The Kings aren’t just the talk of the town. They are gaining national notoriety as one of the most surprising teams in the NBA over the first quarter of the season.
Players, coaches and analysts across the country are talking about what’s happening in Sacramento as the Kings embark on a daunting six-game road trip starting Wednesday when they face the Milwaukee Bucks at Fiserv Forum.
The Bucks (16-6) are second in the Eastern Conference. The Kings will also visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors — all of whom are top-10 teams in the East — before concluding the trip against the Detroit Pistons.
The Kings (13-9) are fifth in the Western Conference under first-year coach Mike Brown. They have won three in a row after beating the Chicago Bulls 110-101 to light the beam Sunday at Golden 1 Center.
“They’re a good team,” Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan said. “They’ve been playing extremely well this year; playing extremely fast. A lot of their young guys are figuring it out. They have a veteran All-Star in (Domantas) Sabonis. You have to give them credit. … They’re a great team in a great Western Conference, where it’s not easy to win every single night.”
Suns coach Monty Williams recently joined the chorus in singing Sacramento’s praises. The Suns escaped with a 122-117 victory over the Kings on Nov. 28, but Williams was impressed with a team that added Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk to a core that already featured De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes and Sabonis.
“Fox has always been one of the best players in the league,” Williams said. “They added a top-tier center. Harrison is one of the best forwards in the league. He’s versatile. Then you see the development of some of their younger guys, but Monk and Huerter, I mean, they give you a different look. Those guys can shoot the ball, they can get to the basket, they play off the dribble, and they’re all tough. This is not an easy place to win. It never has been, but now it’s like you’re looking at a playoff team, in my estimation, just because they have everything. They can post you up, they can play in pick-and-roll, and they have shooters everywhere.”
Suns star Devin Booker agreed with his coach, saying the Kings look like a much-improved team under Brown.
“I think it’s totally different,” Booker said. “A whole different style offense, a different coach. Mike knows what he’s doing over there. (Kings assistant coach and offensive coordinator) Jay Triano over there, I have a lot of respect for him, too. This is a tough matchup for us. We were saying before the game that we know it’s not going to be easy tonight. It was going to be a fight all the way through.”
The Kings are top five in the NBA by virtually every measure offensively. They are second in scoring (119.6 ppg) and true shooting percentage (.608); third in assist ratio (19.7); fourth in effective field-goal percentage (.571) and offensive rating (115.9); and sixth in pace (102.67).
Defensively, the Kings have been a work in progress under Brown and lead assistant Jordi Fernandez, but the progress is undeniable. They moved up to 16th in the NBA in defensive rating (112.0) following Sunday’s win over Chicago. They are No. 8 in defensive rating (110.9) over the past 13 games, No. 5 over the past 10 game (109.4) and No. 2 during their current three-game winning streak (97.8).
“If we just do what we’re taught, or do what we do every day in practice, I think numbers are going to speak for themselves,” Kings guard Davion Mitchell told The Sacramento Bee following a 123-96 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.
“I think we’re going to be a really good defensive team because we’ve got guys who can switch. We’ve got versatile guys who can guard multiple positions. So, as the year goes on, we’re going to get more comfortable with each other, protecting one another, talking more, kind of building that chemistry, and we’re going to be a really good defensive team.”
Brown said Fox, who was maligned for his defense in previous years, has spearheaded the team’s defensive improvement.
“He’s been phenomenal leading the charge defensively,” Brown said. “In his position, he’s got to set the tone for us, and he has.”
Durant, Popovich praise Brown
Fox and Sabonis are building cases as All-Star candidates. Brown is among the early favorites for Coach of the Year. Huerter is averaging a career-high 15.5 points while shooting a career-best 42.3% from 3-point range and Monk has emerged as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
The Kings announced their arrival on a national stage when they walloped the Brooklyn Nets 153-121 in a TNT game Nov. 15 in Sacramento. Nets star Kevin Durant said Brown was the right man for the job after six seasons as Steve Kerr’s lead assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
“I think he’s getting a lot out of that team,” Durant said. “They got a lot of guys that can play real minutes on any NBA team. He’s got 10, 11 guys that can do that. When you step into a situation like that, you got two All-Star caliber players in Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox, that’s a great team to build around. Great choice by Mike. It’s great by Sacramento to give Mike a chance because he’s been a part of a championship group for the last six, seven years. It’s a perfect pairing for him.”
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the Kings looked good at both ends of the floor following an 18-point loss in Sacramento earlier this season.
“The pace they play at is really tough to guard,” Popovich said. “They’re physical on defense. They’re just a better basketball team and they’re really buying in to what Mike’s trying to do. I think they’re just going to get better and better.”