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Since the NBA‘s plan for restarting the season solidified at the end of last week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it’s going to feel like — to be watching basketball again, in the middle of a world with newly added layers of anxiety and unrest, after more than four months of unexpected interruption to the season, and in a setting and structure that may, aesthetically, look more like Summer League than the NBA playoffs.
The whole plan is an intentional funnel towards normalcy. There won’t be fans in the stands and the games will be played at a single location, but the rosters and uniforms will be familiar. It’s weird to have only 22 teams participating and contrived artifices for determining the final playoff seeds, but by the time the postseason begins, we’ll at least be back to a format we know. Sixteen teams, divided by conference. Best-of-seven series. Four, 12-minute quarters played on 94 feet of hardwood.
But as we spiral deeper into that funnel, I just can’t imagine it will feel like it’s supposed to. As fans, it’s going to be impossible for us to completely shed the collective memory of everything that’s happened since March 11 and I imagine the players are going to be wrestling with the same aura of spiritual and emotional unease.
I guess this is all a long way of saying that, even with training camps, regular-season reps, 16 teams and conventional series, I’m expecting chaos to be a much bigger variable in these playoffs than ever before. And that’s good news for De’Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings.
De’Aaron Fox is chaos incarnate.
Now, the Kings will have to do some serious work to even get a chance to play more than eight games in Orlando. They’re currently tied with the Pelicans in the standings and a hair behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the No. 9 seed. Closing the 3.5-game gap with the Grizzlies in just eight contests is a tall order so the most likely scenario for Sacramento to make the playoffs would be nosing ahead of both New Orleans and Portland, while holding off Phoenix and San Antonio, and then beating the Grizzlies twice in a row in their play-in games. Pull that off and their prize is the Lakers.
But if you were making a shortlist of players capable of riding explosive energy and kinetic fury to improbable ends, throwing a lasso around the neck of variance and wrestling it into submission in the moist humus of Orlando, De’Aaron Fox would have to be pretty high on it.
It would be easy to look at the Kings and their sliding win percentage this year, or Fox’s 3-point percentage cratering back to its rookie level, and think they took a step back this year. It’s true that Luke Walton dialed back the team’s frenetic pace and their offensive efficiency suffered for it. But Fox improved, dramatically, as a driver and finisher. Despite his 3-point accuracy eroding, he set a new career-high true shooting percentage this year. And assist rate. And turnover percentage. And offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. And free-throw rate. His production didn’t take the same form as last season, when he emerged as an actual high-level starting point guard. He was different this year, but arguably better.
Last night, I re-watched Fox’s matchup with Ja Morant and the Grizzlies from Jan 2. This was a 128-123 win for the Kings, with Fox putting up 27 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 blocks, helping force Morant into 7 turnovers. He was literally everywhere — rotating in the pick-and-roll for a two-handed block on Jaren Jackson Jr. on the first possession of the game, muscling Morant on a slow-motion drive for an easy layup a possession later. In the next two minutes of game time, he’d add a steal, another layup and two missed 3-pointers.
Fox is still raw, offering a fixed-price menu of both positive and negative outcomes. But you can see the rough edges of brilliance. The way he changes speeds and uses the functional strength that Morant doesn’t have yet. The way he’s learning to move defenders with his eyes and whipping creative one-handed passes into open space no one is seeing but him. And he has that ability to just whack-a-mole his way into one-man runs, popping up at both ends of the floor to string together wild collections of positive plays. Like tying the game at 106 on a driving layup with 4:52 left on the clock in the fourth quarter, and then adding a steal, two more layups and two assists in the next 120 seconds.
This regular-season-bleeding-into-postseason the NBA has planned for us will hopefully be fun but the structures each team carefully assembled from September to March aren’t going to be available to be leaned on in the same way. Systems may not function the way they’re supposed to and players who are accustomed to augmenting skill with surplus energy, effort and intuition may find themselves at an advantage. I have no idea how far that advantage could take Fox and the Kings, but I can’t wait to find out.
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