Many analysts, including this writer, projected the Kings to be one of the worst teams in the league this season. It wasn’t a hard scenario to envision. Last season, the Kings won just 28 games, making them the third worst team in the Western Conference. Then this summer, they let Isaiah Thomas, one of their best players last season, walk away in free agency and replaced him with Darren Collison, a player who, on paper at least, is worse than Thomas. Other than that, the Kings did very little to change their roster from the team that won just 34% of its games last year. Through their first five games this season, though, the Kings are 4-1 with impressive wins over probable Western conference playoff teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Clippers. All of that to say, the Sacramento Kings are the NBA’s feel good story five games in to this 2014-2015 season. But how are they getting it done?
One common explanation which was given for the Kings letting Isaiah Thomas go in favor of Darren Collison was the idea that Thomas was too much of a scorer from the point guard spot and that it had deleterious effects on his teammates’ ability to maximize their own talents. Kings General Manager, Pete D’Alessandro mentioned chemistry and pace as a reason for the decision to go with Darren Collison over Isaiah Thomas in the offseason.
Thomas’s former teammate and Kings superstar big man, DeMarcus Cousins appeared to take a very thinly veiled shot at the diminutive guard during a pre-season interview when he was discussing playing with Darren Collison versus how the team played the previous season. Cousins praised Collison for how much more the ball moved with his new point guard running the show.
From the mouths of their GM and star player, we have four possible explanations for why the Kings are looking better this season: chemistry, defense, pace, and ball movement. Let’s start with the latter two, as the first is a bit harder to quantify (though I’ll attempt to do so later).
DeMarcus Cousins might feel the ball is moving better, but there’s not a lot in the numbers to distinguish the Kings so far this year from the Kings last year, so far as ball movement is concerned. According to the SportVU tracking data from NBA.com, the Kings are averaging 295 passes per game, compared to 270 last year. That’s an improvement, sure, but given the Kings increased pace thus far this season (more on that below), the uptick is very, very small, adjusted for pace. In fact, according to that same SportVU data, the Kings, even with the slower pace, averaged 43.4 points per game resulting from assists last season, compared to just 41.4 points per game from assists thus far this year. So on the team level, the ball movement appears to be roughly the same as last year.
The Kings have definitely upped their pace this season, as they jumped from 14th in the league in possessions per 48 minutes, at 96.75, last season all the way up to 4th in the league thus far in 2014-2015, at 100.18 possessions per 48 minutes, per NBA.com’s stats. The Kings are clearly attempting to push the pace in a way that they did not last season, when they were much more middle of the road. One of the advantages of increasing the speed of the game, especially for a team filled with relatively young legs like the Kings, is that it can often lead to easier shots as the defense is unable to get set. Additionally, all of those extra possessions make it easier to keep everyone happy with the amount of shots they are able to get up.
Given the makeup of last year’s Kings team, with a dynamic shoot-first point guard in Thomas, a high-usage, low post monster in Cousins, and another scorer used to getting shots in Rudy Gay, playing at a medium pace was probably a recipe for hurt feelings and raised eyebrows as each guy wondered why he wasn’t seeing the ball as much. It might seem silly that professionals would be so focused on their shot attempts rather than the results, but it’s just a reality. These are all competitive guys who genuinely believe that the more they shoot, the better for the team (and of course, their own reputations and egos). This season there’s one less guy who needs the ball to succeed with Thomas gone and more shots to go around thanks to the increased pace. That could certainly lead to some happy feelings.
Tying the pace and the ball movement that DeMarcus Cousins imagines is happening together, creating a narrative and even a real feeling that the Kings have better chemistry this season. I’d imagine that the guys on the team even feel this way, especially Boogie. Why? Because even with the increased pace making more shots available for everyone, Boogie and his fellow scorer, Rudy Gay, are both using an even greater percentage of the Kings possessions when they are on the floor than last year. To put it simply, the Kings have a hierarchy now that seems to work for everyone involved. Last year, Isaiah Thomas used roughly 25.8% of the Kings possessions when he was on the floor. Through 5 games this season, Darren Collison’s usage percentage is only 19.8%. Those extra possessions are flowing, primarily, to DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. Unsurprisingly, that seems to have made DeMarcus and Rudy very happy.
The Kings are also getting performances thus far which seem, frankly, unsustainable. For example, Rudy Gay’s True Shooting percentage of 65.4% (per basketball-reference.com) while scoring 24.4 points per game is just not likely to hold up over the full season. A True Shooting percentage that high, on that sort of volume, has rarely been done over a full season and really only by elite big men like Charles Barkley, prime Amare Stoudemire, and Kevin McHale. One small forward did it, but that was Adrian Dantley, who is simply on another level as a scorer from what Rudy Gay has been for his whole career. Rudy Gay over his career has been an above average, solid player, but through 5 games he’s been producing like an absolute superstar. Similarly, Darren Collison, for his career, has been a pretty average point guard, and even that might be a little generous. Collison’s 20.5 PER and .204 Win Shares per 48 minutes through 5 games are both well above his career averages of 15.8 and .102, respectively. It’s just hard to envision these guys both continuing to play this well over the long haul of an 82 game season.
DeMarcus Cousins is also playing better than he ever has, but Boogie is a young player who should still be improving at this point in his career, so it’s much more likely that his strong, league-demolishing play can sustain itself over a full season, even if not quite at the Shaquille O’Neal-esque 30+ PER level he’s at right now.
This is the last component of the Kings improvement this season, but it is the most important. The Kings have been a terrible defensive team for nearly a decade, as the last time they were outside the bottom ten in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession), was the 2005-2006 season, when they were 13th. Not coincidentally, that was the last time the Kings made the playoffs. To date this season, the Kings are 9th (!) in defensive efficiency, allowing just 98.4 points per 100 possessions, a huge leap from the 106.3 points per 100 they surrendered last season. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the offenses Sacramento has faced thus far this season. The Warriors have the offensive firepower to chase a top 3 offensive rating this season, especially with new head coach Steve Kerr running much more imaginative offensive sets than his predecessor Mark Jackson. The Clippers blitzed the league last year as the NBA’s best offense. The Trail Blazers were close behind the Clippers, coming in 4th offensive efficiency last year. For the Kings to have faced that slew of offensive talent and have held up as well as they have is hugely impressive. Yes, Sacramento got two wins off the Nuggets who aren’t a great offense, but they aren’t terrible either.
If there’s one aspect of the Kings surge out of the opening gate that can sustain them towards an improbable playoff run, it would be for their defense to continue to hold up to this level over 82 games. Such a playoff run is still very improbable, as the West is still an absolute murderer’s row of talented teams, but for the first time in a long time, it’s no longer impossible for Sacramento Kings fans to dream of post-season basketball.
Statistical support for this piece, unless otherwise cited, from NBA.com/Stats.
Kevin is a man obsessed with basketball from a state where it’s often too cold to play it much (Maine). That’s okay, he’s better at watching than doing anyway. You can find him on Twitter: @NBACouchside or at his website NBACouchside.com.
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