What is Behind the Kings' Surprising Hot Start?

The Sacramento Kings are off to a hot start and are watchable for the first time in years. With De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III evolving, is it time to take them serious?
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The accidentally (and frequently) entertaining thing about the Sacramento Kings is that it doesn’t seem like they know what they’re doing most of the time, which makes it that much more fascinating when things work out for them. So regardless of your particular vantage point on the matter, the fact that they’ve opened the season 5–3 is undeniably amusing. Can they float above .500 for an entire year? Probably not. Could the Kings hang around that mark for the next 74 games? Wouldn’t wager that either. But their surprising four-game win streak deserves a sliver of your attention.

Over the course of the last week, the Kings have not beaten any especially good teams, but they’ve managed to win four games in a row for the first time since February 2017. It’s no secret they’re doing it by playing much, much faster: the Kings have registered a higher pace number than every other team but the Hawks entering Wednesday. It’s also fast enough to alert the small sample size police—but after they plodded to 27 wins last season as the league’s dead-slowest team, it’s a breath of fresh air. To nobody’s shock, it’s made them eminently more watchable.

When you use consecutive top-five picks on De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III, the most legitimate pair of cornerstone prospects the Kings have had during this downtrodden era, the only solution is to let those guys run. Bagley III has come off the bench but hasn’t looked out of place, and it’s good news the Kings haven’t buried him completely given the clutter in the frontcourt. Fox in particular looks like the player the franchise will sink or swim with. He’s been much more the whirlwind he was at Kentucky, which shouldn’t be a surprise—he still isn’t a great three-point shooter, but he’s been much better while running the pick-and-roll sets that are going to make his career much easier. Fox’s ability to slice around the court as a ballhandler makes Sacramento’s style of play sustainable.

Unsurprisingly, former first-round picks Willie Cauley-Stein (a plus athlete and shot-blocker) and Buddy Hield (he’s always been good at making open threes) have been major beneficiaries of the uptempo shift. Bringing in Nemanja Bjelica to space the floor at power forward means Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere have largely been parked on the bench, but for now, you take what you can get. Bogdan Bogdanovic showed promise last season and is on the mend. There still isn’t enough talent around to take the Kings seriously for now, but at least Dave Joerger seems to know which guys are the future, and they have looked like legitimate NBA players.

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Sacramento’s narrative arc is tired, but perpetuates itself: for a team that’s had every opportunity to build through the lottery for a decade, the Kings haven’t sniffed the postseason or even won 40 games since 2005-06. Of the first-round selections they’ve made since then, only Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins lasted long enough to even sign a second contract with the team (Cauley-Stein is up for a new deal this summer). There have been multiple front offie decision-makers, Fredettes and McLemores and and Stauskases. Time is a flat circle. 

The win streak won’t last and neither will the good times—Sacramento’s past sins mean their first-round pick will end up in the hands of Philadelphia or Boston come June, which is depressing for not only Kings supporters, but jealous fan bases around the league. The galaxy-brain spin is that while this team may well bottom out again, at least there’s no reason not to try and win every night. If the Kings continue to establish some level of identity with their young core, that matters. Watching Fox and Bagley III evolve and Joerger push the right buttons in the short-term offers some hope. Given the context, it’s not for nothing.