Midseason report card: Grading Kings’ electric first half originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay area
The Kings crossed the midway point of their Friday night schedule and won the first game of the second half Sunday night, a 132-119 mashing of the San Antonio Spurs.
Through 42 games, Sacramento is 24-18 and in fourth place in the Western Conference. If the season ended Tuesday, the Kings would not only make the playoff bracket but also would have home-court advantage for their first-round series.
THE wrote this snippet Oct. 12one week before Sacramento opened the 2022-23 NBA season against the Portland Trail Blazers at Golden 1 Center:
“At the very least, Sacramento is going to be an exciting offensive team to watch this season. At the very best, the Kings will break the historic 16-year playoff drought and make some noise in the postseason.”
The first half of the season has confirmed the Kings are, indeed, an exhilarating offensive team. One of the NBA’s best, actually. The second half of the season will determine just how bright the Kings’ victory beam will shine in the postseason.
Without further ado, let’s dive into midseason grades:
The Kings’ offense leads the league in both points per game (120.0) and aesthetically pleasing basketball (not an official stat, unfortunately).
The biggest reason for the Kings’ emergence has been soon-to-be three-time All-Star center Domantas Sabonis.
Sabonis is the baker that makes the Kings’ offense churn. The ball gets passed around like a basket of breadsticks when he’s on the floor. Sabonis can grab a defensive rebound, run the entire length of the court and either finish at the rim or dish it to an open teammate on the wing.
There’s only a handful of players who can do that as well as Sabonis at 6-foot-11. One of them owns the NBA’s last two MVP trophies.
Sabonis leads the league in rebounding (12.6 per game) and double-doubles (33), boosted by his current streak of 20 consecutive double-doubles, the longest stretch by a Kings player since the franchise moved to Sacramento in 1985. The Kings have an efficiency differential — team points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed — of plus-15 when Sabonis is on the floor, the fifth-highest mark of any NBA player with 1,000 minutes logged this season.
Oh, and he’s doing this with a broken thumb.
While Sabonis makes the offense tick, he hands the keys over to Fox in clutch time.
Fox has racked up the second-most clutch points (99) in the league and ranks fourth with 13 games of double-digit scoring in the fourth quarter.
Kevin Huerter, who arrived via trade from the Atlanta Hawks over the summer, is playing the best basketball of his career. Mostly a catch-and-shoot threat in Atlanta, the Kings have stressed off-ball movement with Huerter, which has resulted in countless dribble handoffs with Sabonis for an open look at a triple or jumper.
While shooting seven 3-pointers per game, Huerter is posting career bests in makes (2.7) and percentage (41.8). He’s playing at such a high level that Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant compared him to Warriors superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson earlier this season.
The glowing offensive stats go on and on, but here are a few of our favorites:
— Sacramento has scored at least 130 points in five straight games, a streak that trails only the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (six straight) and the 1988-89 Denver Nuggets (seven) in NBA annals.
— The Kings rank third in effective field-goal percentage (57.0), true-shooting percentage (60.7), offensive rating (117.3) and assists per turnover (1.9).
— Sacramento attempts the seventh-most 3-pointers per game (37.0), but thanks to ball movement, over half of those attempts are wide open (20.2). The Kings are the 10th-best team in terms of 3-point percentage (36.9) after ranking 24th last season (33.2 percent).
For all the glowing reviews of the Kings’ offense, the defense has been quite the opposite.
Sacramento ranks 24th in defensive rating (114.6), allows the fourth-most points in the paint per game and the third-worst opponent field-goal percentage (48.9).
Reserve guard Davion Mitchell is still a defensive point guard, and the starting rotation of Fox, Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray and Sabonis owns a respectable plus-8.5 net rating. It’s just when coach Mike Brown reaches deeper on his bench the defense suffers, a problem not even the DPOG chain can solve.
The Kings — this season and beyond — don’t need to feature a top-five defense in the NBA. Their offense is too good. But a middle-of-the-pack defense would push the Kings from a fun regular-season watch to a legitimate playoff threat.
General manager Monte McNair, in the final year of his deal, should not only receive a lucrative contract extension in the coming weeks but also the keys to the city of Sacramento.
Eleven months ago, the Kings were clowned for trading promising guard Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for Sabonis. Seven months ago, McNair was criticized for selecting Murray fourth in the 2022 NBA Draft over rookies perceived to have a higher ceiling.
But McNair stuck to his vision and acquired outside shooting to surround Fox and Sabonis, adding Huerter via trade and sixth man Malik Monk in free agency. That has opened up the offense for Fox’s driving ability and for Sabonis to play distributor while also banging away in the paint.
The direction of the Kings’ roster was a bit puzzling after the Sabonis trade and even after selecting Murray. But now it makes up the top offense in the league.
McNair’s job, of course, is never complete. The Kings have an immense need to acquire a backup center behind Sabonis as Richaun Holmes, Chimezie Metu and two-way player Neemias Queta haven’t quite lived up to expectations. Bigs like Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid would look pretty, pretty good in Sacramento.
The most important part of that, of course, is consistent winning. Last week, the Kings climbed five games above .500 for the first time since 2006.
Brown has gone on record with his expectations for each player. For example, the coach expects Fox to drop 25 points per game. It’s Fox’s defense that Brown judges the most. And Murray, a polished player compared to the rest of his rookie class, is held to a veteran standard.
Brown’s ability to balance his tough-love coaching style and fun-loving attitude has been a breath of fresh air in the organization.
It’s easy to see the influence of the Warriors’ offense in Brown’s off-ball schematics. He’s known as a defensive-minded coach, however, and there’s plenty of work to be done on that end of the court.
Brown is looking like he will be the Kings’ best coach since Rick Adelman was pacing the Kings’ bench in the early 2000s.
As NBC Sports California’s Morgan Ragan would say: Fire the laser.
The 2022-23 Kings are indeed a fun team.
Consistent winning over the first half of the season has changed the team’s expectations from being a fringe play-in team with hopes of ending the 16-year playoff drought to avoiding the play-in tournament altogether and finishing as a top-six — or even top-four — seed in the West.
The Kings should proudly hang this midseason report card on the refrigerator.