If there is an NBA glossary somewhere, the word patience would be listed alongside terms like potential and upside. It’s a swear word of sorts, especially for a franchise like the Sacramento Kings who are perpetually asking for just a little more time to figure things out.
After years of begging and pleading for patience, the Kings exercised a little of their own over the last week. Despite a disappointing first half of the season, Luke Walton is still the head coach of the team heading into the All-Star break and according to league sources, he will continue to lead the team when games resume next Thursday.
So why does it feel like Walton is coaching for his job, despite having another two-plus years on his contract? It’s a complicated situation that needs a deep dive.
Nuts and Bolts
The franchise has run through coaches at an alarming rate over the last 15 seasons. Walton is the 10th head coach since Rick Adelman left the team following the 2005-06 season and over the last few weeks, there have been multiple times this year where he has been on shaky ground.
While this season has been a roller coaster ride, Walton actually fairs well when compared to other coaches the Kings have brought in during their 36 years in Sacramento.
Walton has tallied a record of 45-63 during season and a half tenure with the team for an overall win percentage of .417. Surprisingly, that percentage is the highest of any coach since Adelman left the team. That percentage also ranks him second in the Sacramento-era of Kings basketball.
New general manager Monte McNair was hired with the understanding that at a minimum, Walton would coach out this season. According to The Athletic, after this season, Walton is still on the books for $11.5 million over the next two years.
According to the reporting of Sam Amick and Jason Jones, the Kings consider this a “gap year” for the franchise, which is understandable. With an abbreviated offseason, a condensed and shortened regular season and no fans in the building to watch the team play, McNair and his staff are in evaluation mode this year.
They passed on bringing in any major money contracts, including matching Bogdan Bogdanovic’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet. They also passed on any free agent that wanted more than a one-year contract.
Will Walton coach out the season?
The All-Star break is the only clean stop in the season. Sacramento could let Walton go at any time, like the Minnesota Timberwolves did with Ryan Saunders or the Atlanta Hawks did with Lloyd Pierce over the last month, but these things can be messy behind the scenes.
Owner Vivek Ranadivé learned first hand when he fired Michael Malone 24 games into the 2014-15 season. The move set the franchise back years and forward Rudy Gay described that time as “basketball hell.”
The Kings finished 18-40 that season under Tyrone Corbin and George Karl. Not only did the season spin out of control, but the turn of events did massive fracturing to the franchise and ended up costing a ton of money in coaches salaries for years after.
Maybe Ranadivé learned his lesson? Barring another massive losing streak or a complete mutiny by the players, there is a good chance that Walton finishes out the season and is reassessed this summer.
Is it fair to put the blame on Walton?
Like so much of this storyline, this is a complicated question. Walton has done a solid job under the circumstances and solid might the best you can ask for. The Kings started Walton’s first season at the helm with an 0-5 after a trip to India ate up a section of their preseason and Marvin Bagley broke his thumb in the opener.
Nine games into the 2019-20 campaign, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle in practice and missed 17 games. When the team started rallying and looked like a potential play team with 18 games remaining in the season. And then a global pandemic hit.
The Kings had four players test positive building up to the Orlando bubble, including Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Alex Len and Jabari Parker. Richaun Holmes also missed 10 days of training camp because he met a delivery driver to get some chicken wings.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the Kings might have snapped their playoff drought. If it wasn’t for the bubble, Vlade Divac would likely still be the general manager of the Kings. If Divac was still the GM, Bogdanovic, Alex Len, Kent Bazemore and Harry Giles might still be Kings players.
There are reasons and there are excuses. These are reasons why Year 1 of the Walton era went sideways and why Year 2 is even more difficult to assess. Walton’s team could have won a few more games and handled adversity better, but these are unprecedented times in the world.
You have to adjust on the fly in the NBA, but this is the shortest offseason in league history and instead of returning with a similar squad, the same coaching staff and trying to build off last season, the Kings once again hit a major reset button.
Walton’s club is erratic this season, but he also has very little depth and even less continuity of players. The moment injuries hit, the fact that the Kings have four players on the 15 man roster that were either second round picks or undrafted in the last two NBA Drafts became an issue.
Walton doesn’t have the basic tools to succeed and neither would lead assistant Alvin Gentry if he were to take over in the second half of the season. Unless McNair starts swinging for the fences before the trade deadline or signs some veteran help, this is a flawed roster.
Can they play better? Yes, but with the condensed schedule and Walton running a seven- or eight-man rotation, one injury, no matter how minor, impacts this team’s ability to win games. He could expand his rotation, but that isn’t as simple as it sounds.
What has Walton done well?
There are a few things that the Kings can take away from the Walton era so far. First up, he isn’t afraid to make the big move. Walton is the guy that benched Dewayne Dedmon and really allowed Holmes to grow into the player he has become.
Walton is also the guy who benched Hield last season and turned the season around. He’s empowered Fox to become a star and is the coach that has turned to rookie Tyrese Haliburton as his closer in the fourth.
Holmes, Fox and Barnes are having career-years under Walton. Haliburton, Bagley and even DaQuan Jeffries are developing under Walton.
Some of this praise goes on the development staff, but again, if Walton is going to shoulder the blame, he should also share in some of the praise.
Is the 2020-21 season salvageable?
Probably not, but the addition of the play-in playoff games makes this slightly more complex. With 36 games remaining, the Kings are just four games out of the 10th spot in the standings and seven games out of the six seed.
It’s a little hard to follow, but in the current playoff format, the seventh and eight spots at season’s end will play each other to see who wins the seventh spot outright. At the same time, the ninth and 10th spot in the standings will play to see who gets a shot at a play in.
The loser of the seven/eight game will play the winner of the nine/10 game. The nine/10 would have to beat the seven/eight two games in a row to advance to the playoffs.
All of this matters because the Kings are riding a 14-season playoff drought and despite their rough season to date, they still have a chance to climb into the back end of the race.
After 108 games in the most extreme of circumstances that have ever hit the NBA, it is very hard to judge the job that Walton is doing in Sacramento. There is always one criteria that I hold above all else when it comes to coaches being fired -- did he lose the room?
When a coach no longer has the ear of his team, it is time for him to go. 36 games into the year, Walton had not lost the team, even with all of the chaos surrounding both the team and the world in general.
It’s nearly impossible to give Walton a true grade for the last two years and sawing through coach after coach has long been one of the downfalls of this franchise.
If the team struggles down the stretch, McNair will have an opportunity this summer to do an exhaustive search and hire someone that better fits with his vision. He’ll also have another high draft pick to work with and a better understanding of his team and the pieces he needs moving forward.
If Walton turns things around, maybe he gets a shot at another season and maybe he gets the infusion of talent to work with. If he doesn’t, the Kings will have time to consider all of their options and move forward accordingly.