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The Sacramento Kings should start their five best players in Orlando

It's time to unleash small-ball in Sactown.

As the NBA's return to play approaches later this month, and with the Sacramento Kings sporting a fully healthy roster for the first time since opening night, debates have begun to spark regarding Luke Walton's rotational decisions heading into the Orlando bubble. Marvin Bagley represents a highly skilled but unpolished alternative at power forward or center, Kent Bazemore and Alex Len outplayed their respective careers in their short time in Sacramento and may not return to their pre-hiatus form, and the dilemma of starting Buddy Hield versus Bogdan Bogdanovic has never been fully settled since either player joined the roster. In essence, Walton's options are just about endless.

Further complicating matters is the unique situation that will unfold in Florida. Instead of an end-of-year playoff push with a season's worth of continuity to draw from, the Kings will have experienced a four month break and a shortened training camp before trying to put together a run and snag the final postseason spot from the Memphis Grizzlies. Every other team will be facing similar complications, and considering the franchise-altering implications of making the playoffs, the Kings cannot afford to sit back and play their hand conservatively or focus on development. It's time to go all-in by starting their five best players together: De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes, and Richaun Holmes, although a few questions must be answered before throwing out a random mix of players and hoping it works.

Can Harrison Barnes perform well at power forward?

As the NBA has continued to de-emphasize the importance of traditional, plodding big men, while highlighting the need for two-way versatility, Harrison Barnes' size and skill set has seen him morph from a surefire wing early in his career to more of a combo forward, especially with the Dallas Mavericks. In his time under Rick Carlisle, Barnes played the vast majority of his minutes as an undersized big: 91% in 2016-2017, 60% in 2017-2018, and 79% in 2018-2019. When Barnes was shipped to Sacramento, that trend reversed, as he's spent 1,571 of his minutes at small forward and 1,609 of his minutes at power forward, about as even of a split as one can reach.

In an interesting twist, although Dave Joerger was occasionally criticized for playing Barnes out of position at power forward, Luke Walton has actually been much more prone to put Barnes in that position, playing him as a four 53% of the time compared to Joerger's 38%. And it's worked.

With Harrison Barnes slotted in at small forward, which most would assume is his natural position, the Kings have actually been played off of the floor pretty soundly. According to Cleaning the Glass, which eliminates garbage time to keep statistics as relevant as possible, in the 982 minutes with Barnes on the wing this season, Sacramento has posted an offensive rating of 109.8 (points scored per 100 possessions) and a defensive rating of 114.4 (points allowed per 100 possessions). The Kings are getting outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions with Barnes in at small forward, which would rank 26th in the NBA among overall team net ratings.

Conversely, the squad has been quite successful with Barnes manning the four-spot. In 1,249 minutes this year, the Kings have recorded an offensive rating of 112.1 and a defensive rating of 109.8, meaning they score more often and allow fewer buckets with Harrison as the power forward. Their net rating of +2.3 would place 12th among league-wide team ratings, and the total net rating differential of 6.9 between Barnes at small forward and power forward demonstrates a colossal difference in team-wide performance. The data isn't just reflective of a partial season's worth of evidence, either.

Season Net Rating SF Net Rating PF Differential at PF
19-20 -4.6 +2.3 +6.9
18-19 (SAC) +0.6 +1.5 +0.9
18-19 (DAL) -3.3 -2.3 +1
17-18 -6.5 -5.5 +1
16-17 -16.8 -0.1 +16.7
15-16 +10.4 +12.5 +2.1
14-15 +15.1 +10.3 -5.2
13-14 -2 +6.9 +8.9

In every year but one, Harrison's teams have posted a better net rating differential with him at power forward versus small forward, with the single exception being the 2014-2015 season. Seven years worth of data pointing to Barnes as more effective in the four-spot is awfully difficult to ignore.

Can the Kings survive with Bogdan Bogdanovic as the primary wing?

Unlike Barnes, who has a track record of swapping between his two possible positions, Bogdan Bogdanovic doesn't have the same history of time spent at small forward. Between his first two seasons in Sacramento, Bogi was featured as the primary wing only 15% of the time, quite a small sample size. However, under Luke Walton Bogdanovic has spent 46% of his minutes as the small forward, and the small-ball results have once again been positive.

When Bogdanovic has played his more traditional role of shooting guard this year, the Kings have scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 110.7 points per 100 possessions, a differential of -3.6. On the flipside, with Bogi at small forward, the team has posted a net rating of +1.2,  recording an offensive rating of 115 and a defensive rating of 113.8. Essentially, the Kings sacrifice some defensive acumen by sliding the undersized Bogdanovic in at the three-spot, but the offensive versatility that they gain outweighs those negatives. Moving Bogi to small forward will be more of an uncharted proposition than sliding Harrison Barnes in as a secondary big man, but the evidence thus far points to a positive outcome.

Can the Kings succeed with two undersized players at the forward spots?

Here's where things get a little dicey. On the season, the lineup of Fox-Hield-Bogdanovic-Barnes-Holmes has performed extremely well, but it's also in a small sample size due to the various injuries to Fox, Bogdanovic, and Holmes throughout the year. In 60 possessions together, that group has outscored opponents by 20 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculously high number that would come down with increased time spent together, but the versatility and shooting has clearly been effective in small spurts. Additional inferences can also be drawn from similar lineups with slight changes to personnel. For example, swapping in Cory Joseph for De'Aaron Fox  offers another 176 possessions to study, and the results are once again extremely encouraging. That group posted an offensive rating of 122.7 and a defensive rating of 109.4, outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions. Similarly, the lineup of Fox-Hield-Ariza-Barnes-Holmes recorded a net rating differential of +28.1 in 65 possessions, once again too paltry of a sample size to take as gospel on its own, but it serves as another example of the success of small-ball with this roster.

The league-wide style and quality of play is another factor to account for when considering who should receive a starting spot when basketball resumes. With such a long break and shortened training camps, complicated, multi-level offensive sets will probably be out, and easy buckets will be the foundation for most teams’ offensive success. And as everyone witnessed during Dave Joerger’s final season with the organization, the Kings unearth quick points every time they unleash De’Aaron Fox in the open court.

Of course, Joerger is no longer the man in charge for Sacramento, and Luke Walton hasn't highlighted the need to push the ball as much or as often as his predecessor. Early in the season, Walton caught some deserved flak for intentionally slowing down the team's pace, but once De'Aaron Fox returned from his mid-season injury, the team ran like never before, a point in favor of Walton's willingness to adjust to his roster's strengths.

During the month-plus in which Fox was out, the Kings recorded the slowest pace of any team in the league at 96.55, an understandable result with Cory Joseph as the lead guard. However, once De’Aaron rejoined the lineup, Sacramento jumped to 15th on pace (100.18), with that number increasing even further after the All-Star break, sitting at 101.35. While still not the frenetic clip of Joerger's final year, it's clear to at least some degree that Luke Walton recognized the value of speeding things up when De'Aaron Fox was at the helm of the offense. 

The proposed lineup of Fox, Hield, Bogdanovic, Barnes, and Holmes would further catalyze that concept, as they posted the highest pace of any group to record at least 60 possessions together this season, a scorching 109.6. While the pace would almost certainly cool off with extended exposure, that mix of players presents a nearly perfect blend of complementary, elite skills in transition, translating to plenty of scoring opportunities. De'Aaron Fox, the man in charge, is arguably the fastest player in the NBA and does his best work while opposing defenses are backpedaling. Buddy Hield ranks almost as highly as Fox in the quickness department, while providing some the deadliest volume three-point shooting in the league's history. Bogdan Bogdanovic is no slouch from the outside either, and he also ranks in the 87th percentile among wings in assist percentage, providing a secondary ball-handler on the break. Harrison Barnes offers additional outside shooting to the squad, especially from the top of the key as a trailing big man, sinking 40% of his attempts from that spot, better than 80% of the league. And finally, there's Richaun Holmes, quite literally the best player in transition in the NBA this season, posting a ridiculous 1.74 points per possession, an eFG% of 84.2%, and drawing a shooting foul 26.1% of the time. That allowed Holmes to score over 87% of the time when he received the ball in fast break situations. Outside of a short list of superstars, there are very few players who could sub in for any of these contributors and significantly improve their scoring prowess in transition. 

In previous meetings with media members, Luke Walton has mentioned both a desire to find additional minutes for Harrison Barnes at the power forward spot, as well as a wish to implement smaller, more versatile lineups more frequently, and his reasoning is clearly justified. With such a narrow window to the playoffs in Orlando, and such a unique, skill-driven situation playing out over just eight games, it's in Sacramento's best interest to get their most talented players on the floor and in the starting lineup.

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Kellen Browning
1 month ago

Great analysis. My main concern with this would be that we no longer have a superb sixth-man type of player. Bagley is a huge question mark and Bjelica is good, but not quite the volume shooter that Buddy or Bogi can be.
 
I worry about those times when the Kings’ starting lineup, for whatever reason, comes out slow and gets in a slump, then turns to the bench for a much-needed spark. Can Bjelica or Bagley provide as much of a spark as Buddy?
 
(Of course, maybe the counterargument is that with such a good starting five, a poor start is less likely.)

Adam Dieter
1 month ago
Reply to  dirty530

Second’d. Good comment.

Bobby Kennedy
1 month ago
Reply to  dirty530

I agree. I would probably want Bazemore at the 3 to start. It’s not a knock on Bogi being able to start, but that I trust him the most to lead the 2nd unit.

Kevin Lam
1 month ago

The five best Kings players?
 
Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
…and finally…
Jack Cooley.

Rob Hessing
1 month ago

Give me these five guys for the last six minutes of the game. Up to that point you really need to make sure that either Fox or Bogi are on the floor, as Joseph leading a 2nd unit with no Bogi is not a recipe for success.
 
You could give Fox 34 minutes and Bogi 30, always having at least one of them on the floor and having them on the floor together for roughly 16 minutes.

Adam Dieter
1 month ago
Reply to  RobHessing

Yup, this seems like a finishing lineup at the end of halves. I’m not sure it is a lineup that to start with.

Adam Dieter
1 month ago
Reply to  BabyGiraffe

Haha! *Throws yogurt pie out the window*

Adam Dieter
1 month ago
Reply to  BabyGiraffe

In all honesty, I’ve never had yogurt pie. I’d love to try it. You got an ace recipe to share?

Rory Cornell
1 month ago

It would be interesting to look at what the rotations would have to look like in order to make this happen. Do they go true galaxy brain, and make Bjelly the first big off the bench, and go super small with with him at center? Who do they pair with Bagley in the frontcourt when he’s on the floor? Can they start Fox/Buddy/Bogi, but still stagger their minutes enough to have at least 2 of them on the floor for most of the game?

Richie J
1 month ago
Reply to  BabyGiraffe

Having Bagley & Barnes as the 2 biggest Kings on the court sounds like a scary proposal defensively.

Carl Spackler
1 month ago
Reply to  richie88

Having Bagley & Barnes as the 2 biggest Kings on the court sounds like a scary proposal defensively.

Rory Cornell
1 month ago
Reply to  Carl

It’s kinda funny that it appears as though Barnes’ best position is PF, but only when Bagley is not on the floor.
 

Richie J
1 month ago
Reply to  Carl

True, but pairing w/Barnes is esp. scary.

Timothy Bornemisza
1 month ago
Reply to  RORDOG

Replacing Holmes with Bjelicia in the proposed line-up as the first substitution could create some headaches for the other team and gobs of spacing for Fox to drive the lane. The second sub would presumably then be Bagley in for Barnes, followed by the back court rotations (Bazemore for Buddy or Bogi, Joseph for Fox, Barnes back in for whichever wing was left).
 
I think there’s a strong case to get the best players on the floor for bubble tourney regardless of position – it’s 8 (or hopefully 10) games of do or die. If that means playing Fox/Buddy/Bogi/Barnes for 40 minutes per game then go do that. They can rest after they’ve been eliminated by the Lakers

Scott Perbetsky
1 month ago

Return of play you say? This is gonna be such a shit show…
 
https://www.espn.com/soccer/fc-dallas/story/4130103/fc-dallas-out-of-mls-is-back-tournament-amid-coronavirus-cases
 
Same thing is gonna happen to the NBA season. Somebody super important is gonna have to quarantine during a pivotal playoff game or an entire team is gonna have to forfeit. The “Champion” is gonna end up with a huge asterisk, as it should. Just call it already.
 
Great article though Tim. Appreciate the high-level statistical analysis.

Adam Dieter
1 month ago

Wow. Great analysis Tim. Thank you.
 
As I said earlier in the thread, I’m not sure this is the lineup that you start with. All the numbers seem to suggest that is the best, and I don’t disagree with that, but spread over 48 minutes I think you can pick and choose where this lineup is maximized.
 
This made me think of the old Ginobili role in San Antonio. The Spurs were almost always better with him on the floor, but Pops didn’t start him because of the entire game plan. Lou Williams also applies to this theory with everywhere he has played. You need your kick to the second unit. I’m not sure who that player is with Buddy and Bogi starting. I really don’t feel the Kings have that wing player to make it happen. Maybe Bagley can be the Montrezl Harrell role, or Nemanja can be that old Ryan Anderson role, but I think it needs to be a backcourt player. 6th men tend to be guards, right? They need to be able to handle the ball, right?
 
This may come down to obscure data, but I still feel bringing Buddy off the bench in the super 6th man role gives the Kings a better 48 minute chance of winning games. Having Nemanja start keeps defense honest and gives Fox a chance to get into his drive and kick groove. Buddy off the bench in mid 1st quarter is a nice counter punch. If in the end the lineup of Fox, Buddy, Bogi, Barnes, and Holmes gets the most minutes, I’m cool with it, but I’m not sure I start with it.
 
To Rob Hessings’ poInt above. As long as the majority of your minutes have either Fox or Bogi on the court, I wholeheartedly agree. I DO NOT WANT TO SEE BUDDY AND JOESPH IN THE BACKCOURT FOR SIGNIFICANT MINUTES UNLESS INJURIES DICATE OTHERWISE. sorry for yelling.

Wilbur W
1 month ago
Reply to  Adamsite

I don’t think the 6th man necessarily has to be a guard, but with our lack of guard/wing depth, I don’t think we can afford to start both Buddy and Bogi. If we had another guard that could create consistently, then I think it could work, but our other guards/wings are Joseph, Yogi, Bazemore, and Brewer. Not exactly top options, let alone much shot creating in that group. Bogi also has a tendency to come out flat at times. I really think Bogi is just tailor-made to come off the bench.

Kings Guru21
1 month ago

Yep. Good piece Tim.

Wilbur W
1 month ago

Personally, I’d replace Bogi with Bazemore to start games. Like Bogi, he’s undersized as the 3, but Buddy and Bogi are both borderline awful defenders just based off the eye test. Plus, Bazemore plays with energy that is hard to replicate and I think he could help us not start slow. And, I just like the Bogi/Bagley combo off the bench. I just don’t think we have the depth and versatility at the wing positions to start both Bogi and Buddy.
 

Last edited 1 month ago by wilbur10
Graham Caplan
1 month ago

Bjelly over Bagley all day. Personally, I would go with Fox, Buddy, Barnes, Bjelly, and Holmes to start but would heavily mix in Bogi, Bazemore, Joseph, and Len. Those are the players I would like to see start and play in the last 5/6 minutes of the game.

Mike McCallum
1 month ago
Reply to  LandParkJimmer

Great article. I like all the comments. Its a tough call. See who’s playing well when they “break camp.” I still like Bjelly and Holmes to start, but I would not hate a small ball lineup. Will need to be careful though depending on who we play – Pels with Zion. May need to cycle in Bigs a bit more just to beat him up a little. Harrison and Brewer on Ingram. San Antonio – I could see them turning on the gas and running them, or even pounding them down low without Aldridge. Magic are bigger (Gordon, Isaac, Vuc). Run em more – so I like more small ball there. Mavs (not sure what works best. Have someone on Doncic all the fricking time – Baze, Brewer, Joseph). Rockets – they are kings (no pun intended) of small ball. Go big on them. Hope they miss their threes. Same strategy of bottling up Harden as much as possible. Nets are phoning it in – who knows. Hopefully same with the Lakers in the last game.
 
I’m just happy we’re talking baksetball. Go Kings!

Rik Smits
1 month ago
Reply to  LandParkJimmer

Yeah, the lack of respect Bjelly is getting in the article is puzzling. He was a key cog in several wins, has the high BBIQ and does many of the little things that this team sorely lacks.

Adam Dieter
1 month ago
Reply to  RikSmits

I think his starting spot is his to loose. Until someone else can beat him out at the 4 spot, the position should be his.

Edgar Swope
1 month ago

So you are saying we should be playing Luka at the 3 if we want to win…

Kevin Fung
1 month ago

Can everyone sprint a full mile rather than 100 yards?

Eric W
1 month ago

I’m not too concerned with who starts, but I certainly think the most common lineup should be Fox/Hield/Bogdan/BarnesorBjelica/Holmes.
 
Also, Barnes has been a combo forward (not a surefire wing) his entire career. As early as his 2nd season he was playing at least as many minutes at PF as he was at SF. The only real argument for playing him at the 3 is that the other options are either terrible or even more miscast in that position.

Maxwell Huss
1 month ago

I find it incredibly amusing that Vlade has invested so heavily in getting traditional bigs on this roster… yet our best lineup has only one of those bigs. And it’s the one who was an afterthought signing at around $5M/yr.

Rik Smits
1 month ago
Reply to  AirmaxPG

Amusing in a sad, clusterfuckin’ way.

Maxwell Huss
1 month ago
Reply to  RikSmits

Yeah I guess I’m past the point of sad. When I see this front office and ownership (which we had such high hopes for) continuously shit the bed… I think my only defense left is to laugh.

Carl Spackler
1 month ago

Marvin Bagley represents a highly skilled

 
comment image

Last edited 1 month ago by Carl
Rory Cornell
1 month ago

one little hiccup with the Fox/Buddy/Bogi trio is that the team has never actually performed that well with lineups that include all 3 players:
 
17-18: 280 mins, 100.0 ORtg, 108.6 DRtg, -8.6 net (team overall: 103,1, 110.4, -7.3)
18-19: 614 mins, 104.4 ORtg, 108.9 DRtg, -4.5 net (team overall: 109.6, 110.8, -1.2)
19-20: 248 mins, 108.5 ORtg, 112.8 DRtg, -4.3 net (team overall: 109.0, 110.8, -1.7)
 
I wouldn’t say this is a reason to not try to start them together. I’ve just always been a little leery of the assumption that playing your best individual players together leads to the best outcomes.

Maxwell Huss
1 month ago
Reply to  RORDOG

 

Jeromy Simonoff
1 month ago

Yay, more Barnes at the 4, he says. I thought we were trying to win games…

furious.d
1 month ago

I’d play the matchups and prioritize running and hitting the hot hand. This team has zero true superstars to build the game plan around and only one absolute starter in Fox, but it does have depth. Continuity can’t be cemented in 8 games, so find your mismatches on a game-to-game basis and exploit them.
 
Eg. in the first game against the Spurs, they will be missing Aldridge and their only true rotation big is Poeltl. I’d let Len neutralize him and then set Holmes and Bagley loose on Lyles and Gay to see if you can overwhelm them physically and create foul trouble. A shooting contest between Fox, Buddy, Bogi, Barnes and Murray, Forbes, White, Derozan seems like more of a coin flip to me.

Maxwell Huss
1 month ago

So if Barnes gets significant minutes at the 4, how do we see the minutes being divided up at the 4 and 5? We have Holmes, Bjelly, Giles, Len, and now Bagley who will be vying for playing time.
 
I was thinking Len would be the odd man out, but his play seemed pretty valuable since he came over. There are also spacing issues with pretty much every one of those players aside from Bjelly.
 
 

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[…] As good as this lineup sounds on paper, there’s currently uncertainty surrounding multiple players here, but the first four players are all something that our own Tim Maxwell dug deep into.  […]

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