Despite ongoing rumblings of disharmony between Dave Joerger and the front office, the Sacramento Kings put together their most entertaining, uplifting season in recent memory this year. Their 39-43 record was not quite good enough to end their playoff drought but there were plenty of reasons for optimism about the direction that the roster was heading in.
De’Aaron Fox, in particular, flashed All-Star point guard skills with his playmaking and leadership as Sacramento averaged 114.2 points a night – ninth best in the league. Playing at a fast pace, he got the best out of the athletic frontcourt options – Willie Cauley-Stein, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. Buddy Hield made his mark too, slotting in as a key floor spacer. The team had cemented itself as a favourite among NBA neutrals and held its own against a number of NBA heavyweights. A budding rivalry with the Golden State Warriors was being discussed.
But Joerger was fired last week by general manager Vlade Divac and swiftly replaced by Luke Walton, whose rollercoaster three-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers had just come to an end amid a chaotic few days in Lakerland.
This is a bold move for a Kings franchise with a spotty track record on big decisions, including a few that have prompted league-wide mockery. While Walton enjoyed success as interim head coach with the Warriors, he was fortunate enough to step in and coach a team headlined by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson that was accustomed to winning and had plenty of locker room leaders.
It was hard to evaluate his coaching with the Lakers (98-148 overall), especially this season where he was handed an ill-fitting roster short on outside shooting, but he seemed to have nurtured Los Angeles’ youngsters well in his first two years.
Cracking the playoff picture
For the Walton hire to be considered the right move, Sacramento surely have to fight their way into the playoffs over the next few years - and that will be no easy feat with the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks - two of the teams that missed out this year - expected to be better. None of the established Western Conference powerhouses appear to be on the brink of a decline.
As much as anything, the Kings need stability. Walton becomes their tenth head coach since 2006 - a staggering number that underlines the franchise’s struggles, given the various different schemes and philosophies for the players to grapple with. While there is understandably urgency in Sacramento to end a painful postseason drought, they cannot afford to hit the panic button if the 2019/20 season begins slowly.
Keep an eye on how the Kings tweak their roster over the summer, but there is a solid foundation in place. The next step, with Walton at the helm, is going to be the toughest.