Should the Sacramento Kings experiment with a three-guard lineup?

Tyrese Haliburton, De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton, De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

With the selection of Davion Mitchell No. 9 overall in July’s NBA Draft, the Sacramento Kings took a logjam of players at the guard positions (De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Terence Davis) and stuffed it even further. This was a surprise to many, considering most fans had a big guard or wing like Moses Moody at the top of their wish list entering the draft.

While it wasn’t my preferred pick for the Kings at that spot due to Mitchell’s advanced age—players that are older than their peers by multiple years tend to have lower perceived ceilings—as well as their painful depth at the wing, it does create some intriguing lineup combinations coach Luke Walton and his staff now have at their disposal.

Should the Sacramento Kings experiment with a three-guard lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Davion Mitchell, and Tyrese Haliburton at prominent points this season?

I’m going to look at a particular combination and dissect it to see if it makes sense for the Kings; a three-guard lineup consisting of Fox, Mitchell, and Haliburton.

The model three-guard lineup

The most prominent example of the three-guard lineup, and the example I will reference in this thinkpiece, was the triumvirate of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the Oklahoma City Thunder rode to incredible success last year. A team expected to handily contend for top lottery odds finished 44-28—5th in the Western Conference—and gave the Houston Rockets a run for their money in the first round, coming down to the final possession in Game 7.

Ultimately, the Thunder prioritized their rebuild and jettisoned Paul and Schroder in separate trades that offseason, but the success that team had due to shrewd lineup decisions can’t be ignored. In 401 minutes played together, the Paul/Schroder/Gilgeous-Alexander trio sported an unbelievable 28.6 net rating as well as scoring at a rate of 127.1 points per 100 possessions and defending at a rate of 98.6 points per 100 possessions, both incredible feats.

They played at a blazing 108.94 pace and still managed to grab more than half of available rebounds at 52.4 percent. To top it off, they shot at an incredible 67.5 true shooting percentage despite the league average that season being 56.5 percent according to StatMuse. Lineups with Chris Paul and just one of the other two excelled as well, posting no worse than a 3.7 net rating. This Chris Paul feller is pretty good!

To be clear, this particular trio achieving this sort of success is not a proclamation that all three-guard lineups can be this good, far from it. In fact, the Orlando Magic ran a trio of Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, and Dwayne Bacon for roughly 289 minutes this season and likely regretted it 289 times as they posted an unsightly -25.7 net rating, the worst rating in the league for three-man lineups with a minimum of 250 minutes.

Each Thunder guard brought a certain set of skills to the table that blended beautifully with the others. Whether it was Paul’s brilliant shot creation and emphatic return to elite midrange shooting, Schroder’s three-point shooting and general knack for scoring, or Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to get to the rim and finish with ease, this was a true three-pronged attack that often had elite three-point shooter Danilo Gallinari and paint menace Steven Adams as the 4 and 5, not even the focal point of an attack at most times.

How does this relate to the Kings?

Now, how does this relate to the Sacramento Kings? While success to the degree of the Thunder trio is far from a guarantee, each of Fox, Mitchell, and Haliburton have skillsets that have the potential to merge nicely with each other and provide Sacramento with legitimate offensive weapons in Hield and Harrison Barnes off the bench or in small-ball lineups where buckets are crucial.

The Thunder staggered their lineup well enough last year where they almost always had one of Paul, Schroder, and Gilgeous-Alexander on the court, as well as all three available in crunch time. I see no reason why the Kings couldn’t do the same, particularly when they also have an elite three-point weapon in Hield as well as Davis to develop at the guard spots already.

What would a three-guard lineup for Sacramento look like?

To start, I would have Fox play the lead guard role and main facilitator, akin to what Paul was in his time with the Thunder. Fox isn’t quite at Paul’s level as a shot creator and playmaker, but he is a promising passer in his own right, with a 32.7 assist percentage and a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. His blazing fast speed and ability to get to the cup is an asset and can play well in sets where Haliburton is the ball-handler and Fox comes off screens to cut to the basket. While we don’t know how Mitchell will fare as a shooter in his rookie season just yet, there is a legitimate chance that Fox could be the worst of the three, so keeping him on-ball as much as possible minimizes his opportunities as an off-ball shooter until he proves himself as a consistent weapon in that regard.

Mitchell would slot in at the two, and I think this is the perfect spot for him. This alleviates him from playmaking and initiation duties, where he posted a 2.29 assist-to-turnover ratio in his final season at Baylor, unspectacular for a collegiate in his 22-year old season. His ability to shoot at the NBA level is up in the air, as his 44.7 percent mark at threes is an eye-opener until you see his lowly 64.1 percent mark at the stripe. His 4.7 attempts per game from long-range shows he isn’t afraid to let it fly if given the chance, and I think he’ll have plenty of it alongside Fox and Haliburton.

Mitchell also presents an interesting weapon to deploy against opposing lead guards. His measurables at the combine aren’t exactly wild for NBA terms (height of 6-foot-1 and wingspan of 6-foot-4) but viewings from Summer League show that this kid has a lot of fight in him defensively. He’s light on his feet, keeps his assignment in front of him, and has some nimble hands, evidenced by a strong 1.9 steals per game in his final season at Baylor. He plays with a continuously high motor at that end of the floor, and that gives him real potential to be a strong point-of-attack defender for the Sacramento Kings and reduce the lowlights Fox experiences at that end.

And finally, I would have Haliburton slotting in at the three, for two reasons. First off, his 6-foot-5 height and roughly 6-foot-8 wingspan offer some potential defensively against NBA wings, even if his defense was graded rather poorly by BBall Index’s D-LEBRON last year. And second, while it was just a season’s worth of sample size, his 40.9 percent three-point shooting on 5.1 attempts per game combined with an 85.7 percent mark at the free throw line already displays his impressive shooting capabilities and his potential to become elite in that category. He rattled off a strong pull-up three percentage of 37.5 and a crazy 43.8 via catch-and-shoot percentage, which makes him an ideal weapon off-ball or early in the possession.

If he maintains those sort of percentages on increased volumes of seven or eight attempts a game, he could become one of the league’s most valuable shooters right away. Haliburton is an excellent playmaker too, notching a 3.31 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 24.6 assist percentage as a rookie. He would provide high-level insulation for Fox as a secondary playmaker, so much so that it’s tempting to have him in the lead guard role if Fox wasn’t as inconsistent at shooting as he is.

Should the Sacramento Kings give this a run?

So after all this, should the Sacramento Kings experiment with a three-guard lineup? Well, in two words, why not? It would allow them to make full use out of their five prominent guards, while also utilizing Moe Harkless as a situational defender rather than a prominent role player.  This would also allow the team to play their best players as much as possible.

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Honestly, what do they have to lose? This is a franchise that has been out of the playoffs for 15 seasons now, matching an NBA record by the Donald Sterling-owned Los Angeles Clippers. With the roster they have now, it’s certainly no guarantee they even qualify for the NBA play-in round given the depth of the Western Conference. Why not get a little creative with what you have? Positionless basketball is king in today’s NBA, and who better to take advantage of it than the Kings?