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Grading Kings coach Walton after rocky 2020-21 season

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Is there a more polarizing sports figure in Sacramento than Luke Walton? The answer is no and it’s not even close. 

When the news broke that Walton would return for a third season with the Kings, social media erupted like Mt. Vesuvius. It should be noted that social media represents a small, yet vocal and volatile portion of the fanbase. Saying that, the loud minority was particularly riled up.

On paper, Walton isn’t nearly as bad as most of the coaches the Kings’ franchise has run out over the last 36 seasons of Sacramento-era basketball. In fact, he owns the second-best win percentage behind only Rick Adelman since the team relocated to the Capital of California prior to the 1985-86 season.

Walton has run the team during two of the most unique seasons in NBA history. The coronavirus pandemic ended the 2019-20 season early before an eight-game bubble completely changed the course of the Kings’ franchise. 

The 2020-21 season was condensed to just 72 games over a five-month window with very little practice and even less ability for team bonding. All 30 NBA teams played under these same circumstances and some franchises handled it better than others. 

Here is a look at the highs and lows of this most recent manic season under Walton.

The Good

There is a lot to like about what we saw this season in Sacramento, specifically with how individual players developed throughout the year.

Walton turned to rookie Tyrese Haliburton early and often, playing the No. 12 overall pick 30 minutes per game on the season. He had some highs and lows, but there is no question that he was a better player when his season ended. Walton used Haliburton in all kinds of settings, including as a closer in the fourth quarter.

 

In addition to Haliburton’s development, De’Aaron Fox took another tremendous leap in production in his fourth season. He’s flourished under Walton and backed his coach at every turn. 

Veterans Richaun Holmes and Harrison Barnes both showed tremendous overall improvement this season, and Marvin Bagley had a solid season when healthy. 

Walton also got plenty out of two-way player Chimezie Metu and late signee Damian Jones. The trio of Delon Wright, Terence Davis and Moe Harkless all added plenty to the team after being acquired at the deadline.

While not every player thrived under the Kings’ coach, he continued to show a trend from his first season in Sacramento where he didn’t tie himself to players that were struggling. Hassan Whiteside and Glenn Robinson III were the two free-agent signees he had to work with and when they didn’t fit, Walton removed them from the rotation and tried different combinations.

The Kings were good offensively, finishing 11th in points per game, 11th in offensive rating and 10th in pace. With Fox missing the final 13 games, both the pace of play and offensive rating dropped substantially.  

Sacramento also ranked 12th in assists per game, 11th in turnovers and sixth overall in field goal percentage at 48.1 percent. This was an efficient and explosive offense, but also one that played from behind on many nights and had to post big numbers to compete.

The Bad

A rollercoaster ride is the only way to describe this particular Kings season. Two nine-game losing streaks ruined any chance of ending the franchise’s now 15-year playoff drought. Stretches of strong play kept the team in the play-in chase until the final weekend of the season, but the erratic stretches were too much to overcome.

Whether it was game planning or players going off script, there were too many games where the team didn’t show and compete at the right level. When the tough times came, the team lacked the ability to pull out of extended funks, which is on everyone involved, but Walton has to shoulder plenty of the blame.

There wasn’t time for player development, so this was almost a completely lost year for rookies Robert Woodard and Jahmi’us Ramsey. Woodard fared well in the G League bubble, but hamstring and back injuries wiped out most of his second half. Ramsey looked like a player in need of a Summer League and a few trips to Stockton to hone his skills and increase his confidence.

RELATED: McNair, Fox offer support for Walton as Kings' head coach

Walton never found a way to consistently use Whiteside, despite the Kings ranking 30th in the league in rebounding and the team’s struggles on the defensive end. The veteran missed time with health and safety protocols and also dealt with nagging injuries. 

 

The Ugly

The defense was a mess. In fact, for much of the year, it was historically bad. 

Sacramento finished 30th in the league in defensive rating at 117.2 and their 117.4 points allowed per game ranked 28th. This was a steep decline from the previous season when the Kings ranked 20th in defensive rating and 17th in opponents’ points per game.

Assistant coach Rex Kalamian was brought in to run the defensive side of the ball, but he didn’t have a full offseason to instill his principles. 

Kalamian has found success with his switching defensive scheme in stops with the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder. Be it a bad mix of players or a lack of practice time during the shortened season, this team didn’t make strides until late in the season when veteran, defensive-minded players were added to the rotation through trade and free-agent signings.

Routinely giving up 120 points per game is unacceptable. Regardless of who is running the defense, Walton is ultimately responsible, because it’s his squad. 

Walton relied heavily on a tight eight or nine-man rotation from the jump. The first nine-game losing streak corresponded with a series of minor injuries to the core, as did the second. Walton didn’t have the necessary depth, but he also didn’t extend his rotation to include additional players in the mix until late. 

His team was riding on fumes at the end of the season, with players like Barnes, Holmes, Haliburton and Bagley all missing time with injury and Fox out with the coronavirus. 

Final Thoughts

Overall Grade: C-plus

The defense was atrocious. The losing streaks were gut-wrenching. The play down the stretch was inspiring, even if it eventually fell short.

Did Walton do enough to earn another season as the Kings’ coach? Both the players and general manager Monte McNair said yes, even if it wasn’t the most popular decision with portions of the fanbase.

The fact remains that Walton’s win percentage is better than everyone except Adelman’s in the Sac era. He paced for back-to-back 35-win seasons in an unparalleled time in NBA history. 

While he didn’t build on Dave Joerger’s success from the 2018-19 season, he also coached an incomplete roster this season with glaring holes and plenty of inexperienced players. 

Walton has yet to prove that he is the long-term answer in Sacramento, but many of his players showed major improvement and the core group still believes in him. He won’t have the same leeway next season, but hopefully he has a full complement of players to work with and a proper offseason to improve his offensive and fix the defense.