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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 06: Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the Los Angeles Clippers looks to pass the ball against Marvin Bagley III #35 of the Sacramento Kings during the second quarter of the preseason game at Staples Center on October 06, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
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Rotation Talk: Who’s In, Who’s Out?

(Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

Kings head coach Luke Walton is aiming for an eight-to-nine-man rotation to begin the season

At the end of every training camp, decision time comes for NBA head coaches.

Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton has a decision to make prior to Wednesday night’s season opener:

Who is in the rotation and who is out?

Kings general manager Monte McNair bolstered the team’s depth this offseason, retaining center Richaun Holmes, forward Moe Harkless and guard Terence Davis while bringing in physicality with the selection of rookie guard Davion Mitchell, acquisition of center Tristan Thompson and reunion of old friend, Alex Len.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Walton said of the team’s depth during practice on Monday afternoon. “Ideally, you’re at eight (players in the rotation), maybe eight-and-a-half, nine in my opinion, and we have 12-to-13 guys here that I feel confident to go out there and help us win.”

Through four preseason games, an outline to Walton’s thought process was formed, one that includes a few versions of three-guard lineups and situations that place players like Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes out of their natural positions.

Another interesting development has been that of 2018 number-two overall pick Marvin Bagley III, a player that could very well be on the outside looking in to begin the season.

With just a little over 24 hours until the regular season tips off in Portland, let’s look at who could be in or out of Walton’s rotation to begin the 2021-22 campaign.

Who’s In?

If one thing is certain, these eight players have their rotation tickets punched:

  • De’Aaron Fox
  • Tyrese Haliburton
  • Harrison Barnes
  • Moe Harkless
  • Richaun Holmes
  • Davion Mitchell
  • Buddy Hield
  • Tristan Thompson

Since he arrived via a midseason trade with Miami in March, Moe Harkless has been a mainstay in Luke Walton’s rotation—and even a mainstay in the starting lineup.

Harkless, a nine-year veteran that started for a talented Portland Trail Blazers team from 2016 through 2019, started in 20 of his 26 games with the Kings last season.

The 28-year-old’s flexibility as a 6’7 wing that can play defense and knock down threes is something that Walton clearly sees as a positive for his starting lineup, being able to plug Harkless into the three or four spots alongside Harrison Barnes.

Harkless started in three of Sacramento’s four preseason games, joining Barnes and Holmes in the front court for most of the team’s four starting lineups, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the rotation.

Tristan Thompson has arguably been the most notable member of the Kings this preseason, with teammates, coaches, and the media raving about the 30-year-old’s attitude, work ethic and hustle.

It’s become increasingly clear why McNair opted to deal for Thompson this summer—the team has lacked passion, aggressiveness, and to be honest, a player with some real bite to him for a very long time.

Thompson brings all of that and much more, a notably gifted offensive rebounder that will not back down from any challenge on a basketball floor.

Who’s on the bubble?

If Walton is going to stick with an eight-to-nine-man rotation, that means that there is one spot remaining in the core rotation between three candidates:

  • Terence Davis
  • Marvin Bagley III
  • Alex Len

Sure, Walton could rotate between Davis, Bagley, and Len according to matchups on any given night. Rotations change so often over the course of an NBA season that Wednesday’s game plan could look incredibly different even five games later.

If a decision is to be made based off performance, the ninth player in the rotation should be Terence Davis.

Davis has played the most out of the three players and has performed very well, acting as a solid spark off the bench that can provide the team with both offense and defense. Sacramento has lacked a player with Davis’ skillset for quite some time, something that McNair seemingly considered when he traded for the 24-year-old in March.

After retaining Davis in free agency (two years, $8 million) and the 6’4 guard having played 18.6 minutes per game in preseason, it’s looking as if ‘The Microwave’ will get a shot to begin the season.

Over 27 games with the Kings last season, Davis tallied 11.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.0 steals per game on 44-percent shooting from the field and 37-percent from beyond the three-point line.

Davis’ defensive rating of 116 ranked sixth on the team (among players with at least 300 minutes played), while his 27 steals in just 27 games put were the ninth-most on the team, right behind Maurice Harkless’ 28 steals over 26 games.

That strong play carried over into the preseason as well, where Davis averaged 15.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 38-percent shooting from deep. Davis swiped six steals over those four games, playing excellent anticipatory defense that started multiple fast-breaks during preseason play.

The Kings are prioritizing defense this season, which could mean that Bagley begins the season on the outside looking in.

Sure, Bagley is a very gifted basketball player on the offensive side of the basketball—but there are two sides to this game. Bagley’s defense has been an Achilles heel for him ever since he started his NBA career, causing Walton to hold him out of games late.

Walton has said that the points are going to come for this team, that scoring is not the problem—and he’s right.

Sacramento needs more stoppers in the rotation, not more scorers. For that very reason, it would not be surprising to see a second unit of Mitchell, Hield, Davis and Thompson, with Bagley and Len receiving spot minutes based on matchups.

Len is a rim-protector that can be played against centers like Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner and Jakob Poeltl or other lengthy bigs. Walton could go to Len in scenarios that have the Kings struggling with protecting the paint, which is another aspect of the team’s depth that was not available last season.

As things stand now, Bagley’s path to playing time is murky. The Kings opted to not extend the 22-year-old on Monday, meaning that he will enter restricted free agency at the end of this season.

After Walton told the media that Bagley, who did not see the floor in Thursday’s preseason finale, was active and not out due to knee soreness, it started to become clear that the team could be moving towards a rotation scenario that does not include the former Blue Devil.

The reason for not playing Bagley, as Walton put it, was that he was “not a part of (Thursday)’s plan”. That plan could be much more than just Thursday night for 2018’s second-overall pick.

Who’s Out?

The Kings will have a variety of bench options in case of injury or a shakeup from Walton.

Damian Jones, Louis King, Chimezie Metu and Jahmi’us Ramsey are all players that could see minutes if any key players go down with injuries.

Expect King (two-way contract), Ramsey, Neemias Queta (two-way contract) and Robert Woodard II to get some time in with G-League affiliate Stockton during the season as well.