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|
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.