A week of NBA games isn’t enough of a sample to write off a team’s hopes and dreams. (Though for some reason, it’s always enough to subscribe to them, as fans of the Timberwolves and Suns are already saving up for postseason tickets.) But for the Kings, Warriors, and Nets, the 2019-20 season has not gotten off to the start they’d hoped for. There’s an argument for each team to start worrying—and an argument to maintain patience. Let’s go over the cases for each:
Reason to Worry
Record-breaking losses are not foreign to the Kings. Losses, in general, are not foreign to Sacramento. For years, the city lost its bid for an MLS team; a new study found that Sac commuters lose an average 59 hours stuck in traffic each year; Lady Bird was robbed at the 2018 Academy Awards. (Happily, Sacramento was finally awarded an MLS expansion team last week. Go Republic!) But especially for the Sacramento professional basketball team, losing is not a new concept. The Kings’ 0-5 start this season—with the five games lost by a combined 85 points—isn’t even the worst start in franchise history. It’s not even the worst start since the team moved west from Kansas City. In 1990, the Kings left the starting gate by dropping seven straight. It’s bad, this time around. But Sacramento has seen worse. All hail Dick Motta.
Last spring, the Kings nearly ended their 13-year playoff drought. Coming so close then is what makes this stumble out of the gates sting so much: The Kings returned this season with the same starting lineup, save Willie Cauley-Stein—count that as addition by subtraction—and Iman Shumpert, whom coach Dave Joerger started until February. Sorry, that’s former coach Dave Joerger. He was the biggest element of last year’s team that was not carried over. Joerger, and his indecisiveness with starting lineups and his inviting smile and his speedy offense, was fired at the end of the season and replaced with Luke Walton, who is a couple of years younger, with many years less experience.
The Kings are slower now. That blazing-fast offense that gave De’Aaron Fox his second-season leap has been sedated. Sacramento operated at the third-fastest pace last season; five games into 2019-20, they’re sixth slowest. Of all the reservations Kings fans had about the hiring of Walton, the pace of his offense was last on the list. His Lakers finished in the top five in that stat in each of the three years he was head coach, and got faster every season.
Five games is a small sample size to judge pace. (And shooting, and knowing spots on defense, and everything, really.) These early-season disclaimers are my least favorite, because there is no agreed upon time we can drop them. But barely more than a week in, the disclaimers are necessary. The Kings have plenty of time to figure “this” out, “this” referring to much more than advancing the ball up the court. (The front office will have to eventually address its overzealous signing of Harrison Barnes to a four-year, $85 million contract which limits the once-rebuilding team from tweaking any further, Walton, and that dreadful 1.54 assist-to-turnover ratio.) For a franchise that finally seemed to be moving forward, though, and quite quickly at that, taking time means more standing still.
Reason to Not Worry
OK! First, I’d like to apologize for the negativity; second, if you broke into the Johnnie Walker Gold midway through, might I suggest switching now to something lighter, like a vodka soda, or, I don’t know, a nice Earl Grey tea.
The Kings season so far comes with a bit of an asterisk, as they suffered a setback which can’t be helped. Marvin Bagley III is out for four to six weeks with a fractured thumb, which wipes away the Kings’ third-leading scorer and best rebounder.
Under all the ugly losses, the team has improved statistically in select areas. One of the day-and-night improvements Fox made last season was to his outside shooting. He climbed from 30.7 percent from 3 in his rookie season to 37.1 percent last season. This season he’s right in the middle, at 34.8 percent. Insert the small-sample disclaimer here, as that percentage will rise and fall until it finds a resting rate some 20 games from now, but the stat that matters more is the volume with which he’s shooting from deep. Fox is averaging 4.6 3s per game, 1.7 more than he did last season. Making that effort to shoot more is a sign that he’s more comfortable with his shot—a great development for Kings fans.
Cauley-Stein is gone, replaced by Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes. I am, at this point, subconsciously harsh on WCS. It’s hard to be any other way with a big who’s a lousy rim protector and who had convinced himself and absolutely no one else that he should be a stretch-5, despite making four total 3s his entire career. There’s this adorable video on YouTube of a husky named Tally who believes she’s a cat. She lounges around like a cat; she hides in boxes like a cat; she was raised by cats. Alas, Tally will never be able to jump like a cat, claw like a cat … or shoot 3s like a cat. In Dedmon and Holmes, the Kings get a decent rim protector and a satisfactory one. Holmes, as a product of Sacramento who has rediscovered interior defense, is already being called upon to usurp Dedmon as a starter.
Holmes is salary porn for the expensed-out Kings. He’s making $4.76 million this season, and is locked in at $5 million next season. The team was also able to come to terms with Buddy Hield for a reasonable four-year, $94 million contract extension (which they were only able to pull off thanks to a number of potential bonuses). There’s good with the bad, good with the Barnes.
Reason to Worry
The call to throw a season away is reserved for lost efforts down the road. Golden State has won one game, lost three, seen Steph Curry break his hand, and now fans and media are contemplating whether tanking is in the Warriors’ best interest. Before Curry’s injury, that notion said more about our obsession with not wasting a season—that if you’re not a contender, you should drop down to the very bottom so that those 82 games count for something—than it said about the Warriors, who were run by a superstar, supported by an up-and-coming All-Star, and anchored by one of the best defenders in the league. Now, like last year’s Suns one game in, the call for tanking doesn’t seem quite so premature.
Let’s look past Curry for a moment. Order was lost before he went down. Klay Thompson is likely gone for this season, and Kevin Durant is gone for good. The Warriors wouldn’t have been arguably the greatest dynasty in history had it not been for those two; now, they’re realizing, Golden State wouldn’t even have been decent without them, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston.
The Warriors’ three losses have come by a total of 58 points, which marks the worst start to the season for any team that made the Finals the year before. One of the most applauded defenses of the past few years is currently dead last in the NBA, allowing 118.5 points per 100 possessions. That acute drop-off will even out (if it doesn’t, the Warriors will have the worst defense in history, which I have a hard time believing Draymond Green would allow), but how, exactly, remains to be seen. Green doesn’t have a traditional center next to him to allow him to hover in anticipation before closing out on a shooter. Even outside of defense, the Warriors’ frontcourt may be the worst in the league. Without Thompson, the lock on the gates of the perimeter are broken; with D’Angelo Russell in his place, one can simply push open the door and blow past.
Then there’s Curry, whose durability had been a mounting concern even before he broke his hand. His scoring is more necessary than ever, and the Warriors will be without it for at least a month, though no timetable has been announced. Even when he returns to the lineup, however, it won’t be enough. If the Warriors’ ultra-talented star players perform at their best, this team still isn’t destined for much more than a first-round out—assuming the team makes the playoffs at all.
Reason to Not Worry
It’s funny, or maybe a bit sad, that this new era is seen as the chance for so many Warriors to prove themselves. Heading into the season, it was, Let’s see what Curry can really do, as if he wasn’t a two-time MVP and NBA champion before Durant came along. Is this stretch the chance to course-correct how we perceive Curry, whenever he does return? The same is being asked of Steve Kerr and GM Bob Myers: Can Kerr actually coach, or is all the credit he received not rightfully his, a team of unheard-of skill and firepower swiped from Mark Jackson by a blond, charming Prometheus? (I don’t believe either, for the record.)
The case not to worry has little to do with this season, which might not be what Warriors fans want to hear. Curry could have a historic, Harden-esque streak and give the team a respectable record post-bone break, or Russell could be a revelation and catch fire himself. But the more likely turnaround is down the road, when Thompson returns, and the front office decides what to do with D-Lo once the true Splash Brothers are reunited. Curry, Thompson, and Green are all under contract for the foreseeable future. Think Trust the Process, but with proven superstar pieces.
Reason to Worry
Kyrie Irving is averaging 35.3 points through four games as a Net, yet Brooklyn lost three of those games. The feel-good takeaway is that this could be a Kyrie year like he’s never had before. The feel-bad takeaway is the immediate clarity those losses provided: Irving needs to keep the points flowing like his scoring’s on tap, otherwise the Nets don’t stand a chance of meeting even their most pessimistic preseason predictions.
It’s surprising that Irving needs to take on this large a load. Brooklyn was a communal table last season; six players averaged double-digit points, and the four below them averaged at least 8.5. Irving’s chemistry with the team has also recently been brought into question, though his teammates have made a point to reassure the public that they support him. (And, with as little as we know not being an intimate part of Irving’s life, the less we should presume about what exactly is going on behind the scenes.)
There is no clear hierarchy in the frontcourt rotation between Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. It doesn’t feel like they’re fighting for the starting spot so much as one messes up fewer times than the other, which varies from game to game. In the opener, a dramatic overtime loss to the Wolves, Allen started, only to be devoured alive by Karl-Anthony Towns. The only relief DAJ then gave the Nets was getting Allen off the court. They combined for 10 points (though Allen also had nine boards and five blocks).
Reason to Not Worry
How often does a light at the end of the tunnel have a 7-foot-5 wingspan and four scoring titles? Durant is worth the wait, I can promise you that. Until he arrives next season, the returning Nets have earned the benefit of the doubt. Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen, and even Rodions Kurucs had breakout years in 2018-19. Harris shot the 3-point ball better than anyone else in the league, and won the 3-point contest. Both LeVert and Dinwiddie were mentioned as outside candidates for the Sixth Man of the Year award, though injury absences ended those conversations.
Coach Kenny Atkinson also deserves some leeway. Turning a team of guys deemed nothings into somethings—as he did last year—is what we praise the Spoelstras, Stevenses, and Popovichs for. It’s hard to believe it’ll be the Irving show all season. Atkinson will figure out the best way to incorporate the pieces around Irving, pieces that have already proved their value.