Even the Kings might not have seen their early success coming. With a 6-4 record and a net rating of plus-0.3, they have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA. Sacramento has only one win over a team with a record above .500, and it is coming off a 35-point home loss to the best team it has faced all season (Milwaukee), but its performance in the first 10 games isn’t all smoke and mirrors.
The key has been moving to a four-out offense with a new-look starting lineup. The Kings have a net rating of plus-16.4 in 165 minutes when De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Nemanja Bjelica, and Willie Cauley-Stein are all on the floor. It’s basic, modern basketball, with Bjelica and Hield spreading the floor for pick-and-rolls between Fox and Cauley-Stein. For the first time in years, their best players are all in roles that fit their games. Iman Shumpert, whom they acquired at the trade deadline last season, and Justin Jackson, the no. 15 overall pick in last year’s draft, have alternated in the fifth spot as 3-and-D players.
Sacramento has found a formula it can build on. The question is whether it will. Marvin Bagley III, the no. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft, doesn’t fit easily in the new starting lineup. While his per-minute stats are comparable to the early front-runners in the Rookie of the Year race (Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Deandre Ayton), putting him in a major role may mean scrapping what the Kings have done well this season. They may have to choose between their promising new blueprint and their highest drafted player in 29 years.
Bjelica, whom Sacramento signed to a three-year, $20.5 million contract in the offseason, has been the difference-maker. His shooting ability opens up the floor for his new teammates. A former EuroLeague MVP who never clicked with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, the 30-year-old has thrived as a full-time NBA starter. He is averaging 14.4 points on 56.1 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. Even as his ridiculous 3-point shooting numbers (53.8 percent on 3.9 attempts per game) regress, the threat of his shot will still stretch out the defense.
Cauley-Stein is a different player now that he is playing in space. The no. 6 overall pick in the 2015 draft has become a West Coast Clint Capela, averaging 15.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. It’s a far cry from his first three seasons in Sacramento, when he was fighting for minutes in crowded frontcourts without any perimeter talent. Cauley-Stein is a 7-foot reformed wide receiver who can run like the wind and finish anything thrown near the basket. Playing him in supersize lineups that walk the ball up the floor and play out of the post, like the Kings did last season, is a recipe for failure. It’s like buying a Porsche and driving it only in school zones.
It’s the same story for Fox, the no. 5 overall pick in last year’s draft. An über-athletic guard who is at his best slashing to the rim won’t succeed in a half-court system without much shooting around him. Sacramento played at the slowest pace in the league last season, and it was no. 28 in 3-point attempts, allowing defenses to pack the paint against Fox and dare him to pull up. Head coach Dave Joerger has taken the reins off his young point guard this season. Fox is pushing the pace at every opportunity, and he has more driving lanes in the half court. The biggest reason that he looks like a star (he’s averaging 18.6 points on 49.6 percent shooting and 7.6 assists per game) is that he’s being given the chance to play like one.
This is still a roster with little margin for error. Not much has worked for the Kings outside of lineups with Fox, Cauley-Stein, Hield, and Bjelica. All four have net ratings higher than plus-8.0. No one else in their rotation has a positive net rating. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has been out since the start of the season recovering from offseason knee surgery, will likely be asked to stabilize their bench units when he returns later this month. However, even with Bogdanovic, the Kings will have a tough time holding on to a playoff spot. They are ninth in the Western Conference in net rating (plus-0.3), and the three teams directly behind them are the Lakers (minus-0.8), Pelicans (minus-1.8), and Rockets (minus-5.3)—all of whom have the star power to make up ground quickly.
Even if the Kings can’t keep up this pace, though, staying near .500 would be a huge accomplishment: Sacramento has the longest playoff drought in the league at 12 seasons, and it has spent much of that time at the very bottom of the NBA. The most encouraging thing about its start is that it finally has a group of young players who make sense together. Fox, Hield, and Cauley-Stein are all top-six picks in their early to mid 20s, while Bjelica’s game should allow him to be effective well into his 30s. There is plenty of reason for optimism. There’s just one problem that could derail this group before it ever really gets going.
The Kings have to figure out how to integrate Bagley. It’s not that he can’t play. He’s off to a great start in his first few weeks in the league, averaging 12.8 points on 52.7 percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per game. At 6-foot-11 and 234 pounds, the 19-year-old has a rare combination of size, skill, and athleticism, even at the NBA level. Sacramento GM Vlade Divac said after the draft that Bagley could moonlight at small forward, but that was never realistic. He needs to play at either power forward or center, which means taking out either Bjelica or Cauley-Stein. They each have a specific role that is vital to making the Kings’ best lineups work. Bagley can’t fill either at this stage in his career.
Bagley can’t shoot like Bjelica. He is shooting well from 3 (50.0 percent on 1.2 attempts per game), but he’s not taking nearly enough to force his man out of the paint. His poor free throw shooting numbers over the last two seasons (57.1 percent from the line in 4.2 attempts per game in the NBA, and 62.7 percent on 6.3 attempts in college) indicate that he’s not ready to be a stretch big man. He is more effective playing out of the post, the same area of the floor that Cauley-Stein and Fox need open to run pick-and-rolls. His stats are coming at the expense of his teammates. Sacramento’s offensive rating with Cauley-Stein and Fox drops from 115.2 in 188 minutes with Bjelica to 101.7 in 51 minutes with Bagley.
Bagley can play the Cauley-Stein role on offense with Bjelica spacing the floor for him. He is a devastating interior finisher shooting 33-for-43 (76.7 percent) within 3 feet of the rim. Few big men can keep up with Bagley in space or jump with him in the paint. The problem is what happens to a frontcourt of Bjelica and Bagley on defense. The defensive rating when Fox and Bjelica are in skyrockets from 99.8 in 188 minutes with Cauley-Stein to 122.1 in 31 minutes with Bagley. Bagley is blocking shots at a higher rate (4.2 percent) than Cauley-Stein (1.5 percent), but there’s a lot more that goes into being the anchor of a defense. He needs to quickly recognize what the other nine players on the floor are doing and cover for his teammates as a help-side defender. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie big man who played in a 2-3 zone at Duke.
While lineup numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt this early in the season, there’s little reason to expect that Bagley will become a good 3-point shooter or defender as a rookie. Those were the main holes in his game in college, and young big men typically need years to develop those skills at the next level. Cauley-Stein is in his fourth season in the NBA, and he’s only now starting to figure it out on defense. DeMarcus Cousins, the last franchise big man in Sacramento, didn’t start shooting 3s until his sixth season. Bagley is fairly fluid offensively for a 6-foot-11 player, so he could eventually become a well-rounded perimeter threat, much like Cousins. For now, though, he is better rolling to the rim than spotting up on the perimeter.
Bagley needs to become a good 3-point shooter for the Kings to succeed with him next to Cauley-Stein, who has taken only 16 3s in four seasons. It’s hard to play two big men who can’t shoot at the same time. Sacramento might have to keep Bagley in a sixth-man role similar to the one Julius Randle, a player with a similar combination of strengths and weaknesses, has in New Orleans. In an ideal situation, Bagley would be paired with a big like Marc Gasol who can stretch the floor and still anchor a defense. He would make more sense on a team like Memphis, but that would mean going back to the bigger and slower lineups that were so bad for Sacramento last season.
The Kings have to make a decision on Cauley-Stein this summer, when he will be a restricted free agent. It’s a difficult choice. Sacramento has to either tear down the team and build around Bagley or keep him in a smaller role off the bench that he won’t be happy in. Neither choice is appealing, especially since the team has to give its first-round pick in this year’s draft to either the Celtics or Sixers. This is the franchise for the near future. The Kings’ future would look different if they could plug in a high lottery pick who clicked with their young core.
Sacramento thought Bagley was the best available player at no. 2 overall, but it doesn’t matter how good a player is in a vacuum. Taking the best available player means starting the rebuilding process over, and doing that every year is how a franchise stays in the lottery for well over a decade. The goal in a rebuild should be to draft combinations of players who work well together and stick to that plan. The Kings, as fun as they have been this season, aren’t going anywhere until they figure that out.