Training camp is just three weeks away and the conversation in every NBA city shifts from possible roster adjustments, to the 15 to 17 guys who are under contract and ready to get after it.
In Sacramento, that likely means moving on from dreams of Ben Simmons stepping on the court in a Kings uniform and the reality of the up hill battle ahead.
Barring a late barrage of trades, the Kings will walk into the 2021-22 season with an unbalanced roster and a few holes. If we were grading the entirety of the offseason, general manager Monte McNair would probably receive an incomplete, although it’s not for lack of trying.
You can see the plan that he had in place and even understand some of his moves, if you know the lens in which he was working with. The plan was and still is moving forward to be ready when that one major piece becomes available. McNair has assets and the potential to strike at any time, he just needs the right dance partner.
How do the Kings move forward from here? How do they reconcile with the players that are clearly on the trade block and move forward? Is there a path to snapping the franchise’s 15-year playoff drought, or is the this team once again destined for disappointment?
If the Kings don’t make another move between now and the start of the season on Oct. 20, head coach Luke Walton is going to have to get creative. His roster is much deeper than the group that represented the Kings to start the 2020-21 season, but that really isn’t saying much. The team that started last season for the Kings was as flawed as any in the last 15 years of futility.
Walton has a young, athletic and versatile backcourt starring De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Davion Mitchell and Terrence Davis. This group is deep and it is very likely that we see a lot of three-guard sets this season in Sacramento. Hield likely has lost his starting job to Haliburton at the two, although there still is a chance he can swing to the three for stretches. This group is filled with playmakers, shooters and even a few defenders.
Harrison Barnes likely will start the season at small forward, like he has the last few seasons, although there is a chance that he slides to the stretch four if Hield is squeezed into the starting lineup. He’ll be backed up by the tandem of Moe Harkless and two-way Louis King. McNair needs more depth at this position and a potential long-term fix, but with the chance of guards overflowing into this position, maybe the team has enough to survive.
At the four, Walton has Barnes and Harkless who are both versatile enough to play the position, but he also has Marvin Bagley, Chimezie Metu and even Tristan Thompson that can step in and eat a few minutes. Bagley is the biggest question mark. He was the starter to begin last season, but injuries once again limited his action and the Kings have shopped him both at the deadline and during the offseason. Metu played well in his limited minutes last season and could work his way into the rotation if there is a trade or injury.
The Kings are as deep and versatile in the post as they have been in years. Richaun Holmes signed back on a new four-year contract and will start. Thompson will play minutes at the four and five and still has plenty left in the tank as a position defender and rebounder. Alex Len and Damian Jones are big interior defenders and rebounders. Holmes is the starter, Len is likely the first big off the bench and the remaining group will fight for minutes, at least until roster adjustments are made.
Hield and Bagley have been tied together for some time. Not only are they friends, but they are the package that Sacramento has offered in a number of failed trades of the last few months.
Both players opened last season as starters, but that is unlikely at this point, especially with Fox, Haliburton, Barnes and Holmes all pretty much written into the lineup card in pen.
Hield was vocal about landing somewhere new last offseason, but he seems to have accepted his fate over the last year. He’s a player who works incredibly hard and keeps himself in top physical condition. He also is a player who has missed a total of three games in his five seasons in the NBA. Hield is one of the best volume 3-point shooters in the NBA, which will help the Kings or any other team that he lands on.
Bagley’s path is complicated. He has made it clear through social media that he would like to play elsewhere. He has played in just 118 out of 226 games since being drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
If a deal hasn’t been swung to send one or both of these players out before the start of camp, there are going to be some tough conversations behind the scenes. At least one of these two already have lost their starting jobs and they could still be traded at any time. This is the reality for NBA players. Once you sign on the dotted line, your fate is in someone else’s hands.
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Snapping the Streak
A quick look at the Kings’ roster has them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture for another season. A deeper look might reveal something slightly more optimistic.
The path to the postseason will hinge on a few issues. The Kings are much deeper than the squad that won 31 out of 72 games last season, but fell two games short of the play-in tournament and eight games out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Could the Kings have won a few more games last season if they had the same depth they are walking into this season with? Absolutely. Enough to make it to the No. 8 spot or higher? No.
If it’s just about depth, then the Kings should win more than the 35 games (adjusted for the 82-game schedule) they paced for last season. But the real path for improvement lies in two areas -- the improvement of their starting backcourt and the team’s overall defensive effort.
Fox and Haliburton have both stacked on the pounds during the offseason, which they’ll need to shoulder what is coming. Fox took a tremendous leap in production for a third straight year and is a borderline All-Star at this point. If he can stay healthy and improve on his overall consistency, he can take another step forward into stardom.
Haliburton is just getting started on his path. Making the adjustment from the bench to the starting lineup will take some time, but he has every tool in his arsenal and he should be able to outperform his rookie campaign. Adding a secondary playmaker alongside Fox should allow him easier buckets and allow him to shift some of his focus to the defensive end.
In addition to the improvement of these two, Sacramento has to get better on the defensive end of the court. Walton brought in Mike Longabardi to run the defense and the addition of former NBA stopper Doug Christie to the staff should help as well.
The Kings finished last season as one of the worst defensive teams in NBA history. Drafting Mitchell was a good start, but the additions of Harkless for a full season, as well as acquiring Thompson and Len should help as well. This probably isn’t a top-20 defensive squad, but there is potential for major improvement.
McNair and his staff aren’t done or at least they shouldn’t be. The roster still is guard and big-man heavy and needs balancing. More importantly, the Kings still need more talent and another potential star-level player.
There is a very good chance that this team is substantially better than the one that played out the 72-game schedule last season. That still might not be enough to make it to the play-in tournament and the path to the playoffs is narrow as of early September.
A lot still can change, but for now, the Kings likely haven’t done enough. They still need that one move that can make them a serious playoff contender and that transaction might not come before the start of the 2021-22 campaign.