Buddy Hield’s unhappiness has been news for well over a year. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be in Sacramento, or that the Kings are perennial losers. Or it might be that, but the stated reason is always more specific, individual incidents so regular that they run together to create an air of general upset. Hield wants to be traded, or he doesn’t like the coach, doesn’t trust the front office. He answers reporters’ questions with vague hostility, insinuations like y’all know how I feel. Like he’s talking about a mob hit on the phone. We get the gist, if not the details. He’s displeased.
Before he signed a four-year, $94 million extension last October, Hield was calling the Kings’ initial offers “insulting.” That’s normal enough, team and player sparring in the press about money. They still got the deal done. But the relationship has deteriorated from there. The lede from Jason Anderson at the Sacramento Bee, after a December double-OT loss against the Wolves: “the Kings aren’t just fragile right now. They’re broken.” Hield, in the midst of a shooting slump, sat for most of the fourth quarter and the first overtime period, and he was annoyed after the game. “Seems like we’re all over the place—coaches and everybody,” he said. “Trust issues going on, I guess. Guys stop believing in players. It is what it is. They have who they have playing out there and I just want to be supportive.” They meaning Luke Walton and his assistants, as if they were an entity apart from himself, incompetent bosses getting in the way of the real work.
Then in late January, Walton moved Hield from the starting lineup to the bench. The thing about Hield, who’s a nice player, is that when he’s not hitting shots, he doesn’t have much else to contribute. He’s a decent passer, but on the defensive end, he can be sloppy and unengaged. This is exactly the type of talent who drives coaches nuts. But Hield’s got a big contract and supreme self-belief. And he’s not just a good shooter, he’s elite, used to coaches having absolute confidence in him, telling him to fire away and trusting that his stroke will sort itself out eventually. For his part, he elided questions about his benching, offering bromides about how he just wants to win… while also having his agent leak some noise to The Athletic that if he had to continue as a sixth man in Sacramento, he would probably request a trade.
Walton didn’t budge the rest of the season. He kept Hield as a sub and played him 25.1 minutes per night over the Kings’ remaining 28 contests. They went 16-and-12 and Hield put up nearly 18 points per game, shooting a staggering 45.1 percent from three-point range. With Hield starting over the first 44 games of the year, Sacramento amassed only 15 wins. Mitigating factors, sure, and an anomalous season on the whole, but maybe Hield really is best utilized as a slightly overqualified microwave scorer.
Of course, you’ll never convince him of that. After the Kings’ season ended in August, Hield was asked whether he would be okay with continuing to come off the bench and gave an expert non-answer, saying nothing nakedly incriminating while also positively perspiring contempt for Walton. This was before Bogdan Bogdanović left for Atlanta in restricted free agency, but the Kings also drafted Tyrese Haliburton in the lottery, so we’ll see if Hield gets his starting spot back. Even if he does, the relationship with Walton is severely strained, and the kind of sustained success that might heal that hurt isn’t on the horizon. The West is tough, the Kings arguably got worse over the offseason, and Walton appears at this point to be getting by on his name and that stretch where he—imagine about 15 sets of air quotes here—“coached” the Warriors to a 39-and-4 record while Steve Kerr was away from the sidelines following back surgery. He obviously didn’t impress LeBron James in Los Angeles, and he’s not drawing rave reviews in Sacramento either.
The Kings don’t technically need to do anything about the Buddy Hield situation. That extension he signed last fall kicks in this season, which means he’s as under contract as you can get: four years with no player option. With that said, the organization was already carrying a miserable aura before Hield started to complain, and he has trade value. It might be best for everybody if he went elsewhere, especially if Haliburton, a draft expert darling whom the Kings happily scooped up at 12th overall, demonstrates that he can play well alongside De’Aaron Fox.
There’s plenty of time to figure this out. The twin benefit and detriment of being the Kings is that you’re somewhere between bad and mediocre every year, so you’re not blowing any deadlines, because it’s unclear when you’re supposed to finally start competing. Hield hasn’t talked about this organizational malaise, the inertia that is everyone’s fault and also seems to come from beyond, like whoever’s in charge of the standings just doesn’t like Sacramento. That has to wear on Hield too, in addition to concerns about his playing time. But if the Kings jettisoned every player who was slightly depressed about the franchise, they wouldn’t be able to field a team. There’s no choice but to muddle on, with or without your discontented star shooting guard.
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