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For the past three weeks, De’Aaron Fox has endured headaches, body aches, chills and a severe case of restlessness, as he helplessly watched his Kings disappear from the playoff race without him.
A particularly potent strain of the coronavirus hit Fox on April 22, and has since quarantined the Kings’ star point guard at home. (He is expected to be cleared for basketball activities soon, assuming he passes NBA protocols.) Meanwhile, Sacramento lost rookie stallion Tyrese Haliburton to a knee injury that ended the season.
The Kings, who once hoped to enter the new entry tournament, could be eliminated from contention at any time, marking their 15thth year in a row without a playoff appearance, the fourth since Fox made the 2017 draft. Experts are already speculating about a manager change.
It’s hard to imagine a more sobering ending to a season. However, stubborn optimism flashes through the Zoom connection, when Fox logs in from his living room. He is smiling, talkative and calm. He says he feels better. He is sure that soon he will return to the gym. And while this Kings season will soon be over, the future is promising.
Before the virus hit, the 23-year-old Fox was having his best season ever, with personal records for scoring (25.2 points per game), assists (7.2), free throws (7.2) and actual shooting percentage (.565) . . Haliburton, just 21, was one of the league’s best rookies this season, and the steal of consensus in the draft. They are the foundation of kings and their best hope for revival.
“If we look at where this can go, I mean, for us, we are two guys who are still young, who haven’t filled their bodies yet,” Fox said last week. “The competitors that we are, we want to win right now. But we know that we are building something in the future. “
Fox doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. The Suns, a division rival, just jumped a season from 10th place a title contender, and will soon end a 10-year playoff drought. The Knicks, who have suffered the same kinds of self-inflicted injuries as the Kings, are at the heart of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and they will almost certainly end their own seven-year postseason drought.
That leaves the Kings, whose drought is the second longest in NBA history.
It’s easy (perhaps even justifiable) to laugh and scoff at any suggestion of a rebirth of the Kings. This is a franchise, after all, that has redefined ineptitude over the past decade: wasting draft picks, mismanaging the salary cap, chasing quick fixes, firing coaches and general managers with reckless abandon, lurching from a transaction to the next without any vision coherence.
His current record (30-38) suggests more of the same. But beneath the depressing haze of defeat is the vague outline of something better, something even promising. It starts with Fox and Haliburton, who made ESPN’s list of the top 25 players under 25 years (Fox at 6, Haliburton at 9). There’s still hope for forward Marvin Bagley, the second pick in the 2018 draft, if he can ever stay healthy (he’s only played 117 of 221 games in three seasons before Sunday’s game).
But there’s clearly a lot of work to do, which is why the Kings’ biggest acquisition last year might have been at the front office, where Mount McNair now runs basketball operations. McNair, a Rockets headquarters veteran and protégé of Daryl Morey, was named general manager last September and quickly strengthened his staff with experienced hands, including former Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox, former director of exploration. of the 76ers, Phil Jabour and Paul Johnson, who spent several years with the Thunder. Former Pistons general manager Joe Dumars remains an active adviser.
It’s a much deeper and more experienced basketball operations team than the Vlade Divac franchise had for the previous half decade. McNair’s group topped the draft, hooking Haliburton at 12th, but they’ve only made minor moves since then.
His biggest decision on the list: letting Bogdan Bogdanović leaving the Hawks’ offseason, rather than matching his $ 72 million salary, has drawn mixed reviews. Bogdanović is thriving in Atlanta. But holding him at that price would have further blocked the Kings’ payroll, while locking them on the same failed roster.
Over time, the new group of experts will have to decide what to do with high-priced veterans like Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield, or whether to re-sign Richaun Holmes. They all have value individually (or as commercial commodities), but collectively this group is going nowhere. (The 30 of the Kingsth-Rated defense is not only poor, but historically bad, allowing 117 points per 100 possessions).
The team officials’ hope is to make steady improvement next season, clear the salary cap, and catch up in the next two to three years as Fox and Haliburton hit their prime. They will have the opportunity to add another shocking prospect in the July draft, where they are currently positioned for a top 10 pick.
They will also have to make a decision about coach Luke Walton, whose job security was questioned in a recent piece from The Athletic. One factor in Walton’s favor: his growing relationship with Fox, who called him “someone I’ve come to trust.”
“If you’re not winning as a team, the guys are traded, the guys who were barely holding on … are knocked out and out of the league and the coaches are fired,” said Fox, who has seen all of that in his short career. Perhaps with that in mind, Fox widely defended continuity, noting that the best teams are those in which “the players play together the longest and develop chemistry, and the coaches continue to grow and trust all of their players.”
“They all want to keep growing together and keep this group together, and keep playing for a coach you trust,” he said.
The Kings showed flashes this season: a seven-game win streak that pushed them to 12-11 in February; a five-game winning streak at the end of March, only to follow each increase with equal nine-game losing streaks.
“If one of those losing streaks we basically cut it in half, if we go 3-6 or 4-5, we’ll probably be the 10th or 9th seed right now, competing for the entry spot,” Fox said.
With an offense that is ranked in the top 10 at times this season (and currently 12th), if the Kings had put together even a top-20 defense, they would have had a reasonable chance. Or, as Fox put it, “If we can be consistent on the defensive side of the ball, then if we’re shooting, we’re going to take teams down.”
“Our attention to detail sometimes is not there,” Fox said. “We can’t have (just) three guys or two guys or four guys who are doing well. Defense is also about timing, so if one man is one step behind now, the entire defense is one step behind. So there are too many times when everyone is not on a rope together. “
The only thing the Kings can trust is Fox, who is on his way to being the first player in the Sacramento era to average at least 25 points and 7 assists, and the first in franchise history since Tiny Archibald. (34 points, 11.4 assists). in 1972-73. He is just the fourth player in the Sacramento era to average 25 points in a season (joining DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Webber and Mitch Richmond). Before the virus hit, Fox had the highest scoring total in the fourth quarter in the league.
Fox is second, behind Luka Dončić, in total unassisted field goals, according to Second Spectrum, although his efficiency needs to improve. He is ranked 20thth in percentage of effective field goals among the 48 players with at least 500 attempts without assistance (and 38th 40% effective field goal percentage on unassisted jump shots). Fox is already among the best in the league to reach the basket and convert. But there is room for improvement at the free throw line (where he’s shooting .719) and from three-point range (.322).
First, Fox has to get out of league health and safety protocols. The virus “hit me like a truck,” he said, with headaches, body aches, chills and dehydration. It also affected her fiancé, Cal’s former point guard Recee Caldwell, although they are both fine now. They have spent time in quarantine watching a lot of television and participating in daily ping-pong battles (“It gets competitive, because the scores are usually very close,” Fox said).
Fox was eight the last time the Kings made the playoffs, and only four when the Kings reached within seconds of reaching the Finals in 2002. He’s seen those moments only on tape: the intensity, the raucous crowds, cowbells and is eager to lead the revival.
“I mean, this is 15 years,” he said. “When I came in, I think of it as, you know, this is not the same (team). Let’s be different. Let’s be able to take this team to its first playoffs in many years. Let these fans experience the playoffs. This is the most passionate fan base. … Let’s be special. Let’s be able to get ourselves out of this hole that the franchise has been in for so long. And I think it will definitely be a great feeling. “
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.