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The Kings Are About to Get a Glimpse of Their Future

Marvin Bagley’s injury could open up a greater role for Tyrese Haliburton, and Monte McNair’s decisions at the trade deadline will reveal his strategy for the team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Few players have had worse injury luck than Marvin Bagley III. The Kings forward is out indefinitely after breaking his shooting hand in the team’s 122-116 loss to the Hornets on Monday. It’s his fourth major injury in three seasons in the NBA. Sacramento is still trying to figure out what it has in Bagley, a talented big man known mostly for being taken ahead of Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft. His latest injury puts the spotlight on new GM Monte McNair, who could be one of the big sellers at the trade deadline if he decides to begin yet another rebuilding process in Sacramento.

McNair, a longtime lieutenant of Daryl Morey’s in Houston, has tinkered on the margins since taking over last offseason. He hasn’t made any major trades or free agent signings. His biggest decision was letting Bogdan Bogdanovic walk in restricted free agency rather than match an offer sheet from Atlanta. The team that previous GM Vlade Divac put together is still mostly in place. There’s no way to know what McNair’s priorities are at this point. The feather in his cap is that he found Tyrese Haliburton with the no. 12 pick in the draft, which looks like one of the biggest steals in recent memory.

Haliburton has more than filled Bogdanovic’s shoes, averaging 12.5 points on 48.0 percent shooting, 5.2 assists, and 1.4 steals per game as the squad’s sixth man. He’s a wise-beyond-his-years combo guard who can already run the offense, space the floor, and defend multiple positions. He will likely finish second, behind LaMelo Ball, in the Rookie of the Year race. There’s little doubt that Haliburton will have a long and productive NBA career. The only question now is whether he will become a star or merely an excellent role player.

Sacramento’s prized rookie helped fuel a strong start to the season. The Kings were above .500 in early February and contending for a spot in a play-in series. That seemingly modest accomplishment would have been a huge victory for a franchise that has the longest playoff drought (14 seasons) in the league. But not much has gone right since. The Kings have lost 13 of their last 16 games and tumbled to the no. 13 seed in the Western Conference. They are 3.5 games behind the 10th-place Grizzlies, and there was little reason to be optimistic about them making a playoff push even before Bagley went down.

It’s no surprise that some of the Kings’ veterans have appeared in trade rumors. The player that seemingly every team wants is Harrison Barnes, a versatile 6-foot-8 wing who could fit on almost any contender. Barnes has become a reliable two-way presence in Sacramento, averaging 16.6 points on 49.4 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game while playing both forward positions. The Kings have a few other players on expiring contracts (Nemanja Bjelica and Hassan Whiteside) whom they could move, but neither is likely to bring back much in a trade.

The good news for McNair is that he’s holding all the cards. There aren’t many players like Barnes on the market. The play-in series have expanded the playoff picture and made fewer teams into sellers, while the loosening of the lottery odds has removed some of the incentive to tank. Barnes also has two seasons left on his contract after this one. He will be just as valuable in trade talks in a year as he is now. McNair can demand a king’s ransom for Barnes, knowing that the veteran still has a valuable role to play in Sacramento even if the team isn’t winning.

The Kings can still accomplish a lot in the final two months of the season. The most important is starting Haliburton and figuring out which players make sense around him and De’Aaron Fox, who is averaging career highs in points (23.6 per game) and assists (7.6) in his fourth season. The two young guards are the future of the franchise, and have a chance to become an elite backcourt. But they have played only 554 minutes together this season. Bagley’s injury creates a spot in the starting lineup for Haliburton to slide into.

Fox and Haliburton make a lot of sense together. Fox is probably the fastest player in the NBA, and has the potential to be a high-level defensive point guard. Haliburton, at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, has the length to defend shooting guards and the shooting ability (42.3 percent from 3 on 5.5 attempts per game) to space the floor for Fox. He’s the kind of player who can fit next to almost anyone. He can take advantage of the cracks that Fox creates in the defense while still being able to initiate the offense himself at times. The two should be able to play off each other, create turnovers, and run opposing teams off the floor.

Everything in Sacramento starts with the team’s backcourt of the future. One thing jumps off the page when you look at how other key players have performed when Fox and Haliburton are on the floor:

Playing With Haliburton and Fox

Player Minutes Net Rating
Player Minutes Net Rating
Richaun Holmes 287 plus-10.2
Harrison Barnes 362 minus-0.1
Buddy Hield 325 minus-2.0
Marvin Bagley III 166 minus-20.0

Bagley was playing fairly well before his latest injury. He’s averaging 13.9 points on 50.2 percent shooting, and 7.4 rebounds per game, has appeared more comfortable on defense, and has had a couple of 25-plus-point games despite not playing a major role in the offense. The problem is that he still has a few key limitations that make it difficult to put a successful lineup around him.

Bagley is trapped between two worlds. He is shooting a career-high percentage (35.4) from 3, but his slow release and limited attempts (2.6 per game) mean that defenses still leave him open on the perimeter. There’s not a lot of space to operate when he plays as a 4 next to a traditional 5 like Holmes. But he’s also unable to anchor the defense when he’s the only big man on the floor. The Kings have an abysmal defensive rating of 120.6 in 362 minutes in which Bagley plays without either Holmes or Whiteside next to him.

Their small-ball unit with Haliburton in place of Bagley has been dominant this season, with a net rating of plus-15.8 in 174 minutes. Barnes (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds) and Buddy Hield (6-foot-4 and 220 pounds) have the frames to slide up one position to the 4 and 3, respectively, even though they are giving up a lot of size. This is the perfect opportunity to see how that lineup will perform with more playing time.

That’s why it may not make sense for the Kings to trade Barnes. He’s much older (28) than Fox (23) and Haliburton (21), but he’s still squarely in his prime. They need to play with more players like him, not fewer. It’s hard to find two-way wings with his shooting ability. There’s no way for Sacramento to be successful in the near future if they let him go.

Keeping Barnes also wouldn’t impact their draft position much. The Kings have been losing games because they don’t have much depth, and now they have even less without Bagley. They will likely still have one of the worst records in the NBA even in a best-case scenario where Haliburton shines as a starter and their small-ball lineup maintains its level of play with more minutes. Bagley’s injury may end up being a blessing in disguise for the franchise. McNair has a lot of options at the trade deadline. Sacramento has a bright future even if he doesn’t do anything.