NBA trades are hotbeds for hot takes. Minutes after the debris from a “Woj Bomb” clears, winners are crowned and losers are clowned. Trade grades are handed out before any player boards a flight to his new city, or official team Twitter accounts post the now-mandatory “thank you” graphics.
The Kings welcomed plenty of debate last February when they completed one of those show-stopping, franchise-altering trades, sending rising guard Tyrese Haliburton and veterans Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson to the Indiana Pacers for two-time All-Star center Domantas Sabonis, two other players and a second-round draft pick.
Nine months later, it’s clear Indiana won the trade. But so did Sacramento.
The main pieces involved in the swap all will be in the same building Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center when the Kings (10-9) host the Pacers (12-8).
The teams faced off last season in Indianapolis on March 23, a game that ended in a 110-109 Sacramento victory. Haliburton had a rough shooting night but finished with 13 points and 15 assists. Sabonis didn’t play because of a knee injury.
Wednesday night's game in Sacramento will be different. Sabonis finally will have the chance to suit up against the organization that helped turn him into a star. Conversely, Haliburton will have his name called as a visiting player at Golden 1 Center for the first time.
“No, it’s not just another game,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said after practice Tuesday [h/t Deuce Mason]. “We played last year in Indy. It didn’t matter what the records were. There was just a lot of energy, obviously playing against guys that you consider family and things like that. It was an emotional trade for guys who were involved with it.
“I know Domas was itching to play in that one in Indy. He didn’t get a chance to play. So obviously, with Tyrese and Buddy coming back, it’s going to be a big game. For us, too, where we’re at, dropping the last few [games]. We want to get a win.”
The reception should be nothing but positive for Haliburton, whom Kings fans beloved since he arrived out of Iowa State as the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He was an active member of the community and dedicated to the cause of uplifting the franchise over its historic playoff drought -- a responsibility now placed in Sabonis’ hands.
Still, the niceties on both sides haven’t prevented Kings and Pacers fans from developing an Internet rivalry and constantly debating which team emerged the trade victos. Many national pundits are quick to side with Indiana, but mostly because it seems Haliburton was created in a lab specifically for basketball Twitter accounts like “Statmuse.” He creates so much offensively for teammates and is so smart with the basketball that ridiculous stat lines follow him around like a shadow.
A recent example? Entering Wednesday’s game, Haliburton has compiled 40 assists and zero turnovers over his last three contests. He’s the first NBA player to do that over a three-game span. And that 40th assist was one to remember.
The Pacers somehow battled back from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit but still trailed Los Angeles Lakers by two points in the closing seconds Monday night. Myles Turner missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer, but Haliburton snagged the long rebound with 2.6 seconds left. Instead of panicking and rushing a shot, Haliburton dribbled three times and lasered a pass toward second-round pick Andrew Nembhard, who drilled the game-winning trey.
It was the right basketball play. The perfect basketball play. Another Pacers win.
But guess what? Sabonis can play the statistics game, too. He’s the only player in the NBA this season averaging at least 16 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per game. He ranks in the 98th percentile in assist percentage (27.7 percent) and 96th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage (27.3 percent) among big men.
The Kings are scoring 13.2 more points per 100 possessions with Sabonis on the floor compared to when he’s resting, which ranks in the 90th percentile among centers. It’s the highest impact he’s had on any offense, including in his two All-Star campaigns in Indianapolis.
By both statistics and the eye test, Sacramento boasts a top-five offense in the NBA. The offense is at its best when it’s running through Sabonis, a 6-foot-11 big man who can sprint with the basketball in transition and find an open teammate with a clever pass or finish at the rim himself.
In the Kings' half-court offense, Sabonis gets teammates open by setting picks with his strong frame, creating shots with dribble hand-offs for guards Kevin Huerter, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, or just sitting at the top of the key or elbow and delivering passes with the necessary touch.
Sabonis is an elite passer, arguably the best big-man distributor in the league alongside Warriors forward Draymond Green. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two players, considering Kings coach Mike Brown spent the previous six seasons with Green and brought to Sacramento a similar offense that Steve Kerr runs with Golden State -- one that thrives when players are moving without the ball.
It’s a beautiful brand of basketball.
Fox arguably was the biggest benefactor of the trade. The Kings were oozing with backcourt talent when Fox and Haliburton shared the floor, but neither guard consistently was able to play at his peak when the other was present.
Sabonis makes life so much easier for Fox, and it shows in the numbers. Through 18 games, Fox is averaging career bests in field-goal percentage (52.2 percent) and 3-point percentage (38.3), is playing with new-found efficiency and is engaged on defense. It’s the best basketball Fox has played in his six-year NBA career, a statement that Barnes and Brown have agreed with at different times this season.
The trade is working out for both teams. Sacramento, in win-now mode, will head into December with a .500 record, at worst. The Kings are for real. Indiana is rolling out a more patient timeline, but at 12-8 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, Haliburton might have the Pacers in place to be contenders sooner than they believed.
Five years from now, perhaps the Kings or Pacers will emerge as the winner of this trade. Haliburton very well could be an All-Star for the next decade, and Sabonis could be a building block to change the Kings' culture forever.
None of that will be decided Wednesday night. But it's a guarantee that emotions will run high in Sacramento, and Golden 1 Center will rock.