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

Can the Sacramento Kings beam into the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

This season, the kings began the tradition ignite a purple ray on the Golden One Center after each win. The beam has been working overtime lately. (Wednesday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the second game of a straight game, however, ended Sacramento’s longest seven-game winning streak since 2005.)

Remarkably, there is reason to believe that the kings actually were something unhappier defensively than their 10-7 start under new head coach Mike Brown would suggest.

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

Let’s dive deep into how the Kings assembled an offense that’s among the best in the league so far, the explanation for better results on defense than we’ve seen, and the odds for Sacramento overcoming its longest playoff drought in big American pro sports when the Seattle Mariners made the MLB postseason in October.

The Kings 2022-23 roster took shape at the close of last season when they sent promising guard Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers, who brought back two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

Although Haliburton’s strong play in Indiana showed why that trade was rife, even during those quarters, it’s now possible to discern Sacramento’s reasons. Fox — the Kings’ star point guard and highest-paid player — had been ineffective last season when he shared ball-handling duties with Haliburton.

The addition of veteran 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, versus 21.9 and 5.4 in the 46 other games Fox played last season.

Sacramento’s off-season moves continued to put Fox in a position to succeed, surrounding him with powerful shots. The Kings drafted stretch-4 Keegan Murray with the No. 4 overall pick, and although Murray has slowed after a hot start from 3-point range, he’s still averaging 1.9 triples per game, ranking 29th among rookies in NBA history (minimum). 10 games) per Only two of the players before him, Kyle Kuzma and Lauri Markkanen, played primarily as power forwards or centers.

Sacramento then aimed for Malik Monk in the free hand. Monk had shot 39% from 3-pointers for the past two seasons, and while he’s also cooled off this season (to 36%), he’s still averaging 2.0 triples.

The top shooter the Kings added was Kevin Huerter in a trade with Atlanta. Huerter was as good as any shooter not named Stephen Curry, hitting 3.6 3s per game (sixth) at 50% accuracy (fourth among qualified players).

Because Fox himself caught an uncharacteristically strong start of 3 (2.0 per game at 40% accuracy, up from 32% earlier in his career), Sacramento ranks 10th in the NBA on 3-point percentage and fifth Place in relation to brands.

This distance gave Fox and Sabonis freedom to damage the paint. Fox is making a career-high 60% of his 2-point attempts, having never hit better than 54% before, while Sabonis is at 61% — a little down from 62% last season.

Add it up and the Kings have gone back and forth with the Boston Celtics as the NBA’s most efficient offensive player, allowing them to overcome a bottom 10 defensive rating to date.

Sacramento is sneakily good on defense

While Sacramento’s roster movements were primarily offensive and shooting focused, Brown’s attitude was intended to appeal to the defensive end of the court. During Brown’s seven full seasons as head coach, his teams ranked in the top 10 defensively three times and were rated below league average only once (2013-14, his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers).

For a team that finished 27th in defensive standings last season and finished bottom in the league the season before, even 25th place should be considered progress. But there’s reason to believe Brown has done more to improve the Kings’ defense than her overall rating suggests.

Based on the location and type of shots fired by Sacramento opponents, as well as distance to nearby Kings defenders, Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) ranks the Kings fifth best in shot defense. The problem, however, is that opponents actually have the second-highest effective field goal percentage (eFG%) in the league at 56.0%. Second Spectrum calls the difference between those metrics the Quantified Shooting Index (qSI), and Sacramento’s plus 5.3% mark is the second-highest in the NBA.

At this stage of the season, the opponent’s shot quality is more important than the opponent’s shooting. If we attempt to retrospectively predict a team’s final defensive rating using the other statistics in the four factors (percent defensive rebound, forced turnover rate, and opponent free throw attempt rate), qSQ was more predictive than eFG% in the first third of the season.

Notably, since the Kings are also #2 in defensive rebounding (79% of available rebounds), this formula suggests that Sacramento should finish as a top-five defense based on opponent shot quality.

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

Still, it would certainly be enough for Kings opponents to cool off from just the 3-point range (where they hit 38% of their attempts, the second-highest in the NBA) to put Sacramento in the top 20 defensive scoring for the second time since bring his final playoff appearance.

OK, Beamer: Should Kings fans brace for a relapse?

As much as Sacramento’s defense looked worse than it should have been due to the opponent’s shot quality, the Kings have benefited from this effect on offense as well. Using Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Making (QSM) model, which accounts for player skill, Sacramento has surpassed its own shot quality by the third largest amount.

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

Given those two factors, we shouldn’t expect the Kings to play any better than they have so far. They will likely return to the pack as players miss the time and the shooting becomes more balanced. Still, Sacramento has room for regression. The Kings’ plus-3.2-point spread is even better than their record, ranking third in the West behind the Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans.

FiveThirtyEight predictions already give Sacramento a 35% chance of making the playoffs. I’m maybe more optimistic about that. FiveThirtyEight started with a modest 31-win prediction for the Kings, while my preseason predictions were 36.5 wins.

If you viewed Sacramento as a strong play-in contender prior to the season, past results have made it likely that 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 more of a 50/50 chance of lighting the beam to celebrate a playoff return.


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