De'Aaron Fox and the Kings Are Building for the Future

Sacramento is set to miss the playoffs for the 15th straight season, but its future holds promise.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Over the last three weeks, De’Aaron Fox has endured headaches, body aches, chills and a serious case of restlessness, while helplessly watching his Kings fade from the playoff race without him.

A particularly potent strain of the coronavirus walloped Fox on April 22 and has kept the Kings’ star point guard quarantined at home ever since. (He is expected to be cleared for basketball activities soon, assuming he passes NBA protocols.) In the meantime, Sacramento lost rookie stud Tyrese Haliburton to a season-ending knee injury.

The Kings, who once held hopes of making the new play-in tournament, could be eliminated from contention any day now—marking their 15th straight year without a playoff appearance, their fourth since Fox arrived in the 2017 draft. Pundits are already speculating about a coaching change.

It’s hard to imagine a more sobering end to a season. Yet a stubborn optimism flickers through the Zoom connection, as Fox logs in from his living room. He’s smiling, chatty and at ease. He says he’s feeling better. He’s sure he’ll back in the gym soon. And though this Kings season will soon be over, the future holds promise.

Before the virus struck, the 23-year-old Fox was having his best season, with career highs in scoring (25.2 points per game), assists (7.2), free throw attempts (7.2) and true shooting percentage (.565). Haliburton, just 21, was one of the league’s top rookies this season—and the consensus steal of the draft. They are the Kings’ foundation and their best hope for a revival.

“If we look at where this can go, I mean, for us, we're two guys who are still young, who really haven’t filled their bodies out just yet,” Fox said last week. “The competitors that we are, we want to win right now. But we know that we’re building for something in the future.”

Fox doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. The Suns, a division rival, just made a one-season leap from 10th place to title contender, and will soon end a 10-year playoff drought. The Knicks, who have suffered from the same sort of self-inflicted injuries as the Kings, are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff races, and almost certain to end their own seven-year postseason drought.

That leaves the Kings, whose drought is the second-longest in NBA history.

It’s easy (perhaps even justifiable) to chortle and sneer at any suggestion of a Kings renaissance. This is a franchise, after all, that has redefined ineptitude for the last decade-plus: squandering draft picks, mismanaging the salary cap, chasing quick fixes, firing coaches and GMs with reckless abandon, lurching from one transaction to the next without any coherent vision.

Their current record (30–38) suggests more of the same. But beneath the depressing haze of defeats is the vague outline of something better, something promising even. It starts with Fox and Haliburton, who both made ESPN’s list of the top 25 players under 25 years old (Fox at 6, Haliburton at 21). There’s still hope for forward Marvin Bagley, the second pick of the '18 draft, if he can ever stay healthy (he’s played in just 118 of 222 games in three seasons).

But there’s clearly a ton of work to do, which is why the Kings’ most important acquisition of the last year might have come in the front office, where Monte McNair is now running basketball operations. McNair, a veteran of the Rockets' front office and a protégé of Daryl Morey, was installed as general manager last September and promptly fortified his staff with seasoned hands, including former Hawks GM Wes Wilcox, former 76ers scouting director Phil Jabour and Paul Johnson, who spent several years with the Thunder. Former Pistons GM Joe Dumars remains an active advisor.

It’s a far deeper and more seasoned basketball ops team than the franchise had under Vlade Divac for the prior half-decade. McNair’s group aced the draft, snagging Haliburton at 12th, but they have made only minor moves since.

Their most significant roster decision—letting Bogdan Bogdanović leave for the Hawks offseason, rather than matching his $72 million salary—has drawn mixed reviews. Bogdanović is thriving in Atlanta. But retaining him at that price would have further locked up the Kings’ payroll while locking them into the same failed roster.

Eventually, the new brain trust will have to decide what to do with high-priced veterans like Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield, or whether to re-sign Richaun Holmes. All have value individually (or as trade commodities), but collectively this group is going nowhere. (The Kings’ 30th-ranked defense isn’t just poor but historically bad, allowing 117 points per 100 possessions.)

Team officials’ hope is to make steady improvement next season, clean up the cap and hit their stride within the next two to three years, as Fox and Haliburton hit their early primes. They’ll have a chance to add another significant prospect in the July draft, where they’re currently positioned for a top 10 pick.

They’ll also have to make a decision on coach Luke Walton, whose job security was questioned in a recent piece by The Athletic's Shams Charania and Sam Amick. One factor in Walton’s favor: his growing rapport with Fox, who called him “someone that I’ve grown to trust.”

Sacramento Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox holding a basketball

“If you're not winning as a team, guys get traded, guys who were barely hanging on … get cut and are out the league and coaches get fired,” said Fox, who has seen all of that in his brief career. Perhaps with that in mind, Fox made a broad case for continuity, noting that the best teams are the ones where “players play together longer and develop chemistry, and coaches continue to grow and trust all their players.”

“Everybody wants to continue to grow together and keep this group together, and continue to play for a coach that you trust in,” he said.

The Kings showed flashes this season—a stretch of seven wins in eight games that pushed them to 12–11 in February and a five-game winning streak in late March—to only follow each surge with matching nine-game losing streaks.

“If one of those losing streaks we basically cut in half—if we go 3–6 or 4–5—we're probably the 10th or ninth seed right now, vying for the play-in spot,” Fox said.

With an offense that’s ranked in the top 10 at times this season (and currently 12th), if the Kings had mustered even a top 20 defense, they’d have had a reasonable shot. Or, as Fox said, “If we can be consistent on the defensive side of the ball, then if we're making shots, we're gonna blow teams out.”

“Our attention to detail sometimes isn't there,” Fox said. “We can't have [just] three guys or two guys or four guys out there that are doing it right. Defense is about timing as well, so if a guy's a step behind now the entire defense is a step behind. So there are too many times where everybody just isn't on a string together.”

The one thing the Kings can rely on is Fox, who is on pace to be the first player in the Sacramento era to average at least 25 points and 7 assists—and the first in franchise history since Tiny Archibald (34 points, 11.4 assists) in 1972–73. He’s only the fourth player in the Sacramento era to average 25 points in a season (joining DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Webber and Mitch Richmond). Before COVID-19 struck, Fox boasted the highest fourth-quarter scoring total in the league.

Fox ranks second, behind Luka Dončić, in total unassisted field goals, per Second Spectrum, though his efficiency needs work. He ranks 20th in effective field goal percentage among the 48 players with at least 500 unassisted attempts (and 38th out of 40 in effective field goal percentage on unassisted jumpers). Fox is already among the best in the league at getting to and converting at the rim. But there’s room for improvement at the foul line (where he’s shooting .719) and from three-point range (.322).

First, Fox has to get out of the league’s health and safety protocols. The coronavirus “hit me like a truck,” he said, with headaches, body aches, chills and dehydration. It also hit his fiancé, former Cal point guard Recee Caldwell, though both are fine now. They’ve passed the time in quarantine watching a lot of TV and engaging in daily battles of Ping-Pong. (“It gets competitive, because the scores are usually super close,” Fox said.)

Fox was eight years old the last time the Kings made the playoffs, and just four when the Kings came within seconds of making the Finals, in '02. He’s seen those moments only on tape—the intensity, the raucous crowds, the cowbells—and he’s eager to lead the revival.

“I mean, this is 15 years,” he said. “When I was coming in, I'm thinking of it as, you know, this isn't the same [team]. Let's be different. Let's be able to bring this team to its first playoffs in however many years it is. Let's let these fans experience the playoffs. This is the most passionate fan base. … Let's be special. Let's be able to dig us out of this hole that the franchise has been in for such a long time. And I think it’ll definitely be a great feeling.”

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