The Sacramento Kings Fired Coach Luke Walton, but Can They Save Their Season?

By Patrick Hayes   November 25, 2021 

The Sacramento Kings Fired Coach Luke Walton, but Can They Save Their Season?

Luke Walton has been on the hot seat in Sacramento since 2020, but the Kings have shown enough flashes of strong play here and there to prolong his job despite the fact that he’s never finished above .500 in any of his seasons as a head coach.

Late last season, the Kings made a push toward making the Western Conference play-in tournament that ultimately fell short. But De’Aaron Fox played like a future superstar down the stretch of the season. He averaged 29 points per game after the All-Star break on 49 percent shooting. He’s one of the fastest guards in the league and, with Tyrese Haliburton and Richaun Holmes, gave the Kings one of the most intriguing young trios in the league entering the season.

The Kings got off to a promising start at 5-4, including wins over Phoenix and Portland, but the wheels quickly fell off. Sacramento has lost eight of nine games, including losing new interim coach Alvin Gentry’s debut, and has a worse record than the clearly rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder in the West.

The writing seemed to be on the wall for Walton even when veteran center Tristan Thompson gave a less-than-enthusiastic review of the team’s effort last week. Thompson was asked in a postgame press conference whether the coaches need to offer more inspiration.

“No man in this world should rely on another man to inspire them, point blank period,” Thompson said. “You can put that in all capitals.”

There are a lot of issues for Gentry to fix now that he’s in the driver’s seat, but here are three immediate things that the Kings need to figure out in a hurry if they’re going to make a playoff push.

Fix what’s wrong with Fox

Nov 20, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (5) attempts a shot over Utah Jazz center Hassan Whiteside (21) during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Remember that brilliant stretch of play from Fox in the second half of last season? Well, it has become a bit of a distant memory. Fox is averaging less than 20 points per game so far this season, and has shot poorly. Fox is signed long-term in Sacramento, but speculation has already begun as to whether he can truly be the franchise cornerstone he looked like last season.

Gentry, an experienced head coach, is a Mike D’Antoni disciple who prefers a run-and-gun offensive system. That could be good news for Fox, whose ability to push the ball up-court in a hurry would seem to be a perfect fit for Gentry’s preferred mode of playing.

There was also an early sign that the pairing could be a good one – Fox had 23 points and shot well in Gentry’s first game coaching the team earlier this week. His biggest issue this season has been consistency. If he can put together a few good games in a row, that should bode well for Sacramento’s chances as the season progresses.

Give Marvin Bagley III Another Chance

October 22, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III (35) shoots the basketball against Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps no player stands to benefit more from Walton being gone than Bagley. 

Throughout his career, the promising but injury-prone forward has clashed with Walton. Even Bagley’s father has been publicly critical of Walton in the past.

This season, Bagley started the year outside of Walton’s rotation as the Kings reportedly looked to trade him. Bagley also reportedly refused to enter a game late in a blowout loss to Phoenix near the end of Walton’s tenure.

“Deserves” is a relative term, it’s not like Bagley has necessarily earned a prominent spot in Sacramento’s rotation. The injuries in his career haven’t been his fault, but his effort hasn’t been consistent and he’s prone to defensive lapses. Those are fair critiques of his game when healthy.

But he’s also young, and he was a player in the not-too-distant past who was so highly regarded that the Kings selected him over stars Luka Doncic and Trae Young. The fact that players drafted behind him have ascended rapidly to superstar status also isn’t his fault and doesn’t mean that he’s necessarily a bust, although that aspect of his career does ratchet up the attention he receives.

For Sacramento, giving him one more opportunity at a consistent role under a new coach who can give him a clean slate is a low-risk move that could result in him finally tapping into his immense upside. That scenario is far superior to trading him away for next to no return.

Address the Defense

Defense isn’t Gentry’s strong suit as a coach, but it is a definite weakness of the Kings. 

The Kings are 25th in the league in points allowed, but the good news for Gentry is they shouldn’t be that bad. Holmes and Bagley are both long and athletic and can provide valuable rim protection. Thompson is a solid, veteran low-post defender. Harrison Barnes has long been a respected perimeter defender. Fox’s quickness and long arms make him a potentially great defensive player.

The team’s defensive issues seem fixable, as there is enough talent to improve at that end. What Gentry has to quickly find out is if there is also the will to improve.

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