Sacramento’s success last season came amidst a lot of change. There was a new coach in Mike Brown. There were plenty of other new faces, like Domantas Sabonis, Keegan Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, all of whom played key parts in getting the Kings back to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years. But at the center of all it was De’Aaron Fox, who put together one of the finest seasons in Sacramento-era history.
Fox is the longest tenured member of the Kings organization, predating everyone in the front office, coaching staff and on the court. When the Kings drafted him 5th overall the year after trading DeMarcus Cousins, he instantly became the new face of the franchise. Fox’s talent was evident from the start, but it still didn’t translate into team success. Year after year the Kings continued to struggle, despite Fox getting better and better. Doubt began to creep in to many heads that perhaps the Kings needed to move on and start anew, especially with the drafting of another promising young guard in Tyrese Haliburton. Haliburton was the opposite of Fox in many ways, relying more on his stellar playmaking ability and efficient perimeter shooting to make an impact, whereas Fox used his speed to get to the rim and was more comfortable shooting in the midrange. But both Fox and Haliburton were most effective with the ball in their hands, and especially with the drafting of another guard in Davion Mitchell, something had to break sooner rather than later.
The obvious path would have been to trade Fox for more picks and/or young players and build the team around Haliburton. But Monte McNair didn’t do the obvious, and the Kings traded Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis, giving Fox the type of running mate he’d never had before. Sacramento was widely panned for this move, seemingly made out of desperation to get a long absent playoff spot at all costs.
And while Haliburton has been everything Indiana has hoped for and more so far, the renewed freedom and a more compatible partnership with Sabonis has taken Fox’s game to new heights as well. Fox put together one of the best seasons we’ve seen from a Sacramento King ever last year, averaging 25 points on 51.2% from the field, 6.1 assists and 1.1 steals in just 33.4 minutes a game. Only three other players have averaged 25 ore more points in a season for the Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins (twice), Chris Webber, and Mitch Richmond. Fox is the only one to have done it shooting over 50% from the field (the next highest FG% was Chris Webber at 48.1% in 2000-01).
Fox is still not a reliable outside threat, shooting just 32.4% from three, but his efficiency everywhere else on the court is incredible. His effectiveness at the rim is such that almost all the other comparisons have to be with big men. According to NBA.com, Fox shot 75.3% on shots less than 5 feet away from the basket. That’s a higher percentage than Nikola Jokic (72.8%), Giannis Antetokounmpo (71.5%) and even his own teammate, Domantas Sabonis (69.3%). The only players to attempt more shots near the rim and make them at a higher percentage than De’Aaron Fox last year were all centers: Evan Mobley at 75.4%, Walker Kessler at 75.7%, and Deandre Ayton at 77.6%.
That efficiency carries over to the midrange as well. From 5-9 feet, Fox had 242 attempts, 7th most in the league, and made 54.5% of them. Only Luka Doncic (55%), Nikola Jokic (63.9%) and Nikola Vucevic (60.6%) shot at least 200 attempts and made a higher percentage. From 10-14 feet, Fox had 220 attempts, again 7th in the league, and he hit on 49.5% of those attempts.
Fox was also able to step up when it mattered most, leading the entire league in clutch scoring with 194 points, 35 more than 2nd place DeMar DeRozan. His field goal percentage rose even higher in clutch situations to 52.9% and his free throw percentage jumped from 78% (a career high) to 86% when it mattered most. This excellence in the clutch resulted in Fox winning the first ever Clutch Player of the Year award in a landslide, with 91 of 100 first-place votes.
Fox proved that his game could carry over to the postseason as well, as he was clearly the best player on the floor at times and might have been able to carry the Kings to a series victory and further success had he not fractured his thumb late in Game 4. Despite the injury, Fox still managed to average an impressive 27.4 points, 7.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds against Golden State.
Fox is still not even 26 years old, so even with the greatness of last season, it’s possible he’s still got even more room to grow. And should he hit that growth, it’s only fair to wonder if he could do something only Oscar Robertson has done in Franchise History and win an MVP award.
Winning an MVP is a big step up from making one All-Star game and an All-NBA third team, but I don’t think it’s completely inconceivable like we might have thought even just a couple of years ago. The MVP usually needs to have either an insane statistical season (see Russell Westbrook in 2016-17), be the best player on the best team in the league (see Stephen Curry in 2015 and 2016) or both (see Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokoumpo). Perhaps most importantly, the MVP needs to be in the national narrative, and now the Kings are going to be in front of a national audience more than they have been for 20 years.
What would it take for Fox to truly enter the MVP race? For starters, the Kings would likely need to be a top seed, if not the top seed, in the Western Conference. Last year they finished 3rd, but they had some luck on their side in terms of injuries and unusual parity in the league. 48 wins was a phenomenal improvement, but it usually doesn’t get you homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Just the prior year, Denver finished with 48 wins and only managed the 6th seed. In 2018-19, the Spurs and Clippers both finished with 48 wins and barely squeaked into the playoffs at the 7th and 8th seed. The last time a Western team finished with a 3rd seed or higher with only 48 wins or fewer (or a winning percentage equivalent for those shortened seasons) was all the way back in 1985-86 when the Denver Nuggets were the 3rd seed at 47-35.
The Kings managing to get through even stiffer competition and achieving an even higher seed would definitely make a case for Fox as MVP, especially if it’s largely due to his improvement. There are a couple areas where Fox could still get a lot better, with the main one being his outside shooting. Fox averaged 5 three point attempts a game last season but made just 32.4% of them. Only LeBron James (32.1%), Kelly Oubre Jr. (31.9%), RJ Barrett (31%) and Cade Cunningham (27.9%) shot worse while shooting at least as many attempts. In the playoffs, Fox upped his attempts to 9 a game, but only made 33.3%. Ideally, Fox would be somewhere around 35-37%, and that definitely seems like it could be in reach. To hit 35%, Fox would only have needed to make 9 more threes last season. The Kings have excellent shooting around Fox, but Fox is one of the only players on the team capable of creating his own looks, a big need in clutch situations and the playoffs.
Fox could also elevate his status by becoming a defensive leader. We saw signs of it last year, but the Kings as a whole were still one of the worst defensive units in the league. Fox does have to spend a lot of energy on the other end as the team’s go-to scorer, but the better the Kings are defensively, the less they’ll need to make up for their setbacks with offense as they often had to do last year.
De’Aaron Fox has blossomed into a bonafide star and one of the best players to ever put on a Sacramento Kings uniform. Best of all, last year may have only just been the beginning, with the best yet to come. MVP? Don’t count him out just yet.