The Sacramento Kings won their first game in the month of April last night, beating the Dallas Mavericks, 121-107. De'Aaron Fox was immaculate yet again, posting 30 points and 12 assists on 12-of-21 shooting. Unfortunately, it probably won't mean much in the long run as the team is still well below .500 on the year and (even worse) a full five games out of the 10th seed in the West. A playoff appearance in the form of the play-in tournament is extremely unlikely at this stage.
This was not supposed to be another lottery year for Sacramento. Fox has morphed into one of the better point guards in the NBA in his fourth season, leveraging his blazing speed in both the transition and half-court offense while improving as a jump-shooter. The organization has attempted to build around him with complementary pieces in the form of players like Harrison Barnes and Tyrese Haliburton. Luke Walton is in Year 3. Things were supposed to come together.
But they have not. Last night's win broke a nine-game losing streak, the second such losing streak of the season for the Kings. They have the worst defense in the league by most statistical measures, which is why they are so bad despite scoring 114.3 points per game (ninth in the NBA). The franchise has Fox and several lottery picks surrounding him yet can't get out of their own way.
Fox is not the problem. He's having a career year, averaging 25 points and seven assists per game. During the Kings' most recent nine-game winless stretch from March 31 to April 15, Fox averaged 27 PPG on 49 percent shooting from the floor. Earlier in the year, when the Kings went on another nine-game losing streak, the star point guard averaged 22 points and nine assists per contest. There is room for improvement in his game, to be sure, but the 23-year-old is rapidly approaching a level of play that can simply be summed up as too good for a losing team.
On a related note, Fox signed his first big contract this past offseason, inking a five-year deal worth $163 million that will kick in after the 2021 season concludes. Fox has clearly been frustrated this year with his team's losing efforts despite the good basketball he's been playing, but he'll be around for a while yet. Here, however, is where I present my thesis: despite how recently Fox inked a deal, he will be the next big star on the NBA trade market.
Again, that isn't to say Fox will ask out this summer or even next summer. The fact that Fox looks like the next big domino to fall is more a reflection on the current status of stars around the league than it is the ticking clock that Sacramento has to deal with. When a superstar player asks for a trade with multiple years left on his contract, he falls into one of two categories: an older perennial All-NBA candidate whose team faltered around him in recent years, or a young up-and-coming star whose team has regularly failed to build around him and he wants to see what life is like within a competent organization.
We've seen both those types of players get moved over the last two years. James Harden is a member of the former group and will not get traded again anytime soon after landing in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis was a member of the latter group when he asked out of New Orleans in the summer of 2019 and just re-upped with the team that traded for him, the Los Angeles Lakers. But on the horizon, there are very few candidates of either group to ask for a trade.
Giannis Antetokounmpo took his name out of the running for at least the next three years after signing a supermax extension last fall and watching the Bucks trade for and extend Jrue Holiday through 2023. Many of the league's top-tier young players in either the last year of their rookie deals or on their first big contract extensions -- Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic-- are in great situations with playoff-contending teams in the short term. There aren't many obvious candidates for the next veteran who sours on his current team and demands a trade. It's easy to imagine that happening with one of the Brooklyn Big 3 but impossible to predict until it actually happens, and their peers around the league (Kawhi/PG, LeBron/AD) are in situations of their own design and are therefore less likely to break it up by forcing a trade.
There are two pretty clear potential trade candidates that could try to force their way out before Fox gets around to doing it: Bradley Beal and Karl-Anthony Towns. Beal has been a highly-sought-after trade target for two years now and falls firmly into the high-paid vet with a collapsing team around him category mentioned above. But Beal has been insistent that he has no desire to leave Washington and is under contract for two more seasons. Anything can happen but if Beal has made it this far he's probably going to stick it out until his deal runs out. Towns, meanwhile, is definitely young and in a bad situation out in Minnesota but feels equally unlikely to leave; he's a great player but hasn't been on the court very much over the last two seasons and his defensive deficiencies are a large part of the reason the Wolves are bad even when he's on the floor.
Fox fits the profile of a trade candidate better than Beal or Towns. Great all-around player putting up good numbers on a terrible team? Check. A star of a historically terrible organization with no clear path to immediate contention other than relying entirely on said star to carry them to relevance? Check. Suffering losing season after losing season without even sniffing legitimate contention? Check and check. Fox might be as loyal to Sacramento as Beal is to Washington, but until he says so explicitly history suggests we should assume otherwise.
I'm not saying I want this to happen. It is not great for basketball that enough players have gone through this cycle of demanding a trade because their team or management sucks that I can create a profile of the type of player who does that. Fox forcing his way from Sacramento to New York would be pretty lame. It is nice to see a good player rewarded with success and a playoff version of Fox would be great, but issues of parity and small-markets vs. big-markets are real problems in the NBA.
But it does seem a bit inevitable. Even the Wolves have taken big (if unsuccessful thus far) swings to give Towns a second star to play with between Jimmy Butler and D'Angelo Russell. Sacramento has done nothing of note except turn in the biggest draft miss in a long time by taking Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic. The biggest free-agent acquisition of the Fox era was Harrison Barnes.
The Kings aren't doing enough, and Fox is suffering for it. Sacramento better hope they figure it out before the crows come to roost.