The Sacramento Kings’ seven-game winning streak has been powered primarily by their offense, which has averaged 128.9 points per game en route to what is now the second-best offensive rating in the association.
That’s right. The Sacramento Kings – the owners of by far the longest playoff drought in the NBA – now sit at second in the offensive leaderboards.
What makes this team’s ascension even more notable is their lack of an offensive superstar. Yes, De’Aaron Fox has taken a sizable leap and firmly inserted himself into the All-Star conversation. But no one would argue his merits over that of reigning All-NBA First Team-ers Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker. And while he’s struggled with injuries through his early career, the unstoppable locomotive that is Zion Williamson has lived up to his billing as an interior supernova.
These players are all better offensive players than Fox, yet his team’s offense matches or exceeds all of them. But how?
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a cold Friday, and I had bundled up to attend a football game for the high school where my girlfriend was coaching dance.
During the game, I sat next to the father of one of the girls from the dance team. He had clearly pregamed the event diligently (or maybe his cologne just smelled like Miller Lite) as he spent the entirety of the game vocalizing his concerns with the home team’s play calling to a stranger half his age (myself).
At one point, he proclaimed, “Coaching is easy!”
Intrigued, I asked that he expand on his statement. He replied, “Coaching is easy because, in any sport, all you need is speed and spacing.”
Speed and Spacing.
The whole philosophy of the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns was rooted in the idea that the most efficient shots tend to come earlier in the shot clock. So, to gain access to these high-value attempts, you need to get into your offense quickly.
Arguably, nobody observes this practice today better than the Sacramento Kings, who launch 19.2% of their field goals with 22 to 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock. This mark is nearly two percentage points higher than the second-place team in this category, the Los Angeles Lakers (per NBA.com).
The reason they can do this is because almost all of their consistent rotational players have the leeway to grab and go after collecting a rebound. Take, for instance, their 6 ‘11 center Domantas Sabonis who frequently gallops down the court like a Lithuanian Magic Johnson.
For the few players that can’t bring the ball up the floor after opponent misses (i.e., Trey Lyles), they still are able to push the pace by executing hit-ahead passes to the team’s more reliable initiators.
Sacramento can also attack quickly in the halfcourt to create an advantage and put the defense into scramble mode thanks to Fox and his speedy college roommate, Malik Monk. Their ability to obtain downhill penetration in a moment’s notice is a large reason for them currently placing second in the NBA in drive efficiency (per NBA.com).
But more important than their physical speed is the speed of their processing. Littered throughout their roster are players that are capable of rapidly reading the climate of the battlefield and, from there, swiftly and precisely deciding whether the best course of action would be to shoot, dribble or pass.
There are no ball stoppers or black holes in the lineup. This is emblematic when you look at the team’s average seconds per touch, which is the fourth-lowest of any team in the league (per NBA.com).
The ball will always move faster than any being on the court, so being able to achieve and maintain constant ball movement is an even greater asset than touting a bevy of athletic anomalies (just ask the Beautiful Game Spurs).
Think about the concept of modern-day spacing in three stages.
Stage one is the beginner level. This is where you have everybody placed in proper spacing position, but the defense doesn’t respect your shooters enough to react to it (i.e., the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers).
Stage two is the intermediate level. In this stage, not only do you have everybody deployed in proper spacing position, but you also have the personnel to stretch the defense out (i.e., the Harden-ball Rockets).
Stage three is the advanced level. The platonic ideal of spacing. At this level, you have proper positioning, you have the personnel to make it matter, and you incorporate the movement patterns to maximize the strain you place on the defense. This is where our friends in Sacramento are in the spacing hierarchy.
Whether it be through five-out sets with Sabonis facilitating on the perimeter or four-out, one-in alignments with him or Fox in the post, Coach Mike Brown almost always has the offense stationed in proper spacing position (stage one).
And outside of Sabonis, this team is armed to the teeth with perimeter shooting (fifth in made threes per game and three-point percentage), so anytime a team tries to sink in on them or collapse in the paint, they have a lethal shooter to spray it out to on the outside (stage two).
What takes their spacing to another level (stage three) is their ability to sprinkle in cuts and off-ball screens while maintaining this spacing exoskeleton.
In the first clip, we see the Kings’ signature five-out spacing with Sabonis at the top of the arc. From there, they flow into a “Chicago action” (a pindown screen followed by a handoff), which occupies three San Antonio Spurs’ defenders, and creates an open walkway. Davion Mitchell senses this opening and immediately performs a “45 cut” that bypasses the defense for two points. (Also, note how Kevin Huerter lifts up from the corner to the wing, forcing Jeremy Sochan to move out of position to contest Mitchell’s layup).
In the second play, the Kings’ spacing once again leaves the paint relatively open. And to further insure that no one will foil their plans, Harrison Barnes sets a weak-side “exit screen” to distract the two Brooklyn Nets’ defenders from their rim protecting duties.
Reaching stage three is essential to high-level offense in today’s game because defenses are so good that – even with great positioning and personnel – they will eventually adapt their coverage in a way that mitigates the spacing’s effectiveness.
However, if you fuse that with various off-ball sequences like the Kings do, you delay the process of adaptation even longer.
Combine that with Sacramento’s speedy execution, and you have what that drunken dad was getting at that fall Friday night. You have the keys to building an elite offense.