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How Well has Luke Walton Improved the Kings?

In his first year as the Sacramento Kings head coach, Luke Walton, who has three NBA championships on his playing and assistant coaching resume, will most likely finish with his fourth consecutive below-.500 record. However, Walton had the team playing among the best in the last two months before the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season. The Kings are one of five NBA teams with a 7-3 or better record in their last 10 games, and one of seven teams with a .650 winning percentage since January 24. The others: the Raptors, Thunder, Lakers, Bucks, Clippers, and Celtics.

Since the Kings acquired Kent Bazemore from the Portland Trail Blazers on January 21, Sacramento had three winning streaks of three games each, something that could not be said during the Kings’ previous 43 games. After the Kings snapped a six-game losing streak on January 24, they won 13 of their next 19 contests and secured two victories each against the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, and three of those wins were on the road.

Sacramento’s losses since January 24 have only been to strong playoff teams: the Thunder twice, Lakers, Bucks, Mavericks, 76ers, and Raptors. Although the remaining NBA regular season schedule may not be played out as expected, if the Kings continue playing like they did the previous two months, they could finish with a 40-42 record, which would be their best record since 2006, the last year they made the playoffs.

Although a 40-win season is possible for the Kings, Walton and company will most likely not be able to end the NBA’s longest active playoff drought in 2020; they would have to surpass the Pelicans, Blazers, and Grizzlies. Even without a playoff berth, this Kings season is not a lost one because of the player development that occurred this past year. Of the team’s five best VORP players, Nemanja Bjelica, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanović are all having career years.

Not only were Bjelica, Holmes, and Bogdanovic having strong seasons, but Buddy Hield was also on pace to surpass his 3-pointers made franchise record from last year. He has made 244 shots from downtown in 2019-20, which ranks second in the NBA behind James Harden. Hield also was shooting a much better 3-point percentage: Hield’s .395 vs. Harden’s .352.

Who can forget De’Aaron Fox? The offense runs through him and suffers greatly when he is off the court. Fox took a bigger role as one of the NBA’s highest usage players this season and although the majority of his percentages dipped in his 45-game 2019-20 season, he improved his points and free throw attempts per 36 minutes: he has increased by 3.4 points, 1.1 free throws made, and 1.8 free throws attempts from last year. In addition, his assist percentage has increased this season and is in the top 10 in the association.

With eight double-digit point scorers on his team, Walton looks to head into 2020-21 with a strong squad that could make the postseason. Marvin Bagley III only played 13 games in 2020 and unfortunately, Sacramento could not get into a rhythm with him on the court. The team went 2-11 in contests that he played, but a new year could mean a bounce-back year for the 2018 second

overall pick that suffered thumb and foot injuries this past season.

Walton, who has been able to facilitate such an upward trajectory for this Kings team, has a rich history of success in the NBA, which he can continue to bring to Sacramento. The former Los Angeles Lakers two-time champion role player (interim) coached the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors to a 39-4 record and won a Western Conference Coach of the Month award while Steve Kerr was recovering from back surgery. In each of his three years with the post-Kobe Bryant Lakers, he improved the team’s record each season, but he could not get Los Angeles’s most popular basketball team over the hump and into the playoffs. The last postseason game that Walton was on the bench for was the 93-89 Warriors Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.

If Walton can keep improving the Kings, then he will be able to make Sacramento into a team that competes for playoff position in the future years in the Western Conference. The team will need some star talent to become a championship contender, but at this rate, this Kings squad will break the team’s playoff drought soon.

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