Kings Midseason Recap
The Kings are 41 games into the 2021-22 season and flirting with a potential playoff appearance. Sacramento (16-25) currently trails the San Antonio Spurs by just half a game for the 10th seed and final play-in spot in the Western Conference.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s worked this season, what hasn’t, and where we go from here.
Sometimes, the sky may seem like it’s falling in Sacramento, but all is not lost.
After a 1-7 stint that saw the team start 6-12 overall and prompted a coaching change, the Kings reeled off five wins in their next seven games. The stretch included victories over perennial playoff teams, including the Lakers, Clippers, and Trail Blazers.
“We’ve proven we can play against good, quality teams – we’ve beaten some good, quality teams,” Interim head coach Alvin Gentry said after the team’s loss to the Raptors on Monday.
“We’ve won on the road, so all of a sudden that hasn’t changed. We’ve got to get back and play with confidence and grittiness.”
The team snapped a three-game skid with a win against the Wizards on Dec. 15 -- proving Gentry’s point -- and secured a decisive victory over the Spurs on Dec. 19. They started 2022 with a win over the currently fourth-seeded in the East, Miami Heat.
One of the things GM Monte McNair wanted to see the Kings to do under Gentry is play faster. And they’re doing just that. The team ranks ninth overall in pace and is finished seventh in the league in the month of December.
“I think offensively we’ve played fast at times, but I want us to play even faster. I think we could be the fastest team in the league with De’Aaron [Fox], Tyrese [Haliburton], [and] the rest of the guys we have,” McNair told the media in November.
Not only are they playing faster under Gentry and one-time acting interim coach Doug Christie, but the emphasis on pace continues to produce results on the offensive end, as the Kings rank just outside the Top 10 in fastbreak scoring (12.2 PPG) and have tallied 115+ points 13 times this season.
When the team isn’t getting buckets off the break, they’ve found success in pick-and-roll sets. They currently score the third-most points per game in P&R action (22.1), behind only the Hawks and Jazz.
Fox, who leads the team in scoring, is averaging 8.6 points per game out of the P&R, ranking in the top 10 among the likes of Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant and DeMar DeRozen.
The season has also seen the continued emergence of Richaun Holmes and Tyrese Haliburton as a dynamic pick-and-roll duo. Together, they stand Top 10 in most-points scored by pick-and-roll pairs on rolls toward the basket.
Holmes’ play and overall importance to the team’s success this season also cannot be overstated. The veteran big man is nearly matching his scoring totals from last season, while pacing at career-high levels in field-goal percentage (69%) and rebounds (8.7). His absence during the team’s three-game skid in December due to an eye injury was glaring.
To compound the loss of Holmes, the team also had several players in the NBA health and safety protocols in December, as guards Terence Davis, Davion Mitchell, and Fox, as well as big man Marvin Bagley and forward Louis King all missed four games before returning for the Dec. 26 matchup against the Grizzles. Center Alex Len remained sidelined for an additional two games.
Haliburton, however, has continued his steady improvement despite being the only active point guard on the roster during that span. The second-year guard racked up nine double-doubles in December alone and averaged 16.5 points and 8.8 assists over the month. Before his 18-point, seven-assist outing against the Grizzlies, he became the first Kings player since Larry Drew in 1982 to post four consecutive 20-point, 10-assist games. He is also establishing himself as an anchor on the defensive end, ranking in the top 10 in steals per game (1.6) and fourth amongst guards in total blocks.
“The kid is a tremendous talent, a tremendous IQ. His future is bright, and I expected nothing different from him,” Christie said. “He has the skillset, the mind to do it.”
The backcourt of Fox and Haliburton has the potential to become one of the league’s best if both young guards continue their development.
On the defensive end, Sacramento has seen a regression over the last four seasons. During both the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, the Kings finished 20th in team defensive rating. In 2020, however, the team fell to 30th, and they’re currently 26th.
That might not cut it for a team intent on making the playoffs this year, but it’s not a death sentence. For reference, the Trail Blazers made the 2021 postseason with the league’s 29th ranked defense but their offense was ranked 2nd -- and they ultimately fell to the Nuggets (4-2) in the First Round.
One of Sacramento’s most glaring opportunities defensively is how easily the opposition can get into and score in the paint, as they currently allow a league-high 53 points per game in the paint – almost four points more than the team above them.
For perspective, four points separate the 29th and 13th ranked teams.
One contributing factor to Sacramento allowing so many points in the paint is their propensity to give up offensive rebounds. The Kings are currently allowing the second-most offensive rebounds per game (11.6), which has led to 15.6 second-chance points per contest for opposing teams -- the second most in the NBA.
"Playing defense and playing at a really high and a really hard level — it hurts. It doesn't feel good. I mean, you have to stop on a dime. You have to fight through screens. You have to do things that you don't like to do,” Christie said.
While the Kings are playing relatively well offensively and rank Top 10 in first-half points per game, they give up the third-most points per game (56.4) over the first two quarters, which leads to the team playing from behind and needing long second-half runs to close the gap.
Sacramento, however, did see a nice boost in second-half performance in a recent win over the Wizards -- outscoring them 42-16 in the last 14 minutes of action to secure the win – as well as in their Jan. 2 victory over the Heat, where they rallied from a seven-point deficit.
Sacramento’s inefficiency on the defensive end is not for lack of trying, according to Fox. The veteran guard says the team’s challenges are not rooted in effort, but execution consistency.
“The thing is, it’s not just about playing hard,” Fox said after Sacramento’s Dec. 13 loss to the Toronto Raptors. “There’s not too many people in this world who can be lazy and make it to the NBA. Everybody played hard to get here, everybody plays hard when they are here. It’s about just being sharp.
“So, when we are out there running a play, obviously, you want to run the play fast and get into your [stuff], but it’s not about doing the play hard, it’s about doing it sharp.”
Additionally, the team could stand to improve its bottom-seven ranked 3-point shooting, as they’re currently hitting just 33.6 percent (374 of 1110) of their shots from deep and one of the game’s most prolific 3-point scorers, Buddy Hield, has connected on just 37 percent (143 of 377) from long distance, the second-lowest clip of his career.
Hield, however, has picked it up significantly over the last month. He hit at least four threes in seven straight games before the Dec. 26 game against Memphis -- something he’s only done twice previously in his career -- and opened 2022 with back-to-back games with seven 3-pointers. The sixth-year guard is shooting 42.8 percent from 3-point range in the Sacramento’s 16 wins this season and just 34.9 percent in their 21 losses. When Buddy is hot, the team has a chance to win.
Ultimately, Sacramento will need to play with more consistency on offense and execute better on defense if they want to make a run for the postseason.
And when shots aren't falling or the opposing team goes on a run, the Kings will have to rely upon the intangibles both Gentry and Christie have cited.
“For us to come back and fight back the way we did, that’s what makes a lot of winning worth it,” Christie said after Sacramento defeated Washington. “If it was easy, everybody would do it, but it’s not. It requires toughness, and I thought we showed that tonight.”