The Kings were riding high after last season, which culminated in the team’s first playoff berth in a high school junior’s lifetime.
They had a historically great offense that flowed through Domantas Sabonis’ high-post playmaking, a brilliant one-on-one scorer in De’Aaron Fox, a bevy of willing and capable shooters, and a clever offensive system that eschewed heavy doses of pick-and-roll for dribble handoffs, cuts, and off-ball movement. They likely would’ve beaten the Warriors (the inspiration for their offensive system) in the first round if Fox hadn’t broken his hand.
They brought back the same core this offseason and added a few more complementary pieces. Even acknowledging their injury luck and a down Western Conference last season, it felt reasonable to expect more of the same from the Kings this year.
And through 22 games, the Kings are 13-9, good for fifth in the conference. That’s a pretty good place to be!
But the team’s negative underlying point differential suggests that the Kings are overperforming their talent. Last year’s historically great offense has fallen to merely pretty good (13th in the league), and the culprit is easy to identify. The team won’t — or can’t — get to the rack.
Last year, 33.9% of the Kings’ shots occurred at the rim, an average amount. That number impressed me, given the Kings’ relative lack of dynamic off-the-dribble creators and the fact that Golden State’s similar offensive system is consistently last in the league in rack attacks.
This year, though, that number is down to 27.9%, good for third-worst in the league. This isn’t a matter of Fox missing a handful of games — the starting lineup of Fox, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, Harrison Barnes, and Sabonis has a nearly identical share of shots at the rim.
There is a trickle-down effect, too. Because they aren’t getting to the basket, they’re averaging nearly three fewer made free throws per 100 possessions, too. Although they’re shooting more threes, they’re also shooting more often from the dreaded Bermuda Triangle — the floater zone, where field goal percentages are lost forever.
So, what’s causing the compass to break? Systemic changes by both the offense and opposing defenses have forced the good ship Sacramento slightly off course.
With the ball, the Kings are hunting triples with a new ferocity. Per Cleaning the Glass, which strips out garbage time, 42.3% of their shots are from downtown this season, third-most in the league and up from 38.4%. That’s not quite as large a jump as their decline in rim attacks, but it’s a good chunk of it.
Want more proof? Every single rotation player is shooting less often at the rim this season. Harrison Barnes has transferred 12% of his shots wholesale from the rim to the three-point line, the most dramatic swing. But all of these guys are looking for triples first, triples second, and passes to a teammate behind the arc third.
The change is most superficially noticeable with De’Aaron Fox. Fox is taking four more shots per game than last season; three of those are from deep.
Fox is having an incredible season overall, averaging nearly 30 points per game and shooting 38% from beyond the arc on more than eight attempts per game(!). He’s simultaneously been more aggressive looking for threes and more effective at making them, a fantastic combination, and he’s a legitimate down-ballot MVP candidate.
But sometimes, he’s leaned too far into shooting at the expense of abusing the rim. Fox has made a serious effort to put up more catch-and-shoot threes, but he’s forcing the issue slightly. He’s significantly worse at catch-and-shoots (35%) than at off-the-dribble threes (41%), and there are times he’s clearly thinking he has to shoot it instead of attacking a scrambling defense:
It’s not just about the threes. More than a third of Fox’s attempts are from floater range, while just 21% occur at the hoop. For the first time in his career, he’s below the median in rim-attack frequency for point guards — despite driving two more times per game!
Floaters, runners, and quick turnarounds are important counters, but I’d love for a player of Fox’s quickness and skill to be more aggressive, particularly since he’s become so good at drawing fouls (nearly eight per game is a superb figure). Like, this is D’Angelo Russell. Go around him, go through him, but don’t bail him out with whatever this is:
Then again, when watching the film, it’s clear that the rim isn’t as available this season as last season. Teams saw how Golden State sat off a hampered Sabonis when he was in the upper post in last year’s playoffs, and they’ve copied that strategy. He’s not making them pay quite enough. There’s simply no way for the Kings to get to the rim when two defenders are planted in the paint like particularly obstinate trees. Look at where Rudy Gobert is in this picture in relation to Sabonis, his ostensible mark:
Here’s Chet Holmgren completely ignoring Sabonis on the perimeter to sit back and contest the eventual Huerter layup attempt. Spoiler: it misses.
Ideally, the Kings could weaponize that disrespect on those handoffs into open threes, especially when defenders foolishly go under the screen:
That works, sometimes. But good defenses snuff out those opportunities by chasing shooters over the screen. Sabonis has been more assertive on the short roll or with his back to the basket than he has when given the freedom to attack from 16+ feet. The deep drops he continually faces have led to an increase in tricky in-between midrangers. Sabonis loves the dotted-circle push shot:
He’s good at them! And he doesn’t take a ton. Sabonis is still a rim-first guy, just not to the same extent he was last season. But faced with defenses sagging like a 90-year-old, Sabonis has exchanged almost exactly one at-rim attempt every game for a middie. There’s a corresponding change in where his teammates shoot from, too — as a whole, Sacramento shoots 4% fewer shots at the rim when Sabonis is on the court than when he’s off.
That math doesn’t work super well over a big sample. Three-pointers are valuable and important, but layups and free throws are still better. Midrangers, even short ones, should be a counter, not a feature.
A slower pace exacerbates the rim problem. The team isn’t running as often as they did last season. Synergy says they have about two fewer transition possessions per game than last season, and they’re a tiny bit slower to attempt a shot after made shots and defensive rebounds despite a league that’s playing slightly faster. Even minuscule differences in per-possession speeds add up over the course of hundreds or thousands of possessions.
The good news is that the team keeps racking up wins anyway. Don’t let this rim quirk fool you: Sabonis is still a monster, and he’s having arguably his best defensive and passing seasons ever (a silver lining to the deep drops he’s facing: clear sightlines to the rest of the court for his laser-guided bounce passes):
The team as a whole is defending better — shoutout to Keegan Murray, growing into the “D” part of 3-and-D. Sacramento is a top-four team in both rim attempts and three-pointers allowed. They aren’t great at bothering shots (Sacramento opponents have shot incredibly well against the Kings for four straight years — luck clearly can’t explain it all), but at least they are giving up the right ones!
But offenses are making shots, and they do every year, so it’s hard to expect them to start missing now. The defense is still below average overall, and given the personnel on this team, they’ll never be able to bank on that side of the ball.
(Side note: this is almost unbelievable, but the Kings have been 25th or worse in defending the rim for all 21 seasons in Cleaning the Glass’ database except one (when they were 19th in 2017-2018). That isn’t just matador defense. That’s rolling out the red carpet to opponents, putting up the velvet ropes, and gently escorting ballhandlers down the lane, letting them stop for the paparazzi along the way.)
Some of the problem might stem from a very tough early schedule. They are 0-7 against Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, and New Orleans (and have five games left against those teams). But they’ve notched more impressive wins, including OKC, the Los Angeles Lakers twice, Minnesota, Dallas, Cleveland, Brooklyn, Phoenix, and a Murray-less Denver.
The weaker Eastern Conference has barely seen what Sacramento can do, and six games against the Pistons, Spurs, and Wizards should be tasty treats as long as the Kings don’t mess around. Like cheap champagne, jacking up a bunch of threes can be a fun night that leads to a nasty hangover when you wake up and realize you shot 9-for-40 from deep, let the Gandalfs win, and left your wallet in the Uber.
The Kings have a solid record at this point. But this is a team with expectations, not just hopes. For them to make it to the second round and beyond, they’ll need to level up their already good offense. The pathway to improvement is clear. Making more of their threes (Murray is the main culprit here, but Kevin Huerter’s 37% would be the second-lowest of his career) would be nice, but they should focus on shifting some of their shots to the rim. Force the issue; get aggressive, particularly when Sabonis isn’t in!
We’ve talked about a bunch of changes that, in a vacuum, are small, but add them up, and you get a big shift in shot profile. Even here, at the tail end of the three-point revolution, shots at the rim remain king. The Kings would do well to remember that.