The Kings Are Making Continuity Work
4:02 PM EST on November 16, 2023
Anthony Davis began Wednesday night's marquee ESPN matchup against the Kings by winning the opening tip for the Los Angeles Lakers, only for De'Aaron Fox to step in front of LeBron James, take two dribbles, draw a foul on D'Angelo Russell, and finish over James. The first three seconds of the game hinted at how the following 2,877 would go; the Kings never trailed, spending the game sprinting at a compromised Lakers defense, while L.A. would mostly fling the ball around to any Kings defender willing to run the other way for an open dunk.
The Kings and Lakers are a pair of conjoined, fascinating test cases for the value of continuity in an internecine Western Conference with 13 teams trying to win and 11 of them currently succeeding, to some degree or another. The dust has settled on the first 15 percent or so of the season, with the Mavericks, Wolves, and Rockets screaming out to hot starts while the Grizzlies and Clippers are eating shit. Essentially everyone else is in the middle (and it's not like anyone is really running away or losing their way out of the hunt yet either, except for maybe Memphis), and after a season defined by unexpected, widespread parity, it seems this year will go something like the same.
Each of the Pacific Division rivals on ESPN last night were on opposite ends of the Western Conference's fat middle last season, with the Kings comfortable in the three seed and the Lakers needing an all-time Wolves meltdown to avoid the Nuggets in the first round. That L.A. won two playoff series while the Kings lost in seven heartbreaking games to the Warriors further attests to the parity in the conference, a parity which some teams spent the offseason trying to disrupt. While the Suns added Bradley Beal, the Rockets added a whole new team and a coach who knows what defense is, and the Warriors retooled their bench, the Lakers and Kings mostly stood pat. L.A., for their part, made their big swings in the middle of last season, though Sacramento's choice to re-sign Harrison Barnes, spend maybe the last big-time cap space they'll have for a while on extending Domantas Sabonis, and make a few moves around the margins was a strong bet on continuity. In an already tooled-up West, could they really sit out the arms race and expect to repeat their perfect, charmed 2022-23 campaign?
Early returns indicate: probably. They've won four in a row, three over good teams. The good thing about rolling out a team of eager zoomers is that every load-bearing Kings player besides Harrison Barnes has yet to hit their prime. A bet on continuity is a bet on both the potency of the Kings established system and internal improvement.
As for the first factor, a year of seeing the Kings sprint around Sabonis handoffs and the space the floor around De'Aaron Fox hasn't made them any easier to defend. The team hasn't shot well—they're 24th in three-point percentage, and Keegan Murray is missing six threes a game—and Fox missed five games with an ankle sprain, but when they have their full team, their offense is still incredibly potent.
In the five games with Fox in the lineup, they're 4-1, breaking 125 in each of their wins. The starting lineup, despite Murray's poor shooting and Barnes's inarguable decline, sports the third-highest net rating in the league. After getting neutralized by Golden State's gambit of giving him like 11 feet of space in the playoffs, Sabonis is mauling people; Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley both looked like middle schoolers against him in the post. When Fox was out and the team got cooked by the Rockets by 43 points over two games, they failed to create any space. The contrast between those ugly losses and the Kings' back-to-back wins against the Cavs and Lakers is stunning. Fox can still get into the paint whenever he wants and the four guys around him are still set up to instantly punish a bent defense.
As for the latter factor, the poorest-shooting member of the Kings has been their most improved player. Murray spent the summer before his second season in Sacramento, working out with De'Aaron Fox, and according to Fox's wife, guarding Fox one-on-one every day. His time in the torture chamber (I've only ever seen one man, Jaden McDaniels, really slow Fox down) has clearly paid off, as Kings coach Mike Brown has given the 6-foot-8 Murray the assignment on opposing teams' lead ballhandlers every single night. That's a huge shift for Murray, who came into the league with switchability concerns and spent his rookie season defending like one.
I first knew something was happening when he took the Steph Curry assignment in the team's first game without Fox and held him to 21 points and forced seven turnovers, including a play where Murray simply took the ball from him. This season he's capably guarded Lauri Markkanen, Donovan Mitchell, and Jalen Green, looking like a completely different defender. The Murray of last season would die on screens, bite on fakes, cede space. This version of Murray is aggressive, denying ballhandlers the space to work and contesting everything. He was a huge part of holding the Thunder to just 94 points last week.
The Kings aren't taking anyone by surprise, and as their regression to the injury luck and shooting means has made clear, they will not set offensive records again this season. That's to be expected, though the larger-order regression predicted by Hollinger and O'Connor types seems equally unlikely, simply because the Kings know who are they are. At their best, they ask questions that few defenses can answer. The beam still rises.