SACRAMENTO – The Kings have played 10 games. Nine were competitive. The final four involve some degree of late-game drama. They won in Orlando by a 32-foot buzzer beater and lost twice on controversial last-second calls that the NBA later admitted officials missed.
They are 4-6. It’s an early-season record that feels like it could be a notch higher with a little more power, but a touch of momentum has been built after an 0-4 start. They’ve won four of six, punctuated by a 127-120 home win over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, believed to be their best win in Mike Brown’s first month as head coach.
What did we learn? Let’s review 10 lessons through 10 games.
1. Clarification of rotation
Brown had all available against the Cavaliers and only went nine deep. He opened the season with KZ Okpala as a starting power forward but has since passed that responsibility to Keegan Murray, the rookie who has started in the last seven games. Okpala is now out of rotation. So did Richaun Holmes, the backup center that still owed $35 million over the next three seasons.
But that deal was signed before the Kings traded for Domantas Sabonis, the undisputed starter, and hired Brown. It’s clear that Brown prefers more defensive versatility and distance off the bench up front. That’s why Chimezie Metu and Trey Lyles attacked Holmes.
The numbers support the strategy. The Kings are up-27 in Lyles’ 123 minutes and up-20 in Metus’ 63 minutes this season. They are the worst team from minus 34 in Holmes’ 102 minutes.
Malik Monk and Davion Mitchell are the other two established bench pieces. Mitchell got 20 minutes against the Cavaliers, Monk got 27, including close-ups against Murray.
“I’ve never felt so comfortable walking into a game,” Brown said. “Very relaxed, relaxed, however you want to say it. Because I feel like I’m getting to know the team better. You’re starting to know me better.”
Here’s the nine-man rotation: De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Murray, and Sabonis begin. Monk, Mitchell, Lyles, Metu come off the bench. Terence Davis, the energetic but sporadic guard, is on the sidelines, the unofficial 10th man who will get time in certain matchups.
2. Fox’s Improved Jumper
Fox’s Summer Bomb in Orlando the signature play from the first 10 games. It erased the sting of a disastrous last-second turnover and secured a win that relieved a bit of pressure. But it was also part of a larger trend needed for the All-Star push – which seems to motivate both Fox and the organization – to become a reality.
Fox made 37 percent of his 3s in his second season in the league on 232 attempts. But in the three seasons since, Fox finished 29.2, 32.2, and 29.7 percent from 3. That’s not efficient enough for a fast, high-stress guard who relies on defenders to respect his knight enough to forcing them into more vulnerable situations.
By all accounts, Fox has been working like crazy this summer, returning in great shape and sharpening that shot. In the first month it looks great. Fox has made 36 percent of his 3s and kept defenders honest enough to help him get through cracks and get to the heart, where he’s always had a great touch. Fox is 28 out of 33 in the margin and 31 out of 54 in the floater area. He shoots 53.5 percent overall. He’s never shot better than 48 percent in a season.
3. How about the defense?
That’s the biggest question Brown faces in this organizational transformation. He was hired in part because he believed his defensive prioritization and principles could eventually lift the Kings out of the league’s bottom 10, where they’ve been stuck for 16 years.
The Kings are 25th through 10 games. They currently have a defensive rating of 114.6. They gave up 89 points in one half to the Warriors and still gave up 120 in their biggest win of the season. So it wasn’t a quick fix.
“Getting better,” Brown said in Miami last week.
They try to celebrate the smaller victories and hammer away on their principles. You’ll often hear Brown yell “no middle!” through the broadcast. The Kings have no real rim protection and accordingly have told all their full-backs to force drives away from the centre. Brown is quick to pass on the instances where they’ve done well. Here, Fox locks a lane to mid, forcing a tough mid-ranger.
But for every positive example, there are still several mistakes to correct. Fox got just 29 minutes against the Cavaliers and sat for a stretch of the fourth quarter. Part of that reason seemed to be a lower-energy defensive effort in the middle of the game. Fox committed this foul on Kevin Love early in the fourth quarter that infuriated Brown.
Fox runs Love at the top of the screen for an offensive rebound right past him, then bites down on a simple pump to give him two free throws. Brown immediately yells at him across the square.
4. You need Harrison Barnes to get started
Brown adopted the same metric system he used with the Warriors, which assesses each player’s defensive performance on an individual basis. It’s a formula that evaluates on-ball, off-ball, post-up, off-screen and a few other defensive situations and spits out a number, the higher the better, which is made known to the team.
When answering a question about Harrison Barnes’ early struggles, Brown highlighted this metric, revealing that Barnes was the second-best defender on the team according to his rating system, behind only Malik Monk, who he thought was ranked in the 91st percentile of guards first Month.
There are small ways that Barnes helps the kings. He had a few important rest nights. He hit a big 3 against Magic. He shoulders tough defensive duties and absorbs wing minutes on a team that may have the thinnest wing chord in the NBA.
But his offense had fallen off a cliff before Wednesday and too often had sunk into the background. Barnes shot 37 percent overall and 17 percent from 3 to 9 games and made just 5 of 30 from deep.
But he was productive against the Cavaliers. Barnes scored 20 points, made two 3s, pushed to the line eight times and made six. He had nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. His presence was loud. You don’t win without this version of Barnes. You consistently need more of it.
5. Pick up the herdsmen
These are two of the top three buckets to close the Cavaliers on Wednesday night.
The first comes out with 2:30 left. The game is a draw. Huerter uses a Sabonis screen – the two continue to work brilliantly together – to step into the lane and find enough room for a floater. But it’s not an easy shot. This is an 8-foot touch shot over Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, perhaps the best defensive frontcourt combo in the league right now. Hurter does it.
The second comes a minute later. The Kings have a three lead and a chance to split. Huerter floats to the left corner, braces for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, and pins down the quick-release dagger to essentially seal the win. Hurter is now 37 of 73 of 3 this season. That’s 50.6 percent.
Here are both buckets.
You can read a much more detailed article on Huerter’s arrival in Sacramento (including an interview with Huerter from Miami) by clicking here.
6. The monk pickup
Huerter was arguably the Kings’ second-best player in 10 games. To acquire him, it only cost Kings general manager Monte McNair, a lottery-protected prospective first-rounder. It was the roster change that paid off the most in the first month.
But Monk’s free-agent signing — two years, $19.4 million — isn’t far behind. Monk has been off the bench for 29, 31 and 27 minutes in the last three games and has regularly earned a place in the closing lineup of both halves due to his detonating ability on offense but also his surprising defensive energy, sharp stoppage and secondary playmaking.
Monk has had 19, 15, 24 and 14 points off the bench in his last four games, but his biggest consequence in the win over Cleveland may have been his two assists in crunch time. He was the one who broke down the defense and set up the keeper 3 seen in the clip above.
But how about this facility from a previous ownership? Monk swoops past Darius Garland to re-attract Allen and Mobley and hangs in the air long enough to throw the shot blockers out of position before dumping him to Sabonis for an easy layup to put the Kings to four.
7. Murray’s first rookie bump
It was a poor four-game road trip for Keegan Murray. The rookie, who is proving to be an efficient goalscorer, hit 5-of-15 at Charlotte, 3-of-7 at Miami, 1-of-6 at Orlando and 2-of-7 at the Golden State — an 11-of-35 spiral while sitting on the bench the most important moments of the journey.
The sample size is too small and it’s too early to make any declarative statements about Murray, but his home/road splits through nine career games are strong. Murray averages 18.3 points on 56.3 percent shooting in four Golden 1 games but just 8.8 points on 34.7 percent shooting in five games outside of Sacramento.
Murray made four 3s in the win over the Cavaliers and ended up with 14 big points.
8. Will Sabonis hit 3s again?
Sabonis had 21 points, six assists and five rebounds against the Cavaliers. His counting stats are solid across 10 games. He had some bumpy moments but produced but not from deep.
Sabonis missed his only 3-point attempt on Wednesday night and is now 1 of 12 of 3 in 10 games. As of last season, Sabonis is 5 of 29 of 3 in 25 games with the Kings. He barely takes 3s a game and rarely hits them, which wouldn’t be that remarkable if he hadn’t even gone 52 of 162 from deep for the Pacers over the course of a season.
9. Missing rim protection
The Kings only block 3.5 shots per game. That’s 29th out of 30 teams. Only the Heat (2.9) block less.
10. What’s coming up?
The next 10 game sub-section of this Kings calendar contains several winnable games. It begins Friday night in Los Angeles against the struggling 2-10 Lakers, which LeBron James may not have. He left Wednesday night with an apparent groin injury.
They meet the Warriors for the third time Sunday in Sacramento to start an important four-game home game early in the season. The Nets, Spurs and Pistons are the final three opponents. All are currently below 0.500. This is a chance for the Kings to rack up a few wins and build on that recent momentum before embarking on a challenging road trip to Memphis, Atlanta and Boston.
(Top Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)