You could be forgiven if you didn’t think much of the Sacramento Kings’ chances coming into this season. The club, which was coming off a 27-victory campaign last year, hasn’t posted a 35-win season in more than a decade and is one of the NBA’s youngest teams. Sacramento also had a relatively quiet offseason aside from adding No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley.
But the calendar has flipped to the new year, and Sacramento still has more wins than it does losses. This is the first time that’s been the case for Sacramento since 2005. Having a record above .500 this late — even after dropping two very winnable games in a row — is cause for celebration given how dysfunctional this franchise has been the past 10 to 15 years.
Yet it’s the way the Kings have gotten out to such a respectable start that makes them so interesting. Sacramento basically turns its games into track meets and runs its opponents to death, gradually wearing them down enough to take over during the most important moments of play.
At a blistering 105 possessions per 48 minutes, the Kings play at the league’s second-fastest tempo. In fourth quarters, when teams often slow the pace considerably to get the ball to their best players for 1-on-1s, Sacramento is still averaging an NBA-high 104 possessions per 48 minutes.
Here’s the key, though: The Kings, who own the league’s second-worst defensive rating in first halves, undergo a “Thriller”-style transformation in the fourth quarter, when they rank sixth in the league defensively. And maintaining the sprinter’s tempo plays a part in that.
The Kings force their winded opponents into a league-leading 16.9 fourth-quarter turnovers per 100 possessions. By contrast, Sacramento often looks most under control when the game is on the line and has by far the NBA’s fewest giveaways per 100 plays in close-game scenarios. That ability to play fast consistently is part of the reason the Kings have won an impressive two-thirds of their games in clutch scenarios, when the score is within 5 points with five minutes to play or less.
It’s hard to know whether any of these developments were intentional. Kings coach Dave Joerger came into the season saying he wanted his young team to push the pace in the hopes of creating easier looks on offense — a fairly obvious perspective with so many players on the roster still finding their way. If there were any doubt that Sacramento is committed to the youth movement or the idea of playing faster, consider this: Plodding 37-year-old Zach Randolph, who led the team in scoring last year and is healthy, hasn’t logged a single minute for Joerger and the Kings this season.
In any case, Sacramento has shown that it doesn’t care much what the circumstances are — and that it’s going to run no matter what. You scored on us? That’s fine, but you better hustle back on D. The Kings average the fastest possessions in the NBA after surrendering a basket, according to stat-tracking site Inpredictable. Watching their games on television can be a challenge because the camera crews often pan to the player who’s just scored, unprepared for how quickly the Kings are going to take a shot of their own in transition, so a viewer will miss chunks of Sacramento’s fastest scores. It happens a lot: The Kings have scored 41 times within four seconds of an opponent’s make, nearly double the next closest team, per Second Spectrum data.
Speedster De’Aaron Fox is the V8 engine that drives this fast-paced attack, and his jumper is vastly improved from his rookie year, when he was a below-average shooter outside of 15 feet. The lefty makes smart decisions consistently and, like a pitcher with good off-speed stuff, has learned how to leverage his quickness by mixing speeds to keep defenders guessing about what he’ll do next.
By finding a relative comfort in playing at an unusual tempo, the Kings have gone against the grain. Yet they have also borrowed a tactic from the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies, who played at the pace of molasses but felt that style better equipped them to compete once opponents moved to iso-only offense in the closing stages of games. For the Kings, a fast game is just their natural environment, almost like fish underwater. Sacramento used their pace to secure huge back-to-back, come-from-behind victories last month, beating both Memphis and New Orleans after trailing each team by 19 points.1
“I think in the first quarter, we didn’t realize how fast they play,” Cavs center Tristan Thompson said after his team failed to keep up with Sacramento. “In the second quarter, we figured it out, got it to a tie game. But in the third quarter, they ramped it back up on us, and we weren’t able to recover.”
For the time being, there are a number of other things the Kings are doing well to help keep them above .500. Buddy Hield, however old he might be, is efficiently averaging 20 points per game on much higher volume than before. Stretch big Nemanja Bjelica gives them the spacing they’ve needed for years. Bogdan Bogdanovic has been solid since his return from injury, hitting a game-winner to beat the Lakers last week and helping stabilize a bench that lacks depth.
There are also cracks in the facade — and some of those may stem from trying to outlast opponents at a breakneck pace the entire game. Sacramento had a 9-point lead on the Blazers in the final three minutes Tuesday night but couldn’t hold the lead and lost in overtime. And the Kings held a 7-point edge in Los Angeles with just over four minutes to play Sunday but then lost to the Lakers (who were playing without LeBron James). And earlier last month, when Sacramento blew a 10-point lead in the last four minutes against Golden State, Fox looked tired, committing turnovers and leaving his jumpers short. Some of this is regression to the mean. But it also makes sense that clubs would be better equipped to run with the Kings for entire games with the season in full swing, as players are in better shape.
Other factors also suggest an uphill climb for the Kings. While the team uses pace to its advantage, Sacramento is merely average on offense, and it’s below average on defense across a full game. Sacramento has a winning record, but its net rating, usually more of a truth-teller, ranks in the bottom third of the league. The team isn’t good at protecting the rim — Willie Cauley-Stein, who came out of Kentucky as a dominant defensive prospect, has been arguably the NBA’s worst center in that regard — and its opponents shoot 70 percent from inside of 3 feet. The team hasn’t fared well when it plays its other bigs alongside Bagley, who’s been out with injury the past three weeks. And because of how weak the bench would be without Bogdanovic there, Joerger doesn’t play Fox, Hield and Bogdanovic — the team’s best three-man lineup — together as much as he might like to.
FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection model doesn’t think much of Sacramento, giving the Kings just a 5 percent playoff probability — far closer to the bottom-feeding Bulls, Knicks and Suns than to teams like the Wolves or the Magic — despite their admirable start.
The rest of this week will be a test for the Kings, who host the West’s first-place Nuggets and second-place Warriors on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. But the schedule isn’t reason to count them out: Sacramento has kept its head above water despite playing the NBA’s fifth-toughest slate to this point.
Any way you slice it, the Kings have been fun, and they’ve found success in an unusual way. Fans should enjoy the ride, whether it lasts for just a few more days, or it’s a full-fledged run into the postseason.
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