In Indiana, where Tyrese Haliburton is leading the NBA in assists, the team is happy. Ecstatic, really. The Pacers, a preseason candidate to finish at the bottom of the standings, are in the thick of the conference playoff race, with Haliburton the leading reason why. It was Andrew Nembhard’s shot that beat the Lakers on Monday, but it was Haliburton’s offensive rebound, clock awareness and frozen rope of a pass that set him up for it.
In Sacramento, where Domantas Sabonis is one of the NBA’s most reliable interior scorers, there is hope. real hope. It has been 16 years since the Kings made the playoffs, years filled with coaching changes, front office shakeups and one catastrophic draft. While passing on Luka Doncic in 2018 will haunt Sacramento for decades (seriously, Vlade Divac, what were you thinking?), the Sabonis–De’Aaron Fox pairing—along with the collection of shooters the current front office has put around them—has given Kings fans optimism for the future.
In the NBA—or, more accurately, on NBA Twitter—there is often a focus on winning trades. The Celtics, who turned an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett into the draft rights for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, clobbered the Nets. Oklahoma City, which extracted two first-round picks, two pick swaps and Chris Paul from Houston for Russell Westbrook, swindled the Rockets. Today, the Thunder’s decision to offload Paul George to the Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a cache of picks and swaps looks like highway robbery.
NBA executives are not focused on winning trades, however. They prioritize making their team better. With Indiana set to face the Kings on Wednesday for the first time with both Haliburton and Sabonis on the floor following last February’s blockbuster trade, both teams can make compelling arguments that they have.
The Pacers knew what they were getting in Haliburton, a sturdy, 22-year-old, 6’5″ point guard who had emerged as one of the steals of the 2020 draft class. Haliburton averaged 14.3 points and 7.4 assists in 51 games with Sacramento last season. In the 26 games he played with Indiana in ’21–22, he averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists. This year Haliburton has been even more impressive. He’s up to 19.9 points and 11.3 assists. In 46 games with Indiana, Haliburton has racked up 27 double doubles.He’s sped up a Pacers offense that ranks third in the NBA in fast break points.In his last three games, Haliburton has collected 40 assists—against zero turnovers.
“He’s got the kind of game that’s fun to watch,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said earlier this season. “You love the joy, the vibe and the skill. He’s an artist. His shot of him is a little different. He’s a very effective player, and he’s been very efficient.”
Sacramento’s decision to trade Haliburton was widely panned; even the casual NBA observer could see this leak coming. The Kings knew what they had in Haliburton, too. But in order to get something—and Sabonis is something—they had to give up something, and Haliburton was the price they had to pay. The Kings had the luxury of having Fox, a budding All-Star who they had signed to a five-year, max level extension in 2020 and there was some internal skepticism that the skills of the two lead guards would mesh.
Fox and Sabonis do mesh, with Fox currently playing like an All-Star after a lethargic ’21–22 season. “This is the best basketball [De’Aaron has] played in his career,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes he said. Sabonis, meanwhile, is producing at a Chris Webber-like level. He has the best net rating (plus-5.1) of any starter and leads the team in assists (6.4). He’s become virtually unwatchable at the elbow, ranking first in the league in assists (1.1) and third in points (4.1) from that spot on the floor. His bone-crushing screens spring Sacramento’s shooters (“Unbelievable screens,” said Kings guard Kevin Huerter) and the 26-year-old Sabonis is one of two players averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. The other: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Offensively we are exceeding what I thought we could do,” said Kings coach Mike Brown recently. “Some of the numbers we put up, when I see it, I keep shaking my head. To the guys’ credit, we can shoot. I have seen it since the summertime. … All the little things you have to do offensively, we’re trying to do.”
It will be years before the Haliburton-Sabonis swap can be fully evaluated. The Kings will need to improve defensively—dramatically improve—before they can evolve into a serious contender, and Indiana’s roster right now is fluid to say the least. But Haliburton has the look of a perennial All-Star while Sabonis appears ready to anchor a dynamic offense for years to come. One of the biggest trades of last season appears to have worked out well for both teams, energizing two middling franchises that badly needed a jolt.
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