Hype can evaporate quickly.
The Sacramento Kings' budding start that incorporated some impish victories is, currently, ephemeral. The NBA, this season more than ever, is a fluid league and requires additional context when analyzing wins and losses. The Kings, fortunately, haven't dealt with the complications of COVID-19; the recent injury knocks to the rotation include Tyrese Haliburton's wrist, De'Aaron Fox's hamstring, and Richaun Holmes' left ankle soreness.
With those hitches in mind, the Kings have tromped to a 1-5 stretch and are playing as we suspected them to (to different extents per player). In a nutshell, defenses are exposing Sacramento's creativity shortage while mismatch hunting on offense, and the Kings seem ill-equipped to consistently perform at their best to overcome their defects.
Here are five takeaways from the stretch, including honorable mentions to conclude:
No D in defense
If the last two games weren’t conspicuous, Sacramento is floundering defensively. When a team comprises below average and inadequate defenders, the results, like the ones we’re witnessing, aren’t startling. Haliburton is the lone beacon on that end off and on the ball, and Harrison Barnes and Holmes aren’t distant.
As a team, Sacramento’s defensive rating has plummeted from a mesial team to an inferior one. The Kings now possess a DEFRTG of 116.6, 29th in the league. They can thank Minnesota for being the substratum of poor defense.
The defensive concerns advance individually. Let’s look at the DFG DIFF% of players that tell how opponents are faring when guarded by that player (the lower the better):
Marvin Bagley, +13.7
Buddy Hield, +9.4
Cory Joseph, +8.3
Tyrese Haliburton, +3.2
Glenn Robinson, +1.9
Harrison Barnes, -0.8
De’Aaron Fox, -2.3
Nemanja Bjelica, -3.6
Hassan Whiteside, -5.1
Richaun Holmes, -6.2
Opponents are cooking against Sacramento, and once again, teams are circling the Kings on their calendar for easy wins. As evident against Portland, Portland hunted for the Bagley mismatch and succeeded whether shooting from the perimeter or getting to the basket on pick-and-rolls, switches and give-and-goes. Toronto had a field day from deep, bombarding Sacramento with triple after triple. And Portland definitely watched the tape, because Fred VanVleet prospered when pursuing the Bagley mismatch. This statistical category doesn't tell the entire story (looks at Bjelica's percent), but it's pretty cogent given what we've seen.
But as Whiteside told Bagley, this is an opportunity for Bagley to watch the tape and hone his defensive abilities. The same applies to every other player. We’ve seen the Kings communicate well defensively with smooth rotations showing trust in each other. That’s not the case right now, and they need to salvage it.
Hassan Whiteside talked about players needing to be students of the game, knowing the tendencies of their opponents, etc. He was about teams targeting Bagley and said Bagley should take that personally and be mad about it, but said it's a team issue defensively, not just Bagley.
— Jason Jones (@mr_jasonjones) January 10, 2021
Buddy, where are the buckets?
If you'd never witnessed Buddy Hield before this season, you'd presume his shooting abilities are wretched. But then you look at his previous production. And then you glance at his contract.
This slump is eminently unorthodox for Hield. The Bahamian typically drowns defenses with his lights out shooting off ball screens, staggered screens, simple catch-and-shoot scenarios, and more. But as the season progresses, there's a striking theme: Hield is failing to cooperate on his end of the deal.
After shooting 2-8 (25%) from three against Portland, Hield's three-point percentage has dipped to a career-low 33.7. To add the expired cherry on top, he's attempting a career-high 9.8 threes a game. It's absolutely dreadful for his standards.
Per Cleaning the Glass statistics, Hield is in the 37th percentile on all three-point attempts. And if you think the problems pause there, he's in the 20th percentile for mid-range jumpers (5/24) and in the 26th percentile for eFG% (48.2). All are career-low percentiles for the 28-year-old guard.
It's more than reasonable to expect the shot to revert to prior levels, but that's simply not the case currently. Buddy, Sacramento needs those buckets.
Marvin Bagley’s range
This 1-5 stretch covers the best and worst of Bagley. In the first loss to Houston, Bagley finished the game shooting 1-9 for four points while grabbing eight rebounds. In the lone win against Chicago, it was a completely different version of Bagley, who went for 21 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Most impressively, however, was his long-range shooting. Bagley shot 3-5 (60%) from deep in that win, looking comfortable and in rhythm with his release.
After shooting 0-5 from deep in the first two games, Bagley has crept up to a season average of 36% (2.5 attempts per game). Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time attempts and heaves, has Bagley at 41%, good for the 60th percentile among big men. That’s easily a career-high so far.
Compared to his scoring from other levels (61% at the rim, 26% on mid-range jumpers), Bagley is enjoying success in at least one level. We’ll see how his numbers fluctuate because it’s too early to tell after just 10 games, but the long-ball appears propitious.
Before you proceed any further, who do you think leads the Kings in assists per game? The answer is...is...Tyrese Haliburton, averaging 5.5 assists per game. That’s a fusion of encouragement and doubt. But let’s be clear: De’Aaron Fox is still the best creator on the team. Fox is averaging 12.1 potential assists a game, slightly less than the 15 he averaged a few games ago. On the other hand, Haliburton is up to 9.5 potential assists a game, up from 6.8 a few games ago. It’s fair to point at the Chicago game where Fox only played five minutes due to a hamstring issue, leaving Haliburton with the mantle. That game skewed some numbers, but there are some other notable passing trends.
The assist: usage ratios for the guards aren’t as pleasant as you’d hope. Besides Haliburton’s outstanding 1:62 ratio (100th percentile), the other two experienced guards aren’t experiencing the same fruitful success. Fox, with a 0.95 ratio, is in the 34th percentile. Cory Joseph, with a 0.86 ratio, is in the 45th, per Cleaning the Glass. Though the obvious caveat for Joseph is his scarcity in quality initiating.
Assists rely on making shots; Sacramento ranks 14th in FG% and 17th in assists per game. The Kings average 24.2 assists per game, faintly better than the 23.8 they averaged a season ago. Here are more teetering facts: Joseph is down exactly one assist a game, but Barnes is up exactly one. Haliburton’s APG is an upgrade from Bogdan Bogdanovic’s 3.4 a season ago. Holmes ascended from the 10th percentile in assist: usage ratio to the 54th, with a career-high of 1.6 APG.
Sacramento needs to move the ball more and settle for fewer isolations, on which they’re shooting 38% from (4.7 attempts), per NBA.com tracking data.
Run, run, run
In my previous 5 on 5 article, Sacramento positioned as the 17th best team in pace. Despite the recent vile stretch, the Kings are running more. They now rank ninth in the league with a pace of 102.43, just .22 away from leaping into seventh.
The increase in pace isn’t directly correlating to winning basketball because of the putrid defending, but if they defend as they did earlier while maintaining this pace, maybe it can translate to wins. But at this point, that may be more of a dream than reality.
Let’s talk more Whiteside. He’s been a polarizing topic lately because of his exclusion in games where his skills could’ve been utilized. Everyone knows who Whiteside is as a player at this point. If Sacramento is relying on Whiteside to be their defensive savior, there may be more substantial issues at hand. His contract is amiable, but the Kings will struggle with or without him at this rate.
Moving to another aging big — Nemanja Bjelica. He’s down to 24% shooting from three, nosediving into the 4th percentile, per CTG. Last season, Bjelica triumphed in the 93rd percentile. Bjelica’s provided some nifty passing, but he’s not adding any significance to the court.
Onto a more auspicious big — Chimezie Metu. His sample sizes are minute since he’s only featured late in games, but he’s making a case for extra playing time. The intriguing aspect of Metu’s game is his jumper; Metu is 4/8 on mid-range jumpers, exhibiting a confident release that’s tough to contest. Against Golden State, he displayed a nice turnaround jumper, scored on a pick-and-pop and ran fast in transition for a slam. He needs more minutes to prove these small samples aren’t a fluke, but I like that idea.
What else stands out to you?