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Can the Kings Level Up or Are They Hitting Their Ceiling?

Sacramento’s playoff drought is finally over. Now it’s looking to take the next step and make noise in the postseason. Will internal improvement be enough? Or will the front office be pressured into making a deal?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seventeen games into the new season, the Sacramento Kings have the same record they had at the same point last year: They’re 10-7 once again, going toe-to-toe with Western Conference giants, fueled by the continued evolution of De’Aaron Fox and the playmaking genius of Domantas Sabonis.

Sameness, for a franchise that’s employed seven coaches in the past decade, is its own form of novelty, signaling what Kings GM Monte McNair calls a different, “harder challenge” after an exhilarating first step last season that snapped a 17-year playoff drought for a starved, passionate fan base. “Light the Beam” became a rallying cry, a citywide signifier of victory and a verb. The hope, for the Kings, is that it can also become a bat signal of sorts for opposing stars—a sign that the once lowly Kangz have transformed into an exciting, vibrant team.

For the front office, this is part of the next step for a team that’s still a ways away from its lofty championship ambitions. On the floor, it’s about internal development and ironing out the defensive limitations that stopped a 48-win team short of winning a playoff series last year—something the franchise hasn’t done since 2004.

The real measure of the Kings’ progress will come in the postseason, but Tuesday night’s victory over the Warriors earned them a spot in the quarterfinals of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament. On Monday, they’ll face the New Orleans Pelicans in the knockout round—a meaningful opportunity for a young team in need of more high-stakes reps, and a spotlight to showcase its ongoing evolution.

While early-season injuries to Fox and Keegan Murray have suppressed the raw numbers, progress is evident underneath the surface. As of now, the Kings have a negative net rating. But the starting lineup that barely broke even last season now sports the league’s third-highest net rating among lineups that have played over 100 minutes, thanks to improvements on both ends of the floor.

It starts with Fox, who is making the superstar leap in front of our very eyes. He’s fourth in the NBA in scoring, putting up 30.7 points per game while diversifying his shot profile and exploiting the areas of the court that yield the greatest returns.

The biggest key has been his 3-point shooting. He’s averaging a career-high 8.5 attempts from beyond the arc and making 36.3 percent of them, a 4-percentage-point improvement on last year that has had a multiplying effect on his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll.

Last season, defenders neutralized Fox’s quickness in the two-man game with Sabonis by going under screens and daring Fox to shoot. He would often counter by eating up the space he was given and pulling up for a long 2—a fruitful option for a deadly midrange shooter but, ultimately, a survivable problem for defenses trying to contain the Kings’ explosive offense.

This year, Fox is making that an increasingly untenable option, maintaining that extra step behind the arc and hitting a sizzling 40.3 percent of his pull-up 3s. Fox’s range has also opened up more lanes. He’s second in the NBA in drives per game, up from 11th last year, and attempting free throws at a career-high rate. Midrange shots make up just 43 percent of his diet now, according to Cleaning the Glass, down from around 50 percent the past two seasons.

The only other players this season to shoot over 36 percent from 3-point range, make at least one 3, and draw seven free throw attempts per game are Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Jimmy Butler. This is the company that Fox, once compared to midtier star guards in the league, now keeps. If he hadn’t missed five games earlier this month, in which the Kings put up a league-worst 103.8 points per 100 possessions and went 2-3, Fox would be a borderline MVP candidate. Then again, maybe Sacramento’s performance adds to his argument.

Beyond his 3-point shooting, Fox hasn’t dramatically rewired his game. His ascent has followed a blueprint the Kings hope to use across their roster: a series of sound innovations and incremental improvements coalescing into one big leap.

And that’s only talking about his offense. Kings coach Mike Brown, once the architect of Golden State’s defense, employs a switch-heavy system that asks his perimeter defenders to scrunch in off non-shooters, shrink the floor, and take away angles to the rim to protect Sabonis in the middle. He goes to bed happy when the Kings close gaps and finish with over 20 deflections in a game, his benchmark for a good defensive night.

Fox, with his long, twitchy arms, accounts for a team-leading 2.9 of those deflections per night, on top of a near-career-high 1.5 steals. His length also allows him to switch onto bigger guards and smaller wings, and when he’s defending pick-and-roll actions with Sabonis, his slender frame allows him to slither through screens.

Fox’s caginess is part of the reason the Kings can even entertain the idea of building a passable defense with a roster that finishes games with two 6-foot-3 guards and an undersized center. These are historically markers of a gimmicky upstart, a unique but inherently flawed sideshow in contrast to the serious, defensive-minded tyrants at the top.

But the league is changing. The Kings can find hope in the title-winning Denver Nuggets, who spent years tinkering their way to a league-average and ultimately championship-worthy defense around Nikola Jokic. Like Denver at the end of the 2017-18 season, the Kings had a bottom-10 defense last season. They’re facing many of the same questions the Nuggets have since answered: What’s the ceiling on a defense without otherworldly defenders? How much can effort, IQ, and angles make up the difference?

“We need to figure out a way that we can continue to have our fantastic offense but get better defensively,” McNair said on media day. “I think we’ve seen teams find success in quite a few different ways, but some with great offenses and good defense that can make some noise.”

The Kings are not built to be imposing bruisers who leave opponents both emotionally and physically exhausted. But they are already better than they were last year—their defensive rating is down from 116.0 last season to 114.7 this year—studying personnel, playing the percentages, switching in the right instances, and helping out in others.

“We’re not the biggest team,” Brown said earlier this week. “Not everybody individually is the fastest, the most athletic, or the longest. For us, it’s about five guys guarding the basketball. When the ball moves, all five guys should move. We have some pretty good individual defenders, but we’re not relying on those individual defenders to shut down the great players.”

The Kings personnel does necessitate that they play defense on an intuitive, communicative string, but one particular individual has stood out: second-year forward Murray, who spent most of the summer in Sacramento, working out with Fox and lifting weights alongside Kings trainers and coaches. The extra strength has allowed the 6-foot-8 wing to trade blows with stronger opponents and multiplied the impact of his length when he rotates to the rim.

Take this possession against the Lakers from two weeks ago: After Sabonis doubles Anthony Davis, Murray closes out on LeBron James, stays in front of him, forces a kickout, and then repositions himself outside of the restricted area to vertically contest D’Angelo Russell at the rim.

Later in the game, Murray got his fingerprints all over another play. He rushes Austin Reaves back to the logo as if his handles and first step are of no concern and then repeatedly proves why, slithering around multiple screens, staying in front, and bumping Reaves’s forays away with his chest. When Reaves kicks back to Davis and screens for him, Murray maintains his position and forces Davis into a tough, late-clock fadeaway:

Murray guards the opposing team’s best scorer on most nights and holds them to a shooting percentage that’s slightly worse than their season average. It’s not a world-beating difference, but it’s noteworthy when you consider the competition and the fact that he’s one of only two players in the Kings’ rotation forcing a negative field goal percentage differential.

Before Murray hurt his lower back this year, the Kings ranked no. 19 in defensive rating, up from no. 24 last year—about the best improvement you could hope for without any serious personnel changes. But in the five games that he’s missed with the injury, including the one he left 16 minutes in, the Kings have given up 121.2 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-worst figure in the NBA over that period.

In Murray’s absence, others have tried to step up. Namely, Kevin Huerter, who has done his best as a 6-foot-7 wing to fill Murray’s void, but the Kings know they’re even more vulnerable without their starting forward, leading to an even more compromised style of resistance.

Asking average defenders to play above their heads over the course of 48 minutes and 82 games is a heavy burden, in terms of focus, the necessity of perfection, and stamina. Huerter has already attributed his lack of offensive success this year to defense taking more of his energy. You also wonder whether the same affliction is plaguing Murray, who drilled 206 3s last season, an all-time high for a rookie, but has followed it up with sub-30 percent shooting from beyond the arc early this season. While Malik Monk is still blazing, the efficiency drop-offs for both Murray and Huerter have limited the explosiveness of Sacramento’s hand-off efficiency, a staple of its offense.

The Kings offense has dropped to 11th early this season, which shouldn’t be too much of a concern yet, considering they’re back to putting up almost 119 points per 100 possessions since Fox returned from an ankle injury. But that figure, which would have ranked first in the NBA last season, is eighth in the nine games since Fox’s return, with teams like the Pacers and Suns, also constructed with high-octane offenses and vulnerable defenses, outgunning Sacramento. In order for the Kings to keep up, they need to keep fine-tuning their approach on both ends.

While Brown tinkers on the court, McNair and Co. will be assessing the potential and limits of continuity, trying to figure out who fits into the Kings’ long-term plans and who will need to be replaced. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Sacramento expects to be a player in the trade market this season, targeting “whatever stars become available” with its trove of tradable players and assets. “I think eventually they could add a third piece,” Charania said.

Unless Murray—the Kings’ best trade asset—becomes that third piece himself. The Kings could also shop Monk, who has earned every cent of the two-year, $19.4 million contract that expires at the end of this season. They could also certainly stand to hit the upgrade button on Harrison Barnes. Then there’s the 25-year-old Davion Mitchell, who clamps down harder on the perimeter than anybody else in a Kings uniform, but hardly plays important minutes because he can’t even hit over 30 percent on wide-open 3s.

“We’re gonna have to figure out a way to bring more guys in that can be two-way players, that can defend, hit shots, and make smart plays on the offensive end,” McNair added on media day. “We’re gonna continue to do all those things to shore that side up.”

Pascal Siakam certainly would fit that bill. He’d be an instant upgrade at the 4 over Barnes, whose salary would likely have to go out to match on a deal. Siakam can still be a terror in transition, especially next to another runner like Fox. He also has the length, quickness, and savvy to protect Sabonis on defense. You can count on him to hit about 35 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s most years, and he would bring a new layer of dynamism to an offense that’s sometimes too Fox-centric. But he’s also top 10 in the NBA in post-up attempts, and Sabonis’s presence would likely force him to play a more perimeter-oriented game.

It’s also unclear whether the Kings would be able to make the best offer, unless Murray was included. The Kings have all of their own draft picks after 2024, but they’re unlikely to be high-yield selections. Sasha Vezenkov is interesting, but he’s already 28. Rookie Keon Ellis is a relative unknown.

This is also the difficulty of being in the Kings’ position, and why so many young teams before them have kept their powder dry: It’s hard to find systemic fits that don’t overlap with the existing talent, and it’s hard to make deals that don’t threaten to tear at the fabric of the culture.

You don’t want to end up like the Memphis Grizzlies, overvaluing your own talent and watching your asset cupboard dry up. But you also don’t want to be like the Atlanta Hawks, who traded a treasure chest of picks for Dejounte Murray, only for him to suck up space that Trae Young once roamed in freely. The truth is, team-building is a multiyear process with plenty of false starts.

In every city where the Kings played a qualifying game for the in-season tournament, the coaching staff incentivized them with pictures of what they could buy with the tourney’s overall cash prize of $500,000 a player. In San Antonio, they showed them acres of land. In Oklahoma, it was a house. In Minnesota, the 2,500 families they could feed during Christmas. In a nod to real estate prices in the Bay Area, the coaching staff dredged up pictures of tech fleece.

But the Kings already had plenty of internal motivation before beating Golden State on Tuesday. Prior to the game, the Kings had lost five of their past six to the Warriors, including Game 7 in last spring’s first round. That series got them to the ground floor. Now, they’re trying to drag their defense out of the basement, and hoping they can light the beam in the quarterfinals en route to the bright lights in Las Vegas. The Kings are moving up in the world.