddling in basketball affairs. Several key players are struggling. It’s worth attempting to consider each of these nested failures on their own terms as much as possible, though the Kings are bad because of failures of imagination and execution at every level.

As for Walton: His hire was a lazy, doomed decision from the beginning. His tenure with the Lakers made it clear to the rest of the NBA that he wasn’t cut out to lead a team—missing the playoffs with LeBron James is the basketball equivalent of being gifted a Ferrari then immediately driving it off a cliff—yet Vlade Divac hired his old friend Walton four days after shitcanning Dave Joerger, without interviewing any other candidates. Divac’s ability to maim the long-term health of the franchise in such short order is a true marvel. Even though giving Walton an immediate landing spot was not quite as harmful, you know, the other thing, he effectively set the now-16-year rebuild back even further.

Walton is a singularly uncreative coach. He’s been blessed with above-average offensive players in Sacramento and one of the greatest volume shooters in NBA history (though that stat says way more about “NBA history” than Buddy Hield), yet his teams can be reliably stopped by simply blowing up the initial action. When Sacramento is allowed to, say, run three off-ball screens for Hield and engineer a mismatched 3-on-2 after a couple of switches, they can score in bunches. When opponents scout them at all, they easily tweak one or two things, and the Kings are left unable to make decisions at speed or do anything besides stand around. Walton has a baffling tendency to ask the wrong things of the wrong players. The team falls apart under the extra scrutiny of clutch situations, and their sporadic successes last season were entirely the product of Walton shortening the rotation beyond the point of rationality. Even after the season was clearly lost last year, Walton kept over-relying on veterans at the expense of the team’s young players so he could win to keep his job. This season, the Kings would routinely get smoked in third and fourth quarters, a clear sign of an out-coaching. The team’s defense was one of the worst in NBA history last season largely because Walton couldn’t manage rotations or put his players in spots to succeed. After an allegedly renewed focus on defense and rebounding this offseason, the team is just as porous as it was last year.

That last part is crucial. Walton should have been fired after last season, and while any normal organization would have tossed him into the dumpster, the Kings kept him around in part because they didn’t want to have to pay another coach’s salary while they were still paying the recently fired Dave Joerger. That’s dumb, though at least the logic is internally sound. However, if Walton’s leash was short enough all along that the team was willing to fire him after only 17 games, failing to replace him this summer, when he’d made it clear he was not cut out for the job and the team would have ran a robust coaching search, is a failure at several levels. If eating the Joerger contract didn’t meaningfully doom Walton, waiting until one bad stretch to purge him from the organization means the Kings just burnt a season to learn something they already should have known. This one is on McNair, for both sticking by Walton this summer and failing to deliver him a more coherent roster. McNair has been unlucky as he’s pursued a series of roster-altering trades, though part of the job is having a Plan B, something nobody in the organization seems to grasp.

Now Gentry will be left to try and make something of this weird roster. Fox has shot 13 percent worse at the rim this year, Tyrese Haliburton hasn’t been used correctly, and Harrison Barnes is already starting to look over-leveraged. Sacramento is not out of the play-in race, somehow, and Gentry is a good enough coach that things could conceivably turn around quickly once he puts out a few of Walton’s fires. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking getting rid of Walton is going to solve any of the organization’s serious deficiencies. Even as bad as he was, he has the second-best winning percentage of the Sacramento era, which says way more about the scope of the problem than Walton’s capacity as a coach.