Why these seven Kings storylines will make or break their stretch run

Why these seven Kings storylines will make or break their stretch run

The Kings need the NBA All-Star break as badly as any team in the league. They’ve played better as of late, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sacramento is on pace for 32 wins, a seven game drop from last year’s breakout season.

They aren't yet mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but the Kings have a tremendous amount of work to do if they are going to claw out of their current hole. That begins Feb. 20 when the Kings face the Memphis Grizzlies -- the Western Conference's eighth seed -- for the first of two meetings over an eight-day period.

The Kings will play a soft spot in their schedule right after the break. If they aren’t successful during this seven-game window, which includes those two games against Memphis, a match with the Warriors at Chase Center and winnable games against the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons at home, then the final 21 games should take a different path.

It has been a disappointing season in Sacramento, but there still is time for development and a slight opportunity to turn things around. Here are six other storylines to monitor over the Kings' final 28 games.

Heavily invested

Who is this group? De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Harrison Barnes -- that is your core. We can add Marvin Bagley and Richaun Holmes, but we’ll get to them later.

The Kings have already invested heavily in Barnes and Hield, and they plan to go all-in on Fox and Bogdanovic this summer. Can this group show more life than what we’ve seen through the first 54 games?

Even if they fall way short of a postseason berth, this group needs to come together and show that they are the future of the franchise. If not, this is about to become a really expensive 30-win team over the next few years.

Find an identity

The Kings were one of the most exciting teams in the NBA last season. They ran their opponents off the floor and shocked the league before running out of steam late in the season. With 28 games remaining, coach Luke Walton and his staff need to help this group of players find their identity.

After finishing fifth in the league in pace last year, Sacramento heads into the break all the way down at No. 25 this season. No team with Fox as their starting point guard should be this slow. Whatever the issue is, the Kings have a week to watch tape and find an answer.

Losing is one thing, but the brand of basketball through 54 games wasn't palatable. This team is better when they run, which should be a focus during the final third of the season.

Get healthy

There is no question that the Kings’ plans were thrown for a loop with Bagley's opening night injury. The 20-year-old big has had a series of injuries throughout the season that has limited him to 13 games and robbed him of valuable development time on the court.

Bagley might be done for the season. Then again, he still could come back in the coming weeks and finish out the season. The Kings need to take a cautious approach moving forward to ensure his health. If that means limiting him to 20 minutes per game, then so be it.

This isn’t about the 2019-20 season or even next year. It’s about a 12-to-15-year NBA career for a talented young player who has had some bad injury luck.

Get more healthy

Bagley isn’t the only player sitting out games. Holmes has been a perfect fit for the Kings, but an early January labral tear and a setback last week have put the 26-year-old on ice. If he needs to be shut down long term, so be it, but get it right.

Holmes fits the Kings' age arc and he is the type of energy player they need. He has been their best defensive player and their most efficient on offense. His health, like Bagley's, is paramount moving forward.

If he needs to shut it down for an extended period or even undergo surgery, that decision needs to come soon. A healthy Holmes in 2020-21 could mean good things for the Kings.

Mend fences or move on

The Kings made the decision in October not to pick up the fourth-year option on Harry Giles’ rookie deal. That move has put them in an awkward position. Giles is now their only healthy center, and he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. General manager Vlade Divac has been clear that he hasn’t shut the door on a potential return for the No. 20 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but it won’t be up to the Kings.

Sacramento has a couple of options here. The Kings can acknowledge that this marriage is destined for divorce and then focus on a test drive for Alex Len when he is healthy, or even open up a roster spot for G League enforcer Eric Mika.

They could also hand the center job to Giles, play him 30-plus minutes a night and develop a talented 21-year-old with the hopes that the relationship can be mended.

This is a complex situation, but Giles has shown enough glimpses to still be an option moving forward. If he doesn’t show improvement or has another medical setback, then you adjust accordingly. If he looks like another piece to the puzzle then you work to find common ground.

Test drive

As long as the Kings’ postseason dreams are still alive, we are likely to see a heavy dose of veterans Cory Joseph, Kent Bazemore and Nemanja Bjelica. Joseph is under contract for next season and the team has an option a year after tgat. Bazemore is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will have plenty of suitors as a rotational 3-and-D wing. Sacramento has a player option on Bjelica for next year, and he likely us coming back.

If the season is over, Walton needs to work Justin James and even two-way players DaQuan Jeffries and Kyle Guy into the picture. James is a high flyer with potential. Jeffries is built like a linebacker and might develop into a defensive specialist. Guy, meanwhile, is a volume scorer fans will love.

At some point, the transition from veterans to youth has to take place, although the team needs to be respectful of their older-players. With five second-round selections over the next two drafts, the Kings need to know if James, Jeffries and Guy are worth investing in.

[RELATED: Walton hilariously asks Doncic to give ref his autograph]

Parker an option?

The Kings chased Jabari Parker during free agency in 2018 and came up empty. They acquired the talented, yet injury-prone forward at the trade deadline in a swap for Dewayne Dedmon, and they have the next 28 games to see how he fits.

Parker has an affordable player option for next season at $6.5 million, but he might attract interest outside of Sacramento. If the two sides are a good fit, Parker, like Holmes, fits the player arc of this team. The 24-year-old is a quality scoring option who still has potential to expand his game.

This is a quality low-risk, high-reward move if Parker can get on the court and stay healthy.

Harrison Barnes, Kings want chance to make NBA playoffs upon restart

Harrison Barnes, Kings want chance to make NBA playoffs upon restart

When the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut down the 2019-20 NBA season back in March, the Kings were 28-36. Not the prettiest record.

But Luke Walton's team was making progress. They had won seven of the last 10 games, and were 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Now, with the NBA nearing a return-to-play plan, the question becomes: Will the Kings get a chance to compete for that final playoff spot or will the league move forward with the current 16 playoff teams?

"For us, we're kind of in a tough situation because we're on the fringe," Kings forward Harrison Barnes told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck on the "Full 48" podcast. "So in all these scenarios that are coming about, we're kind of that unique case where 'Well, do they get the play-in tournament? Do they get the five games? Since they're three games out, do they just go with playoff teams?' So you just try to stay in shape, stay ready, but you know whatever decision comes about, it's going to be made with everybody in mind, but not everyone's going to be able to be comfortable with that solution. Someone's going to get the short end of that stick, and we hope to have the opportunity to play."

[PURPLE TALK PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

One rumored scenario would see all teams returning and playing a few regular-season games before the playoffs start. Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard opposed that idea last week because he doesn't feel his team would get a true shot at making the playoffs. He would prefer the Kings, Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs compete with Grizzlies in a play-in tournament to determine the final playoff teams.

"I think Dame is right," Barnes told Beck. "I mean, if you come back and play, you want to be playing for something. The risk of traveling, being in Orlando in that type of environment, with any precaution that can be taken, there is a risk in that, so if you're going to be playing, you want to be playing for something. All of us who have been in isolation, we've been training, we've been hoping for this moment. You want to see that rewarded if you can, but if you're going to be in a situation where you do all this training and you come out there for a few games and you're not able to qualify for the playoffs, then it makes sense to probably have playoff teams and go from there."

[RELATED: Kings reportedly to get playoff shot]

Barnes and the Kings are a young team that entered the 2019-20 season with high expectations. But injuries to De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley early in the year set the team back. Now, with everyone nearing full health, Barnes wants to see what the team could do if they were given the chance to compete against the Western Conference bubble teams.

"Our team is a little bit different because we had a lot of injuries throughout the season, and we were starting to hit our stride," Barnes said. "But now we're healthy, so if the opportunity is there for us to play and make the playoffs, we want that opportunity, we want to see where we're at. There's no other simulation we can get for games. This group, where we're at, we need to play, we need to play together, and playing for something is important."

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

NBA rumors: Kings to get playoffs shot in potential Adam Silver plan

NBA rumors: Kings to get playoffs shot in potential Adam Silver plan

The Kings would get a chance to end their 13-year postseason drought in a proposal to restart the NBA season that reportedly is gaining momentum among the league's owners.

Sacramento would be one of 22 teams headed to Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports just outside of Orlando in a plan that has "growing support," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported Friday, citing sources. The Kings would also be included in a 20-team format that "remains alive," sources told ESPN.

Wojnarowski and Shelburne reported that the NBA will vote Thursday on a format to restart the season during a board of governors call. The league requires a three-fourths majority to approve any such plan, and the owners reportedly will vote with whichever format commissioner Adam Silver recommends.

The Kings were in the thick of a playoff chase when the NBA suspended its season on March 11 due to the coronavirus' spread, just 3.5 games back of the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. Sacramento's game that night was supposed to the be the last before the league indefinitely shut its doors, but the New Orleans Pelicans -- the Kings' opponents that night -- were reluctant to take the court once they learned referee Courtney Kirkland had recently worked a Utah Jazz game. Jazz center Rudy Gobert's positive coronavirus test earlier that night prompted the league to suspend the season.

Teams that were within six games of the final playoff spots in each conference would be included in the 22-team format, according to Wojnarowski and Shelburne. The 20-team format reportedly would only include the top eight seeds in each conference and the four teams, including the Kings, within four games of the eighth seed. If the NBA opts to resume the season with 22 teams, there would be regular-season games and a play-in tournament "to compete for playoff berths in both the Eastern and Western Conference," Wojnarowski and Shelburne reported.

[RELATED: Karl rehashes Cousins meltdown, night Drake dropped by]

The Kings have gotten good news all week, with NBA general managers reportedly preferring by a wide margin a "Playoffs Plus" format to resume the season with 20 or more teams and their inclusion in all the formats gaining traction among the league's decision-makers. 

Sacramento could get even better -- and more official -- news next Thursday if either a 20- or 22-team format is approved.