New Kings' coach Luke Walton gestures to players during a March 2019 game for the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo retrieved from AP)

Kings fire, hire after best season in over a decade

This is the last of four updates on the Kings throughout the 2018-19 season.

The Sacramento Kings finished ninth in the Western Conference at 39-43, their best regular-season record since 2005-06.

After receiving a deserved extension as the general manager, Vlade Divac immediately fired head coach Dave Joerger, who ended a three-year-stint in Sacramento. Two days later, Divac hired Luke Walton, the former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Many are appalled by the firing — and some by the hiring — but Divac took an interesting risk. It almost seems as if the Walton plan was set in motion long before the public heard about it.

Walton is an up-and-coming coach (39 years old) and fits well with the young Kings. In fact, Divac had his eyes on Walton before hiring Joerger three years ago, according to The Sacramento Bee. At the time, Sacramento wasn’t an attractive destination, but the times have changed.

Walton’s claim to fame was his 39-4 interim stint with the Golden State Warriors during their historic 73-win season. This undoubtedly landed him the Lakers job in the first place. However, the arrival of LeBron in LA came with massive amounts of pressure. Failing to make the playoffs sealed his fate as Walton and the Lakers parted ways on April 12.

However, Walton wasn’t exactly put in a position to succeed. The Lakers brought in washed-up veterans to complement their inexperienced players.

The blueprint for LeBron’s teams has been surrounding him with shooters. However, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka decided on a defensive core of veterans such as point guard Rajon Rondo and shooting guard Lance Stephenson. The “experiment” failed due to injuries and the Anthony Davis trade fiasco. Johnson, recognizing the failure, decided to resign. Ironically, many thought Johnson’s first offseason move would be to fire Walton, but he quit first.

The Lakers organization lacked chemistry all season. On the other hand, the Kings have a nucleus of young players who bought into Joerger’s message. After transforming the team from a 27-win laughingstock to a fast-paced, 39-win team in just one year, Joerger didn’t deserve to be fired. He had the Kings trending upward toward a playoff berth in the near future. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to realize his dream.

In Sactown, the end of the season was anticlimactic. After the All-Star break, the Kings were jostling for a playoff bid, just a few games behind the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

In the last update, the magic win number was 44. However, the Kings still wouldn’t have clinched — both the Spurs and Clippers finished 48-34.

Experienced coaches Gregg Popovich (Spurs) and Doc Rivers (Clippers) sparked their teams at the perfect time. From Feb. 27 to March 18, the Spurs won nine straight games, including upsets of the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks and Warriors. The Clippers, meanwhile, went 13-2 in March during the home stretch of the regular season.

The Kings weren’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs until the end of March. However, they lost six of their last eight. That, combined with the streaking Spurs and Clippers, wasn’t the recipe for a playoff berth.

On a better note, the Kings have found their backcourt for the future in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. Also, power forward Marvin Bagley III has emerged as a young star. Growing from within, the Kings are showing signs of life in the West.

In his third year, Hield had a historic season, averaging a career-high 20.7 points per game (ppg). He hit 278 3-pointers, shattering Peja Stojakovic’s team season record of 240 in 2003-04. Hield later passed Damian Lillard for the most 3s through the first three seasons in the NBA (602). It’s easy to attempt a lot of 3s, but Hield hit 42.7 percent — ninth in the league. Just ask James Harden, who attempted over 1,000 3s but made only 36.8 percent.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, moves the Kings make this offseason after their surprising coaching change, specifically whether they will re-sign center Willie Cauley-Stein or look elsewhere.

The Kings have evolved greatly since October but definitely for the better. The addition of small forward Harrison Barnes seems brilliant, but we will see how the Walton project works out.

Considering that the Western Conference won’t be less competitive in the near future, the Kings will have to take serious strides to reach the postseason. For fans, it’s time to turn the page and look ahead to next season. Enjoy the intensity of the 2019 postseason, knowing that it won’t be long before the Kings end their drought.

By Jackson Crawford

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