NBA Film Room: Is Fox-Sabonis Duo Enough To Build Around?

Sacramento Kings, De'Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, NBA Film Room
NBA Analysis Network

The Sacramento Kings shook up the NBA landscape when they unexpectedly traded promising second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton in a swap centered around then-Indiana Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

Fans and pundits suggested that the Kings overpaid for a talented, but flawed player in Sabonis, and some even surmised that they chose the wrong guard to trade, implying that Haliburton may be a better future building block than De’Aaron Fox.

The newly minted star duo didn’t do much to quell those concerns on the court. In the 13 games they played together, each put up impressive individual stats.

Fox averaged a shade under 28 points with 6.2 assists per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. Sabonis filled the stat sheets with 18.1 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 5.8 assists a night to go along with 55 percent shooting.

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Despite the obvious talent on the roster, the Kings continued to be a team lesser than the sum of its parts, having gone 9-16 since making that trade and ultimately missing out on the Play-In Tournament.

The question begs now: are De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis a pairing worth building around?

On offense, the tandem makes perfect sense. Sabonis is a quality screener and offers Fox a perfect target when rolling to the rim. Not only can he be counted on to catch tough passes in the paint for wide-open finishes, but even when the lane isn’t wide open, Sabonis also has the touch and finesse to turn a contested look into a bucket. His presence as a roller has opened up the paint for Fox off of screens coming from Sabonis.

He’s also one of the most talented big man passers in the NBA not named Nikola Jokic and can run the offense from the elbows to find Fox for open jumpers or diving to the rack. Their blend of offensive complements creates a dangerous two-man game off of screen actions, dribble hand-offs, and counters off of both.

While he’s only a career 32 percent 3-point shooter, Sabonis is deadly from mid-range and is more than stretchy enough to make opponents think twice about sagging into the paint to stop Fox’s drives off of screens.

While they’re not a perfect fit together on offense — they could be if both become more reliable deep shooters — most of their issues lie on the defensive end of the court.

Fox is one of those players who seems like he would be a better defender than he is. He’s got great size for his position, has plenty of lengths, and is in the upper echelon of NBA athletes. Despite his physical gifts, Fox’s effort and consistency leave a lot to be desired.

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Still, he shows plenty of flashes of elite defense, and having another All-Star option on offense might allow him to expend more energy on getting stops. As he continues growing, don’t be surprised if Fox becomes one of the better point-of-attack defenders in the league.

Domantas Sabonis on the other hand is extremely limited physically as a defender. He neither has the foot speed necessary to contain power forwards nor the verticality to be an effective defensive anchor.

With Sabonis at the center, the Sacramento Kings lack a true rim protector and invite opponents into the lane for easy looks at the rim. Julius Randle took full advantage of this when the New York Knicks faced the Kings on March 7, cooking Sacramento’s flimsy interior defense for a career-high 46 points.

Sabonis is best off playing next to a defensive-minded center, but most potential frontcourt partners would hinder his effectiveness on offense. Baby Sabas couldn’t make it work playing next to Myles Turner, one of the few centers in the NBA who can defend the rim at a high level and reasonably space the floor on offense.

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Now that he’s playing with De’Aaron Fox, another unreliable deep shooter, it’s even more imperative that Sabonis plays with as much floor spacing as possible. Otherwise, he, Fox, and the center they bring in to cover for Sabonis on defense will all get in each other’s way in the lane.

It certainly doesn’t help that Fox can oftentimes be a turnstile on defense. Their ineffectiveness on that end of the court is the main reason why the pairing totaled a net rating of -3.8 points per 100 possessions according to stathead.

This creates a tricky puzzle for General Manager Monte McNair to solve. While the Fox-Sabonis pairing certainly has its merits — especially on the offensive end of the court — it’s a flimsy tightrope to try to navigate when fleshing out the rest of the roster.

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McNair needs to ensure that the two All-Stars have plenty of defense and shooting around them, ideally in every other position on the court. Finding three quality 3-and-D players is a tall task. Finding such a player at the center position who can aptly anchor a defense is nearly an impossible one.

Still, there’s hope. Even if it’s not perfect, the Kings can play Sabonis at center and deploy a drop defense — allowing him to focus his efforts on containing attackers at the rim rather than chasing guards on the perimeter. The Denver Nuggets have turned Jokic from a disaster into an underappreciated stopper with the same strategy.

Sacramento actually found some success playing this way, surrounding De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis with three above-average defenders who could also space the floor in Donte DiVincenzo, Trey Lyles, and Harrison Barnes. That lineup only played a total of 34 minutes together last season but crushed opponents to the tune of +32.8 points per 100 possessions.

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The Sacramento Kings and McNair have a decision to make. Will they take the difficult path and try to build the perfect roster around their new All-Star duo? Or will they choose the easier road and blow it all up?

Last season, they pushed all their chips into the table and it didn’t work out for them. Nevertheless, they owe it to themselves to at least try to make this pairing work. Otherwise, they sacrificed Tyrese Haliburton for nothing.

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