The Kings entered this season with hopes of finally putting an end to their 13-year playoff drought. There was reason to be excited: they had won 39 games the previous season, had a fun young core, and played an exciting style of basketball. With new coach Luke Walton at the helm, this felt like the year for the Kings to finally make a jump their fans have been anticipating for over a decade.
The year did not start off that way. Sacramento quickly fell into a hole and with that hole came rumors of discontent on the roster. Dewayne Dedmon demanded a trade, Trevor Ariza was shipped out of town, and Buddy Hield was put on the bench. It felt like the Kings had fallen back into their old bad habits once more.
Then something interesting happened. The Kings started winning games. After a six-game losing streak that surely felt like rock bottom, the Kings slowly began to climb themselves out of the hole they had dug. Sacramento is 11-5 over its last 16 games with wins over the Clippers, Heat, Spurs, and Grizzlies. On Sunday, with a win over the Pistons and the Pelicans loss to the Lakers, the Kings find themselves tied for ninth place in the West. They’re only three games behind Memphis in eighth place. The playoffs are once again very much in play for the Kings.
So what happened? Did the mix of trades and benchings help Luke Walton find the necessary spark the roster was needing? While that is probably some of it, the Kings themselves give a lot of their credit to a single source: forward Harry Giles. The second-year player doesn’t have numbers that will jump out at you, but he’s one of those high energy guys that players love to play with — and one teammates credit with the Kings’ recent success. Via Jason Jones of The Athletic.
“I think Harry is probably the reason why we win,” Hield said. “Because of his energy, the way he moves without the ball, he screens, he competes. He makes some silly fouls, but shit, that’s Harry, he’s going to compete his ass off. And that’s one thing we like about Harry, he’s going to compete each and every possession. He’s not going to quit.”
“He’s been great for us, especially today,” guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Obviously, everybody knows the energy that he brings, but he was able to get a lot of offensive rebounds and tip passes. He helped us a lot when we definitely needed it because the energy wasn’t there and he was able to help us pick that up.”
Interestingly, if you look at the advanced numbers he is actually one of the lowest rated players on the Kings right now. During this 16 game stretch, the Kings are 12.9 points per 100 possessions better when Giles is off the floor. So while he’s out there providing energy, the actual results don’t seem to be positive. Don’t put all of the blame on Giles though, because in this stretch of games the Kings are also better with D’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic off the floor as well, and not by small margins. The Giles-Bjelica-Barnes-Bogdanovic-Fox lineup the Kings started against the Pistons has a net rating of -13.2 in their 16-game span. To put it plainly: their starting lineup is getting killed.
Where the Kings’ true success has been throughout this stretch is in their bench. Players like Hield, Corey Joseph, and Kent Bazemore have all been a net positive for them. They’re the names that are present in all of the Kings lineups that are on the positive side of the net rating spectrum. It’s kind of amazing, but you go through the lineups and see these same players that are a complete negative when on the floor together in other lineups that are destroying teams. Of course, a lot of these lineups are likely facing opposing teams’ bench units as well.
This does raise the question though: Are the Kings’ starters getting beaten because they don’t fit well together, or do they just not have the talent of other starting units out there? The Kings might be a team that falls into that weird middle ground where their roster is too good to lose to opposing benches, but not good enough to beat the stronger starting lineups across the NBA.
What they’re currently doing is enough to be in the playoff conversation, but they need to figure out the answer to this question sooner rather than later because if they wait too long to find an identity, teams will eventually adjust, and that could be the end of their playoff hopes.