New center Richaun Holmes excites the crowd during the Kings' 122-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 25 at Golden 1 Center. (Photo retrieved via The Athletic)

CRAWFORD ON THE COURT: Kings competitive despite key injuries

Following a 39-win season of growth, the Sacramento Kings hired a 39-year-old up-and-coming coach in Luke Walton, hoping to reach the postseason and end the longest active playoff drought in the NBA (13 years). With a mix of veterans and key new pieces, Sacramento was 12-15 as of Dec. 17. This is the first of four updates on the Kings’ 2019-20 season.

Sacramento Kings fans and players alike entered the 2019-20 NBA regular season with high hopes and expectations as the organization continues to build around its nucleus of young talent. 

However, the team got off to a roller-coaster start, plagued by injuries to key players and late-game woes. 

After the Kings’ 0-5 start, fans felt uneasy about any potential playoff hopes this season, especially considering the loaded rosters in Los Angeles. Following a title-winning season with the Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard joined Paul George in LA on the Clippers, while the Lakers completed the Anthony Davis deal (and got off to a 24-4 start as of Dec. 17). Luckily for the Kings, the Warriors aren’t even remotely the same team they’ve been for the past five seasons. But the Pacific Division certainly is still no joke, clearly shown by the 29-point beatdown the Kings felt at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in the season opener on Oct. 23. 

However, the Kings bounced back after the nightmare start, winning six out of eight games, and have hovered near .500 since. The most encouraging sign, despite some blown leads, is that the Kings compete every night. In years past, especially during the DeMarcus Cousins-era, the Kings often got blown out. Now, the young team rises to the challenge against the juggernauts of the Western Conference, losing to the Lakers 99-97 on Nov. 15 and squeaking out a hard-fought overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets 100-97 on Nov. 30.

Also, after an 0-2 start to a four-game road trip in early December, the Kings responded with a 110-106 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 8 followed by a miraculous 119-118 victory over the Houston Rockets the next day. The win over Houston was the ultimate steal: a three-point buzzer-beater on the road on the second night of a back-to-back over a top-tier team.

With the Kings standing as the eighth seed as of Dec. 17, fans can’t be too unhappy considering injuries and untapped potential. The Kings have competed with top teams — and beaten a few — without being at full force.

Notably, Marvin Bagley III, a second-year rising star, went out in the season opener with a thumb injury. Bagley returned to action on Dec. 11 and has seemed rusty.

The Kings also played over a month without 21-year-old De’Aaron Fox, arguably the team’s most important player, who went out with a sprained ankle on Nov. 8. In the first nine games of the season, Fox averaged 18.2 points and 7.0 assists per game. He returned to action on Dec. 17, leading the Kings with 19 points and eight assists — reminding everyone of his quickness on offense and defense.     

In the absence of Bagley and Fox, offseason additions have proven to be solid pickups by general manager Vlade Divac. Richaun Holmes, an electrifying big man, has provided plenty of highlight slams in his short tenure with the team as well as an aggressive defensive mindset. Holmes continues to improve and stay out of foul trouble as the center the Kings needed to replace Willie Cauley-Stein all along.

Veteran point guard Cory Joseph also has come up huge for the Kings, especially late in games defensively. With Fox’s return, the Kings have a strong, defensive-minded point guard off a much deeper bench this season. 

The next step I’d love to see the Kings take is to feast on the lower-level teams, especially in the Eastern Conference. All of the top teams collect a number of “easy” victories, whereas the Kings seem to fight for everything. Losses to the Knicks and Bulls, especially at home, are unacceptable for a team that has postseason aspirations.

As the Kings continue to develop, meshing as a unit under a new head coach while getting key players back from injury, I expect the team to string together victories entering the new year, hopefully taking some momentum into the All-Star break in February.

By Jackson Crawford

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