The first week of the regular season made it easy to think the Sacramento Kings had wasted all of their progress.
Sacramento was arguably the league’s most pleasant surprise last season, finishing 39-43 despite most assuming it would remain a league-wide bottom-dweller. But that success was undermined shortly after the season finale when the Kings fired Dave Joerger, paving the way for the team’s sixth head coach since 2012. The subsequent hiring of Luke Walton was generally praised, though the widespread belief Sacramento erred in moving on from Joerger persisted.
Any remaining optimism was squashed when the Kings began Walton’s tenure by losing their first five games of 2019-20, including a pair of embarrassing blowouts.
Six weeks later, though, Sacramento suddenly finds itself not just in playoff position but poised to improve as its young stars make their way back to the floor.
The Kings were outscored by a whopping 85 points over their first five games, the league’s worst point differential by 30 points. They couldn’t score consistently, couldn’t get stops, and had completely abandoned the relentlessly uptempo style that pushed them to within striking distance of the playoffs in 2018-19.
Making matters worse, sophomore big man Marvin Bagley III fractured his thumb in the season-opener. Less than two weeks later, star point guard De’Aaron Fox sprained his ankle, leaving Sacramento without the franchise players expected to propel their team to new heights.
The Kings responded to that layered early-season hardship better than anyone could have anticipated. They’ve won three games in a row following Wednesday’s thrilling comeback victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, quietly surging to seventh place in the Western Conference at 11-13.
It’s not like Sacramento has turned its season around by preying only on the weak, either. Walton’s team earned road wins against both the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks this week and also owns early-season victories over the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics.
There’s nothing in the numbers to suggest the Kings are playing over their heads, either. They rank league average in both offense and defense since that horrid start. Buddy Hield has been effective as Sacramento’s de facto alpha dog without going crazy from three, while veterans like Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica are thriving in confined roles. Bogdan Bogdonavic and Richaun Holmes have done yeoman’s work picking up the slack left by Bagley and Fox, too.
The most encouraging sign for the Kings? That they’ve been able to right the ship without both of the players who were supposed to be steering it.
Bagley played for the first time since October on Wednesday night, clearly trying to shake off some rust as he came off the bench to score 11 points on 13 shots. Fox began participating in basketball drills on Thursday and plans on returning to the court before the end of the month.
There will be growing pains as the Kings reintegrate their young stars. Walton will have to make some tough lineup decisions, including whether to bench Bjelica or Holmes once Bagley rounds into his regular form. Getting Fox back is a boon by any measure but will complicate Hield’s role in the offense and the frequency with which Sacramento wants to push the pace.
But those are first-world problems any team would love to have. Bagley and Fox are two of the most naturally gifted players in basketball.
Sacramento last made the playoffs in 2006, the league’s longest drought at 13 seasons. Even if the Kings struggle a bit while Bagley and Fox get re-acclimated, don’t assume that unenviable streak will continue past this season.
The West isn’t just weaker than anyone thought, but Sacramento has already shown it has the talent and temperament to withstand adversity.