Whether on purpose or by mere happenstance, Kings general manager Vlade Divac and head coach Luke Walton both walked into Staples Center on Friday night tie-less and in stride with each other. It was fitting that the two were in lockstep. This was Walton’s first game back in the arena since parting ways with the Lakers after a tumultuous season coaching LeBron James and Co., and the visual the two former Lakers supplied was one of solidarity. When the Kings parted ways with Dave Joerger after he helped the team improve by 12 wins last season, there appeared to be only one candidate Divac wanted to hire: Walton.
Below the amicable surface, though, lie some contrasting predilections. Divac’s rhetoric as he’s gathered more power inside the Kings front office has been focused on how the Kings’ young core is that of a future “superteam,” and how stylistically, the fun, fast-paced style they adopted last season is the way they want to play; it’s one of the reasons, according to Divac, why Marvin Bagley III—not any other possible draft pick (uh, Luka Doncic?)—fit so well with what they were building.
So far, Walton seems to have his own modus operandi, though, and it’s resulted in Sacramento winning five of its past seven games (with one of the defeats coming by two points to the league-leading Lakers on Friday night) after an 0-5 start. After being the third-fastest team by pace last season and scoring a league-leading 20.9 fast-break points per game, the Kings are playing at the second-slowest pace in the NBA so far and scoring about eight fewer fast-break points a contest. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento’s own Energizer bunny, sprained his ankle nine games into the season, sidelining him for three to four weeks, which would explain some of the deceleration. But the Kings were playing just as slowly (28th in the league) during the nine games Fox did play. Without him in the past three games, the Kings became the slowest team in the league.
Is Walton’s identity shift working? Well, it seems like it’s starting to pay some dividends, especially on defense. After posting a bottom-10 defense last season, the Kings are still giving up 110.3 points per 100 possessions (21st) this year, but over their past seven games, that number has improved to 107 points per 100 possessions. And over their past three, all without Fox, the feisty Kings have boasted the fifth-best defense in the league. On Sunday, they held the Celtics below 100 points for the first time since their opening-night loss to the Sixers. And in the final possession of the night, the Kings won the game with a stop:
"What a finish here in Sacramento!"— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) November 17, 2019
Cory Joseph hot-glued himself onto Kemba Walker, who was likely the preferred option to shoot the game-winning try. It forced him to give the ball up to Marcus Smart, who—bless his heart—had to drive and throw up a floater over the outstretched hands of Joseph and Richaun Holmes. Smart’s shot nearly went in, which would have made the process that led to the stop feel meaningless. But the Kings defense forced the shot you want the Celtics to take in that situation.
With both their effort on defense and their words, the Kings seem to be buying what Walton is selling. “He’ll come in, challenge us, and he gets the response out of us,” said Holmes, who has been called on to set the tone defensively. Holmes has proved so far to be a good rim protector, and with the injury to Bagley (who is out four to six weeks with a fractured thumb), his minutes have increased from the mid-teens to start the season to nearly 30 a game in November. When Bagley returns, Walton may be faced with the age-old development vs. win-now debate. While Bagley’s length and athleticism may give him the theoretical look of a strong defender (he averaged a block a game last season), he’s still a work in progress schematically. Holmes, on the other hand, knows his reason for being on the court is to be a protector and disruptor and he fits right in.
The Kings offense, meanwhile, has regressed slightly from its middle-of-the-pack standing last season, but if paired with an improving defense, slowing things down may render better results in the long run, especially in regard to the team’s half-court sets. Last season, the Kings needed every fast-break point to survive, and it’s clear they needed an overhaul in their half-court offense. Walton has seemingly made it a priority, and it’s resulted in a ton of open shots—the Kings are in the top 10 in both open shot attempts (closest defender within 4-6 feet) and wide-open shot attempts (closest defender 6 or more feet away) this season. That 0-5 start with an abysmal minus-85 point differential? That’s what it looks like when those shots don’t go in. Now the Kings are starting to sink them. In their past seven games, Bogdan Bogdanovic is shooting 48 percent from deep, Nemanja Bjelica has made half of his 3s, and Buddy Hield is cruising at 40.5 percent from 3.
When Fox returns in a few weeks, it will be fascinating to see how Walton continues to mesh contrasting ideas in Sacramento. The new head coach at least appears to fit better with this roster than he did with the Lakers’ crew last season. While his tenure in L.A. fast-tracked him from coaching rookies to managing LeBron to firmly on the hot seat, the Kings are hoping to develop at the same rate as their leader. And to watch him on Friday night labor through questions about his time with in L.A. with LeBron—who said Walton did the best he could “under the circumstances” (Walton agreed with a small laugh)—balancing the Kings’ identity shift with the ideas and the personnel Divac has provided seems like the circumstance he’d prefer. For now.