The Portland Trail Blazers' victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday officially, mathematically, eliminated the Sacramento Kings from a playoff berth. Of course, waiting for the mathematical certainty was just taking the easy way out; the Kings playoff hopes died under the Dallas Maverick' outstanding comeback on Tuesday, was double-tapped on Friday when they listlessly cratered against a Brooklyn Nets team that was missing 6 of their best 7 players, and was officially buried when they collapsed against the Houston Rockets.
But hey! In between those three losses, the Kings had an offensively-excellent 140-125 win against the New Orleans Pelicans, the only team who arguably has had a worse time in the Bubble than Sacramento! That was fun, right?...
In all honestly, the Bubble Basketball has been excellent - even the Kings games, if you can just appreciate the other teams. Tuesday's loss to the Mavericks would have been a thrilling basketball game to watch, if any Kings fans could watch He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named without envy and rage (I wish I could enjoy watching a 21-year-old maestro of the game set records night after night and just appreciate the beautiful basketball he plays). The Nets beating the Kings with a roster of G-Leaguers is damn impressive. And who knows how far the Rockets will get in the Playoffs, but James Harden is an offensive mastermind and Houston's ultra-small-ball experiment is addicting to watch.
...Damnit, let's just get to the good.
The Good: Bogi is back, baby!
Against the Mavericks on Tuesday, Bogdan Bogdanovic had one of his more frustrating games in a Kings uniform, going 1-15 (with a whole bunch of easy misses) in a game that the Kings would eventually lose in overtime.
But Bogi bounced back in a big way - a career-high 35 points, four rebounds, and three assists in the win against the Pelicans, and 27 points and six rebounds in the loss to the Nets. Against New Orleans, Bogi had 19 points on 7-8 shooting (5-6 from deep, the only miss being a 50 foot heave to end the quarter) shooting line in the first quarter, when the Kings scored a Sacramento franchise record 49 points in the period. Honestly, Bogi's career high might have been a lot higher if Sacramento hadn't resorted to their hot-potato isolation offense a lot more in the second half.
And... that's it for Good. There were other bright spots this week, of course. De'Aaron Fox continued his star ascension offensively, averaging an incredible 26.3 points and 8.8 assists this week while still getting to the rim with ease (just don't look at his three point percentage). DaQuan Jeffries had 12 points against the Magic in 12 minutes, got 30 minutes against the Rockets, and continued to make the case for more playing time (especially now that the Kings should be making a youth movement). Alex Len played for the first time after missing a bunch of the Bubble Training Camp with the virus, and the Kings needed his size and physicality to earn their lone win of the trip. So yeah, some good stuff. But this team doesn't get silver linings in Orlando.
The Bad: The Coaching Staff's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Utilization of Buddy Hield
The contest against Houston saw a miracle - Buddy Hield got unleashed in the right way! In the opening quarter, Buddy sank his first three threes: one off an excellent assist from Bogi, another off a screening hand-off from Harry Giles, and the third off of an iso move. He deferred to the initiators (for the most part), and while he still had some dribble drives, they all ended in good passes, including a highlight alley-oop to Harry Giles! Buddy had 11 points and two assists on 4-5 shooting in the first half.
But when Buddy saw the court in the 2nd half, the game was out of hand, the Kings had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, and the initiator mask came back on. The results were not pretty. Hield went 2-6 from the field (and 1-5 from deep) in the second half, and finished with 16 points.
Over the course of the year, Luke Walton identified Buddy's handling and playmaking as a big point of emphasis. He clearly sold Hield on a role that he is not suited for, and has benched Buddy repeatedly when he fails to be effective at it - banging a square peg into a round hole, the absolute pinnacle of Sacramento Kings coaching strategies. Buddy's terrible utilization isn't a new theme, as both Sanjesh Singh and Tony Xypteras have covered in depth. But the Orlando disaster has been extra-harsh on Hield, averaging 12.5 points on 42% shooting, far below his talent level and capabilities.
As Kings legend/meme legend Pete Youngman reminded us after the Nets game, Buddy is working his way back from having COVID-19, whose effects on even the healthiest in our society we still don't understand. But while Buddy's offensive struggles may be peaking in Orlando, it's been a consistent issue across a lot of the season; he's being asked to play a role he isn't suited for, and the coaching staff often benches him for their own hubris. There hasn't been a single Sacramento King who has been better utilized under Luke Walton than they were under Dave Joerger, and Buddy is chief among them.
The Meaningless: Luke Walton's Shallow, Meaningless Coaching
If you haven't read Blake Ellington's excellent piece from this weekend, stop reading this article and go check it out; the meaningless, depressing/hilarious quotes that fall from Luke Walton's mouth go far beyond the Watch The Tape meme and bury any possible optimism about his long-term career as an NBA head in a greater way than any blog post can. But if you want a more meaningful condemnation of where this team is at, De'Aaron Fox made it clear last night:
“Like tonight with the Rockets, when they’re playing like that, we have to know what we’re going to do and I don’t think we did that tonight. I think that was the case of a lot of games this year.”
— Richard Ivanowski (@ivanowskinba) August 10, 2020
It's hard to take even the few bright spots from the last six games seriously. The Kings defense fluctuates between various stages of confusion and listlessness. The offense has had a few promising moments, mostly from Fox, Bogi, or half-a-game of optimized Buddy, but those are diminished by too many your-turn/my-turn isolation possessions while the rest of the team seems instructed to nail their feet to the floor. Worst of all, the thing we hoped the Kings would give most - they wanted all the damn smoke, remember! - was effort. And for the second season in a row, the Kings players have quit on a Coach to end a season.
(Side note - I'd argue that the players quitting on Joerger is less surprising, given that the Front Office basically quit on Dave Joerger a whole 5 months before the players did, when Brandon William's publicly threatened Joerger's tenure and the team offered nothing but meaningless words. We all know Joerger was a tough coach to get along with, but would the Kings players have been able to tank so harshly last April if they didn't know the organization had given up on him earlier than they had? Walton is locked in for the next few years - what's his excuse?)
Luke Walton was supposed to be the next step in the process, Vlade Divac's next big gamble that would take last year's promising squad to the next level. But instead of that next step, they produced just another big stumble. We'll hear talking points and excuses, both justified and not - missing Marvin Bagley, the teams' age, and the crazy upside down world we're all living in. But the Phoenix Suns - another young, injured team experiencing this same upside down world - are 5-0, play with effort and competence on both ends, and are fighting for a Playoff spot they've had little shot at from the jump. Wouldn't it be nice if Walton coulda gotten at least consistent effort out of the Kings?
But speaking of meaningless - even if the Kings somehow manage to win these last two contests (Tuesday against New Orleans, and Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers), don't accept any record as a silver-lining. Orlando has been a disaster for the Kings, and their Head Coach seemed to view this trip - the best chance the Sacramento Kings have had in 14 years to make the Playoffs - as if it was just some sort of glorified extra Training Camp for next year. Do better, Kings.