“I like how fast they play. … They just lack in experience in my opinion. I think they’re going to be one of those teams to be reckoned with soon,” said Warriors superstar Kevin Durant following the Golden State Warriors 125-123 win over the Sacramento Kings on February 21st. “It’s the fourth game we’ve deserved to lose against this team,” he said.
The Kings have lost all four matchups against the defending NBA Champions, but have done so by a meager 12 points combined. While a loss is a loss, these defeats are a teaching point for a Sacramento team that has shocked the rest of the league with their play so far this year.
They are a game back of the Los Angeles Clippers for the 8th seed in the Western Conference, who, are 5-5 in their last 10 games, and have been reeling since they traded Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers. At 31-28, the Kings control their own destiny in reaching the playoffs. They have already won more games than they did last year, when the team finished 27-55, 12th in the west. They are on pace to win the most games in a season since the 2007-2008 season in which they won 38 games.
As of now, Sacramento is ahead of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the standings. Imagine the criticism you would receive if you claimed that would be the case before the season began. It is a testament to just how unexpected yet admirable their year has been thus far. Expectations for the Kings prior to the season were mighty low. They were considered one of the worst teams in the league, which may have been justifiable considering their past. But the teams of the franchise’s past are not the same as this one. This team is different and in all the right ways.
The Kings play fast. According to Basketball-Reference, they play at a 103.6 pace. In the previous two seasons, Sacramento’s pace has been 94.9. The difference amounts to almost nine possessions per game, a staggering number. Their pace is tied for second in the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the third-place team in the west. The only team with a higher pace than them is the Atlanta Hawks, who powered by Trae Young, possess a 103.9 pace.
One way in which the Kings play fast is how quickly they move in transition.
In the first clip, De’Aaron Fox swipes away a pass from Dennis Schroder that was intended to Markieff Morris. Quickly, the Kings go into motion. Fox moves with intention down the court, using long strides to move faster than any other player on the hardwood. Buddy Hield spreads the floor to Fox’s left, drawing Paul George to the perimeter. On Fox’s left, bouncy rookie Marvin Bagley runs the floor and Fox is able to find him for a layup at the rim. All this action occurs in six seconds.
In this clip, the Kings perform something that they have mastered. As soon as Reggie Bullock scores for the Pistons, Harry Giles inbounds the ball to Fox immediately. Fox doesn’t even dribble the basketball. Instead, he passes it forward to Iman Shumpert, who then finds Hield streaking down the floor for an uncontested layup. Bullock and the rest of the Pistons were caught off guard by how quickly Sacramento moved after a made shot.
Shortly after the Kings catch Detroit off guard for the first time, they do it again. After Blake Griffin backs his way down low for a score, the camera is barely able to pan off of Griffin to the next possession, as Fox glides down the court into a paint manned by a back-peddling Bruce Brown for a lightly contested layup.
The Kings don’t like to work their half-court offense. They want to move in transition or beat their opponent down the floor after a made bucket. And they’re pretty darn good at it. By nearly two points, Sacramento is the best team in the league at scoring in the fastbreak. They average 21.7 fastbreak points per game. The second best team at doing so, the Golden State Warriors, average 19.8 fastbreak points per game, according to NBA.com. Incoherence with their fastbreak scoring ways, the Kings are second in the league in points scored off of turnovers at 20.2 points per game, only behind the Thunder.
There is no doubt that Sacramento is led by their budding into superstardom backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.
Fox, 21, has shown major strides in his second season in the league and has placed himself right among the top candidates for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. The 6’3” point guard has averaged 17.2 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 37.3 percent shooting from the 3-point line. His efficiency shooting the ball has skyrocketed, his overall field goal percentage has improved by about five percent and his 3-point shooting by nearly seven percent compared to his rookie season. He’s also averaging 2.8 more assists per game than he did in his rookie season in under four more minutes per game, at 7.2 per contest.
Fox’s growth as a passer is surreal. In this clip, he makes a nice alley-oop pass to Hield at the rim from the opposite wing.
In this clip, the pass from Fox isn’t special, but he displays a sense of patience by waiting for his three teammates to spread out and find the open man. It’s a decision he may have rushed in his rookie season, but in year two, he is a much smoother decision maker.
Just as Fox should be considered for MIP, so should Buddy Hield. The second half of the most exciting young backcourt in the league has been one of the most efficient scorers in the league this year. After averaging 13.5 points per game last year, he is up to 20.7 this season on 47.6 percent shooting from the field and an insane 44.7 percent from the 3-point line on 7.6 attempts per contest. He has top-30 true shooting percentage in the league, a further indicator of just how effective he has been scoring the basketball.
Outside of scoring the basketball, Hield has done a better job of getting himself involved this season. He’s averaging a career-high on both rebounds, 5.2, and assists, 2.3 per game. He’s averaging a career high in assists while also boasting a career-best turnover percentage as well. Simply stated, he’s been more effective with the basketball, not just in his scoring ways, but in his distributing opportunities as well.
Outside of Fox and Hield, the Kings have two nice complimentary wings in Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Barnes provides a veteran scoring presence with playoff experience and Bogdanovic is a versatile offensive weapon. Marvin Bagley has come into form as of well for Sacramento. He is having the best month of his rookie season averaging 18.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 blocks, and 0.9 steals per game.
However, the Kings may not have enough talent to make the playoffs this season. Their core may be too young and experienced down the stretch to outlast LeBron James, who has not missed the playoffs in the last 13 postseasons. The task is daunting, and the Kings may not be able to fend off him or the Los Angeles Clippers for the final playoff spot, but Sacramento is prone to surprising people, as we’ve seen this year.
Even if they miss the playoffs, the Kings future looks exceptionally bright. Fox, Hield, and Bagley is a fantastic trio of a core to build around. Barnes, Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles have a future with the team as well. Dave Joerger is a fantastic coach that has schemed up a style of play that has maximized the talent on his roster. As Durant said, the Kings are going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, which is a nice change of pace for a team that has been a bottom-feeder of the league for the past decade.