Nothing about the Sacramento Kings makes sense.
They hired Mike Brown to fix a defense that hasn’t been better than 18th since the 2005-2006 season (which, coincidentally, is the last time they made the playoffs — the longest drought in all of the Big Four sports leagues). But the D is currently 27th in the league, the same as last year.
They have one of the best pick-and-roll duos in the league in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis — but they’re currently 27th in the league in pick-and-roll frequency after being 7th last year.
Richaun Holmes, their fifth-highest-paid player, has been supplanted in the rotation as backup big by Trey Lyles and Chimezie Metu, who make a combined $4.5M.
Star point guard De’Aaron Fox, who looks to be in miles better shape this season, is getting to the rim at career-worst levels but has only missed five of 40 rim attempts all season. That’s a better conversion rate than Ja Morant, Giannis, Zion, or any other player in the NBA with at least that many attempts.
The Kings started 0-4 against a mean schedule before winning six of their last eight. Both losses could easily have been wins if a couple brutal whistles had gone the other direction. One of their wins could easily have been a bad loss to lowly Orlando if Fox hadn’t drained a miraculous buzzer-beating 35-footer.
Confused? Me, too. Let’s go deeper.
Let’s start with the defense. Underlying numbers and the eye test suggest this is a much better unit than the 27th it currently ranks.
For one, the shot profile looks good: the Kings give up the second-fewest threes and a league-average number of rim attempts — which isn’t bad considering there is no rim protection whatsoever on this squad! It’s hard to take away both threes AND layups unless you have a Brook Lopez-sized rim deterrent, which the Kings certainly do not.
The bad news — opponents are lighting the Kings up from nearly everywhere. Almost 39% of opponent threes are dropping, and the Kings are allowing a jaw-dropping 71% conversion rate at the rim — it’s as if every opponent turns into some unholy combination of Steph Curry and Ja Morant. Those are really bad numbers.
Opponent three-point percentage is quite luck-driven, and it’s reasonable to expect that number to come down. But when Domantas Sabonis is your center, opponents will get dunks and layups with ease — that 71% is no fluke. Mike Brown constantly instructs his guards and wings to force ballhandlers away from the middle, which has had limited success, but this will always be a neon-framed, glaring Achilles heel.
An encouraging sign — the starting lineup of Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, rookie Keegan Murray, and Sabonis has defended pretty well! They are only giving up 100.8 points per 100 possessions, in the 80th percentile for lineups leaguewide. And some other lineups the Kings have put out, particularly with free agent Malik Monk in for Murray, have been some of the stingiest in the league (on a small sample size).
Monk’s defense has been revelatory. Monk was a horrendous defender in his earliest years, constantly benched in Charlotte for his inability to guard a plastic bag drifting in the breeze. But he’s turned it around, and coach Mike Brown recently stated Monk has been the team’s highest-graded defender internally. It’s not just lip service, either — in three games against the Warriors, Monk has held Jordan Poole, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson to a combined 4-21 shooting as the primary defender.
Watch as Monk (#0 on the left side of the frame) switches onto Portland’s Damian Lillard and sticks with him through a tricky play to make a great contest on a Lillard three:
Previous versions of Monk would’ve been killed on this play.
His size and still-developing defensive instincts limit him; he will not make any All-Defensive teams. But he’s been a plus on that end for possibly the first time in his career, giving Brown more lineup flexibility than I had anticipated.
Fox is clearly trying harder, too, although he relapses into some of his bad habits every once in a while. But huge credit to coach Brown here: he’s held Fox (and everyone else, too) accountable. Fox was benched for a massive stretch of the fourth quarter against Cleveland after a bad box-out and foul on Kevin Love before returning in the final two minutes. Afterward, Brown commented that Fox “has to show that he’s a two-way player. […] If you could score, score for us, but you also got to guard Donovan [Mitchell].” Brown has been adamant in his praise for Fox and has said numerous times he thinks that Fox can be an All-Star this season, but only if he is competitive on the defensive end. With exceptions, that’s mostly held true so far this season.
Center Domantas Sabonis is not good at the main thing centers are supposed to be good at: protecting the rim and deterring/altering shots. This is a problem. But he tries hard, is usually in the proper position, and can switch out in a pinch to the perimeter with a modicum of credibility. Harrison Barnes and Davion Mitchell are likely Sacramento’s two best defenders (sorry, Monk) and have both played well as the primary wing defender and ballhawk, respectively.
When you add it all up, the Kings should be better than 27th. Teams are shooting the shots the Kings want to give up, the effort level is high, and opponents will eventually miss a three-point shot. That said, Sacramento’s ceiling will always be low: zero rim protection isn’t solvable within the current rotation, and a lack of premier defenders elsewhere caps their ability to be a good defensive squad. But they should eventually settle in as comfortably below-average instead of execrable.
However, the ceiling on the offensive end is Cheech and Chong high — just not for the reasons I expected.
This team seemed primed to be a pick-and-roll-centric outfit. Sabonis is one of the league’s best screeners and a terrific playmaker from the post. Fox is an explosive athlete and scorer at the point position. Offseason additions ensured a plethora of shooting would always surround those two. That should have been a combination for P&R nirvana.
But Brown indicated in the preseason that the team would run a more Warriors-style offense (Brown was an assistant with Golden State for the last half-decade). More off-ball movement, cutting, dribble hand-offs, inside-out passing, and an egalitarian system that depends on the rock “moving toward energy” (the Kings are fifth in passes made and potential assists per game). There are still a ton of screens being set — Sabonis is third in the league in screen assists per game, behind just Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert — but they are more likely to be off-ball screens for cutters and shooter,s or hybrid dribble-hand-off actions. It’s a lot of read-and-react actions that depend on high skill levels and quick decision-making.
What’s interesting about the Warriors’ system is that it’s never worked without historically great shooters. Few teams in the league run anything like it because it collapses without the tremendous off-ball talents of Curry and Thompson.
Luckily, offseason trade acquisition Kevin Huerter, Ronald Threesley, has shot like a Splash Bro all year. Huerter hasn’t missed from three since he joined Sacramento — he’s shooting 51% on a prodigious 7.3 attempts per game. Fox is at a career-high 38%, and rookie Murray has been as good as advertised from deep at nearly 40% on high volume. In addition, the bench is filled with guys like Monk, Mitchell, and power forward Trey Lyles, who have all shot credibly.
Somehow, it’s all added up to an above-average offense that has been reasonably accurate from deep on a massive amount of attempts. They never get to the rim, but that’s by design: Golden State’s offense doesn’t get many layups, but the ones it DOES generate are wide-open. GS has ranked no better than 20th in rim attempts since 2016-2017 but has been in the top ten in conversion rate each year except for the injury-riddled bubble campaign.
Similarly, this year the Kings are 29th in rim attacks but first in rim conversion rate, an unsustainable 73%. The offense uses constant movement and the gravity of its shooters to open up backdoor cuts, like here, where they give the Warriors a taste of their own medicine:
Sacramento’s offensive success feels real, particularly with Fox playing so well. His efficiency numbers are career-highs pretty much across the board, and he looks to finally be fulfilling all the tantalizing glimpses he’s shown over the years.
Here, De’Aaron wisely uses the Richaun Holmes pick before snaking back into the middle to let Holmes’ forward momentum block off the rim protector, opening up acres of space to plop in his signature pretty lefty floater:
Here, he moves so fast that he literally causes two defenders to run into each other before zipping right through them:
And here is s confident deep ball off the bounce:
When watching film of his three-point attempts, I’m startled by how few are bad choices or forced against the flow of the offense. Defenses haven’t yet started tightening up on Fox, so he’ll take the three when the D sags, like in the clip above. But he’s no longer jacking up contested threes early in the shot clock. Instead, he’s letting the offense breathe: he trusts that the system will eventually create a good look for himself or someone else.
Even if Fox’s shooting percentages return to Earth, he should be able to maintain efficiency by trading one midrange jumper per game for a more determined rim run. Given his success in attacking the paint, this will likely be a point of emphasis for the coaching staff.
De’Aaron is turning the ball over a lot (another side-effect of running Warriors schemes), but he looks happy and confident. He and the rest of the team have self-belief this year, the resiliency to bounce back from tough breaks and continue throwing haymakers. Fox leads the league in total clutch points (on 65% shooting!), a testament both to the number of close games the Kings have played and to his heroics therein.
I was low on the Kings before the season, picking them to finish 11th in the conference. We have a long way to go, and that’s still a distinct possibility. Still, given the way the Kings are competing and some likelihood of positive defensive regression, I believe the Kings will finally make the play-in and have a shot at breaking their ignominious playoff streak.