For nearly two decades, the Kings have wandered aimlessly through the Western Conference, enduring a playoff drought that currently stands at 14 straight seasons. Worse yet, there’s rarely been real reason for optimism in Sacramento. Rebuilds have sputtered out before they ever got a chance to get going. Coaches came and went, while young players hardly showed any consistency or promise for the future. For a while there was a big question if the team would even stay in town. Two years ago, that started to change, and this year’s group has jumped out to a 3-1 start and recaptured the energy and thrill that made them everyone’s favorite late-night watch in 2018.
It all starts with the stream of energy that De’Aaron Fox leaves in his wake propelling them to turn every game into a match of will and athletic prowess. Sometimes, it hardly feels like basketball, the score taken more by bodies strewn about than baskets made.After signing a five-year, $195 million extension this fall, Fox has been solid and efficient on offense, leading the team with 20.8 points and 6.8 assists per game, but his real value has come on defense, where he’s averaging a steal and a block per game and leads the league in loose balls recovered with eight.
When the best player competes and puts his body on the line on both ends on a nightly basis the way Fox does, that sort of infectious energy makes a team a nightly pain to deal with and gives them a puncher’s chance at winning every game. Nothing embodied that more than his chasedown block in Sacramento’s ridiculous overtime win over Denver last week.
TOO BUSY MAKING 𝘾𝙇𝙐𝙏𝘾𝙃 PLAYS TO LISTEN TO YOUR PODCAST! pic.twitter.com/QMwpKvMAMu
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) December 24, 2020
But the real treat of the season so far has been Tyrese Haliburton, who on draft night was already being called a steal and has proven those insta-takers correct already.
With a few minutes to go in the Kings’ breakout win over Denver on Tuesday night, Haliburton reared up and let it fly from nearly halfcourt, a shot that the unwritten rules of basketball state is not one most players are ever allowed to take. Damian Lillard and Steph Curry earned the right to try it; Haliburton only just turned pro. Maybe it’s the Kings or maybe it’s an underdog story like Haliburton’s, but there was something about that shot that felt like a fairytale. Those stories are about overcoming odds, wanting it more, and being heroic. As he pulled up over Nikola Jokic for the dagger three, Haliburton seemed to charge up on all the negativity directed toward the Kings, his draft stock, and their chances this season and turn it into kinetic energy — and a win.
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) December 30, 2020
How this man fell to 12th in a weak draft is beyond understanding, as he’s already earned a spot in the crunch time rotation and the team is simply better when he’s in the game. It’s early, but the Kings have so far been 15.4 points better per 100 possessions with Haliburton on the floor, and his energy and versatility on defense has been particularly impactful.
When Haliburton is out there, Kings coach Luke Walton likes to deploy multiple ball-handler lineups that stretch the defense thin and turbo-charge the team’s transition scoring. That’s possible in large part because Haliburton is 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan, can defend multiple positions and is already excellent as a team defender.
Most surprisingly, Haliburton started the season 8-16 from deep despite a strange set shot that looks more like a catapult than a professional basketball player’s shooting form. While he was efficient from deep in two seasons at Iowa State, it was an open question whether he could get his shot off against NBA defenses. He’s answered that question with a simple “yes” so far and talked his talk online a bit, too.
They said the jumper wouldn’t translate
— Tyrese Haliburton (@TyHaliburton22) December 30, 2020
A lot of Haliburton’s success so far is a testament to his teammates. Don’t forget that Haliburton reportedly wanted to end up in Sacramento on draft night. The rookie stepped onto a roster with size at every position, a hard-nosed edge to it, and enough veteran consistency to make them competitive on a night to night basis.
The perennially underrated Harrison Barnes remains one of the only players in the NBA who can credibly play both forward spots offensively and defensively and is averaging nearly four assists a game early in the season. Despite his reputation as a shooting specialist, Buddy Hield plays with a unique, chest-first physicality that makes him a handful, even if he hasn’t rounded out his game quite the way we’d all have hoped after his incredible senior season at Oklahoma.
Third-year man Marvin Bagley is back healthy and is seeking to find his footing in the rotation. It’s maybe not a great sign that Sacramento still often has to play him with another center like Richaun Holmes, though a Haliburton/Hield/Cory Joseph/Barnes/Bagley lineup is plus-19.4 across 31 possessions so far this season, per Cleaning the Glass. As with many perimeter-oriented big men entering the NBA these days, at some point we just need to see Bagley impact the game in the paint. There’s a version of him that is so good as a rebounder, finisher and shot creator offensively that his defensive limitations are livable, but right now he’s yet to show his best on a consistent basis. That, hopefully, means there’s more to tap into and if he can fulfill that potential, the Kings could get even more fun.
When the Kings let Bogdan Bogdanovic go this offseason, getting nothing in return for the restricted free agent, there was a concern they would slip back into irrelevance in a stacked Western Conference, but through a week of play they’ve been anything but.
While this NBA season may have some qualities that plant it firmly on the bizarro world the Kings have often occupied this century, perhaps it provides exactly the conditions Sacramento needed to thrive. Who wins in the NBA night to night so far in the first week of the season has seemed to derive from who came more prepared to play. That bodes well for the Kings, who for whatever their faults, have guys like Fox, Haliburton, Holmes and Hield who come ready to punch their opponent in the face every night. While it can sometimes bring games into a state of chaos, it’s been a whole lot of fun to watch so far, with the possibility of more to come.