Let’s get one thing straight from the jump — until the Sacramento Kings actually conclude the year with a top-6 record (or top-10, if you must) and qualify for the Playoffs in the Western Conference, there is reason to be suspicious that this is finally their year. Yes, at 27-19 they’re currently the number three team in the West, the leader of the Pacific Division, and the winningest team in California. And yes, their overall net rating of +2.7 is good enough for seventh in the NBA, ahead of recent Finals participants like the Bucks, Suns, and Warriors. But these are still the Sacramento Kings, right? Owners of the longest playoff drought in basketball (16 years and counting) and the franchise most closely associated with mismanagement, bad ideas, and poor execution. Dysfunction has been living in the capital city for a long time, and the legacy of failure cannot be overlooked until absolutely proven otherwise. Skepticism, a necessary body armor for long-suffering fans, is warranted and advisable. All that said, there’s also reason to believe the worm has finally turned.
How could this be?
Depending on the day, the Kings have either the top offense in basketball or one that is just behind the conference-leading Celtics and Nuggets. Scoring 116-ish points per 100 possessions, Sacramento has been crushing teams at all three levels all season long. By eFG%, the Kings are a top 10 team from three (on the 7th-most attempts), a top 5 team in the midrange (on the 7th-most attempts), and a top 3 team at the rim (on the 13th-most attempts). Deadly from everywhere, Sac’s in the top 6 in free throw rate and takes care of the ball well enough (10th best turnover rate) to get as much as they can out of every offensive possession. Like the other all-gas/no-breaks teams in the Western Conference, Sacramento — like Dallas, Utah, and Denver — is home to a premium offense and a Swiss cheese D. Unlike their peers though, the Kings are getting their buckets through pace.
Speed has always been a defining trait for De’Aaron Fox, and over the first five seasons of his career, each of his four head coaches has throttled up at one point or another in order to get Fox the space to fly. First-year Kings Coach Mike Brown is wasting no time in leaning on the lead foot. Though the Kings play the longest defensive possessions of any team in basketball, they also get shots off faster than anyone else, a split that results in a top-10 pace. Despite a decided lack of ball-hawking — Sacramento is among the cellar dwellers in turnovers forced, as well as steal and block rates — the Kings are racking up almost 15 points a game on the break, nearly 3.5 more than what they were producing a season ago. Whether taking the ball out of the basket in a hurry or outletting rapidly off of a miss, getting out and running is a priority.
Defensively, Sacramento stays at home and grinds out possessions as best they can. Considering that Harrison Barnes and Davion “Off Night” Mitchell are the only two positive defenders on the roster by EPM, “best” could certainly use some work. The Kings are giving up 113 points per 100 possessions, a mark that puts them in the company of lockdown units like the Hornets, Jazz, and Pacers. Opponents are shooting lights out against Sac — 55.4 eFG%, seventh-worst — a figure that is no doubt facilitated by how many looks they give up at the rim. More than 36% of opponent field goals come within five feet of the cup, and without a bonafide shot-blocking, rim-protector big man, teams convert almost 65% of the time. Three-point defense is a strength, as is a conservative, “stay at home” approach that keeps gambling to a minimum and opponents off the free throw line, but there are high percentage looks to be had for teams that don’t beat themselves. The silver lining for this unit is how well they end possessions on the backboard. Only the Bulls, Heat, Cavs, and Celtics clean the defensive glass as well as the Kings. Having one of the league’s two best defensive rebounders (who is having a career year) certainly helps with that.
Year of the Ox
Choosing to focus on Domantas Sabonis’ defensive rebounding when discussing his season makes just as much sense as starting anywhere else. You can’t swing a dead cat in his stat page without hitting a career-best, so why not start with excellence that is known? The short version: The rebounding has never been better.
The long version: 2022-23 is the fifth-straight season where Sabonis has a defensive rebounding rate in the 96th percentile or better, but none of the years that came before have been quite this good. Sitting in the 99th percentile now, Domantas is eating 32% of the available defensive boards when he’s on the floor – trailing only Andre Drummond and Kevin Love in this metric. The offensive glass work – 3 per game, good enough for the 88th percentile – isn’t so bad either. Put together, Sabonis’ 12.6 rebounds per game isn’t just a career-high, it’s the best mark in basketball.
Not satisfied with focusing his efforts on an area of his game that is already elite, his second full season in Sacramento has also been Domas’ best passing season. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2019, Sabonis has averaged a generous 5.6 dimes per game, but this year has been nothing short of a bonanza. Sac’s group of shooters and slashers provide Domas with a smorgasbord of options as the team cycles through DHOs and middle screens. He’s dropping 7.6 dimes a game — 10th-best league-wide. In the 94th percentile for assist rate (39%), Sabonis has provided more assist value for fantasy managers than Damian Lillard, Tre Jones, Fred VanVleet, Stephen Curry, Jalen Brunson, D’Angelo Russell, Draymond Green, LeBron James, and the point guard on his own team.
By points per game (18.9), Sabonis has taken a small step back from his Pacer zenith (20.3), but his efficiency has jumped a level in California’s capital. A high success rate in the midrange (52% eFG, 94th percentile) and unlocking a new level from deep (36.5% on 1.2 attempts this year, well clear of his career marks of 32% on 1.4 tries) has helped offset a dip in success at the rim (67th percentile this year, down from 87th, 84th, 62nd, and 91st the last four years.) He’s in the 94th percentile in True Shooting (67%) — a figure that puts him ahead of guys like Lauri Markkanen, Anthony Davis, Curry, Zion Williamson, and Joel Embiid. Add in a career-best 75% from the free throw line and the overall scoring portrait is quite rosy.
Indeed, if you find yourself looking at what Domantas is doing this year for long enough, you begin to see something vaguely Jokic-esque — a scoring and dime-dropping big man operating as an offensive hub that’s absolutely foundational to his team’s success. There’s passing and DHOs, ball screens and trailing threes in transition. A versatile scorer and legitimate danger when operating from both the nail and the block, Sabonis is a terror for opposing defenses. By EPM, he is a better offensive player than Trae Young, LaMelo Ball, Kyrie Irving, Ja Morant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and he’s a top 20 player in 9-cat fantasy leagues.
And the defense? He’s gone for zero steals and zero blocks in eight of the last twelve games. Stocks simply aren’t happening here. What is happening is a peak offensive season, one that might go down as his very best. Take it and be happy.
In Search of Henhouses
For years, the hope was that De’Aaron Fox would add a jumper to pair with his blinding speed and unlock the offensive potential that pushed him into the top five of the 2017 draft. Earlier in his career, Fox would get the ball to his strong hand and zoom by defenders on his way to the rim. Standing just 6-3 and slight, sometimes the sledding got tough in there against set defenses, so running past them in transition en route to the rim was paramount. Dave Joerger seemed to understand this. Luke Walton didn’t at first but came around eventually, and current head coach Mike Brown seems to have gotten the memo early. While the organization was busy shuffling through HCs and the complementary pieces around him, De’Aaron was polishing his ability to finish in the paint. Sabonis might be doing an admirable Jokic impression this year, but the path Sacramento’s fifth-year point guard is carving out is a trajectory all his own. Regardless of size or position, Fox is legitimately one of the most dangerous offensive players in the paint right now.
The star guard is shooting 74% at the rim — good enough for the 94th percentile in the NBA — which slots above giants like Walker Kessler, AD, Jakob Poeltl, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Robert Williams III, LeBron, Jarrett Allen, and some Joker who’s running down a third straight MVP. There’s no deadlier guard at the hoop. He gets to his spot and simply feasts. Like Domas, ’22-23 has been a career year for scoring efficiency. Fox’s free throw shooting (78%), midrange accuracy (49%, 86th percentile), and ability to hit the deep ball (33%, 33rd percentile) all factor into his career-high 50.7% FG rate. By offensive EPM, Fox is massive positive (+3.1, good enough for the 93rd percentile) and most of his success can be attributed to how damn good he’s been in the paint. Fox getting two feet in the lane spells doom for defenses.
The counting stats — 24.2 points, 4.3 rebounds (a career-best facilitated by Sac’s gang rebounding approach), 6 dimes, 0.9 steals, and 0.3 blocks — are more or less in line with career averages. There has been a small step back in usage (28% this season, down from the 31% apex in ‘20-21) but it’s been in service of facilitating Sabonis’ brilliant season. There’s leadership and maturity in taking fewer shots, and beams have been lit at previously unprecedented rates.
LIGHT THE BEAM! 🟣🔦
— De'Aaron Fox (@swipathefox) November 12, 2022
All of this is great for what the Kings want to accomplish. After decades in the NBA wilderness, having a point guard – the face of the franchise and its highest-paid employee — who willfully takes a slightly smaller offensive role to make room for a teammate’s supernova season is actually good. It’s what you want to see and certainly what long-suffering Kings fans are due (at the very least.) With a wisened-up Fox and prime Ox, the Kings are — at least for now — winners. In third place out West, they’re well clear of the play-in tangle of scuffling teams.
The trouble is, despite all this legitimate growth, Fox’s breakthrough really isn’t all that great for fantasy. De’Aaron’s dip in defensive output has flipped the steals category from a positive into a negative, which puts a ceiling on expectations for the rest of the season. When considering how to put my RazzJam team together way back in September, I thought Fox in the fourth round would not only be fruitful but a price point that could yield some upside. Considering he’s turned in the 62nd-best fantasy season in 9-cat to date (48th in 8-cat) and he’s been just inside the top 125 for the last two months, this has not worked out.
Without premium dimes, positive free throw value, or break-even three-point production, the sudden collapse of De’Aaron’s steals means that his overall value hasn’t had much of a cushion to crash down onto. The shooting strides are admirable and extremely promising when considering his longer trajectory — the fourth quarter middies are especially sweet — but they haven’t been significant enough to patch the lingering holes in his stat line, to say nothing of addressing the new one that’s opened up. Points, assists, and a pleasantly positive FG value are all fine, but anticipating him turning a positive category into a negative one wasn’t what anyone had in mind when considering a Fox breakout. At his peak in the ’18-19 season, Fox was in the 92nd percentile in steal rate, but that number has steadily declined every year since (85th percentile, then 81st, 59th, and this year’s paltry 38th percentile).
Despite the physical tools that could make him a steals mavin, De’Aaron is turning in the worst defensive season of his career. The team’s ethos of “all offense, no defense” is embodied by their lead guard, much to everyone’s chagrin. By defensive EPM (-1.4, 21st percentile), Fox has been dreadful. He’s living in Terry Rozier territory, and turnstiles like Jordan Clarkson, Max Strus, and Trae Young all grade ahead of him. Without the steals improving, the only way Fox will return fourth-round value is if he catches fire from deep and the scoring inflates. There just aren’t that many paths to immediate improvement beyond that.
Red’s Redemption and The Lesser Nobility
Given the dynamics of Sacramento’s two stars, I suppose you’re forgiven if Kevin Huerter’s fifth-year breakout has slid off your radar. After turning in a couple of useable but not must-roster seasons in Atlanta, Red Velvet has come into his own as the starting 3 in the Kingdom. Minutes (31.2) are back on the rise after trending down for two seasons, and the extended burn is paying dividends. Huerter is getting more shots off (11.8) and scoring more (15.8) than he ever has, and the consistent helpers — 3.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals — have provided plenty of floor on nights when the shot wavers. He’s a top 50 player over the last week and a top 70 contributor on the season.
Like Fox and Sabonis, he’s also having a career year shooting. Three-point accuracy is up, over 40% for the first time ever, and the midrange remains a strength (79th percentile there), but for the first time, Kev is feasting at the hoop. Back cuts and curls shake him loose, and he’s finishing at the rim at a lofty rate (88th percentile). The shot chart is magnificent — you can practically see Domas dropping dimes from the nail.
No other King currently sits within Basketball Monster’s top 100, but both Harrison Barnes and rookie Keegan Murray are useful players in our game. The ever-steady HB continues to produce low-end points, threes, and boards on palatable percentages (48.5% FG, 82.3% FT), while Murray has put some painful family matters behind him to play the most productive ball of his young career in 2023. A top-40 contributor last week and top-90 over the last month, Keegan’s offensive polish — a draft-day selling point — is on full display these days. The deep ball has been dropping for him lately (3.3 makes per game over the last two weeks) and the overall hit rate over the last fortnight (52.3% FG, 92.3% FT) is shockingly productive for a rookie. Malik Monk has had stretches of good ball and is thriving as the offensive leader of the second unit. The usage rate of 26.5% speaks to how often he gets to cook but his 3.8 dimes reveal him as something more than a bench unit black hole.
Taken in total, there’s enough here to begin to believe in where this franchise is going. There’s still plenty of time for the whole thing to come crashing down — for the weight of past failures to fall like an anvil from the royal blue sky —but we’re getting to the point in the season where it just might be safe to really buy in. A muddy and generally down Western Conference is showing up right on time to help facilitate the rise of the Kings, but after a decade and a half of everything that could go wrong ultimately coming to pass, Sacramento is due for a little unexpected help.