As the owners of what is now the longest postseason drought in North American team sports (the MLB’s Seattle Mariners’ 2022 playoff appearance helped them shed that distinction), the Sacramento Kings are desperate to end this dubious streak.
This somewhat explains why the franchise traded away young players like Buddy Hield and Tyrese Haliburton, who appear set for stardom with the Indiana Pacers, to pair De’Aaron Fox with talented big man Domantas Sabonis. While many mocked the trade as a win-now move for a team that hasn’t done a lot of winning in a long time, the Kings clearly felt that this star pairing would finally get Sacramento back into the playoffs.
That didn’t happen last year; the Kings went 10-17 following the trade and produced the league’s seventh-worst net rating. Even more concerning, Sabonis and Fox underwhelmed as a pair; while the two meshed well on offense, the Kings had a minus-1.9 net rating when they shared the floor.
With the Sacramento Kings giving away so much to acquire Domantas Sabonis, can he and De’Aaron Fox take the Kings back to the playoffs?
Early into the 2022-23 season, things look a bit more promising. Thirty games into their season, the Kings boast the league’s sixth-best offensive rating, and that potency has powered the team’s impressive 17-13 start.
You could spread out the credit for the Kings’ hot offensive start to a number of players, primarily offseason trade acquisition Kevin Huerter, and the combination of Sabonis and Fox is near the top of that list. With those two on the court, Sacramento scores 117.5 points per 100 possessions (the league average is 113.0 for offense and defense).
At first glance, you’d figure that two players who don’t have the best 3-point shooting track record — prior to 2022-23, Sabonis shot 31.9 percent from deep, Fox shot 32 percent — gives defenses free rein to muck things up for the two. In theory, defenders could duck under every screen knowing that Fox won’t beat them from beyond the arc and teams could simply have their bigs sag off on Sabonis to help clog up the paint.
Even with Fox going cold from deep after a torrid start (38.9 percent in October and November, 24.4 percent in December), his improvements as a shooter have somewhat mitigated that. Plus, Fox shoots well enough from mid-range (45.2 percent) to make more conservative coverages somewhat untenable, even if it takes a while for defenses to respect his 3-point stroke (though he’ll have to shoot better than 30 percent on his pull-up 3’s to make that happen).
This uptick in efficiency makes it even easier for the zippy Fox to zoom to the rim, where he finishes the play 72.4 percent of the time. Once defenders stop slipping under picks and start playing him tighter, it’s over.
The Sacramento Kings have benefitted from the Sabonis-Fox pairing.
For his part, Sabonis has increased his 3-point shooting to 41.2 percent (albeit on just 1.1 shots per game) while adding great value as a playmaker (92nd percentile in assist rate, 91st percentile in Box Creation) and as a screener (fourth in the league in screen assists per game, a stat Huerter surely appreciates).
Now as a true three-level scorer (72 percent inside the restricted area, 48.1 percent from mid-range), his spacing opens up looks at the rim for teammates (particularly Fox, one of the most aggressive slashers in the league) and his touch at the rim unlocks clean shots for others when he draws extra defenders (and as noted, he knows how to find them).
As much as the two have gelled on offense, though, the true surprise is how effective these two have been on the defensive end. Fox’s lack of size and middling steal rate will always limit his impact on this end, but his ranking in the 90th percentile in BBall Index’s (subscription required) on-ball defense metric, the 63rd percentile in their off-ball defense metric, and the 66th percentile in their screen navigation metric shows that the effort is there.
Consequently, his Defensive Box Plus/Minus sits at -0.3 — the best mark since his sophomore year — and that combined with Sabonis’ good interior defense (96th percentile in DBPM, 80th percentile in Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus, ), Sacramento has gone from having a 117.1 defensive rating with the two on the floor last year, to 111.5 so far this year, resulting in a plus-6.0 net rating, per NBA.com.
Given what Sacramento gave up last year, it’s easy to understand why so many ridiculed the decision to trade for Sabonis, but for the moment, the partnership with Fox — among other things — has assuaged anyone who doubted the move.
After all, the team is a legitimate playoff contender for the first time since 2006, which is exactly why they made the trade in the first place.