The good news for Kings fans is, first, that Houston didn't play down to Sacramento in Thursday night's opening 105-100 loss.
The Kings took it to the Rockets, and were rightfully in it til the end. Yeah, Houston was off from three, but Sacramento played really solid wing defense, in my opinion, and can take some credit for that. Beyond that Houston played a fairly strong game, their two-point percentage was high, they weren't sloppy turning the ball over a bunch or anything.
The Sacramento Kings made the Houston Rockets, playing a mostly fine game to their talents, sweat. And it passed the eye test.
If it weren't for such a wild free-throw discrepancy (Houston was 27-29 to Sacramento's 8-10) the Kings almost definitely would've won. To be fair, though, a lot of that was earned. Sacramento's got a bunch of young guys, and they did commit a lot of jumpy and inexperienced fouls overcommitting or overcorrecting. Aside from Eric Gordon somehow tricking the refs on replay into giving him a foul on a play that should have been a turnover in the final seconds, it was all pretty above board.
So what that means is... well, the Kings can be really dang good on their night.
De'Aaron Fox immediately showed why I think he'll be ROY, blurring past defenders for points at the rim and cracking open Houston's defense with his speed and ballhandling. Buddy Hield was on fire, looking like NorCal's second Klay Thompson out there. If he can drop his shot like that all season - and he seriously might - he can put himself in the mix among the top shooting guards in basketball.
Skal Labissiere had a strong game, he seems like he could be a great small-ball center even though he's not been tried in that role to this point, as far as I know. Willie Cauley-Stein was active and scored 21, and George Hill (16 points in 33 minutes) and Vince Carter (6 in 14) did their jobs as veteran leaders.
The Kings showed they can be pretty well-rounded, and dynamic in a few ways.
There are, however, some issues to iron out.
Kosta Koufos was a disaster, I dunno if Georgios Papagiannis is any better, but the Kings collapsed defensively when Koufos replaced Cauley-Stein. And Willie, to be fair, has his own issues. He's a good shot-blocker inside but he's more slow-footed than he should be. This makes him beatable off the dribble if he strays too far from the rim and makes him a bit of a liability on rotations.
Which is okay, no one's perfect, you can handle this with someone like Labissiere, who covers well farther away from the rim and can make those rotations and let Cauley-Stein hang back as a rim-stopper. He did really well one-on-one with Nene on one possession in the second half.
It's just that then the problem is neither of them can shoot. They're a strong defensive pairing but if you have them both on the floor, it's gonna be real hard to score unless you stack the rest of the floor with shooters.
Dave Joerger tried that on Thursday night. His most-used five-man lineup (14.3 minutes) was Cauley-Stein, Labissiere, George Hill, Justin Jackson and Buddy Hield. His second (9.8 minutes) substituted Garrett Temple for Jackson in that equation. It worked alright, the first lineup getting outscored by four but the second going plus-8.
The issue is what to do with Fox, who himself is still a nonthreatening shooter. He was clearly Sacramento's most dangerous playmaker, and you can see him pairing well with a shooter like Buddy Hield and another shooting wing like Temple or George Hill in a small-ball lineup. Fox and Hield shared the floor for eight and a half minutes and the Kings outscored the Rockets by one in that time.
But when the Cauley-Stein and Labissiere pairing is your best defensive anchoring, it's hard to get Fox on the floor with them. He spent only six minutes with them both on the floor, the Kings were outscored by two in that time and, perhaps most notably, attempted just one three.
Joerger tried pairing Fox with Koufos and three shooters to anchor the second unit (Temple, Carter and Malachi Richardson for 5.5 minutes and Temple, Carter and Justin Jackson for 4.9). Because Koufos was such a sieve inside though it didn't really work, and those two five-man lineups were outscored by 12 combined points.
Fox, Cauley-Stein, Labissiere, Hield and Hill did play together for almost four minutes, approximating the smallish five I imagined above, but they didn't attempt even a single three, highlighting these spacing issues.
I wouldn't hate to see a lineup like that where Labissiere plays a small-ball center with Zach Randolph or maybe even Carter at the four, or maybe Papagiannis can man the middle better than Koufos did on Thursday night, or maybe even Koufos himself will be better and the Kings can keep letting Fox run second units.
At some point though you're going to want Fox in your starting five, and it's not going to be long from now. His game poses some issues for combining with the rest of the Kings' best personnel, but it should be workable.
The most straightforward way would be for Fox to develop his shot. I think he can do that. But Randolph could also maybe serve as a stretch four next to Cauley-Stein. The Kings could experiment with Jackson or Carter in that role, or they can try and find one in a trade.
Either way those are longer-term details to work out. Right now, even as constructed, Sacramento showed they will be tough for a lot of teams.