The state of California has been treated to quality basketball in the 2018-19 season. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers are expectedly competitive, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — the NBA’s three best players — populating the same state.
But, unlike recent seasons, Golden State and L.A. aren’t the only relevant cities. The Sacramento Kings continue to bulldoze their way through the Western Conference, winning games they shouldn’t and sitting in 8th place.
The Clippers are also putting a quality product on the floor. If the playoffs started now, California would comprise half of the eight Western Conference teams. Historically, that hasn’t been commonplace.
While the Clippers sit a tier above Sacramento, both teams are on the rise. Both teams have unexpected All-Star candidates in De’Aaron Fox and Tobias Harris. Both teams have Most Improved Player candidates, with Fox representing Sacramento and Montrezl Harrell representing the Clips.
The Warriors and Lakers will continue to dominate the national conversation, but the Kings and Clippers are establishing themselves as unique contenders. Not necessarily title contenders — at least not yet — but both would be an enjoyable watch in the postseason.
As for how it’s happening, pace continues to play an important role. The Kings rank second in pace, trailing only the Atlanta Hawks. With Fox spearheading the transition attack, multiple shooters on the outside, and some excellent rim-running bigs, the Kings are well-equipped to punish opponents in transition.
Whether it be rebounds or turnovers, the Kings can run-and-gun their way to points in rapid-fire flurries. To a certain extent, it’s what allows Sacramento to make so many double-digit comebacks. The Kings capitalize on opponents’ mistakes, creating scoring opportunities and quickly seizing momentum.
The Clippers rank 9th in pace, but they’ve been similarly effective in certain areas. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has adjusted to the starting role in swift fashion, mastering the ability to abruptly change speeds and create angles with veteran-like precision.
Lou Williams, Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley anchor a deep backcourt, which is complemented by Harrell’s rim-running, Danilo Gallinari’s offensive versatility and Tobias Harris’ three-level scoring.
One thing the Kings have been surprisingly good at is limiting turnovers, sitting 8th in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio. The Clippers, by comparison, sit 20th. For such a young group, that’s a promising trend for Sacramento.
While the Clippers have some solid young pieces, long-term upside favors Sacramento. The Kings aren’t supposed to be winning yet — Nemanja Bjelica is the team’s best veteran — but without draft picks on the line, their 19-16 record is a welcome sign. The Kings, for the first time in a while, are legitimately moving in the right direction.
Marvin Bagely possesses immense talent, despite the relative disappointment compared to Luka Doncic. He’s going to become a really solid player, as will Willie Cauley-Stein, who’s thriving in a contract season. The backcourt, with Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, has three cornerstones to build around. Hield is a fringe All-Star candidate at 26, though it’s unlikely he gets voted in. Fox might sneak in.
The Clippers aren’t old and all indications point toward Harris re-signing next summer. When it comes to high-level prospects, though, L.A. just doesn’t stack up. Harris, SGA and Harrell provide a sturdy foundation, but the other core pieces are moving beyond their prime years.
For now, however, there are four successful, entertaining teams in California. That’s a win for everyone.
2018-19 MVP LADDER
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
2. James Harden, Rockets
3. LeBron James, Lakers
4. Stephen Curry, Warriors
5. Joel Embiid, 76ers
2018-19 ROY LADDER
1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
2. Deandre Ayton, Suns
3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
2018-19 MIP LADDER
1. De’Aaron Fox, Kings
2. Derrick Rose, Timberwolves
3. Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
2018-19 DPOY LADDER
1. Robert Covington, Timberwolves
2. Paul George, Thunder
3. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
NBA DRAFT TRENDS
The Duke Blue Devils are scary good, as are their prospects. Zion Williamson’s unique blend of size, grace and skill earn him top grades, while R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are second and third. Reddish hasn’t been overly impressive, but one can attribute that to role more than talent. As long as his interior finishing improves, it’s easy to picture Reddish blossoming in the NBA.
As for the other top prospect in North Carolina, Nassir Little continues to tumble down draft boards. His AAU/pre-college tape probably keeps him in the top-5 conversation, but the Tar Heels have been reluctant to unleash Little on a consistent basis. He’s struggling to create quality shots against wings in isolation, which is cause for concern.
Ja Morant, with Darius Garland succumbing to injury, has established himself as the top point guard prospect. Flying under the radar at Murray State, Morant’s athleticism, scoring instincts and playmaking chops pop in a way mid-major prospects seldom pop.
Despite flashes, mild skepticism is warranted for Oregon’s Bol Bol. He’s 7-foot-2 and can hit threes, but a skinny frame and questionable effort level are among the many concerns regarding his NBA transition.