Unlikely Heroes Have Brought The Kings Back To Life
Sacramento has won six of their past eight contests without their two franchise centerpieces
When the 2019-20 NBA season started, the Sacramento Kings were widely regarded as a team that was ready for the next step.
After winning 39 games last season, their most since the 2005-06 season, optimism was at its highest point since the glory days of Kings basketball, a feeling that has been absent for more than a decade. De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III, the franchise cornerstones for Sacramento had turned in impressive seasons in 2018-19. Sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield inked a four-year extension after a historic season that saw him make the seventh-most three-pointers in NBA history. Coming into the season opener on October 23, optimism was alive as many hoped that the glory days could be back for Sacramento.
The optimism evaporated into thin air less than 24 hours later.
Sacramento dropped their season opener in an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns by a final of 124-95, followed by news the following morning that Bagley had suffered a thumb fracture that would sideline him for four-to-six weeks.
Four games later, the Kings had limped out to an 0-5 start–their worst start in franchise history since the 1990-91 season.
Things began to turn around however, as Sacramento would win three of their next four games to bring their record to 3-6 on the season. Just as the momentum was beginning to shift into the team’s favor, more devastating news was delivered on November 11: De’Aaron Fox had suffered a severe ankle-sprain that will sideline him indefinitely.
It was a brutal blow to the Kings, who had their best season in over 13 years due to their pace of play and high-speed offense that was led by Fox.
Next (Big) Man Up
Since Bagley and Fox have gone down with injuries, the Kings have had to get creative with their rotations and lineups.
Following Bagley’s injury, Nemanja Bjelica found himself back in the Sacramento starting lineup. Last season, the 31 year-old had the best season of his NBA career–averaging 9.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 40-percent from the three-point line. Bjelica immediately showed why he is so valuable as a stretch-four, posting two double-doubles and shooting a scorching 54-percent from the field and even more unbelievable 50-percent from downtown.
With Bjelica in the starting lineup and newly signed center Dewayne Dedmon struggling, head coach Luke Walton has opted to slide Richaun Holmes into the starting center position.
Holmes, 26, has arguably made the most significant impact of any Kings player this season, posting 11.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game–all career-high averages. More impressively, Holmes has been a force in the paint, converting 72-percent of his shots at the rim and 54-percent of his attempts from three-to-ten feet away from the basket.
On Wednesday night against Phoenix, Holmes scored 20 points while grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds. Bjelica had a strong game of his own, scoring 17 points (three-of-five from the three-point line) to go along with eight rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot.
Sacramento has posted a 6-3 over nine contests when Bjelica and Holmes are together in the starting lineup this season.
Changing of the Guard
While the big-men have stepped up for the starters, the biggest hole was at the point-guard position. De’Aaron Fox won’t be walking onto the floor at Golden 1 Center for the foreseeable future, and the job has fallen onto veterans Cory Joseph and Yogi Ferrell to fill the void for the time being.
Joseph, a former NBA champion and eight-year veteran, has seen it all during his tenure in the association. While he has struggled to shoot the basketball at an effective clip, the 28 year-old has provided solid defense and ball movement to help mold this team into a formidable opponent. On November 17, Joseph’s lock-down defense on Celtics’ guard Kemba Walker forced the All-Star to give the ball up to Marcus Smart, who would miss a game-winning attempt at the buzzer to secure the Kings win.
Following his defensive heroics against Boston, Joseph turned in 14 assists on Tuesday night against Phoenix, a new career-high.
Backing up Cory Joseph, Yogi Ferrell has done a great job of bringing the energy off of the bench. Along with his speed and ability to push the pace, Ferrell has been highly efficient from deep, hitting 38-percent of his three-point attempts.
Bogi’s Time To Shine
During the FIBA World Cup in September, Bogdan Bogdanovic turned heads around the world.
Over nine games, the 27 year-old guard scored 22.9 points per game while hitting 53-percent of his three-point field goal attempts. Bogdanovic was hailed as the best player in the tournament, leading Serbia deep into the tournament with fellow Sacramento teammate Nemanja Bjelica.
Bogdanovic showed what he’s capable of during FIBA play, a hopeful sign of what was to come during the 2019-20 NBA season. Through the first five games however, Bogdanovic would struggle as the Kings stumbled out to an 0-5 start. Through five contests, Bogdanovic scored 9.2 points per game while shooting an abysmal 27-percent from the field and and even worse 26-percent from the three-point line.
Once Fox went down with his injury, it was clear that most of those minutes would fall onto Bogdanovic–and since that opportunity has presented itself, the third-year guard has thrived.
Over his last six games, Bogdanovic has averaged 21.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists while shooting 53 percent from the field. While he struggled from the three-point line to begin the season, Bogdanovic has shot the three-ball at a 56-percent clip over his past six games.
Among the 40 players that have attempted more than 50 three-point shots this month, nobody is shooting better than Bogdanovic (52-percent).
When De’Aaron Fox injured his ankle, he held season averages of 18.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. Bogdanovic has replicated that production–and then some–to keep the Sacramento offense thriving during their climb back into the respectable ranks of the Western Conference.
Surely, it won’t be an easy task to remain in the playoff race without the likes of Fox and Bagley.
But… is it ever easy?
There is no clear blueprint to winning NBA basketball games. Unless you have LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo or any other bonafide star, you piece wins together however you can. Last year’s Los Angeles Clippers team had no stars, just a group of gritty veterans and role players. At the trade deadline, they dealt their best player in Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers, further signaling that they might bow out of the playoff race.
Not only did the Clippers make the postseason, they took the Golden State Warriors to six games in the opening round.
Until Fox and Bagley come back, winning basketball games is going involve a different blueprint on a nightly basis. One night it could be Buddy Hield scoring 35 points, another night it could be Harrison Barnes making a big play. Good teams find different ways to win.
Bagley will in all likelihood return shortly after the Kings return home from their four-game road-trip. Fox has no timetable for a return, although players that have suffered Grade 3 ankle sprains usually miss anywhere from 20-30 games. That would put Fox back on the floor in late-January-Februrary.
Can Bogdanovic, Holmes and the rest of the Kings keep their heads above water until their former top draft picks return? If the past eight games are any indication, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Next man up.