Basketball

Can the Kings ever learn to fly?


The Sacramento Kings are in flux again, and stay one of their sport’s anomalies. The Western Conference they’ve had to compete in has been superior to the Eastern Conference for most of the 21st century, complicating things a bit, but still the following is generally true: in the NBA, if you are within the league’s better half of teams often enough, you’ll make the playoffs. The Kings haven’t even won 40 games since their last appearance in the postseason, though, which was 16 years ago. As you’ve probably heard elsewhere, this is the longest drought in the game.

It is, I would argue, actually hard to be this bad. It requires a level of meddling that is rarely seen; usually, an organization learns to stay clear of their coaching staff and roster-building department for long enough to let them at least make an earnest, full-powered run at an eighth seed. But the Kings have had 11 different coaches during their dry spell, with six of them being fired mid-season; the ultimate mark of chaos. The latest to lose his job is Luke Walton, who gives his seat up to Alvin Gentry, just 17 games into a disappointing campaign.

Walton was not inspiring on the job, but coaching turnovers that happen without a training camp that the new guy can use to thoroughly impress a system and philosophy onto players are dubious things. Sometimes firing a coach, regardless of who they or the fresh one is, leads to a sudden winning bump, because humans are emotional creatures, who can react positively to changes in personnel. The Kings, though, began their post-Walton era by giving up a 25-12 fourth quarter to an addled Philadelphia 76ers team—no Joel Embiid, no Seth Curry, and of course no Ben Simmons—on the tail-end of a tough road trip. They got steamrolled by road kill.

If Gentry doesn’t reverse the team’s momentum soon, it would seem that there’s little reason to keep believing in the current iteration of the team as the one to take the franchise out of the doldrums. Getting them going in the other direction might be an impossible task: when they started out the season 5-4, it was largely on the back of a micro-renaissance in the career of Harrison Barnes. This is not a formula with endurance; after shooting 46 percent from three over his first nine games, Barnes has shot just 27 percent over the next nine contests, eight of which Sacramento has lost.

De’Aaron Fox going stagnant has been the bigger story, though, and it’s a big one indeed. In his fifth season, the young star point guard has somehow regressed back to what he was as a rookie, in terms of scoring efficiency. He has also looked listless defensively. Much of this can probably be attributed to the Kings bringing in additional point guards via the draft in successive seasons. With the additions of Tyrese Halliburton and Davion Mitchell as primary members of the rotation, Fox has been without the ball more, and he has never thrived in that predicament. 

One might speculate that, beyond this blunt X’s and O’s reality, there could be an erosion of confidence that corresponds to Fox’s role being gradually undermined. Most of the roster has now seen coaching and front office turnover take place in their time in Sacramento, and everyone is aware of how long it’s been since the team was relevant. In this context, it’s hard to instill comfort, and easy to lose it. The Kings are a forever fragile project, and Fox probably feels that. When the team keeps adding point guards behind him—and especially when they do so without a clever plan to maximize any number of small-ball looks—it probably looks to him much more like pressure to prove himself than the beginning of an inventive new project. This is a directionless churn, rather than the announcement of a creatively bold new direction.

Changing that kind of culture is not an envious job. And, again, it is not one that is made easier by executing a coaching change less than a quarter into a season. Performative firings that ostensibly motivate employees to produce better results are a corporate strategy with extremely limited translation in the NBA context. The more likely result, in all cases, is that already tepid roster buy-in will lessen further when players’ sense of continuity and strategy is further damaged. Incoherence, not improvement, is probable here, and with their latest try at this disproven method, the Kings show themselves to once again be a phoenix that can’t fly; a bird that burns itself to be re-born into yet another kind of hapless floor-bound creature. 





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