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The Sacramento Kings have a method to their fastness

“We want to play up-tempo” is a preseason proclamation that usually falls on deaf ears. Here’s why it didn’t with the surprising Kings.

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The Sacramento Kings have been exceedingly clear about their gameplan for this season. Just go to back to these preseason quotes:

Dave Joerger: “Trying to play faster is for all of us, especially because our point guard is one of the fastest players in the league. Playing with space guys is to his benefit and is the best thing for us as well.”

Buddy Hield: “Coach says we’re going to play fast and start running, and I like running, so I’m not going to argue with that. We’ve just got to play fast, play together and play the right way.”

De’Aaron Fox: “We’re definitely going to speed it up. We have the youth, we have the speed, we have the talent and I think we’ll be much better.”

Willie Cauley-Stein: “Now we’ve got the personnel to be running and gunning and we’re trying to run people out the gym and try to make the game hectic and fast but slow to us.”

If you zoned out, it’s probably because Joerger and the rest of the Kings were parroting one of basketball’s famous offseason cliches, especially among teams that are expected to stink and thus have to sell something other than the promise of good results. Running up and down the floor as fast as you can? Sounds exciting! Pay no attention to those numbers on the jumbotron as we do it.

Imagine if a team said its goal was to play the exact opposite way. Yes, we walk the ball up the court and milk the clock to lull our opponents to sleep. No running whatsoever. How inspiring.

The other reason you probably zoned out is that these proclamations are acted upon about as effectively as your favorite politician’s campaign promises. Playing fast sounds great ... until you have to actually do it every possession for 82 games over a six-month period. It’s especially easy to be skeptical when the team in question finished dead last in possessions per game the previous season.

And yet ... the Kings are actually doing this, and doing it incredibly well all things considering.

They’re right in the mix in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture and a cinch to be the first team to beat their preseason over/under win projection (25.5 wins). They’re doing it exactly the way they promised they would: by pushing the pace and running teams to death. Only the Hawks average more possessions per game this season.

Even that stat undersells Sacramento’s commitment to the cause. The Phoenix Suns may have coined the term Seven Seconds Or Less, but these Kings embody it more than any team since. A whopping 25.6 percent of Sacramento’s shot attempts come within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, by far the highest mark in the league. More than 22 percent come from between 22 and 18 seconds, the zone that most reveals a running emphasis because it removes obvious breakaways that any team would take. No team has even topped 20 percent from that range for a whole season since began tracking this data in 2013-14.

NBA shot clock usage ranks (percentage of shots)

Team First 7 seconds Middle 10 seconds Last 7 seconds
Team First 7 seconds Middle 10 seconds Last 7 seconds
Sacramento 1 27 28
Atlanta 2 20 29
LA Lakers 3 25 22
Oklahoma City 4 13 30
Toronto 5 24 9
Milwaukee 6 7 24
New Orleans 7 12 25
Washington 8 10 23
Detroit 9 29 3
Boston 10 8 26
Philadelphia 11 21 21
Golden State 12 3 27
Minnesota 13 14 20
Houston 14 26 5
Indiana 15 22 11
New York 16 16 18
Dallas 17 15 10
Chicago 18 17 8
Utah 19 11 13
Brooklyn 20 23 4
Phoenix 21 18 7
Miami 22 9 16
Denver 23 19 6
Cleveland 24 28 2
Portland 25 5 19
LA Clippers 26 6 12
Charlotte 27 4 17
Memphis 28 30 1
Orlando 29 2 14
San Antonio 30 1 15
Why are the Kings succeeding? Because they take a much higher percentage of their shots early in the shot clock (and a much lower percentage in the middle or late) than any other NBA team. (Data as of Dec. 17, 2018).

How are the Kings able to run so effectively when other teams that pledge to push pace don’t?

The easy answer is to credit Fox, the self-proclaimed fastest player in the league. After playing tentatively too often during his rookie year, Fox has taken advantage of his new freedom to shove the ball down opponents’ throats. Blink, and you’ll miss him doing this.

Or this.

Or this, even off made shots.

But there’s one thing you’ll also notice in all of those clips: other Kings standing in the frontcourt, well ahead of the fastest player in the league in the race to the other end of the court. In an era where coaches have transition defense and floor balance down to a science, it does little good for one player to push the ball up the floor alone. But if he has teammates that are already there when he does? Now we’re cooking with grease.

Suddenly, when Fox jets up the court, he’s attacking with numbers. By sprinting down the court before Fox, Buddy Hield and Iman Shumpert have turned this into a 3-on-2 situation. With all the space teams yield now, that’s easy for anyone, especially a well-regarded talent like Fox, to exploit.

Every team wants to create these situations, but none do it as well as the Kings, whether off turnovers.

Missed shots.

Or, hell, even made shots.

Or even made free throws, when the camera’s not paying attention.

All those cheap points add up, and it’s hard for even more talented teams to make up the gap.

It’s easy to understand why running the floor religiously helps a team, so why do so few teams actually do it?

To some degree, the Kings have succeeded because they’re actually committed to the cause in ways other teams aren’t. Effort matters, and the Kings players are all busting their asses in an inspiring way. As Joerger noted in the preseason, the hardest part about constantly running the floor is developing the mental toughness to keep doing it even when you don’t get the ball.

In that same interview, Joerger fairly noted that the team’s personnel has changed significantly to enable this change. Plodders like Zach Randolph no longer play, yielding instead to younger thoroughbreds and smaller lineups packed with more outside shooting. The offseason addition of Nemanja Bjelica to play a stretch power forward role has been especially important in transforming Sacramento’s style of play.

At the same time, there’s a fair bit of strategy happening as well. Two unheralded jobs, in particular, are essential to the operation.

The Leaker

This is the Kings player furthest from the hoop on a potential change of possession. On three-point attempts, they are the person flying by on a closeout and not stopping. Otherwise, they’re just the ones closest to the other end of the court.

Their job is simple: sprint to as dangerous a position as fast as possible, even before the Kings get the ball. Usually, this means running right up the gut to the basket. In other words, this person’s job is to cherrypick. (Maybe Kings owner Vivek Ranadive really was on to something years ago when he reportedly suggested the Kings occasionally play 4 on 5 on defense).

This player is taking a calculated gamble, but one that’s increasingly smart with teams choosing to prioritize transition defense over crashing the offensive glass. He won’t even try to go for the defensive board, even (and especially) if he’s the center.

If that man is open on the change of possession, the Kings will show little hesitation to pitch it ahead to them.

Usually, though, they just occupy the trailing defenders, just like ...

The wing runner(s)

This is the player (or pair of players) who didn’t defend the shooter or get the rebound themselves, but are the next-furthest player (or players) up the floor. As soon as the rebound is secured, their job is to gallop up the wings and fan out, beating their counterpart up the floor in the process.

Two wing runners are better than one if they’re on opposite sides. It’s fun to watch parallel Kings try to outsprint each other.

But one can suffice as well, especially if the opponent’s floor balance is poor.

This is the step in the Kings’ fast-break operation that usually tips the numbers advantage in their favor. Because coaches emphasize transition defense so thoroughly, you’ll almost always see at least two players back to “build a wall” on the ball when it changes ends. Having a single leaker isn’t enough, but add in the wing runner, and it becomes possible to occupy multiple defenders and spread them out so that their wall collapses.

That’s why it’s imperative that the wing runners identify themselves immediately and go with it, no matter who it is. If Fox is the furthest forward on a missed shot, as he often is, it’s a waste of time for him to wait or come back to the ball so different players that started behind him can be the wing runners. Better to sprint and do that job, and let some other ball-handler reap the benefits.

That’s why you see many different Kings scoring quickly in transition. Fox may be dynamite on the break, but plenty of other Kings can make the right decision if the numbers are in their favor.

The leaker, runner, and ball-handler roles are therefore occupied organically, depending on the floor balance when the defensive possession ends. That versatility means opponents can’t simply man-mark Sacramento’s devastating transition game. Coaches can scream all they want about stopping Fox in transition, but the Kings’ strategy makes it so that they really have to stop an entire Kings transition attack coming at them in waves. That’s hard for even well-disciplined teams to do, because of all that space and speed coming at them from unpredictable angles.

So yes, credit Fox’s rise and a commitment to playing fast for the Kings’ unexpected success. But that commitment isn’t just measured in heart and effort and intensity. It’s also measured in strategy, timing, spacing, and execution, all terms we usually associate with half-court play rather than the free-flowing nature of transition.

In a league where playing fast is the norm, just committing to running isn’t enough. To stand out from the crowd, teams need to commit to running with an actual strategy that players can execute. Ultimately, that’s what separates these Kings from the many expected losers that talked a big game in September, but fell off the pace by December.