The Sacramento Kings are coming off of the most fun season a professional sports franchise can have without winning a title, as they snapped a two-decade long playoff drought by not only nabbing a playoff berth in the West, but earning the 3-seed. While they lost in 7 games to the Warriors in the first round, they still performed admirably and De’Aaron Fox, in particular, acquitted himself quite well to postseason play.
There really aren’t many more enjoyable seasons than the surprisingly good ones where everyone’s just happy to be there, but you only get one of those before the weight of expectations arrive. This year the Kings won’t be sneaking up on the rest of the West and they are no longer a lookahead spot on the schedule. With many of the West contenders making significant moves this summer, Sacramento took a patient approach and will want to see how this team does with one more year together before considering any larger moves. That’s more than understandable and it will be fascinating to see how Sacramento backs up the best season of the last 20 years of the franchise.
Biggest Question: How Do They Handle A Season With Expectations?
With the playoff race in the West seemingly getting more crowded this year with expected improvements from teams like the Suns, Lakers, and Warriors, the continued presence of the Nuggets, and last year’s Play-In squads all hoping for a leap, the Kings face a tall task replicating their success from last season. Plenty of people have pointed out how much they got out of their main rotation a year ago, as their top 8 all played 73 or more games, which rarely happens in the NBA — although Kings fans will also be quick to note that doesn’t take into account Domantas Sabonis playing much of the second half through a thumb injury. However, health plays a big role for every team and I’m more interested in how this Kings team deals with being a team other teams are getting up to play.
Last year the Kings put up an historic offensive season, absolutely blitzing teams by using Fox’s speed, surrounded by shooters, to get out and run in transition, while also being able to dominate in the halfcourt with the Fox-Sabonis two-man game (again, surrounded by shooting). It’s rare to have that kind of balance, and it’ll be rather fascinating to see how teams approach those two differently on defense after their sensational year with two earned All-Star appearances. Slowing Fox is much easier said than done, but teams should have more defined game plans for this Kings team and will look to try and shift at least some of the creative burden to the Kings wings to put the pressure on them, especially late in games when Fox has been so dominant.
Fox proved in the postseason last year that he isn’t shaken by additional defensive attention and pressure, and that’s going to be critical for the Kings getting back into the playoffs. Teams will be much more aware when the Kings come around on the schedule this season, and Sacramento figures to have their full attention in a way that wasn’t necessarily the case for all of last year. If they can nab a top-6 spot in the West this year, that would be an incredibly impressive verification of last year.
X-Factor: Keegan Murray
If they’re going to do that, they will need continued growth from the guys between Fox and Sabonis. If teams are sending more attention at those two, it should open up opportunity (or add pressure, depending on your viewpoint) for guys on the wing. The player with the most room to grow is Murray, as last year’s No. 4 overall pick had a terrific rookie season averaging 12.2 points per game and hitting 41.1 percent of his threes. That said, the vast majority of Murray’s production came off of assists, and I think this year the Kings will be asking him to open up his own playmaking ability.
He’s shown some flashes of that in the preseason and there are plenty of people around the league that think he is a candidate for a major step forward this year. That said, going from being a highly efficient spot-up threat to being an efficient scorer and creator is not an easy jump to take and there figure to be some growing pains involved. However, it’ll be worthwhile for the Kings to work through those growing pains, because they need to know if that’s a role he can take on long-term. Last year’s playoff series with the Warriors showed that Sacramento’s offense needs a little more variety on the wing, because when the three-point ball goes cold those guys need to be able to alleviate some of the pressure on Fox and Sabonis, who face increased attention in the postseason. If Murray can become not just a release valve as a shooter but as a secondary creator capable of attacking defenses who have tilted the floor to slow Fox and Sabonis, that would be massive for this Kings team trying to take another stride forward as a team without making major additions to the roster.