Last winter, scuffling along at 20-35, 12th in the Western Conference and two games back of a Play-In spot, the Sacramento Kings radically reoriented the vision of their team in an effort to snap their lengthy playoff drought.
Just two days shy of the 2021-22 trade deadline, Sacramento dealt Buddy Hield, Tristan Thompson, and blooming star Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, and All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis.
Despite starting the Sabonis Era 2-0, Sacramento ultimately went 5-10 when he suited up. The 26-year-old didn’t play past late March and the Kings finished the season 30-52, six games behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the 10 seed. The dreams of Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox immediately shepherding a two-month run to the playoffs were swiftly extinguished, but there’s still reason for optimism given how the duo performed, even as the team as a whole faltered. The Lithuanian lefty averaged 19-12-6-1 on 60 percent true shooting and the Southwestern speedster slapped down a nightly 29-7-4-1 on 58 percent true shooting in their 15 post-trade games.
Heading into 2022-23, the Kings are equipped with a new head coach in Mike Brown and a revamped roster. Much of the club’s struggles were not at the hands of Sabonis and Fox. Although I’m skeptical they actualize the franchise’s playoff objective in a deep Western Conference, this team should be primed to play its most consistent and high-level basketball of the past 15 years next season, led by the dynamite offensive tandem of Sabonis and Fox.
So, how can their 14 games together inform our expectation of this partnership? What sort of style, actions, and schemes might be ideal for optimization and help fashion a prolific offense around them?
Brown, a defensive-minded coach, will bring a distinct philosophy from his predecessor, Alvin Gentry, an offensively inclined head man. But there should be some overlap between their approaches to extract the most from Fox and Sabonis’ talents.
The grandest hallmark of the Sabonis-Fox Kings was how outrageously fast they operated offensively. Prior to acquiring Sabonis, per InPredict, they ranked fifth in time of possession (14.1 seconds) and second in time of possession following a made shot (16.5). In the 16 games between Feb. 9 and March 16 — the stretch post-trade and before Fox was sidelined the rest of the year — they ranked third in general time of possession (13.6 seconds) and first after a made shot (15.5 seconds).
They wasted absolutely no time flowing into offense, often generating a paint touch or field goal attempt by the time the shot clock read 20. Sometimes, camera crews even struggled to properly toggle among broadcasting the basket, the inbounds pass and whatever Sacramento promptly cooked up offensively. From dribble handoffs to improvisational drives to wide-ranging ball-screen formulas, the Kings were in a jiffy to hoist up looks whenever possible.
The problem was playing fast didn’t necessarily correlate with efficient offense. During this span, they ranked 20th in points per possession following a make (1.09) and 21st in offensive rating (112.1).
These developments were largely independent of whatever Sabonis and Fox brought to the table, however. When possessions slowed, Sacramento’s floor-spacing and off-ball positioning were flawed and cramped. Teammates knew Sabonis thrives in slinging feeds to cutters, but would overindulge on half-hearted ventures inside or float around the dunker spot to frequently clog actions.
To counter this stagnation, the Kings sought shots before the defense was organized and the spacing provided greater room inside the key. That priority led to quite a few ill-advised and hurried decisions. This season’s roster seems better arranged to amplify the duo, especially with the luxury of time and personnel to adapt to a Sabonis-Fox-led brigade, which did not really exist in the five weeks post-trade last year.
A projected rotation could look something like Fox-Kevin Huerter-Harrison Barnes-Keegan Murray-Sabonis as the starting unit, with Davion Mitchell-Malik Monk-Kent Bazemore-Trey Lyles-Richaun Holmes off the bench. Maybe, Chimezie Metu and Terence Davis see some burn, too, though I’d opt for a nine-person rotation excising Lyles to let Murray and Barnes garner all the minutes at power forward.
Regardless, there’s a whole lot of off-ball shooting, closeout-attacking, and DHO threats in that group to complement Sabonis and Fox, whose offensive ethos will always be built within the paint. Hammering home the understanding of rules and duties around actions involving Sabonis and Fox is vital. This pairing showcased enticing versatility and optionality during their brief run last season, even if the results didn’t always mirror the intrigue.
We saw lots of snug pick-and-rolls in which Sabonis’ screening opened runways for Fox’s afterburners and midrange comfort. Empty corner alignments were often fruitful on this action. Given the added shooting around them, the intention should be to increase empty corner, snug pick-and-rolls to stretch the defense thin.
We saw double drag and this could emerge as a reliable early offense staple to benefit from all the newfound shooting (Huerter, Monk, Murray) next season. Imagine lineups where one of Barnes or Murray is the stretch 4 popping on this play and Sabonis or Holmes is diving inside, while some configuration of Monk, Huerter, Barnes and Murray spaces around the perimeter.
We saw pick-and-rolls featuring early motion to shift the defense before Fox and Sabonis linked up. They’re such contrasting offensive presences, with Fox winning via his speed, flexibility, and handles, and Sabonis winning via his footwork and bruising strength. As such, defenses are timid to switch the play if they trail behind after a brush screen, ram screen, etc. and this tag-team can exploit that hesitancy.
The Kings should call for more of this, as Huerter, Monk, and Mitchell are viable complementary ball-handlers who can let the captains of the offense initiate plays on the move. Last season, after the trade, Mitchell was the only one who capably fit this mold, despite Donte DiVincenzo’s admirable efforts. In Year 2, Mitchell should be even better prepared to supplement his track star backcourt mate.
We saw inverted pick-and-rolls, typically before the defense was set, to highlight Sabonis’ handling chops and knack for attacking from the top of the key. The possibilities of these two collaboratively wielding their distinct games against opponents were displayed in spurts last season. Brown will add his own wrinkles and some of these actions will probably be excluded, but the potential variance at their disposal is encouraging.
Sabonis’ offensive arsenal helped unlock space for Fox’s driving nature. He chiseled open lanes to the rim, lured defensive anchors away from the hoop as a playmaking hub and found him on dimes inside. According to Cleaning The Glass, Fox shot 64 percent at the rim pre-trade and 24 percent of those makes came from assists. After Sabonis’ arrival, he shot 69 percent at the rim and 33 percent of those makes were assisted. His passing, screening, and advantage creation simplified Fox’s responsibilities.
There’s allure in this pick-and-roll flexibility, yet I find myself drawn to the dribble-handoff playbook, where Sabonis usually shines brightest. Chicago action, traditional DHOs, and Blind Pig could all be part of the regimen; the Memphis Grizzlies ran a decent amount of Blind Pig for Ja Morant last year, utilizing Steven Adams’ screening prowess and their stockpile of secondary ball-handlers. Sacramento fields similar personnel, with Fox, Sabonis, and complementary creation. I’d also like for it to explore Huerter and Monk as options in staggered DHO assortments to leverage their marriage of shooting and ball-handling.
For a few different reasons, the Kings didn’t run a ton of Fox-Sabonis spread pick-and-rolls last season. With heightened chemistry and floor-spacing, that should be remedied moving forward, though maximizing them here necessitates some growth from Fox specifically. He’s prone to being one-dimensional in ball-screens, lasering in on his preferred midrange pull-up and missing pocket passes or windows to shooters on the perimeter, particularly the latter. His cadence to keep all openings available could improve as well.
With their contrasting, immense interior gravity, Fox and Sabonis should routinely bend defenses in spread pick-and-rolls. In these scenarios can Fox diversify his processing to properly capitalize on the shooting, scoring and playmaking flanking him? Sabonis is adept at pacing his dives to the rim to maintain passing angles for ball-handlers. Mitchell quickly recognized this trait and complemented the big fella well. Fox showcased kernels of adaptation, but further growth remains ahead.
After being pigeonholed under Rick Carlisle for half a season in Indiana, Sabonis vaulted to northern California and was afforded the luxury of freedom. He piloted fast breaks as a funky, stampeding creator. The ball spun between his paws as a wily DHO conductor. Clear-outs in the post were directed to him. Pick-and-rolls of all shapes and sizes demanded his services.
Whether any of this continues under Brown’s rein is difficult to foresee exactly. A new offensive ideology could dictate how Sabonis and Fox function, both individually and collectively. Even so, the chances for the retooled Kings to be one of the NBA’s more potent, distinctive and joyful offenses this year is rather plausible.
Pairing these two dudes was a prudent move six months ago, but the surrounding roster and situation wasn’t conducive to imminently prosperous outcomes. An entire summer to streamline things and upgrade the ancillary talent should have the Kings doing some effective and rad stuff this fall. I’m excited to watch them experiment and learn, regardless of how it reflects upon their win-loss record.