Fast-playing Kings try to run all the way to the postseason
NEW YORK (AP) — Dave Joerger sized up Sacramento’s situation in the summer and decided there was a need for speed.
Never mind that his past doesn’t scream run and gun. He was one of the coaches who oversaw the grit-and-grind era in Memphis, and disagrees that everyone needs to play fast even in this era of exploding offenses in the NBA.
But you don’t put the ball in De’Aaron Fox ‘s hands and tell him to walk it up the floor.
So these Kings would have to push the pace.
“It’s what best fits us,” Joerger said. “About two weeks before the season started, I’d worked on it all summer trying to figure out how can I develop all these guys at the same time, the young guys, and made the priority list, and the list for me was De’Aaron Fox. And I think he can be great. And how do we best use his skills, and that is to play fast and to play open.”
Maybe the Kings will keep right on running until they’ve ended the longest current playoff drought in the NBA.
They are at least in the race, sitting two games behind the eighth and final playoff spot in the deep Western Conference despite consecutive losses during a six-game road trip.
Sacramento has ridden Fox’s speed and Buddy Hield ‘s shooting to a 24-24 record after winning just 27 games last season. The Kings haven’t made the postseason since 2006, and perhaps it’s asking too much to break through behind starting guards who are in just their second and third seasons as pros.
“Nah, I think that’s what this league is now,” said veteran Iman Shumpert. “It’s becoming a younger league. Younger, faster. You’ve got to be able to shoot the ball better. That’s what the league is changing into. It works in their favor.”
Once Joerger handed the keys to Fox, he had to build a lineup and system to complement him. He figured Hield, the former college player of the year the Kings acquired at the 2017 All-Star break when general manager Vlade Divac traded center DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans, would get more open looks in transition. Center Willie Cauley-Stein would be an ideal pick-and-roll partner in the halfcourt. They would be surrounded by shooters to space the floor.
It’s worked so well that the Kings lead the league in fast-break points per game and are ranked second in pace, defined by a team’s number of possessions per 48 minutes.
“It’s very rare a team jumps off the video screen like they do, their athleticism does. I think they’re one of the most athletic teams in the league,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They’re playing at a pace rarely seen in this league. Their speed is impressive.”
And it’s fun to watch. The Kings hit 20 3-pointers — Hield made eight — to Golden State’s 21 in falling just short against the NBA champs in a Jan. 5 loss, and they’ve rang up 140 points in multiple games for the first time in 30 years. Viewership for their games on NBC Sports California is up 17 percent from the same point last season.
Of course, playing fast doesn’t help the defense, and the Kings’ top-10 scoring offense is offset by a bottom-five defense that allows a little more per game for the season than Sacramento averages.
“Yeah, it’s hard to serve both, to be a team that gets the other team to play deep into the clock,” Joerger said. “I’d rather they just hurry up and shoot it, and I think our guys would too so we could get up and down the floor a little bit.”
The Kings have been slowed down on their trip, and Fox was given a night off in Toronto on Tuesday to recharge. Hield, who gave them the lone win so far with a 3-pointer in the final second at Detroit, said he can feel that Sacramento is struggling to play at its preferred pace from earlier in the season. But he said that’s correctable.
“Do what we’ve been doing from the beginning,” he said. “Just play free and just play for each other, and have fun.”
Can that ultimately be enough to bring postseason basketball back to California’s capital?
“I hope so,” Joerger said. “I think that attacking it with a mindset of being in it and trying to make it, whether we make it or not — I certainly hope we do, that’s our whole focus — is very teachable for hopefully the next time that we’re in that race.”