NBA All-Star Weekend is an event where many things are happening at once. Parties, meetings, concerts, basketball, brand integration, sponsored Q&A sessions that start 45 minutes late and end 15 minutes early. It's a busy 72 hours for everyone involved. But at the end of it all, after a weekend with a few dozen of the biggest stars in the NBA and a few hundred media members all in one place, the All-Star break usually gives everyone an opportunity to take a breath and look around at what’s changing around the league. So before basketball games return Thursday, let's talk about the Sacramento Kings.
"Even coming into the season," Kings guard De'Aaron Fox said last weekend, "I had a feeling we can get into the playoffs. And then at the beginning, we're beating teams, we're 6–3, everybody's going crazy. But we have 30 wins right now. We could very easily have 35. We gave Denver two wins. They blew us out the first time. We were up 17 on Portland, lost the game. We beat them the next time. We were up by two on Golden State with three minutes left, lost that. We had a one-point lead in the final seconds [in another game with the Warriors], gave up an offensive rebound, and Klay hits the putback. We've handed a lot of guys a lot of games."
Fox was one of four Kings in attendance for All-Star festivities in Charlotte. We caught up on Thursday morning, the day after a Kings loss—on a last-second tip-in by Nikola Jokic, after Sacramento surrendered another double-digit lead on the road. Fox said that the next step for his team was learning how to close those games, and while that is certainly true, his post-Denver frustrations belie what this Kings season has actually looked like to everyone else.
Sacramento is currently ninth in the West and on pace for the team’s most successful season in more than a decade. It's been the biggest surprise of the NBA season, and each month Sacramento continues winning and defying regression predictions, the story gets a little crazier. After 13 years in the NBA lottery, the Kings have a genuine shot at the playoffs this spring. For now, they are blitzing teams night after night and winning hearts and minds on league pass. "We're a team that gets up and down, gets after you," Fox says. "If you enjoy basketball, you'll definitely enjoy the Kings."
After finishing dead last in pace last season, the Kings are now the second-fastest team NBA. But that ranking doesn't quite capture what's happening here. The eye test says the Kings are in their own category. Fox is already the fastest player in the league, Yogi Ferrell is his own blur off the bench, and Dave Joerger has been drilling them to go warp speed since training camp. If the rest of the wide-open NBA is like watching the NFL in the era of spread offenses, the Kings sometimes look like arena league football. "The first 15 games," Fox says, "[Teams] were amazed. They would score, and then we'd get a lay-up on the other end."
"We play to our strengths," adds Buddy Hield, himself enjoying a breakout year. "We're able to shoot the ball in transition and get easy opportunities. [Fox] is so quick with the ball. Us two running in space, you gotta pick your poison. Who you gonna take? Leave me wide open or him going to the rack."
It's not that the Kings are suddenly a juggernaut at 30–27. Defense remains an adventure from night to night, and as Fox said, closing out wins can be tough. But those struggles are typical for young teams, and they have been perennial issues in Sacramento. What's shocked the NBA is that the Kings now have positives to build upon in the meantime. Vegas oddsmakers set the over/under for Kings regular season wins at 25.5 back in August. This was supposed to be another year of disappointment, likely dominated by questions about choosing Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic, and ultimately punctuated by a sending a high lottery pick to the Boston Celtics (after a baffling trade with the 76ers in 2015).
Of Doncic's rise and second-guessing last June's lottery pick, Fox said this weekend, "[Fans and media] talk about it. It's whatever. There are always gonna be 'what if?' scenarios in everything. Like the Chris Paul-to-LA [Lakers] trade. I vividly remember that. Or Steph was almost traded to Milwaukee. It's what if, what if, what if. I don't really care about what if scenarios. Marvin's been great."
Of the top–five Celtics pick that now looks like it'll be somewhere between 10 and 15, Fox laughed, "I get so many tweets about that. We can't be at the bottom forever. Y'all don't need a pick anyways. Friggin' top five team in the East complaining about a pick."
Instead of those stories, the next two months will be dominated by a playoff race with the Lakers that could put Sacramento in the playoffs for the first time since the George W. Bush presidency. But on that front, again, Fox is careful not to believe too much of anyone's race. "S--t," he says of a race with LeBron for the eighth seed, "Neither one of us got it right now."
Indeed, at the All-Star Break, it’s the Clippers who are one game up on Sacramento. And while another person in our group points out that trading Tobias Harris probably spells the end of a Clipper playoff push, Fox isn't sure. "Like Lou Williams is just going to lay down," he says. "Lou had 30 and 10 in 22 minutes last night. One of us gotta take it from [the Clippers] first. The Lakers are like 3.5 games back. With 25 games left, that's some ground to make up."
Before the playoff race, there were All-Star festivities to survive. Walking through a hotel lobby in Charlotte on Thursday, Fox heard a voice from across the room. "Ohhhhhh," Donovan Mitchell said, "So you can't answer my calls? You Hollywood now?" The two of them laughed and caught up for a few minutes while various passersby snapped photos. Fox clarified that he'd only ignored the call because he was on the way to film a segment with ESPN's First Take. As he parted ways with Mitchell, the two made plans to connect later in the weekend. Then he said to his publicist, "I'm trying to knock everything out now, so I can go sleep the rest of the day."
Fox arrived in Charlotte having two hours on the runway after the loss in Denver, then flying all night to get to the east coast. He checked into his hotel at 6:30 a.m. in the morning, slept for three hours, and then did about four hours of media appearances. That cycle began with the aforementioned trip to First Take, where Stephen A. Smith said the Lakers should have drafted him over Lonzo Ball. The day continued when he returned to the players’ hotel to film a 20-minute segment for ESPN China and sit down with me, and then there was an NBA-mandated tour of interview stations hosted by various league media partners. That was expected to take about 60 minutes.
Each of the NBA interview stops lasted between five and fifteen minutes, and I’m missing at least two stations, but here is a partial list: NBA TV, ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Sirius XM, Turner Sports, NBA Social, Twitter, Snapchat, NBA Kicks, NBA photos, a photo shoot on a giant chair that looked like it was from Alice in Wonderland, and an interview with Adam Schefter's daughter. That last stop ended with a group photo, after which Adam Schefter showed Fox his phone to let him know that he has a spot on Team Schefter in an ESPN fantasy league.
All of it is part of the All-Star experience, and Fox, even on three hours sleep, was able to roll with it. Some of what we learned along the way: his favorite type of food is seafood (lobster, crab, crawfish). He thinks Giannis is the MVP. If he could dunk on one player in the NBA, it would be Joel Embiid. He refuses to eat pineapples on pizza (and seems disgusted by the question). He did not have a Valentine this year. He doesn’t want Adam Schefter’s daughter to worry about Instagram followers. He prefers singing to dancing, dressing up to dressing down, eating in to eating out, and skydiving to bungee jumping (although both are forbidden by his contract). If he could build his own streetball team, his starting five would be Rafer Alston, Jamal Crawford, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant. And if he had to pick one player from NBA history to take the last shot, it would be Gilbert Arenas.
After surviving the interview circuit Thursday, Fox finished with a game-high 15 assists in the following day’s Rising Stars game. Saturday, he lost on a buzzer beater by Trae Young in the opening night of Saturday night's Skills Challenge. By Sunday morning, he was on a flight to San Diego, where he said he was looking forward to not seeing anyone from the NBA for a few days.
But again, in the middle of All-Star chaos, there's room to take note of the bigger picture. "He's an awesome player, man," said Kyrie Irving after coaching Fox in Friday night's Rising Stars game. “Seeing what he’s been able to accomplish thus far in the NBA season, it’s really showing through. Passing, being able to play with a pace consistently, understanding that being in this league takes a lot more than just speed and athleticism, and he’s starting to slow his game down. I was happy I got a chance to be in the locker room with those young guys, but especially De’Aaron.”
Fox is already the star in Sacramento, but All-Star Weekend was a reminder that other Kings changes are every bit as enjoyable. Buddy Hield is averaging 20.9 PPG and hitting 44.9% of his 7.6 three-point attempts, and in his All-Star Q&A, he said that he and owner Vivek Ranadivé are preparing for next year's preseason game in India by arguing about who makes the better curry between the Bahamas and India. Bogdan Bogdanovic is averaging 14.8 PPG and continues to shine in the midrange, and when a reporter asked what local food he'd sampled in Charlotte, he said, "Uh, room service steak."
Marvin Bagley, who was roundly dismissed when the Kings passed on Doncic in June, has gotten better every month. He's now beginning to see major minutes, and for the season, he's averaging 19.8 points per 36 minutes to go with 10.2 rebounds, on 51.5% shooting. "We got a lot of pieces," Bagley says of the team in Sacramento. "I'm excited going back finishing out this playoff race. The guys that we have here, I think we can do something special."
"We like what we have inside of our locker room," Bogdanovic says, "which is really important in the league. We talk about it. We want it to stay [this way] as long as possible." On the chemistry question, Fox smirked and said it isn't always easy to keep two shooters happy in Hield and Bogdanovic. With Harrison Barnes arriving via trade at the deadline, there's now a third shooter who will need touches. Still, there's positive energy radiating from anyone on the Kings whenever they talk about what's emerged this season.
Fox remembered one sequence against the Nuggets last week. Bogdanovic was scrapping with Malik Beasley on one possession and he responded by trying to dunk over Will Barton on the next. Afterward Bogdanovic entered the Kings huddle and asked, "Did I get high???" At which point Fox laughed and told him, "Hell no!"
"But," Fox added a day later, "He can shoot the s--t out of the ball."
There are many different stats and trends that could be used to contextualize Kings disappointment over the past decade, but none more harrowing than Sacramento's draft history. The Kings are the team that drafted Thomas Robinson over Damian Lillard. They took Jimmer Fredette over Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard. They took Ben McLemore over C.J. McCollum, Steven Adams, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The following year they took Nik Stauskas in the top 10. In 2016, after drafting a center the year before (Willie Cauley-Stein) the team used a lottery pick to draft a second center (Georgios Papagiannis) who wasn't even a lock to be picked in the second round, and who was out of the league within two years. This franchise has sometime seemed like a never-ending NBA draft cautionary tale. With Fox, though, I wonder if we're watching the inverse of that story.
It's reductive to say that the arrival of a second-year point guard is all that explains the most surprising turnaround in the NBA this season. Hield deserves a ton of credit, as do the rest of the Kings, and as does Coach Dave Joeger. Fox will be the first to speak on the latter point. "He's been great for us," Fox says of Joeger. "He's never coached [a team] this fast, but he's transitioned extremely well. [And] the [scheme] adjustments, his out-of-timeout plays are great. It just comes down to [us] being able to execute."
Alongside coaching and newfound depth, what Fox seems to provide is a jolt of energy on and off the court that has helped change the momentum of the whole organization. And for all the horror stories of past Kings picks, that's exactly what the best kinds of young players can do.
Fox has less raw talent than DeMarcus Cousins did, but he seems to have galvanized the team in a way Cousins never could. He rebounded from an uneven rookie year by spending the entire summer working almost exclusively on shooting, and his jumper has improved. His three-point shooting has risen from 30.6% to 36%, while his two-point shooting has risen from 43.8% to 48%. His body has gotten stronger and more durable, and as he's learned to modulate his speed and pick his spots in the half-court, he can turn defenses inside out. Suddenly every game with Fox is an opportunity for fans to see something wild, and every possession comes with open looks for everyone else. "He's the fastest guy in the league," Bogdanovic says of Fox. "His basketball IQ is amazing. He makes it easy for you."
Before the draft in 2017, Fox's father told Sports Illustrated they were excited about playing in Sacramento. It seemed like a sentence he might live to regret, but Fox never seemed resentful that the Lakers zeroed in on Lonzo Ball, a player he dominated in college. He didn't seem to care about missing out on the bigger market, either. "You never know how things are gonna work out," he says now. "Sacramento was really confident in me. Vlade was thinking about trying to trade up to get me. They had a confidence in me that made me want to be here. And I think it's paid off. Two years in, we're fighting for a playoff spot. We're taking steps in the right direction."
Whatever happens over the next few months, the Kings nucleus has talked about growing together through the next few years. As everyone develops, there may be room to go further than an eighth seed. Hield and Barnes are both 26 years old and in their prime, but Bagley is still 19. Fox turned 21 in December. In a sobering All-Star Weekend revelation, Fox acknowledged the longstanding Lakers-Kings rivalry, but explained that he was four years old during the Western Conference Finals in 2002.
So there's time for the Kings. But there's also some urgency. "If we don't make the playoffs," Fox says, "People will say, 'Ahhh, well, they had a great a season.' With us, internally, we feel like if we don't make the playoffs, it's a failed season. We have higher expectations for ourselves."
The playoff push won't be easy. The Clippers have some incentives to lose—they keep their lottery-protected first round pick if they miss the playoffs—but that hasn't stopped them so far. The Lakers should ultimately have a tougher schedule than Sacramento down the stretch, but they also have LeBron James, who seems due to return to superhuman form after two months of mortality. The Kings return from the All-Star break with games against the Warriors, Thunder, Wolves, and Bucks. Including last week’s Denver loss, there’s a chance that Sacramento will be on a five game losing streak before a March 1st matchup with the Clippers.
Early playoff odds from Vegas favor the Clippers to make it, while Lakers odds are nearly four times better than those of Sacramento. And of course, as April approaches, all of this skepticism fits perfectly with everything the Kings have been hearing since August.
"We were supposed to have 25 wins this year," Fox points out. "That's not how we saw things."