The Sacramento Kings made two discrete decisions during the offseason aimed at ending what has become the longest postseason drought the NBA has ever seen. First, general manager Monte McNair plucked Mike Brown off the Warriors’ bench, entrusting the former Cavaliers and Lakers head coach-turned-longtime Steve Kerr lieutenant with finding a way to drag a franchise that has not finished with a league-average defense since 2006 toward something approaching respectability on that end of the floor. Then, McNair targeted a pair of wings — Malik Monk in free agency and Kevin Huerter in trade — with the intent of adding shooting and shot-creating dynamism to a team desperate to create enough space for bookend playmakers De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis to cook.
Sacramento’s defense remains … well, let’s say it’s a work in progress. The Kings enter Wednesday’s action ranked 27th in the NBA in points allowed per possession outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. But while Brown has his work cut out for him in coaxing Sacramento toward stops, he’s making those offseason investments on the offensive end pay off pretty handsomely. Just ask the Nets.
Hanging 153 points in regulation — the highest-scoring game of the 2022-23 campaign thus far — on a Brooklyn defense that had started to turn the corner under new head coach Jacque Vaughn ought to open plenty of eyes around the league to something pretty interesting brewing in Northern California. After annihilating the Nets on national TV, the Kings now rank second in the whole stinkin’ NBA in offensive efficiency, according to NBA Advanced Stats, behind only the East-leading Celtics. They’re third by Cleaning the Glass’ numbers, though, because those strip out production accumulated in garbage time … and, considering Sacramento led by 33 points after three quarters, the entire fourth quarter on Tuesday counted as garbage time.
That high-octane offense has Sacramento surging, winners of four straight and seven of their last nine — with the two losses coming by a combined six points, in games where the NBA later acknowledged critical late officiating errors that broke against the Kings. That’s right: If not for a missed Tyler Herro travel and a shooting foul on Klay Thompson, we might be talking about a Kings team on a nine-game heater, jostling with the Trail Blazers and Nuggets for the West’s No. 1 spot.
So: How are the Kings cooking fools? Well, for one thing, they’re pushing the pace and getting into their sets earlier — something that Brown helpfully demonstrated to his players during training camp:
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) October 19, 2022
Brown spent the bulk of his early days as an NBA assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Rick Carlisle in Indiana, and just spent a half-dozen years with Kerr in Golden State’s whirling dervish of an offensive attack. Like those coaches, he wants his players ready to make quick decisions — the “point-five” mentality that calls for a shot, pass or drive within a half-second of catching the ball. The Kings have gotten comfortable with that approach in a hurry: Only five teams get shots up faster on average, according to Inpredictable, and nobody’s quicker on the draw after a defensive rebound.
It makes sense to emphasize transition play when you’ve got a rocket-fueled point guard like Fox, one of the fastest players in the NBA with the ball in his hands, plus a number of other players — Huerter, Monk, Harrison Barnes, rookie Keegan Murray, reserve guards Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis, even the rumbling Sabonis — that you can trust to grab the ball off the rim and dribble end-to-end. What’s separated this Kings team from some of the more uptempo iterations of years gone by, though, is how effective it’s been when the opponent gets back, things settle down, and it has to go work against a set defense: Sacramento ranks third in points scored per possession in the half-court, behind only the Jayson Tatum-led Celtics and Luka Doncic’s Mavericks, thanks largely to just how big the Kings’ offseason bets on shooting have paid off.
Huerter has been sensational since coming over from Atlanta: Only Stephen Curry and Keldon Johnson have made more 3-pointers than Huerter’s 50, and only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting a higher percentage than Huerter’s torrid 52.6% clip. Monk hasn’t shot it quite as well as he did for the Lakers last season, but at just under 37% on nearly nine attempts per 36 minutes, he’s a bonafide threat to launch that defenses must honor on the perimeter. Murray, whose selection at No. 4 in the 2022 draft over Jaden Ivey arched some eyebrows around the league, has hit the ground running, shooting 37.5 percent from deep on six attempts per game.
“One thing I know we can do: We can shoot that ball,” Brown told reporters after lighting up Brooklyn.
That infusion of accuracy and volume, plus Brown’s insistence on firing away, has helped transform Sacramento’s offense. Nearly 41 percent of the Kings’ shot attempts this season have come from beyond the arc, the NBA’s fifth-highest rate — last season, it was just under 35 percent, 21st in the league — and they’re drilling a crisp 38.1 percent of those long balls, which trails only Denver, Cleveland, Portland and Boston. Tuesday’s win over the Nets marked the sixth time in 13 games that the Kings have put up at least 40 3-point attempts; they did it just 10 times in 82 contests last season.
When defenses have to worry about multiple perimeter threats on every possession, it becomes easier to find space to maneuver on the interior. The Kings are moving their bodies more on offense and throwing nearly 28 more passes per game than they did last season — a big reason why they’re in the top five in assists per game and assist rate after bottom-10 finishes in both categories last season.
With cleaner lanes to slash through, Fox is feasting, shooting 65.5 percent on drives to the basket, averaging just under 28 points per 36 minutes with a .629 true shooting percentage — all career-best numbers that, if he keeps them up, will put him squarely in the Western Conference All-Star conversation. With more versatile offensive threats orbiting him in Sacramento’s bread-and-butter dribble handoff game, Sabonis has dropped dimes on a career-high 29.1 percent of the Kings’ buckets; with defenders needing to stick close to Sacramento’s newfound surfeit of wings, Domas has faced less clutter en route to the rim, where he’s shooting 78 percent, and found it easier to force his way to the foul line, where he’s attempting 6.5 freebies a game — both career highs.
The glass-half-empty take: The Kings’ offense will level out at least a little. Huerter won’t keep making more than half of his threes. Fox won’t keep shooting an obscene 84 percent at the cup and 56 percent from floater range. A team that, even with Fox slashing and Sabonis smashing, gets to the rim at the league’s third-lowest rate won’t keep scorching the nets to the tune of its second-highest effective field goal percentage. When Sacramento eventually hits a cold snap, we’ll probably be looking at something more like a No. 7- or No. 8-ranked offense rather than a top-two unit.
Let’s refill that glass, though. Fox might not shoot this well, but he has been this good for stretches before, as has Sabonis; that pair playing at an All-Star level doesn’t feel like a fluke, and the shooters around them are real. And even if they dip down to the lower reaches of the top 10, that would still be the best Kings offense in nearly 20 years, which is an awfully strong foundation on which to build something more sustainable … especially if the starting lineup of Sabonis, Barnes, Murray, Huerter and Fox continues to clamp down as stingily as it has thus far.
If those pieces continue to fit, and if Brown can find a second unit that doesn’t hemorrhage points — and the recent demotion of Richuan Holmes in favor of Chimezie Metu at the backup 5 might be a step in the right direction — there’s no reason the Kings can’t stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt. You’ve got a pretty fun basketball team on your hands, Sacramento. Turn on the f*****g jets, light the beam and enjoy it.