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The Kings Aren’t Light-years Behind

Sacramento has finally assembled a fun, promising core that might be able to pull it out of the West’s cellar

De’Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the NBA, if you can’t sell credible championship contention, you need to be able to sell hope—the promise that, sometime soon, better things will be on display. Hope’s been tough to come by in Sacramento for, oh, about a dozen years, but that might be changing soon. The Kings are surprisingly fun, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll even be good in due time.

Sacramento took its talents to South Beach on Monday and left with a win, erasing a first-quarter deficit by hanging 77 points on the Heat in the second and third quarters en route to a 123-113 victory. It was Sacramento’s third straight win; seven games into this campaign, the Kings have already produced a longer winning streak than they managed all of last season.

The Kings are 4-3, the franchise’s best start through seven games since 2014. They hung tough with the Jazz on opening night, have beaten the Thunder, Grizzlies, and Heat, and have generally acquitted themselves well even in defeat; while they still sport a negative net rating for the season, that’s largely due to a 20-point loss to the Pelicans. Sacramento is knocking on the door of the top 10 in offensive efficiency, and while the team’s just 18th in defensive efficiency, it seems appropriate to grade on a curve for a franchise that hasn’t escaped the bottom third of the NBA on that end since it employed Ron Artest and Bonzi Wells.

And on top of all that … man, the Kings have just been a thrill to watch:

Sacramento’s fast start has come in large part due to, well, starting fast. After finishing dead last in pace in 2017-18, the Kings have soared to second this season. They’re making the most of their extra 12 possessions per game, ranking top-five in the league in fast-break points, points off turnovers, points in the paint, and points scored per transition possession.

Head coach Dave Joerger, who once unsuccessfully tried to speed up the Memphis Grizzlies, now has an athletic young roster built to move, and he’s empowering his young charges to grab the ball and go; as point guard De’Aaron Fox recently told reporters, “If we’re making mistakes, do it going 100 miles per hour.” That ethos was on full display Monday, when Fox committed six turnovers on sins of commission like trying to thread a feed to Willie Cauley-Stein for a dunk or hunting a long-distance lob to Nemanja Bjelica for a hit-ahead layup. But those errors are easier to swallow on a night when the 20-year-old point guard also scores 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting with eight assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a block in 34 minutes of work.

More than 42 percent of the Kings’ shots have come with 15 or more seconds still remaining on the shot clock, and they’re shooting 53.9 percent on those attempts.“It’s fun as hell, man,” Cauley-Stein said after Monday’s win. “We ain’t played like this in a while here.”

After years of struggling to find consistently productive lineups, the Kings look to be building something around three lottery talents: Fox, the lightning-quick sophomore point guard Joerger confidently calls Sacramento’s leader and franchise guy; Cauley-Stein, a tantalizing but only sporadically effective center who entered the season intent on earning a payday and is playing like he deserves one; and Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the Boogie deal, who’s come out of the shadow of the Next Steph hype looking like a pretty damn potent shooting guard.

Last season, lineups featuring that trio got roasted in nearly 400 shared minutes. (Most Kings lineups got roasted last year.) But the early returns this season have been promising, thanks in part to a vital year of seasoning for Fox, a sharpened interior focus for the ambitious Cauley-Stein, and the continued hot shooting of Hield. There’s been another catalyst, though: the newly added forward Nemanja Bjelica, who walked away from a deal with the Sixers to take a longer, richer one in Sacramento.

Adding a credible shooter at the 4 has opened the floor for Fox, giving him as much room as possible to attack the rim. He has responded by averaging 18 points and 7.1 assists per game, shooting 48.4 percent from the field, and improving his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.85-to-1 to 2.37-to-1. Bjelica’s presence also makes it harder for defenses to load up on Cauley-Stein diving to the rim in the pick-and-roll game; his production has risen across the board, and he’s shooting a career-best 58.1 percent from the floor.

Deploying a stretch 4 who can also make plays off the dribble against rotating defenses can maximize the value of an off-ball shooter like Hield, who is tied with Fox for the team high in scoring and is posting the best true shooting percentage of his career. And putting Bjelica alongside players who can score at all three levels and share the ball has helped open up his game too. His assist rate’s up, his turnover rate’s down, and he’s never shot the ball more efficiently.

This quartet has gotten off to a roaring start, outscoring opponents by 53 points in 119 minutes—the fifth-best mark for any five-man unit in the league thus far—and turning in strong performances whether Iman Shumpert, Justin Jackson, or Yogi Ferrell mans the fifth spot. OK, so now here’s the glass-half-empty take: The Kings rank seventh in 2-point percentage and fourth in 3-point accuracy. Those numbers seem likely to come down: The Kings are hitting midrange looks at a 41.6 percent clip, eighth-best in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass, which has made up for the fact that they’re tied for the league’s fifth-highest share of such comparatively low-value shots. And if the shooting regresses, the entire machine could start to break down. (Think last season’s Orlando Magic.)

The flip side, though: The Kings are generating and converting shots at the rim at top-10 rates. That type of performance could continue, given the team’s commitment to playing fast and hunting early-offense looks on the break (only two teams have added more points per possession by pushing it in transition). And while the Kings’ long-range shooters will cool after a sizzling start, Hield (43.1 percent from deep last season), Bjelica (41.5 percent), and Shumpert (36 percent in 2016-17, his last healthy year in Cleveland) all have at least some track record of knocking down perimeter looks. Keep getting to the basket, sharing the ball, and taking the right kinds of 3s—just nine of the Kings’ 178 3-point attempts have come with a defender within 4 feet of the shooter, and none have had one within 2 feet—and the offense could keep rolling. (And Sacramento hasn’t yet gotten anything from injured guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, its best player last season, who’s expected to come back in early November.)

It’s hard not to feel like there’s something positive brewing in Sacramento. It’s too easy to see the promises of progress: It’s Fox throwing a quick ball-fake toward Shumpert to freeze a backtracking defender and create a corner 3 for Bjelica, or Cauley-Stein quietly sliding to set a flare screen that opens up a pick-and-pop jumper. It’s Hield timing his weak-side cut with Fox’s dribble drive to get himself loose for a one-dribble pull-up. The Kings are finally starting to do the kind of stuff that good teams make unremarkable, and that bad teams never seem to do. A dozen years removed from being a serious team, that’s as good a reason to believe as any.