The NBA is set to return and the Kings have a golden ticket to the festivities.
On Thursday, the league voted overwhelmingly to return to action under Commissioner Adam Silver’s 22-team format. After a modified training camp and a cross-country flight to Orlando, beginning July 31, the Kings will have just eight games to prove they are worthy of joining the league’s elite in the postseason.
Sacramento is just three and a half games off the pace of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, but they have plenty of company. There is no margin of error if the Kings are going to track down Ja Morant and Co. and earn a seat in the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.
In case you forgot, the Kings currently sit at 28-36 on the season, and had just rattled off a 13-7 mark over their previous 20 games. They’ll have to outlast a field that includes the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns if they hope to earn a shot at either an eighth seed or play-in opportunity as a ninth seed.
The rules are complicated, but the end result is simple. Win or go home.
Here are five keys for the Kings as they jump back into the fray in the craziest season in NBA history.
Put the ball in Fox’s hands
De’Aaron Fox is taking huge strides in his third NBA season, but you can see that there is more he can do. The Kings need to fully hand the reins over to the 22-year-old and see if he can take another leap in production.
An ankle injury cost Fox 25 games early in the season, but beginning Jan. 1, the Kings’ starting point guard put on a show. In his final 29 games before the shutdown, Fox was averaging 22.3 points, 6.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 32.8 minutes per game.
There still is plenty of room for growth from Fox, especially as a 3-point shooter. But he’s getting to the free throw line 6.8 times per game and he’s figuring out how to take over a game in the fourth quarter.
When the season went on hiatus, Fox was playing the best basketball of his career. The Kings need to see if he’s ready to take his game even further.
With Fox running the show, the team has no excuse for not pushing the tempo. After leading the league in pace last season, coach Luke Walton’s squad was 25th in the league when everything came to a screeching halt.
With only eight games to work with, the Kings need to come into camp in incredible shape, run wind sprints after every practice session and run teams off the court when the ball tips off. They have the personnel, but they have to get back to what made them so successful last year.
Walton spent a lot of the season trying to institute new systems on both ends of the court. With so little time to prepare for the restart, he needs to play to his team’s strengths and pull off any and all restrictions.
Be a star in your role
One of the reasons the San Antonio Spurs are the gold standard of professional sports is due to their players’ understanding of their role and how they can impact winning. The Kings have plenty of players on their first contracts, which often means that they have yet to establish their place in the league.
In a condensed eight-game window, it is imperative that every player who steps on the floor does so with purpose. Is Buddy Hield happy that he’s coming off the bench? No, but this isn’t the time for that debate. Who plays the minutes at a crowded center position? That shouldn’t matter as long as everyone is playing to their strengths.
Whichever team can pull together the fastest has a huge advantage in the chase for the eight seed. The Kings haven’t always been on the same page this season, but they were playing excellent basketball when the pandemic hit.
If they can buy-in and play as a singular unit, the Kings have as good a chance as anyone to get a shot at a play-in series.
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Let it fly
Walton stunned a few people early in the season when he said that he would like to see his team shoot 35 3-pointers per game. When the league was suspended, the Kings were averaging 34.7 triples per game and were 10th in the league in 3-point percentage, hitting 36.4 percent.
Sacramento is packed with shooters at almost every spot on the floor. They have six players shooting 35 percent or better from long range, including a team-leading 42.4 percent from forward Nemanja Bjelica.
If Sacramento can turn up the pace and get a few extra shot attempts per game, a good portion of those extra looks should come from deep.
The Marvin Bagley situation
When last we checked in with head coach Luke Walton, second-year big man Marvin Bagley had been cleared to return to action after missing most of the season with thumb and foot issues. That doesn’t mean the team is ready to throw him into the mix.
Bagley is one of the cornerstones of the franchise, but after playing just 13 games, he needs time to integrate back into the rotation. Sacramento could definitely use his rebounding and scoring ability in the post, but he’ll need to turn heads in training camp and learn the additional nuances to the schemes in place if he hopes to steal some time.
If the Kings have a shot, they need a tight eight- or nine-man rotation. In a normal situation, Bagley would be a huge part of that group, but normal left a long time ago.