Luke Walton isn’t Sacramento Kings’ only problem, 76ers show

The Kings’ timing behind the firing of coach Luke Walton wasn’t brimming with logic.

Nor did Monday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers do much for the case Walton was the team’s biggest problem. It’s all deeper than that.

The Kings dropped an embarrassing game, at home, to the depleted 76ers without Ben Simmons (personal reasons), Joel Embiid (COVID-19 protocols), Seth Curry (back stiffness), Danny Green (hamstring) and Tobias Harris (hip). It should have been a blowout the other way, taking care of a tired team with nine available players on the fifth game of a six-game trip. That’s what a competent team with playoff aspirations would have done.

Instead, the Sixers won 102-94 while the Kings wilted with a miserable 12-point fourth quarter in which Philadelphia outscored Sacramento by 13 points.

Somehow, there were no King fan throwing up on the court as there was Saturday. Even though this latest loss was more deserving.

“The bottom line is they kicked our ass,” interim coach Alvin Gentry, coaching his first game in his new role, said afterward.

The Kings lack spirit, an offensive identity, a star willing to rise to the moment, a long-term plan and proper expectations from those in charge. There are 64 games remaining but the season has the feeling of circling the drain as the Kings sit at 6-12. How’d they win six? It’s a miracle.

General manager Monte McNair reiterated after the team fired Walton on Sunday the expectation was to end the 15-year playoff drought. Having that type of urgency has meant punting on a long-term plan while trying to Scotch-tape together a roster that’s weak on the wings and heavy on points guards. Worse yet, the entire roster struggles together.

De’Aaron Fox, who had a respectable stat line, was minus-17, and didn’t play like the All-Star the Kings need him to be late in the game. Harrison Barnes, the dependable veteran, scored just 10 points and was also minus-17 in 36 minutes.

Firing Walton didn’t spark the team. There was no renewed sense of energy. No new fire. No urgency. It was the same story that has seen the Kings drop eight of nine games.

“I think everyone has to look in the mirror,” big man Tristan Thompson said after Monday’s loss. “It’s not only just (on) players. Yes, it’s a player’s league … but in terms of building a team, it takes a collective group. It takes everyone from the top to the bottom. From ownership to the trainers, to the equipment managers, to the players, to (physical therapist), to the GM to the assistant GM. It’s all of us.”

General manager Monte McNair, who has a background in analytics, spent a significant portion of his news conference Sunday talking about getting his team back to playing like it did earlier in the season, during a somewhat encouraging 5-4 start.

“The start to the year was a lot of what we were hoping for,” McNair said. “And really, I thought it could have been even better. I think we saw a lot of the things that we thought this team could do. But these last eight (1-7) games was a change.

“For me, the question became, what’s the best way to move forward? That’s my job at every point of the season. And after (Saturday night), that was the conclusion. It’s really about the future and what we could do going forward.”

The odd thing about that, of course, is nine games is an awfully small sample from which to make franchise-altering decisions. The question that will linger: Why was Walton brought back this season if he was going to be on such a short leash to begin with? What can really change by promoting the top assistant from his staff?

McNair knows about sample sizes. He’s a numbers guy. So, no, this timing doesn’t track for a GM with his background sitting atop the food chain. A 5-4 start shouldn’t be treated as some golden era of Kings basketball, either. Nor should it be viewed as the expectation for this roster. Not after Monday’s loss.

Beyond whatever McNair says publicly, the more likely reasoning for firing Walton on Sunday morning lies in marching orders coming from owner Vivek Ranadive, who’s had an itchy trigger finger for firing coaches before. As our Bee colleague Marcos Breton pointed out, Ranadive has a history of this, with Mike Malone, who has found greener pastures, and a playoff team, in Denver.

Gentry is the Kings’ sixth coach since Ranadive bought the team in 2013. That’s Jell-O-level stability.

If there’s a silver lining for Ranadive’s Kings of Sacramento, it’s their upcoming schedule. Their next six games are against teams in Western Conference playoff positioning or the play-in tournament. Which means the Kings will have a good measuring stick (since we’re operating in small samples here) to see if they’re getting better under Gentry and what kind of roster moves they need to make in order to define the direction for the rest of their season.

Sacramento next hosts Portland, travels to play the Lakers and Grizzlies, hosts the Lakers, and then has a home-and-home against the Clippers. Those teams are in the seventh, eighth, ninth and fourth spots in the West. Those are the teams the Kings need to compete with to end their 15-year playoff drought, which is the apparent mandate for whoever is coaching the team.

So what can be gleaned from the upcoming stretch? Gentry can’t even think in those terms. That’s how dire things are.

“To be honest with you, every stretch is important right now,” Gentry said. “We don’t have very little margin for error. We have a ton of games left, but somewhere along the lines, but we have to stop talking and start playing, and start winning games.”

Were there any significant changes from Gentry’s version of the Kings on Monday against the ailing 76ers? Marvin Bagley and Thompson were inserted into the big-man rotation and made positive impacts on the game. Thompson, in particularly, provided energy and offensive rebounding, including an emphatic dunk in the third quarter.

The game came down to the final moments and it was the Sixers’ role players who had guts to take the wheel. Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle made plays down the stretch and won their team the game.

They stepped up in a way no one associated with the Kings is capable of doing right now.

This story was originally published November 23, 2021 6:54 AM.

Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.

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