Can De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell coexist? Taking the temperature on Kings’ playoff hopes

Remember when the Sacramento Kings were “a superteam, just young?” Those words came out of Vlade Divac’s mouth in June of 2018, right after he drafted Marvin Bagley III with the No. 2 overall pick. Yeah, he was a little off.


The Kings’ core at that time consisted of De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic, both coming off solid rookie seasons; Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the Cousins trade; perhaps Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, both of whom they’d drafted the same night they picked Fox; and now Bagley, the prospect they’d chosen over Luka Doncic. Sacramento was coming off a 27-55 season, its second under coach Dave Joerger. 

Three years later, Divac and Joerger are long gone. So is Bogdanovic, even though the Kings could have simply matched Atlanta’s offer sheet last offseason to keep him around. Hield and Bagley remain on the roster, despite their agitating to get out of town. Fox has been the picture of incremental improvement and is now a fringe All-Star but the franchise has not been on a similar trajectory. Sacramento finished 39-43 under Joerger in 2018-19 — its high-water mark over the past 15 years, sadly — and then went 31-41 under Luke Walton in each of the two seasons since. Fox, just 23 but entering Year 5, said at Media Day that his goal is to “help this team get back to where they were a long time ago.”

Could this be the year the Kings finally return to the playoffs? They’ll need progress from Tyrese Haliburton, who will start full-time after a terrific rookie season. They’ll need immediate contributions from ballhawk Davion Mitchell, a rookie seven months older than Bagley (and, in Fox’s opinion, already a top-five on-ball defender. In the offseason they re-signed starting center Richaun Holmes and added reserve Tristan Thompson. Harrison Barnes, coming off the best all-around year of his career, will continue to tie lineups together. The front office, led by Monte McNair, clearly wants to see progress. 

Sacramento had an above-average offense last season, but no one cared because it gave up 116.5 points per 100 possessions, the second-worst single-season mark in NBA history. The defense got better in the final few weeks, but that might mean nothing. Fox, Haliburton and Barnes were all missing for much of that, and Sacramento was blessed to play the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder three times. In late April, the Utah Jazz beat the Kings 154-105, without All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley

Fox and Haliburton put on weight over the summer, but the Kings still lack size and length on the perimeter. Last year they were awful in the halfcourt, awful in transition and awful at keeping opponents out of the paint, off of the boards and away from the free throw line. Mitchell helps their point-of-attack defense and Thompson helps on the glass, but this is not a particularly balanced roster. Barnes is best at the 4 and Hield is best at the 2, but both will likely log lots of minutes at the 3. Whenever Holmes, Bagley, Len and Thompson are all healthy, at least one of them will be unhappy about playing time. 

It will be hard for Sacramento to be as bad as it was defensively. It’s also difficult to imagine a leap to the land of the average, at least as currently constituted. Ben Simmons trade speculation persists for good reason, and if the Kings don’t start their season well, it will get louder. This team isn’t that young anymore. 

Sacramento Kings roster

Taking the temperature

Kings believer: First, the league somehow lets Haliburton fall all the way to No. 12 for no logical reason. Then the Kings steal Mitchell at No. 9. Insane. Look at this defense:

If there is one reason I believe in the Kings more than I did last year, it’s Mitchell. He is exactly the guy this team needed to set the tone. Everybody who watches him harass ballhandlers is going to be inspired to defend harder, and, I mean, it’s easier to protect the paint when you’re giving up less dribble penetration. I know it’s weird to talk about a rookie as a transformative defender, but he’s obviously not a normal “rookie.” There’s no way they’re dead last in defense again. 

Kings skeptic: Chant it with me: Not dead last! Not dead last! What an accomplishment that would be. Definitely up there with the summer league championship. 

Kings believer: Hey! Make fun of the summer league champs all you want, I’ll be the one laughing when Louis King is doing exactly what he did in Vegas in regular NBA games. Actually, I bet you don’t even know who Louis King is because you don’t really care what McNair’s front office is trying to build. Most people would rather say “KANGZ LOL” and move on rather than taking a real look at the roster. 

Kings skeptic: I know who Louis King is, and, based on his name alone, I love that he ended up with this team. Maybe you’re right and he’ll fill the massive hole on the wing. It is absolutely ridiculous, though, that Sacramento kind of needs that to happen. This is an undrafted player on a two-way contract, who has appeared in a total of 16 NBA games, and I’m pretty sure he’s the Kings’ best small forward because the only other one is Robert Woodard III. While the rest of the league is obsessed with versatile wings, this team appears to be trying to build the boat entirely out of point guards and centers. How does this make any sense?

Kings believer: The roster construction is a bit weird, but a lot of this is the result of the front office being opportunistic. If guys like Haliburton and Mitchell are available to you, you don’t pass them up. Obviously the team would be a bit more conventional if Kyle Kuzma were in Hield’s place, but I’m not exactly distraught over that particular trade falling apart. Give me three-guard lineups for all 48 minutes! Does that not sound fun to you?

Kings skeptic: Three-guard lineups are fun in the same way that centerless, switch-everything lineups are fun. They can be extremely effective as a counterpunch, but if you can’t play any other way, you’re in trouble. Regarding your guy Mitchell, a player I’d love in a different context, this is the (extremely) rare situation in which I might have chosen fit over talent in the draft. Forget Kuzma — imagine how much simpler things would be if the Kings simply had Ziaire Williams, Chris Duarte, Moses Moody or Trey Murphy instead of Mitchell. Is Mitchell definitively more talented than all of them? Do you see him as a future star? 

Kings believer: I’m not going to make any big proclamations about how Mitchell’s career will eventually stack up to those guys’. I’m just not nearly as concerned as you are about short-term fit. I can easily see Hield and Bagley being moved at the trade deadline, and I have no idea why anyone is making a big deal out of the Kings entering the season with a bunch of (pretty good!) bigs. The important thing is that Fox, Haliburton and Mitchell can coexist. I’m confident that they can, unless both Haliburton and Mitchell turn into star playmakers, which would be an awesome problem. 

Kings skeptic: It’s not just that they have too many bigs, it’s that they traded Delon Wright — a good, multipositional player — for the right to pay Thompson slightly more money. I will never, ever understand that. And sure, if your argument is that the Kings could balance this roster by the trade deadline, you are correct. Maybe they’ll even make some kind of blockbuster trade that renders most of this discussion useless. Maybe that hypothetical blockbuster will involve the Philadelphia 76ers. I’m operating under the assumption that the Kings want to end their playoff drought now, though, and I don’t think that’s likely with this weird group. They just won’t get enough stops.

Eye on: Davion Mitchell

You have to love Mitchell’s overall vibe, and he undeniably has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender. But is he, as Fox says, already there? Can he consistently defend bigger players at this level? Can he be as aggressive as he wants without getting in foul trouble? 

More importantly, will he be good enough on offense to justify finding as many minutes as possible for him? Mitchell’s dramatic improvement from 3-point range as a junior was encouraging, but it’s also a fairly small sample. The free throw shooting was rough, and he needs to add a floater to his arsenal, especially if he has trouble finishing around NBA bigs. I am generally bullish on the fit, mostly because Fox and Haliburton ensure that he will never be tasked with running the whole show himself, and a little bit because his shot has looked great in the preseason: 

But this only works if he’s a real threat. 

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