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Which Way Are the Kings Going?

It’s hard to know who will start for Sacramento on a given night—and, as a result, what the priorities are for a franchise in desperate need of a turnaround

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

What says “unhappy veteran” like 26 of those irate, red-faced emoji all squashed into one tweet?

George Hill sent that on December 2, after playing a season-low 18 minutes and sitting out the entire fourth quarter of a four-point loss to the Bucks. But it was far from the first sign of unhappiness from the 31-year-old, who signed with the Kings in July for three years and $57 million. His body language slumps in the 0.7 seconds it takes for De’Aaron Fox to turn the ball over. Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune reported this past weekend that Hill’s despondence stems from the pitch that former team vice president Scott Perry made to him and other veterans over the summer: The Kings were gunning for the playoffs.

Perry left for the Knicks in the wake of Phil Jackson’s departure. Meanwhile, Hill, like other new Kings vets Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, still had a contract to fulfill. But 26 games into the season, Sacramento has not decided what its motivation is. (Though, at 8–18 and third to last in the West standings, it does not appear that Perry’s reported proposal is an option.)

Coach David Joerger has been operating with a different goal in mind: develop the youth. The Kings are the new playground of young talent, having taken over the role from the Sixers, who took it from the Timberwolves before that. Joerger plays Fox, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft, the most minutes of anyone on the team despite flaky shooting and high rates of turnovers and fouls. The rookie growing pains are to be expected, but the starting role he’s been handed in 11 of the past 12 games spotlight his mishaps with a fat yellow highlighter. In the Kings’ most recent loss to the Raptors, Fox had his worst game of the season, finishing with more turnovers (seven) than points (six).

Player development is a sound approach, but not if a franchise won’t fully commit to it. The Kings have fielded 10 different starting lineups this season, with George Hill the only player who has started every game that he’s been active for. No player averages more than 26.5 minutes per game, and Sacramento’s bench is the only one in the NBA to spend more time on the court (24.2 minutes) than its first unit (24 minutes).

Sacramento’s stellar bench numbers top the league: They average more points (46.5, per, have a better field goal percentage (45.2), and shoot more accurately from 3 (39.5). The backups will often need to bail out the starters, who shoot slightly worse (44.1 percent from the field, 37.1 from 3) than the reserves. Twice this season, the Kings’ bench put up a record 29 points before any starter managed to score. (The previous record, set by Milwaukee in 2011, was 23 points.)

Good bench statistics require context: The reserves are likely playing against their opponent’s reserves, which could be inflating the numbers. Still, that Sacramento’s second unit averages slightly more playing time than the starters means they’re likely facing the best the other team has to offer, too — especially considering Sacramento’s second unit has been regularly used to finish games.

As a result, the first and third quarters of Kings games have an all-too-familiar feel: With Sacramento trailing, Buddy Hield sheds his warmups, checks in, and starts firing away from 3. The sophomore 2-guard is second on the team in scoring, at 12.5 points a game. So why don’t the Kings start him? For one, Hield has shot better off the bench. He started the first seven games of the season and shot just 35.4 percent overall and 22.6 percent from deep. He’s come off the bench in the 17 games since, and has improved to 50.6 percent overall and 58.6 percent from the perimeter.

But maybe Hield’s recent surge is less a product of his role and more a result of slow starts to the season. Hield also struggled out of the gate last season with the Pelicans before a bump to the starting unit, alongside New Orleans’s more established offensive players, leveled off his shooting numbers. (He made double the 3s after becoming a regular starter, going from 26.5 percent to 42.6.) Either way, Hield’s production of late is starter-worthy.

Hield isn’t the only reserve who could be better utilized in a starting role. Rookie guards Bogdan Bogdanovic and Frank Mason III both have superior per-36 numbers than Fox. Bogdanovic, in his first NBA season after playing the last three in Turkey, has proved to be a multipositional player with range, while Mason’s Jimmy Butleresque intensity and defensive energy fuel the bench’s successful runs. The Kings are 18 points per 100 possessions better when Mason is on the floor compared to off it, per, which is second on the team behind recent addition JaKarr Sampson (18.6).

One tweak that should stay put is Joerger’s decision to move Willie Cauley-Stein out of the starting lineup. Cauley-Stein and Randolph, the Kings’ best offensive option, made a poor frontcourt pairing; the team went 3–10 when both were in the starting lineup. Randolph getting fed in the post next to Cauley-Stein, who thinks of himself as more of a 4, crowded the paint and disrupted the offense. Joerger adjusted the rotation (again) after November 20, the fifth loss out of six games, much to Cauley-Stein’s pleasure. Coming off the bench means getting to slide down a position and play the make-believe shooter role he wants. (Cauley-Stein, who has missed the past three games, has started once since, against the Bucks. There are some occasions when you just can’t not start a 7-footer.)

Even after sorting out Cauley-Stein’s role, the starting frontcourt has lacked consistency. When Cauley-Stein strained his lower back on December 2, the Kings called up third-string center Georgios Papagiannis from their G League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns. To do so, they sent down big man Skal Labissiere, who had started against the Bucks just the day before (and the four games before that). Sampson, a two-way forward, had been called up just three days earlier, and, after playing less than 13 minutes total the entire season, finished with 24 minutes against Milwaukee. Now he’s a regular.

The G League is there to help players develop and showcase unusual mascots, but the irregularity in all of the Kings’ shuffling — whether it be minutes or roster moves — is puzzling. Eight of the players on the Kings’ roster are under 24; one, 19-year-old Harry Giles, hasn’t played a minute because of injury, while four have spent time in the G League. Skal returned after two games and then started. Rookie Justin Jackson played 33 minutes in Sacramento’s most recent game, the second most of any King, after being with the Bighorns for four games.

If the Kings’ plan is to prioritize development, it’s been hard to tell. Watching Fox chuck shots every game has meaning — though not much to George Hill — for a team focused on the future. But with part of the team still stuck in the present, the Kings’ approach to their future is only a half measure. Perry is gone, and his dreams of contention went along with him. But at least he seemed to have direction. The Kings aren’t winning and aren’t committing to a starting lineup, but aren’t willing to give up on the season, either, and give the full green light to their rookies and young players.

We’re almost a third of the way through the season, yet Sacramento is no closer to finding what it wants to be when it grows up than when it began.