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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Sacramento Kings Guard De'Aaron Fox (5) celebrates with Sacramento Kings Center Richaun Holmes (22) and Sacramento Kings Guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) during a NBA game between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Clippers on February 7, 2021 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, CA. The game was played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Another Year Of Hope…Or Despair

(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sacramento hopes to avoid an NBA record 16-season playoff drought as they enter 2021-22 training camp

The weather is cooling off, football has returned, and Halloween is right around that corner.

Sacramento Kings basketball is not far behind as training camp is underway in preparation of another season of uncertainty. The franchise is nearing unchartered territory in the form of an NBA record 16-year postseason drought, something that hangs over the team like a dark cloud.

Most teams enter training camp with a blank canvas. A fresh start to the season that is full of possibility, hope and optimism.

Sacramento’s canvas has not been blank in quite some time. Instead of a blank canvas at the start of each season, it’s as if a toddler snuck into the Sacramento Kings art room with an entire pack of crayons and scribbled all over the canvas. Since 2006, the Kings have searched for ways to wipe the slate clean and get back to a place of success to no avail.

Multiple head coaching changes. Several roster overhauls. Defeating not one, but two serious relocation bids. Moving from the old barn in Natomas to a bright, shiny, state of the art arena in the heart of downtown.

Still, the Kings stare a 16-season playoff drought in the face as they begin the 2021-22 campaign.

It’s not all bad, though. The current roster arguably has the most talent that any of the past 15 teams have staffed, with budding star guard De’Aaron Fox at the forefront of the team’s most recent rebuild.

Fox’s breakout season in 2020-21 came at the perfect time–right on the heels of the 23-year-old inking a five-year max extension. The Kings hit a home run in the 2020 draft with the selection of 12th overall pick Tyrese Haliburton, a 6’5 guard that looked like a 10-year veteran in his first taste of professional basketball.

The pairing of Fox and Haliburton has those within the Kings organization and fans feeling good about the future of the backcourt, especially with recently drafted guard Davion Mitchell joining the fold.

Mitchell, the ninth-overall pick in this summer’s draft out of Baylor, was named NBA Summer Leagues Most Valuable Player after leading the Kings to a championship run in Las Vegas. The notoriously active defender will slide into the backup point guard role, one that could result in several three-guard lineups alongside Fox and Haliburton to give the team a three-headed monster in the backcourt when going small-ball.

“It’s going to happen. I don’t think that’s a secret,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said of the three-guard lineup possibility last week.

“For us, we all want to play together,” Fox said of playing alongside Haliburton and Mitchell. “We know that we can do it. (Oklahoma City) did it a few years ago. Defensively, we know that that is going to have to be where we hang our hats on.”

Focusing on defense has been the focus of general manager Monte McNair this summer.

After an all-time horrible defensive showcase in 2020-21 that saw that team rank dead-last in defensive rating and 28th out of 30th in opponent points per game (117.4), McNair did a solid job of surrounding the core of his roster with defensive talents.

First, by adding the defensive-minded Mitchell to the fold, the Kings now have three solid defenders in the backcourt in Fox, Haliburton, and Mitchell, with returning guard Terence Davis also being a player that possesses defensive potential.

McNair then swung a trade that sent guard Delon Wright to Atlanta in a three-team deal with the Boston Celtics that brought back 2016 NBA champion and notable bruiser in the form of center Tristan Thompson.

After bringing back solid wing Maurice Harkless on a multi-year deal, McNair reunited with old friend Alex Len, a rim-protecting center that performed well on a 2019-20 Kings team that looked as if it could be heading for the eighth seed before the league-wide COVID-19 shutdown effectively ended the team’s run.

Head coach Luke Walton echoed the importance of defense during Monday’s press conference, stating that the team has not and will not have trouble scoring the ball. It’s stops and solid defensive schemes that this team needs to put forward each night to be successful.

The 2021-22 team already has a leg up on last year’s team when you look at the overall depth of the roster.

  • Guards: De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell, Buddy Hield, Terence Davis, Jahmi’us Ramsey
  • Forwards: Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, Moe Harkless, Robert Woodard II, Chimezie Metu, Louis King*
  • Centers: Richaun Holmes, Tristan Thompson, Alex Len, Damian Jones, Neemias Queta*

*two-way contract

Last year, the team started the season with a bench core that included Cory Joseph, Glenn Robinson III and Hassan Whiteside. Haliburton was a question mark as the team entered training camp since he was a rookie, and was penciled in as the team’s backup point guard.

While the changes to this season’s team aren’t earth shattering, they are improvements, nonetheless.

Getting depth at the center position is something that McNair was aggressive with this summer, most importantly retaining talented center Richaun Holmes within the first 48 hours of free agency.

Holmes has proved to be one of the better centers in the NBA with his ability to knock down shots (second in the NBA last season in field goal percentage), grab rebounds (8.3 rebounds per game; 21 double-doubles in 2020-21) and play strong defense in the paint (1.6 blocks per game). Retaining his services is a huge win for a team that desperately needs an imposing presence on the interior.

Adding Len, Thompson and retaining Damian Jones bodes well for the team’s outlook in 2021-22, but then again, the center position isn’t really a point of concern for Walton and his staff.

Balancing the guard and forward positions will be an interesting thing to watch during the team’s preseason contests, as we could see some lineups that we didn’t anticipate seeing this season.

Buddy Hield, Sacramento’s longest-tenured player and last year’s starter at the shooting guard position, could see minutes at the small forward spot this year—something that Walton did last season when playing a closing lineup of Fox, Haliburton, Hield, Barnes and Holmes.

“Whatever they call on me to do, I’m going to do,” Hield said on Monday. “If I have to play the three, I’m going to play the three.”

Hield’s ability to stretch the floor and knock down threes is something that the team could value in a bench role as well if the team were to start Haliburton at the two and keep Harrison Barnes at his natural small forward position.

There will be some mixing and matching going on as the team gets acclimated in camp and next week’s preseason action, but the goal for the 2021-22 Sacramento Kings cannot be to “build” or “compete”.

The goal must be winning basketball games.

10 teams in the Western Conference will play postseason basketball, with four of those teams competing in the NBA’s new Play-In tournament at the end of the season to determine the seventh and eight seeds.

Other teams have improved, such as Golden State, Minnesota and New Orleans. The Kings will not be able to waltz in and take one of the top-10 spots—they’ll have to execute on both ends of the floor, something that they have not done in a very long time.

They will have to close out close games. They will have to limit the losing streaks, stopping them before they get out of hand, as Fox said during his media session last week.

Sacramento lost nine games in a row not once, but twice last season, something that had not been done in the team’s history.

It’s the small things that add up to form a mountain of problems that ends up being too much to overcome. For example, the Kings have missed the Play-In by 2.5 games or less in each of the last two seasons.

That’s it.

Small things such as narrow defeats, inexperience in closing out games and elongated losing streaks have cost this team its end to a brutal decade-plus long stretch of purgatory that has encapsulated most of, it not all of the entire fanbase.

Could this be it? Could this be the team that ends the longest playoff drought in NBA history?

While the talent might not be there to win an NBA championship or even finish top-six in the Western Conference, the talent is there to finish within the top-10. In my eyes, it’s inexcusable to finish 11th or worse with the makeup of this roster.

Will McNair’s offseason acquisitions prove to be enough to get this team over the hump? Defense and experience are key for good teams becoming great. Can it be enough for a bad team to become neutral or even close to good?

Will defensive presence and postseason experience from players such as Thompson, Harkless and Len be enough to push the young core of Fox, Haliburton and Mitchell forward?

It’s time to find out.

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