This has been a fascinating season for the Sacramento Kings. Unlike last season’s surprise team, there are now expectations that come along with taking the Golden State Warriors to Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.
Given the Kings were mostly healthy for the majority of last season, the absence of De’Aaron Fox in this early stretch of games forced the team into some adversity. Not only that, but the players are dealing with the push from the coaching staff to take the defense to the next level. Those two things, combined with new rotation pieces has created some interesting story lines over the last several weeks.
Let’s break down some of those things.
Davion Mitchell’s Role
Greg wrote about the question, “What is Mitchell’s future with the Kings now?” It is a good question. Mike Brown essentially replaced Mitchell in the rotation following a spirited performance by Keon Ellis in garbage time in the second loss to the Houston Rockets. Mitchell recently received three straight DNPs. Brown justifies the decision to move Ellis into that backup point guard spot based on that effort in that game against the Rockets. There might be a little more to it than that though. Brown made an interesting comment about this lineup switch following the win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was asked about the decision to completely replace Mitchell with Ellis in the rotation, and he again mentioned the Rockets game, but then commented on what Mitchell should do next time he gets into a game.
“Whether it’s for 30 seconds or, like I said, five minutes or 15 minutes or 10 minutes, he’s got to go play the right way and impact the game by not doing too much, but being who he is and playing toward his superpower to help us win,” Brown said.
That superpower, of course, is defense. That is what Mitchell is known for, so no surprise there, but the “not doing too much” comment is certainly interesting. Many have mentioned how Mitchell may not be the best fit for the free-flowing style of offense the Kings play. And when you look at the advanced stats, particularly when it comes to touches and his on/off numbers, you see where the issues are on offense, and surprisingly, on defense too.
Mitchell needs to control the ball to have an impact. There are a lot of players like this in the NBA, so it isn’t unusual, but on a team that relies on movement, cutting, everyone touching the ball and quick decisions, Mitchell tends to pound the ball a little too much, especially for the backup point guard spot. In fact, when it comes to dribbles per touch and time of possession per touch, it gets a little concerning. A “touch” is metric that quantifies how often a player handles the ball in an offensive position on the court. The rationale for this metric is that upon receiving the ball, a player has four primary options (excluding dribbling): they can either shoot, pass, turn it over or draw a foul.
Mitchell averages 4.45 dribbles per touch. De’Aaron Fox averages 4.39. For a guy like Fox who is the focal point of the offense, and a scoring guard – the team’s leading scorer, 4.39 dribbles per touch makes sense. Mitchell, who is not expected to be the team’s leading scorer of course, averages more dribbles per touch than Tyrese Haliburton, and the Indiana Pacers offense is run through him. Also, more than Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Additionally, Mitchell averages 4.54 seconds per touch. That is just a tad less than Steph Curry (4.58) and more than Jimmy Butler, Lebron James and Paul George. Keon Ellis averages 3.85 seconds per touch and 3.53 dribbles per touch.
With Mitchell starting in the first game against the Houston Rockets, the Kings finished with 20 assists and lost 107-89. In the second game against the Rockets with Mitchell starting, the Kings finished with 22 assists and lost 122-97. After Mike Brown started Ellis over Mitchell in the very next game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Kings finished with 32 assists and won 121-118. Mitchell did come off the bench in this game and performed well. In the following game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Kings finished with 28 assists and won 105-98. Now, those two losses to the Rockets do not fall all on the shoulders of Mitchell, but the style of play certainly shifted after the switch.
When looking at the on/off stats for Mitchell, the team’s points per 100 possession are -22.3 when he is on the floor. And the team’s effective field goal percentage is down 9.9%. What is even more glaring is that on defense, his on/off impact has dropped dramatically since his rookie season. In his first year, Mitchell was in the 82nd percentile in opponent points allowed per possession, 88th percentile in opponent effective field goal percentage, and 89th percentile in turnover percentage. This season, he is in the 24th percentile for opponent points per possession, 16th percentile in opponent effective field goal percentage and 69th in opponent turnover percentage.
This isn’t a bash on Davion Mitchell session, it is just a matter of trying to get to the bottom of Brown’s decision beyond Ellis playing well against the Rockets because both players are considered defensive specialists. Mitchell can still display some great on-ball defense, score when he is on and make some really solid passes on his dribble drives. For example, this was a decent game by him when he backed up Ellis against the Blazers.
But the Kings probably want more movement than Mitchell is providing. Ellis isn’t doing a ton of scoring, but he is a good defender, a “playmaker defensively” as Fox put it, and is also taller than Mitchell. Not to mention the ball doesn’t stop when he gets it in his hands. The Kings assist numbers increased incrementally when Ellis started when Fox was out, largely thanks to Domantas Sabonis running the offense, but it also was because Ellis got him the ball and let it happen.
On Sunday in the win over the Dallas Mavericks, Mitchell got his chance to prove himself to Brown again. In the second half Ellis left the game after an ankle injury. Ellis was reportedly available to return, but Mitchell came in during the fourth quarter and did an admirable job to start. He immediately locked onto Kyrie Irving, displaying those on-ball defensive tactics he is known for. This led to a missed jumper by Irving. He then got the ball out of his hands quickly on offense. On the next defensive possession, he trapped Irving with Sabonis, which led to a turnover. On the next several offensive possessions he made it a point to quickly get the ball to Sabonis, which ended up working out in the Kings favor. As the Kings pulled ahead, Mitchell got a little sloppy with jump passes and tallied 2 turnovers and missed some shots. He finished with 1 assist and 2 turnovers in 9 minutes, and was a +1.
It will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. Did Mitchell show Brown enough against the Mavs to get a large role back in the rotation?
When it comes down to it though, Malik Monk is really the backup point guard for this team anyway. Monk is averaging a career-high 5.4 assists and running some impressive pick-and-roll plays off the bench. In the two games without Fox and Ellis starting, Monk finished with a combined 18 assists.
Mitchell is a good individual defender who can surprise with his outside shot and occasional kickout pass, but he might just not be a great fit for what the Kings are looking to do, as mentioned in Greg’s piece. The season is still young though and there is plenty of time for adjustments.
The Absence And Return Of Fox
There probably are a lot of people in the fanbase and across the NBA who didn’t see De’Aaron Fox becoming what he is right now 3-4 seasons ago. I will include myself in that. The potential was always there, of course, but once he figured out how to use his speed and got the right pieces around him, my goodness, this guy blossomed into a superstar. His value to this Kings team is off the charts. The rest of the team was forced to figure it out without him for a few weeks of course, and when he came back, he immediately showed everyone why he is that dude, going for 28 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then 28 against the Los Angeles Lakers and 43 against the San Antonio Spurs. He followed that with 30 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He is averaging 31.9 points on the season. He was just named the Western Conference Player of the Week.
So yeah, Fox is the head of this snake, and it grinds at him when he can’t be out there on the floor.
“When you’re hurt and you’re not playing, and you’re just watching, you just, I don’t want to say, feel helpless, but you want to be out there to help your team,” he said.
Following the win over the San Antonio Spurs, he talked about what he is learning about this team to start the season.
“That we have to be resilient. Obviously, I was out for a couple of games, we got blown out twice in a row, we lost three straight, but they came back and won two straight at home, and then I came back. I think this team is resilient. Obviously, we went to the playoffs last year and lost in the first round, I feel like that was a blessing in disguise for us,” he said, acknowledging the true learning and chemistry building this team is experiencing.
Fox has a calm leadership quality to him that fits this team’s personality so well. And after the Mavericks win, Mike Brown brought up the MVP potential Fox has.
“Nobody can freakin’ mess with that man,” Brown declared.
The Team Defense
The eye test shows the Kings are actually making progress on the defensive side of the ball, but the numbers are showing improvement as well.
The Kings are 14th in defense rating. I repeat: The Sacramento Kings are 14th in defensive rating. The team was 24th last season. They haven’t been higher than 19th since the 2005-06 season!
Generally speaking, team defense in basketball can be broken down into four sections: shooting defense, forcing turnovers, rebounding, and avoiding fouls. Let’s compare how the Kings are doing in those areas with last season.
- 22nd in opponent field goal percentage: 48.5%
- 13th in opponent turnovers per game: 14.8
- 15th in rebounds per game: 52.2
- 23rd in fouls per game: 21.2
So, the Kings are doing decent in opponent turnovers and rebounds, but need to improve in the other two categories.
However, let’s take a look at last season for the Kings:
- 27th in opponent field goal percentage: 48.9%
- 12th in opponent turnovers per game: 14.2
- 21st in rebounds per game: 50.7
- 12th in fouls per game: 19.9
The team has improved in opponent field goal percentage and rebounds, and is around the same in opponent turnovers. They were better with fouls per game last season, which actually makes sense because there is a new sense of physicality on the defensive side of the ball this season. That is why you hear Brown and many of the players talk about learning how to play with more defensive physicality without fouling.
“I think we’re more connected than ever. I think when we do mess up, we quickly know whose fault it was. We talk about it. Coaches bring it up. Everybody’s accountable. But I think we’re connected with what we want to do defensively. We have really good team defense right now. We’ve got guys pressuring the ball,” he said.
Brown recently emphasized the need for consistent attention to detail. He plans to rigorously address every mistake, highlighting the importance of focusing on the small aspects of the game to transition from being a good team to a great one. Brown recognizes that this approach might be taxing for the players, but insists on its necessity for the team’s growth, stressing the importance of consistency and the belief that they can still improve.
Brown also reflected on last season’s experiences, noting that attempting to enhance their defensive game during the playoffs had negatively affected the team both mentally and physically. This season, he aims for a strong start with a focus on maintaining high-level offensive play while significantly improving their defense. The goal is to condition the team to sustain this defensive intensity throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, ensuring they are well-prepared for the demands of a seven-game series.
“We have to figure out how to defend and try to defend at a high level for as close to 48 minutes as possible, so that we’re conditioned come playoff time to bring it in a seven-game series night after night, after night, while executing and making shots offensively,” he said.
Keegan Murray – The Lockdown Defender
Speaking of defense, Brown has unleashed Murray as a promising two-way player. Murray has been tasked with guarding some of the leagues’ top ball handlers this season, including Donavan Mitchell, in which he has done a really solid job on. His length, size and lateral movement is able to really bother opponents, especially with how he is fighting through screens.
Following the win over the Cavs, Fox had this to say about it: “I think he’s moving so much better than he did when he first got into the league. I think he could be an outstanding defender. I mean, he’s 6’8, he’s long. Obviously, he can already shoot the ball. He can already do things offensively. For us, if he can be that type of guy defensively, that’s huge for us. Holding a guy like that to seven for 21 from the field, you have to tip your hat off to what Keegan did tonight [against the Cavs].”
And then Murray himself added this when asked about being tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player: “I love it. When I was in college and even last year, I really wasn’t known as a defender. I just tried to figure it out on my own. I obviously asked the coaches, and the coaches helped me too, but it’s just a lot of figuring out what guys do and their tendencies and just trying to be the aggressor on defense because I feel like over the offseason, I got more athletic and stronger, and that’s helped a lot.”
Murray is averaging 1.4 steals per game this season, compared to .8 last season. He also is averaging 6.4 rebounds, compared to 4.6 last season.
When looking at his on/off diff, Murray is a +13.3 on the season, which puts him in the 81st percentile in the league. On defense when Murray is on the floor, the Kings opponents are in the negative when it comes to points per possession, effective field goal percentage, and offensive rebounding percentage when Murray is on the floor. He is in the 88nd percentile for opponent turnover percentage.
The Two Bad Domantas Sabonis Games, Plus Appreciation
I am already well over 2,000 words and I was planning to end the article with Murray’s defense and only list 4 things, but then I started thinking about what Sabonis is doing. He caught a little flack following the two losses against the Rockets, but those were full team losses, not just on him. When this team is functioning how it usually does, Sabonis is the epitome of “you know what you are going to get”: tough play, rebounds, great screens, assists and double-digit scoring.
“He’s doing what he does. This is what he does. He is the heartbeat of our team,” Fox said after the Spurs victory. “Our offense is run through him so much. He goes in, he scores in isolations. He scores on the role. He’s making threes. He also rebounds. One of the best rebounders in the league. He distributes the ball. One of the best passing bigs probably to ever play the game. We run so much through him, and he’s going out there and he’s delivering. He’s doing exactly what we expect him to do.”
Sabonis is the type of player the fan base has always appreciated: a guy who is tough as nails and always puts it all on the line. What is different now is that a guy like that is one of the franchise cornerstones instead of a fringe bench player. No offense to Jon Brockman or Quincy Acy, but you all know what I mean.
What he did to Anthony Davis in the Lakers win is a testament to who he is. When you look at player hustle stats like screen assists per game, Davis is first with 6.8 per game and Sabonis is second with 5.3 per game. In terms of screen assists points, Davis is first with 14.6 per game and Sabonis is second with 13.4 per game. In total rebounds per game, Sabonis is second with 13.1 and Davis is 4th with 11.7. So, these two are in tier 1 of NBA big men in today’s game.
The other day, Sabonis dropped 29 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists on Davis. Davis finished with 9 points and 9 rebounds. This might have just been another day at the office with Sabonis, but he clearly asserted himself over Davis. In the very next game, he put up 27 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists against Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs. Then 32 points and 13 rebounds against the Mavs.
He is currently averaging a career high in points per game (20.8), rebounds per game (12.9) and blocks (.9 per game).
What Sabonis does to help facilitate the offense, as Fox mentioned, and bring a level of toughness the Kings have needed for a really long time, shouldn’t go unnoticed because it is so routine for him and not as flashy as some of the top guards in the league. Even if he has a few tough outings, which I suspect won’t happen for two games in a row this season again, he will always be back, and we all know it.
Fox may be the scorer and closer for the Beam Team, but Sabonis is certainly the heartbeat.
Most important out of all of this is last season wasn’t a fluke. The Kings are 8-4 now and 4th in the Western Conference standings with an improving defense.