Illustration of De'Aaron Fox by Eric Lechpammer

CRAWFORD ON THE COURT: Kings hit midseason struggles, make roster changes in effort to salvage season

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 the playoffs now seemingly out of reach — Sacramento entered the All-Star break at 21-33 — it will be interesting to see how the Kings finish their first season under Walton. This is the second of four updates on the Kings’ 2019-20 season.

All aboard the struggle bus. Despite optimistic predictions, the Kings fell into a major rut through the heart of the 2019-20 regular season, losing 15 of 18 games from Dec. 17 to Jan. 22. But then they won six of eight, notching notable wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat, among others.

Sacramento sits 13th in the Western Conference, seven games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies for the last playoff spot. However, the Kings’ inconsistency has set them back in the race, and other teams — not yet in the playoff picture — have rallied and strung together victories. 

Notably, Damian Lillard has carried the Portland Trail Blazers (four games back) after an underwhelming start to the season, averaging 48.8 points per game from Jan. 20 to Feb. 1. Not to mention, Zion Williamson made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans (5 1/2 games back) on Jan. 22, leading the team with 22 points, including 17 straight in the fourth quarter. His performance was a strong reminder that the Rookie of the Year race is far from over, despite Ja Morant’s impressive season thus far for Memphis.

Back in Sactown, it’s been more of the same: too-little-too-late runs, blown leads, shooting slumps and injuries to critical players. 

The Kings were fortunate to beat the reeling Minnesota Timberwolves twice in one week recently. 

First, in Minnesota on Jan. 27, the Kings found themselves in a 22-point deficit with 5:22 seconds remaining in regulation. They stormed back to make it a one-possession game with less than a minute to play. With a miracle needed, De’Aaron Fox, after sinking the first of two free throws, launched the ball perfectly off the bottom of the rim back to himself for a quick layup to tie the score. The Kings went on to steal the game 133-129 in overtime. Buddy Hield led the team with a career-high 42 points on 9-of-14 shooting from behind the arc and 20 points in the fourth quarter.

In the second game against the Timberwolves on Feb. 3 in Sacramento, the Kings also got an ugly victory. After the Kings had dominated the first half, the T-wolves snuck back into the game late with a chance to tie on an Andrew Wiggins 3-point attempt that nearly dropped. With a 15-point halftime lead, the Kings should’ve put Minnesota away in the third quarter. Against better teams, letting opponents hang around for too long can be fatal. 

Fox, meanwhile, is ascending to stardom in front of our eyes. In January, he averaged 22.8 points, 7.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game after returning from injury in mid-December. He dropped a career-high 34 points in a 21-point drubbing of the Clippers at Staples Center on Jan. 30. 

Also, the Kings added shooting guard Kent Bazemore, among others, while dealing veteran small forward Trevor Ariza and big man Dewayne Dedmon.

Bazemore has already shown his value, specifically with strong defense in fourth quarters and solid scoring off the bench.

The future’s still bright in Sacramento, and fans have yet to see a full-strength Kings team this season. Knowing the Cardiac Kings, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sprinted to the finish line through April, vying for a playoff bid. It’s all part of the process for this young and evolving franchise. 

By Jackson Crawford