The Kings’ decision to let Luke Walton go after 161 tumultuous games that yielded the league’s eighth-worst winning percentage since he was hired in 2019 should surprise nobody. A 6–11 start to this season in a wide-open conference—and coming off a particularly dispiriting stretch that featured blowout losses against the Spurs, Timberwolves and Raptors—prompted Tristan Thompson to blast his new team in a brutally honest postgame press conference. But the writing has been on the wall for quite some time.
Sacramento, a hapless franchise if the NBA has ever seen one, is trending in the wrong direction once again despite having several young bright spots on the roster. So little has felt or looked right this season, headlined by a struggling De’Aaron Fox, who is further from his first All-Star appearance than last year’s promising campaign suggests he should be.
Despite featuring Fox, a franchise centerpiece most dangerous when able to leverage his top-end speed, the Kings were just outside the top 10 in offensive pace under Walton, one season after his predecessor Dave Joerger had them in second. Walton’s decision to slow down and focus on the defense was disputable in the moment given how his roster was constructed. (Adding insult to injury: Sacramento has the second-worst defensive rating in the league since he was hired.)
To be fair to Walton, the Kings currently rank first in transition frequency off defensive rebounds. But that gradual shift back to what they were under Joerger was too little, too late. Despite having enough talent to contend for a playoff spot, let alone the play-in—Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes and Buddy Hield are three veterans every legitimate playoff contender should look to acquire—the Kings still don’t function on either end like a unit that’s able to compete with the best of the best. They don’t take or make enough threes, can’t get to the rim and are gutted on the defensive glass every night.
(In the aftermath of Sunday’s news it’s worth considering how fast the 41-year-old Walton’s stock has fallen. Six years ago, as the interim head coach for one of the greatest teams ever assembled, Walton oversaw a 39–4 start while Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery. What followed was a disappointing three-year stretch with the Lakers, and now this.)
Not all of Sacramento’s futility can be laid at Walton’s feet. There’s an alternate universe where instead of the Kings drafting Marvin Bagley III in 2018, Walton is harnessing a generational talent like Luka Doncic or Trae Young. Maybe Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Michael Porter Jr. are onboard, fresh off mega extensions that make Sacramento look like a team that’s proud of who it is and where it’s going.
In Walton’s first season, Sacramento didn’t even have a first-round pick (it was surrendered in one of the least logical NBA trades of all time) and it’s also not his fault that general manager Monte McNair, who replaced Vlade Divac in 2020, decided to let Bogdan Boganovic walk instead of matching a reasonable offer sheet that was presented by the Hawks (Bogdanovic was one of the best three-point shooters in the league last year).
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Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell appear to be a pair of grand slams, selected 12th and ninth, respectively, in the last two drafts. But the ripple effects from Divac’s five-year reign are still being felt throughout the organization. It could very well take several coaches before the Kings finally find themselves out of that shadow.
The next person up to bat is 67-year-old Alvin Gentry, who, interestingly enough, could be the exact right option to pick up where Joerger left off. While Gentry was the head coach of the Suns from 2009 to 2013, only two teams had a faster pace. When he was with the Pelicans from 2016 to 2020, zero teams had a faster pace. Tempo isn’t everything, but it’s not the worst identity to have for a guard-heavy team that has Fox, Haliburton, Hield and Mitchell.
Not to suggest the Kings can’t turn their season around as currently constructed, but unleashing Fox, starting Hield and becoming the NBA’s fastest team might not be the worst idea. Even though it might not resuscitate a difficult situation, it would at least give Sacramento a logical, fun, consistent night-to-night identity. And Kings fans won’t want to hear this, but another trip to the lottery isn’t the apocalypse. They own their first-round pick and could really use another blue-chip talent, especially if an enticing opportunity to trade Fox presents itself.
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