The Sacramento Kings Somehow Have The Best Vibes In The NBA
2:04 PM EST on November 21, 2022
Just 14 seconds into the second quarter of last Tuesday's Nets-Kings game, Terence Davis misplayed an action at the top of the key and surrendered a wide-open three to Patty Mills, prompting his coach Mike Brown to call an immediate timeout. All season long, Brown has called these instantaneous timeouts if his team comes out of any stoppage flat, and he lit into Davis for the blown rotation. The bench unit promptly stopped wobbling, clamped down on a lifeless Brooklyn team, and, led by the game of Davis's life, ripped off a 24-2 run that more or less sealed the blowout and turned the first TNT game in Sacramento since 2018 into a joyous romp. All this happened in front of a national audience that, had it thought about the Kings at all, likely conceived of the current team as a new version of the same joke they've been for 16 years. The Kings would go on to score more points than any team this season (153) and win with such force that Kevin Durant called his teammates a bunch of losers. How sweet it is to cede the title of League's Most Dysfunctional Franchise.
Probably you have not thought that much about the Sacramento Kings, which is usually a smart baseline for both basketball fandom and basic self-care. But I am here to inform you that the Kings are currently playing some of the best basketball in the NBA and absolutely kicking everyone's ass. Since dropping their first four games, they've gone 9-2, winning six in a row and putting up obscene offensive numbers. Referees admitted to blowing game-swinging calls in two of their losses. Their current winning streak is the longest one the franchise has strung together since I was in elementary school. They've beaten the Warriors and Cavs, and have been in every single game this season. Mike Brown appears to be coaching actual basketball in a way that no one in his cohort has since Rick Adelman had Sacramento contending for championships during George W. Bush's first term. The team's two stars, whose pairing in the wake of the emotionally challenging Tyrese Haliburton trade brought ownership and management in for a fresh wave of recrimination, look frankly unstoppable together, and the team is 1.5 games out of first place. It is all working, in other words, and working much better than recent history, or vibes, or the brutal competitive state of the crowded Western Conference say it should. For the first time in almost two decades, the pleasant scent of caramelization floats along on the breeze in California's capital.
We should start with The Beam. Whenever the Sacramento Kings win a game, they profane the territory of the sky gods with a thin purple laser. It's a very simple, charming gimmick, beloved by the players and elevated from rote celebration into a genuine phenomenon by the feral intensity Kings fans have towards the beam. If the team's recent dominance makes a certain amount of basic basketball sense, the existence of The Beam makes basically none at any level. Given the broader context, this fits very well.
The Kings hosted the Pistons last night, in what wound up being a remarkably stupid basketball game even by Pistons-Kings standards. Detroit hit 51 percent of their threes, scored 102 points through three quarters, and seemed on track to steal a win against a Kings team playing angsty, constrained basketball, until a late surge propelled Sacramento over the line. In the dying seconds, the capacity crowd roared for the beam. This was a Sunday game, in November, against the worst team in the NBA, yet the Sacramento crowd had more oomph than most playoff arenas. I love the beam; light the beam.
The man most responsible for the beam's continued illumination is De'Aaron Fox. This is remarkable in itself, given that Fox's status as franchise cornerstone had fairly come into question over the past two years as the team drafted point guards in two successive lotteries and Fox's limitations as a defender and floor-spacer came to the fore. He's been the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands for three seasons, which is nice and regularly produces cool solo fast breaks off made buckets, but the utility of his speed in the halfcourt had been hamstrung by his inability to make anyone pay for ducking screens. It didn't help that his stagnation coincided with Haliburton's emergence as one of the best playmakers in the league. Haliburton could shoot threes, engineer free buckets for basically anyone, and play what looked like more cohesive team basketball than Fox. He looked like the future, and so when the dysfunctional, soggy Kings shocked everyone (including the man himself) by flipping Haliburton for a big man who couldn't shoot threes or block shots, fans were naturally skeptical about betting the future of the franchise on De'Aaron Fox. Why should they have believed he had room to grow after a fifth season that was already starting to feel like a predictable rerun?
The simple answer is that Fox had never player under a good coach before. This season under Mike Brown, Fox's game has coalesced and he looks like a surefire all-star. The torrid stretch he ripped off as soon as the team traded for Domantas Sabonis last season was a sign of what was to come, and while Fox is also shooting threes at a career-best clip and locking in for longer stretches on defense, he has mostly been killing teams by becoming a more optimized version of the player he always was. As it turns out, Fox didn't have to change anything about the structure of his game to mount this redemptive campaign. Fox brought two coaches on his honeymoon with him this summer, reunited with his best friend when the Kings signed Malik Monk, and has been lighting it up from all over the court. His clutch numbers are staggering, and the signature moment of Fox's career year was his solo takeover in a big win against the Warriors. He can get to whatever spot he wants to on the floor, at any time, against any defender. At that point, someone should begin warming up the beam.
Since the team started winning, Sabonis has been mauling people. Like Fox, it can be tempting to focus in on his shortcomings, which are not difficult to spot. The Kings basically do not block any shots or protect the rim at all, and that's thanks mostly to Sabonis. He doesn't spread the floor himself, though he is such a gifted passer that he opens things up for everyone else. Most importantly, he plays with a real nasty streak and loves to crunch and munch weaker big men.
The team-building philosophy around Fox and Sabonis is pretty straightforward: get shooters on the floor, and let that MF fly. The Kings have an ideal shot profile. They shoot a million threes, get to the rack and the line, and assist the majority of their shots. Malik Monk is flying around and doing stuff, Keegan Murray has been ridiculously steady in his first NBA season despite a horrifying health scare to his grandmother, and there is real depth behind the team's rock-solid top-six. Most importantly, Kevin Huerter has been on fire. The Hawks essentially salary-dumped Huerter this summer, and he's making half of his 7.4 threes per game this season. The Kings played a terrible game against Detroit last night, yet they still scored 137 points and won because Huerter took over at the death.
The most obvious problem with needing to score 137 points to eke past the Detroit Pistons is that the Pistons suck and have no business scoring a season-high 129 points in your building, especially without their three best players, and especially after you had two full days rest to get the complete complement of guys back. Sacramento's defense is still pretty awful. Opposing teams meet no interior resistance, and the rim is a free-fire zone. The Kings allow the right type of shots—the most encouraging defensive stat is that the Kings allow the second-fewest three-pointers in the league while also allowing the second-best percentage, suggesting that perhaps things will come back to Earth—though the eye test says that way too many of them are open. It's remarkable that the team has the sixth-best net rating in the league while also having the fourth-worst defense around. They have been a poor defense for years, and Davion Mitchell, all 6-foot-0 of him, is the only no-shit plus defender on the whole roster. Their offense is good enough that they can dream on winning a shootout against virtually anyone, but until they can manage not to have one of the most embarrassing defenses in the whole league, Sacramento's ceiling will be severely limited. You can't give up 120 points a night and hope to win every shootout.
Weirdly, I've found myself encouraged by their dissonant performances on the two ends of the court; getting to 9-6 without playing even a single good game's worth of defense is pretty impressive in its own right. The offense may regress a bit, but also the Kings have been unluckier on defense than they've been luckier on offense, and over the course of a long season it seems likely that things will even out somewhat. For the first time since Mike Malone was around, the team really tries on defense. That is a low bar, and exceeding it has not produced results, but it is a necessary precondition to stringing together stops. Guys fly around in rotation, everyone seems comfortable hedging when Sabonis is on the floor and then switching when Chimezie Metu replaces him. The West is crowded, and we will learn a lot about this team as they embark on a tough road trip, but for the first time in years, the team is fun to watch. It feels incredible, and I hope they stay competitive for the entire season. Light the beam.