Before the season, Mike Brown stated that “Good is the enemy of great”. The Kings had just come off their best season in almost two decades, but Sacramento’s coach wasn’t satisfied. The Kings needed to be better, and the path towards getting better was going to be a lot harder than the one they took last season.
“A lot of times if you are good, you get too comfortable. And if you get too comfortable, and you’re OK with the position that you’re in, it makes it extremely hard to be great. So for us, we’ve got to win the day every single day. And we’ve got to be OK with open and honest communication with each other. We’ve gotta be OK with the mental and physical stress that it takes to just be a little bit better. You’ve got to be OK being uncomfortable so it helps us prepare for a deep playoff run.”
So far, the Kings haven’t done a great job of dealing with adversity. Yes, they have the same exact record (13-9) after 22 games as they did last season, but games like last night’s blowout loss against the Clippers have been far too common an occurrence. The Kings lost by 20 points last night, the fourth such time already this season that the Kings have lost by 20 or more points. Last year, they only had four 20 or more point losses over the entire season. On the other side, the Kings have also yet to have a win by more than 20 points this season compared to three at the same point last season. That’s a big reason why Sacramento’s net rating is negative despite a 13-9 record.
So what’s going wrong? Why does it seem like this year’s Kings team has more trouble hanging onto leads and also digging themselves into bigger holes than last season’s team?
One of the biggest culprits for Sacramento’s woes has been compounding issues in the 2nd period. This year’s Kings team also seems to have a very big 2nd quarter problem, as pointed out by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann in his latest Power Rankings. The Kings have a positive Net Rating in every single quarter outside of the 2nd quarter, where they transform from one of the best teams in the NBA to one of the worst. The Kings have a -15.5 net rating in the 2nd quarter, with the only team performing worse being the Ja Morant-less Memphis Grizzlies. In the 13 games the Kings have won, they’ve actually managed to have a positive net rating in that 2nd quarter even if just barely at 0.4. In their nine losses however? That net rating plummets to an absolutely ludicrous -38.8, which matches the eye test. The Kings have seen multiple leads disappear and deficits turn insurmountable, and it all tends to start in that crucial 2nd quarter before the break.
Last night against the Clippers, the Kings didn’t get off to a great start but the game was still within reach at eight points. The Clippers turned that eight point lead into a 19 point lead in just over four minutes into the 2nd quarter, with the Kings not getting a single stop until James Harden missed a three pointer with 7:28 left. In fact, the only stops the Kings got for most of the quarter were when the Clippers missed a three pointer. It wasn’t until Russell Westbrook turned the ball over with 2:06 left in the quarter that the Kings got a real stop, and by then that eight point first quarter lead had turned into a nearly 30 point Clippers lead that the Kings didn’t have the energy to come back from, especially on the 2nd night of a back to back.
The Kings didn’t seem to have this much trouble in the 2nd quarter last season. Last year’s Kings team actually had a slightly negative net rating in the 1st quarter (-1.4), but were positive in the 2nd (3.0), 3rd (3.9) and 4th (4.8). Last year’s team seemed to just need to get warmed up, whereas this year’s team tends to start fast and then peter out before ramping back up as the game goes down.
This doesn’t really seem to be a bench issue either, or at least not just a bench issue. One of the reasons you might think to look at when it comes to 2nd quarter woes is that the bench comes in and they aren’t nearly as good as the starters (and Sacramento’s starting lineup has a stellar net rating), but Sacramento’s starters still tend to play the most minutes in the second quarter and are vastly underperforming their usual standards. De’Aaron Fox leads the team in second quarter minutes, but posts a -11.8 net rating (he is positive in every other quarter). Domantas Sabonis is really bad in the 2nd quarter, posting a terrible -26.8 net rating (he is also positive in every other quarter), and Harrison Barnes (-18.6), Kevin Huerter (-17.3) and Keegan Murray (-14.2) aren’t much better. In fact the only Kings player on the entire team with a positive net rating in the 2nd quarter is JaVale McGee at +16.9.
Now, there is one other factor to consider, and that is that certain teams seem to just give the Kings trouble. After last night’s loss to the Clippers, the Kings have now lost nine games on the season, but to just four different teams. The Kings are a combined 1-9 against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, L.A. Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans and 12-0 against everyone else. Even that one win against those teams featured the Kings having to make a 24 point comeback and Malik Monk to hit an absolutely insane game winner off the glass.
The Warriors make sense as a tough opponent for the Kings; no team is more familiar with Sacramento’s strengths and weakness as a team after how much these two teams have played each other. The Rockets are much improved this season, and the Kings were also without De’Aaron Fox and on the road for both of those games, but they did a good job of shutting down the paint and making life difficult for Sacramento, especially Domantas Sabonis. The Pelicans are just a brutal matchup for the Kings, with bigger size at almost every position and the Clippers feature two Hall of Fame two way wings and another Hall of Fame guard who is starting to get into a rhythm, as well as a big man who has the strength and size to give Sabonis trouble. Six of these nine losses have also come on the road, and three of the worst ones being on the second night of a back to back.
But if the Kings want to be great and not just good, they’re going to need to figure out their issues in the second quarter and against certain teams. This isn’t a league where you can afford to be inconsistent or not play for all 48 minutes. The Kings need to find a way to bring the energy in every quarter and whether it’s at home or on the road. Yes, there are some personnel changes that will likely be needed (namely more wing depth and a reliable backup PG), but this is the team we have now and they need to be better, especially in the tough Western Conference.
The Kings are going to be back at home for a six game homestand starting Thursday against Oklahoma City, and hopefully this early season adversity will temper them for future battles, but they’ll need to figure out these issues soon.