The Sacramento Kings’ explosive offense is one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, but is it sustainable?

Can the Sacramento Kings beam their way to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

This season, the Kings began the tradition of lighting a purple beam atop the Golden One Center after each victory. Lately, the beam has been working overtime. (Wednesday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks on the second game of a back-to-back, however, snapped Sacramento’s longest winning streak since 2005 at seven games.)

Remarkably, there’s reason to believe the Kings have actually been somewhat unlucky defensively than their 10-7 start under new head coach Mike Brown might indicate.

And while Sacramento can’t necessarily count on red-hot shooting and favorable health continuing all season, that’s rationale to believe a strong start is no fluke.

Let’s go deep into how the Kings put together an offense that has been one of the league’s very best so far, the explanation for better results on defense than we’ve seen and the chances of that resulting in Sacramento snapping what became the longest playoff drought in major American pro sports when the Seattle Mariners reached the MLB postseason in October.

The 2022-23 Kings roster started to take shape at last season’s trade deadline, when they sent promising guard Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers in a deal that brought back two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

Although Haliburton’s strong play in Indiana has shown why that trade was widely panned, including in these quarters, it is now possible to see Sacramento’s rationale. Fox — the Kings’ star point guard and highest-paid player — had been ineffective last season, when he shared ballhandling duties with Haliburton.

Adding the skilled Sabonis as a pick-and-roll partner helped Fox get back on track. In 13 starts alongside Sabonis after the trade, Fox averaged 27.8 PPG and 6.2 APG, up from 21.9 and 5.4 in the 46 other games Fox played last season.

Sacramento’s offseason moves continued to put Fox in position to succeed by surrounding him with strong shooting. The Kings drafted stretch-4 Keegan Murray with the no. 4 overall pick, and although Murray has slowed after a torrid start from 3-point range, he’s still averaging 1.9 triples per game, which would rank 29th among rookies in NBA history (minimum 10 games) via Just two of the players ahead of him, Kyle Kuzma other Lauri Markkanenprimarily played as power forwards or centers.

Sacramento then targeted Malik Monk in free agencies. Monk had shot 39% from 3-point range the previous two seasons, and while he too has cooled off this season (to 36%), he’s still averaging 2.0 triples.

The best shooter the Kings added was Kevin Huerter in a trade with Atlanta. Huerter has been as good as any shooter not named Stephen Curryhitting 3.6 3s per game (sixth) on 50% accuracy (fourth among qualified players).

With Fox himself off to an atypically strong start from 3 (2.0 per game on 40% accuracy, up from 32% previously in his career), Sacramento ranks 10th in the NBA in 3-point percentage and fifth in makes.

That spacing has given Fox and Sabonis freedom to do damage in the paint. Fox is making a career-high 60% of his 2-point attempts, having never previously hit better than 54%, while Sabonis is at 61% — slightly down from 62% last season.

Add it up and the Kings have been going back and forth with the Boston Celtics as the NBA’s most efficient offense, enabling them to overcome a bottom-10 defensive rating to date.

Sacramento is sneaky good on defense

While Sacramento’s roster moves were designed primarily around offense and shooting, the hiring of Brown was intended to address the defensive end of the court. During Brown’s seven full seasons as head coach, his teams ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating three times, and rated worse than league average just once (2013-14, his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers).

For a team that finished 27th in defensive rating last season, and last in the league the season before that, even ranking 25th should be seen as progress. But there’s reason to believe Brown has done more to improve the Kings’ defense than their overall rating indicates.

Based on the location and type of shots taken by Sacramento opponents, as well as the distance to nearby Kings defenders, Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality (qSQ) measure ranks the Kings fifth best in shot defense. But the problem is opponents are actually posting the league’s second-highest effective field goal percentage (eFG%) at 56.0%. Second Spectrum calls the difference between those metrics quantified shooting index (qSI), and Sacramento’s plus-5.3% mark is the second highest in the NBA.

At this stage of the season, opponent shot quality is more meaningful than opponent shooting. If we attempt to retroactively predict a team’s final defensive rating using the other stats in the four factors (defensive rebound percentage, turnover rate forced and opponent free throw attempt rate), qSQ has been more predictive than eFG% through the first third of the season .

Remarkably, because the Kings are also No. 2 in defensive rebounding (79% of available rebounds), this formula suggests Sacramento should finish as a top-five defense based on opponent shot quality.

In practice, it’s unlikely the Kings will improve that much. Part of the difference between the poor shot quality for Sacramento opponents and their great results comes on attempts in the restricted area around the basket, where they’ve shot 71% — fifth highest in the NBA. Those results stabilize much more quickly and make sense given the Kings’ poor rim protection. Sacramento’s block rate (5.2% of opponent 2-point attempts) is easily the NBA’s lowest.

Still, Kings opponents merely cooling off from 3-point range (where they’re hitting 38% of their attempts, second highest in the NBA) would surely be enough to get Sacramento into the top 20 in defensive rating for just the second time since its last playoff appearance.

OK, Beamers: Should Kings fans prepare for a regression?

As much as Sacramento’s defense has looked worse than it should based on opponent shot quality, the Kings have benefited from this same effect on offense, too. Using the Second Spectrum quantified shot making (qSM) model, which incorporates player ability, Sacramento has outperformed its own shot quality by the third-largest amount.

Additionally, the Kings have been incredibly healthy thus far. Sacramento players have combined to miss just four games all season due to injury or illness — easily the NBA’s lowest total. (No other team is missed even in single digits in games.)

Given those two factors, we shouldn’t expect the Kings to play any better than they have thus far. They’ll likely come back to the pack as players miss time and shooting evens out. Still, Sacramento has room for regression. The Kings’ plus-3.2 point differential is even better than their record, ranking third in the West behind the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans.

already, FiveThirtyEight’s projections give Sacramento a 35% chance of making the playoffs. I’m perhaps more optimistic than that. FiveThirtyEight started with a modest 31-win projection for the Kings, while my projections had them at 36.5 wins before the season.

If you viewed Sacramento as a strong play-in contender before the season, the results to date have made it likely the Kings will finish in the West’s top 10, with a good chance of finishing ninth or better. Based on that, I’d say the Kings have closer to 50-50 odds of lighting the beam to celebrate a return to the playoffs.

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