The Sacramento Kings Play By Their Own Rules

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Being an NBA fan now requires a serious working knowledge of subjects that are only tangentially related to basketball. This caliber of basketball is somewhat alienating in its remove from what the average joe knows to be physically possible, so the regular-sized front office wonks become more relatable by default; I will never understand what it feels like to dunk, but the mechanics of negotiating a trade—wheeling, dealing, wearing normal collars, things of that nature—feel almost familiar. More than any other sport, the NBA has lent itself to a kind of economics-tinged abstraction in which players are assets and draft picks are capital. Increasingly, franchises are merely dynamic, volatile portfolios seeking to deliver returns to their emotional stakeholders. 

By trading Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson for All-Star power forward Domantas Sabonis, the Sacramento Kings signaled that the single most pressing thing on their agenda is that they’d like to win basketball games. In fact, they’d like to win enough basketball games to qualify for the play-in tournament as the tenth best team in the Western Conference, which is an honorably silly goal (think: the NBA equivalent of trying to win a free t-shirt by eating a 72-ounce steak and a side of shrimp cocktail), but an honorable one all the same. Beyond simply swapping a very good young player for a veteran stud, though, the Kings have exposed the fundamental incoherence between how basketball fandom is intellectualized and how it’s actually experienced.

From a bloodless, empirical view, the Kings probably shouldn’t have traded Haliburton for Sabonis. National media figures were aghast when the news broke: “MAKE IT MAKE SENSE,” lamented JJ Redick. Kings fans were down biblically bad—the banner of the Kings’ subreddit reads “Welcome to Basketball Hell.”  The 21 year-old Haliburton, a tide-raising playmaker with budding self-creation chops and an artificially suppressed rookie-scale contract, is exactly the kind of player that bad teams like the Kings should want the most. 

Even if Haliburton lacks the requisite oomph to propel the Kings into the play-in right now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it helps nudge them towards Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren; prideless teams tank without prejudice because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a general manager in possession of an NBA franchise must be in want of a blue-chip superstar. 

Similarly, erstwhile playoff hopefuls like the Knicks, Pacers, Trail Blazers and Wizards are all eager to slough off productive-enough 29 year-olds so they can force feed shots to tank-friendly, unproductive 22 year-olds. This kind of militant pragmatism—if you’re not first, you need to be last—has become the predominant school of basketball thought and has hollowed out the ambition of the league’s lower-middle class as a result. This is a needlessly severe approach and yet it’s still technically true: as long as only one team can truly succeed, 29 others have to fail. 

In this sense, the Kings are reimagining what “success” really means. No longer are they measuring their progress in terms of some unknowable distant future; instead, they’re actually engaging with the present. The Kings may be the only team in the NBA to realize that, at a certain point, dogmatically maintaining the longest view in the room is the same thing as farsightedness. There are 82 real games that you need to play each year, so why not at least try to win some of them?

On the most basic level, Sabonis makes the Kings a better team now than they were at the start of the week. Sabonis is a legitimately excellent player, even if that has been lost in all the ululating how the Kings’ should be dragged in front of an international tribunal for the sin of trading away Haliburton. And Sabonis is fairly young, too—at just 25 years-old, not only is Sabonis better than Haliburton right now, there's a very real chance that he’ll still be the better for the next seven-ish years.

A quirked-up white boy goated with the sauce, Sabonis has been one of the NBA’s most statistically prolific big men since 2019—besides Giannis Antetokounmpo, Sabonis is the only player to average more than 12 rebounds and five assists per game over the last three seasons. Despite the Pacers’ organizational curdling stench, Sabonis is in the middle of the most efficient scoring season of his career, upping his true shooting by nearly five percentage points from last year. 

He folds a surprising amount of skill into his punishing,casual physicality, using his body to unsettle defenders and create openings that he can then feather a pass or a shot through. Since Sabonis assumed a starring role with the Pacers in 2019, he’s thrived within a variety of contexts, even occasionally moon-lighting as a spot-up shooter when needed. Toggle through different lineups around him and he’ll alternately be the synaptic hub of a dribble handoff-heavy attack, a quick-hitting facilitator on the short roll, or a punishing interior brute. Already the best Kings’ big man since Chris Weber, Sabonis turns scoring into a simple physics equation—a defender can either remain sturdy enough to hold their ground against him or spry and reactive enough to leap to contest a shot, but not both. 

Most promising for the Kings, though, is Sabonis’s potential fit alongside point guard De’Aaron Fox. After making a leap last year towards near-stardom, the 24 year-old Fox has spent most of this season mired in a quarter-career crisis. Namely, he devolved from a bad shooter to an abysmal one. While the presence of Haliburton ostensibly lightened Fox’s creation burden, Fox and Haliburton struggled to reconcile their fundamentally different ways of processing the game. If Fox plays with the single-mindedness of an Omakase chef and manifests greatness through his own individual vision and talent, Haliburton is a Vegas buffet, offering everybody on the court the opportunity to follow their own bliss. 

Conversely, in Sabonis, Fox now has a co-star who could be complementary, not competitive. Sabonis is an elite screen-setter who creates advantages for his teammates by concealing his intentions from the defense until the point of contact; it’s not a coincidence that Malcolm Brogdon blossomed from a perfunctory, low-lift combo guard to a high-level pick-and-roll operator once he partnered with Sabonis in Indianapolis.

Together, Sabonis and Fox have a natural symbiosis—in Sabonis’s first game with the team last night, the Kings exploded for 132 points and 32 assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves. For the first time in his career, Fox is playing next to a player who can single-handedly create advantages for the offense. Fox was already the fastest player in the league—now, aided by Sabonis's versatile, bruising playmaking, he'll seem functionally even faster. Although the brawling Sabonis and the speedy Fox move at such disparate tempos, they could establish an effective, arrhythmic synergy. 

Whether it leads to anything “significant” is a mystery and also kind of irrelevant—there's an intangible value in playing basketball each night that your fans are happy to watch. So much of the NBA is oriented around transaction-based palace intrigue; the Kings are a reminder that it's nice to care about the day-to-day too.

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