It’s hard to figure out what to make of the Western Conference this year. Yes, the Golden State Warriors appear to be knocked off of their throne now that they lost another Finals… and Kevin Durant. They also will start the season without Klay Thompson, but that doesn’t mean the best conference in the NBA is weak. Teams like the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, and New Orleans Pelicans have all added players to their roster in anticipation of a moor wide open west.
Of course, the Sacramento Kings want to be in that race, too. A surprising upstart last season, the Kings finished ninth in the West. But that place belies the reality of how far Sacramento has to go. They were a full nine games back of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, and they finished two games under .500 in 2018-19.
Last season, Sacramento was in the middle of the pack in terms of both offense and defense, and they didn’t particularly defend the rim all that well. According to Cleaning the Glass, they ranked 25th in at-rim percentage on defense, wiping out the good done by their 8th-best rating against the 3-pointer.
This issue near the hoop also plagued Sacramento on offense. A reasonable 3-point shooting team, the Kings ranked 17th in at-rim percentage last year. This also seemed to negate the good that De’Aaron Fox and the rest of the team did in transition, where they were one of the best running teams in the NBA.
Worryingly, the team also lost some of its best players in terms of on/off numbers. Ben McLemore now plays for the Houston Rockets, and Willie Cauley-Stein is on the Golden State Warriors. Truthfully, Kings fans might not exactly lament the loss of those two players, whose time with the team was largely marked with unfulfilled expectations. More concerning is the reliance Sacramento will have on some of its burgeoning players who have not yet proved themselves to be net positives.
Both Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley will see increased weight put upon their shoulders this year. Bagley was a breakout star, and a potential Rookie of the Year candidate last season for Sacramento. But as it stands now, it’s not clear how the Kings will fill the gaps they need in just one year with largely the same core in place.
Sacramento has done some work to ease the load on its stars, including adding Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph, and Dewayne Dedmon. Those players — coupled with a summer of experience on the part of Bagley and Fox — are where the Kings have laid their hopes for raising the baseline of performance in Sacramento.
This is not to say that the Kings cannot be a playoff team this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder are without Russell Westbrook, and the six seed in last year’s playoffs could very easily miss the postseason in 2019-20. If Sacramento strengthens itself, there might also be a dip in how either the Portland Trail Blazers or the Houston Rockets perform.
But the real competitor when it comes to the playoff picture out west is the Los Angeles Lakers. If we are going to conservatively project that there will be one open playoff spot from last season, it would naturally be the choice of many to choose LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But health and resiliency is a major factor for L.A., not to mention depth. The players on the Lakers roster outside of James and Davis just flat-out aren’t very good, and as we’ve seen from teams like Utah, Denver, Portland, and San Antonio, depth can often trump superstars when it comes to playoff eligibility.
New head coach Luke Walton shouldn’t have a problem motivating the young players on his team. Before all the LeBron drama, Walton was building something interesting in Los Angeles. He should be able to do the same with perhaps an even better core this time around. Fox is a budding superstar, and with some guidance and defensive concentration, he should be able to lead to some kind of jump in results.
So this is where we land in Northern California: The Kings want to take the next step, and their spunkiness has everyone wishing them well. But they can’t be expected to rely on bad health breaks for their rivals. Walton will need to focus on finding a way for them to finish strong inside and defend at a rate which allows them to leap up into the playoff picture for 2020.