The Luke Walton era in Sacramento ended on Sunday, when the third-year head coach was fired after a 6-11 start to the season. The Kings had a 5-4 record at one point and looked like they might be turning a corner, but then they fell into a tailspin that ultimately cost Walton his job. Firing him probably won’t fix anything on its own. He’s their 11th head coach since they last made the playoffs in 2006, the longest drought in the NBA. He somehow has the second-highest winning percentage (.422) of any coach in franchise history.
It was always going to be hard for Walton to stick. He was hired by the previous front office, led by Vlade Divac, and was kept on by Monte McNair when he took over as GM two seasons ago. McNair has mostly tinkered on the margins of the roster without making wholesale changes, despite this core’s lack of success. A coaching change is McNair’s first real chance to put his own stamp on the franchise. But who he hires to replace Walton won’t make or break his tenure with the Kings.
Every GM who takes over a rebuilding franchise has to decide who his best player is and how to build around him. De’Aaron Fox is the closest thing to a franchise player in Sacramento, but it’s unclear how much faith McNair has in him. He has drafted another point guard in successive draft lotteries (Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell). Haliburton complemented Fox well as a rookie but adding another cook to the kitchen in Mitchell may have been one too many.
Fox’s numbers have declined across the board this season:
De’Aaron Fox’s Numbers
It would be one thing if just his per-game averages were down. That should be expected, given that Fox is sharing the ball more. According to NBA Advanced Stats, he has gone from no. 7 in the NBA in touches per game and no. 8 in average time of possession with the ball last season to no. 14 in both categories. He’s gone from having as much responsibility as Ja Morant to a role closer to that of Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey.
The bigger concern is that his percentages are down, too. Fox is shooting his worst from 2-point range since his rookie season (47.6 percent) and the worst 3-point mark of his career (24.3 percent). He has been one of the least efficient scorers in the league this season. He’s dead last in true shooting percentage among the 49 players averaging at least 18 points per game this season. He’s also turning the ball over at nearly the same rate as he did last season (2.9 per game) despite averaging fewer assists. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn those numbers around, but that’s a big enough sample size to start asking tough questions.
Fox wouldn’t be the first young point guard to struggle after being moved into a smaller role. He always has been a ball-dominant player, going back to his days at Kentucky. He’s used to being the alpha and omega of the offense, dictating what happens on every possession. Now Fox has to play off the ball more than ever before and let others create for him instead of doing it all himself.
There are two problems that come with that scenario. The first is that Fox has never been a good shooter. He’s shot 32 percent from 3 on a limited number of attempts (3.4 per game) in his NBA career. He’s not dangerous enough to force defenses to stick to him on the perimeter. Opponents would much rather he bomb away from deep than attack the basket. Fox needs the threat of the drive to set up his shot, but he can’t threaten to do that when he’s spotting up.
The ability to slide seamlessly between roles is the mark of a veteran point guard. Kyle Lowry is a good example. He has thrived regardless of situation over the past few seasons, from being the second option behind Kawhi Leonard in Toronto to running the show without him and now playing with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Miami. Lowry can figure out the role his team needs and succeed within it.
Fox may not have the savvy or the skill set to do that yet. He’s still only 23, despite being in his fifth season in the league. He won’t reach his prime for another couple of years. A more seasoned version of Fox would have a better chance of succeeding in this situation.
Fox’s problem goes beyond playing with two other young point guards. There are a lot of mouths to feed in Sacramento. Harrison Barnes is having a career season, Richaun Holmes has become one of the better offensive centers in the NBA, and Buddy Hield has never been shy about getting up shots. The Kings have a balanced offense with five players averaging at least 12 points per game. Having that many players who can get their own shot can be too much of a good thing. Not only do their scorers have to take turns on offense, they can’t make up the difference on defense. Barnes is the only one of the five with above-average size for his position.
Sacramento is one of the smallest teams in the NBA. It’s not the end of the world in the modern game, but it’s hard to overcome when you combine that lack of size with a lack of shooting. The Kings are no. 20 in 3-point percentage (33.8) this season. Walton couldn’t find a way to square that circle. He threw a bunch of lineups against the wall without finding one that stuck. He benched Maurice Harkless, a 3-and-D wing, for Chimezie Metu, a stretch big man, and rotated through a number of players on the second unit. He even dusted off Marvin Bagley III for a few games.
It’s possible that interim coach Alvin Gentry, now running a team for the sixth time in his lengthy NBA career, does a better job of building a rotation and finding an identity on both ends of the floor. Walton never made much of a mark in six seasons as a head coach with the Lakers and Kings. But firing a coach in the middle of the season rarely does much for a struggling team. What happened in Atlanta last season when Nate McMillan took over is more the exception than the rule.
A trade is the more likely solution to Sacramento’s woes. That was the obvious conclusion when the Kings drafted Mitchell, and nothing that has happened so far has made that seem less likely. A team with three point guards and only one starting-caliber wing (Barnes) probably should balance its roster.
That brings us back to the fundamental question: Is Fox still the player the Kings want to build around? Or is it Haliburton?
The two have been going in opposite directions this season. Haliburton is averaging fewer points (12.9 per game) and assists (4.8) than Fox but he has been more efficient from 2 (50.9) and 3 (39.7). It’s easier for him to be a secondary option. He’s a better shooter and a more methodical player. Haliburton played like a 10-year NBA veteran as a freshman at Iowa State. His ratio of assists to turnovers this season (2.7-to-1) is much higher than Fox’s (2-1).
What’s unclear is how he would fare as a primary option. He isn’t nearly as fast as Fox and he’s never been comfortable taking a lot of shots, even in college. He had one of the lowest usage rates in NCAA history as a freshman (9.2) and averaged only 15.2 points per game as a sophomore, on a Cyclones team with few other scoring threats. Haliburton might end up looking like a star without Fox, or he might become the NBA version of the Peter principle, promoted to a role beyond his abilities because he was so good in a smaller one.
Fox’s fit with Mitchell could be the tie-breaker. Mitchell is the same size as Fox and he’s also a streaky shooter (28.2 from 3 on 4.2 attempts per game) who needs the ball in his hands to impact the game. Haliburton is a longer and more versatile defender who can spot up off of Mitchell and give the rookie room to create his own offense. A backcourt of Mitchell and Haliburton would have an easier time divvying up responsibilities than one with Haliburton and Fox.
That’s exactly why other NBA teams might prefer Haliburton over Fox in a trade. Sacramento’s surplus of point guards and desire to end its playoff drought always has made it a logical destination for Ben Simmons. The problem is that a poor shooter like Fox, who is at his best in transition, is a questionable fit alongside a lumbering post scorer like Joel Embiid. Not many teams are looking for a young PG who needs to dominate the ball.
McNair doesn’t have to make a trade right away. He could muddle through with Gentry and hope none of the other teams in the race for the no. 10 seed pulls away. The West is down this season and expectations in Sacramento are so low that the Kings don’t have to do much to be a success. But they aren’t going anywhere until they pick a direction on the court. Firing Walton was the easy part. The harder decision is whether this should also be the end of the De’Aaron Fox era.