- The Sacramento Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA.
- Most expected the Kings to be among the worst teams in the league, but instead, they are .500 with 16 games remaining, with a chance to make the playoffs.
- One staple of the Kings’ success has been their insistence on pushing the ball. They are one of the fastest teams in the league and ran so hard in training camp that some players allegedly threw up.
- The Kings have exceeded expectations this year, and though their path forward may be a little murky, they are one of the league’s feel-good stories.
The term “7-by-8” elicits physical reactions among the Sacramento Kings, either with laughs or looks of horror.
“7-by-8” refers to a drill the Kings ran in training camp this past fall – seven sprints, baseline-to-baseline, eight separate times. It was part of a run-heavy training camp the Kings coaching staff put its young roster through.
Second-year Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said the Kings ran so much in training camp that some players were throwing up after drills. Some of his teammates dispute that, but they can confirm that the team did indeed run – a lot.
“They ran the s— out of us,” center Willie Cauley-Stein told Business Insider.
“They felt it,” said Kings player development coach Larry Lewis, with a smile. “It was definitely a test.”
“Guys hate running,” guard Buddy Hield told reporters back in September. “I don’t care what you say. No basketball player likes running.”
Rookie big man Marvin Bagley begs to differ.
“I like running,” Bagley told Business Insider. “So when we did that, it was kinda cool, getting in shape and competing with everybody. Just trying to be the first guy in all the sprints, making it fun. Just turning my mind, changing it from making it a bad thing to thinking of it in a positive way, just going out and getting better. So, it was a good experience.”
The Kings didn’t just do sprints. They practiced offensive and defensive transition skills, flying up and down the court in both directions. They scrimmaged heavily. As the regular season has continued, the team continues to get in scrimmages and runs when possible.
In some ways, the Kings’ training camp and their emphasis on running, being the best-conditioned team in the NBA, has become the foundation of their season.
Expectations were low for the Kings coming into the year. The team has missed the playoffs for 13 straight seasons and counting, and that drought looked unlikely to end before the season. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton projected the Kings to win 25 games in August. FiveThirtyEight’s model projected them to win 21 games and gave them a 1% chance at making the playoffs, the lowest of any team in the league.
More than three-quarters of the way through the season, the Kings are 33-33, ninth in the Western Conference. For much of the year, they have been in the playoff mix. They currently sit four games out of eighth place, a playoff spot gradually slipping away, though not entirely out of reach with 16 games left.
That’s no knock on the Kings’ season. They have far exceeded expectations in just about every department.
“This season has already been a phenomenal season for us,” Lewis said. “Whether we make the playoffs or not, we have overachieved this season. We’ve gone over and beyond what anyone expected of us as far as outside of our coaching staff.”
Off and running
The Kings lead the league in pace, at 104.47 possessions per game. Though they have fallen off from what was a pedal-to-the-metal speed in November, when their pace was 107.06, their current number is faster than any team has played in the last 23 years – as far back as the NBA’s stats site tracks.
Kings head coach Dave Joerger made his intentions known in training camp when he said he wanted the team to run.
“This is how we want to play,” Joerger told reporters in training camp. “This is how hard we want to play. We want to be a greatly conditioned team, and we want to play fast.”
“We figured if we could get in shape before all the other teams get in shape, we could steal games,” Cauley-Stein said.
“And that’s what we did! It worked.”
The Kings own one of the youngest rosters in the league, which was part of the emphasis on getting the team to push the pace. Lewis credited the team-wide “buy-in” while noting that veteran teams don’t typically want to use the same amount of energy to play fast.
The Kings lead the league in fastbreak points per game. They are tied for first in points off of turnovers per game. Their average speed is 4.39 miles per hour, tops in the league, and they run more miles per game than any other team.
The Kings aren’t an offensive juggernaut, ranking 19th in offensive rating, scoring 108.9 points per 100 possessions. However, there are signs their conditioning has benefitted them.
In the fourth quarter, their offensive rating rises to 109.6, 11th in the league. The gap between their pace the second-fastest team in the league, the Atlanta Hawks, widens throughout the game, according to the NBA’s stats site. The team is a +25 on the season in the fourth quarter, an impressive mark for a young team and a sign that they wear opponents out.
One staple of the Kings’ offence is their willingness to push the ball after an opponent makes a shot. It’s not uncommon for TV cameras to be focused on an opposing player while the Kings burst down the floor and get an easy basket. It can happen so quickly that the broadcast barely captures the play.
One testament to the Kings’ pace may have come on during a recent Saturday afternoon game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The game tipped off at noon on the east coast – or 9 a.m. for the bodies of the California-based Kings. Most teams would be sluggish at this point in the season; the Kings remained committed to running.
Fox is the engine that drives the Kings. The second-year guard is poised for super-stardom. Fox is averaging 17.5 points and 7 assists per game while shooting 46%, 37% from three, highly encouraging numbers for a player whose jump shot was a concern coming into the NBA.
It is Fox’s speed that makes the Kings. Off of opponents’ makes and misses alike, Fox has the keys to the offence and can decide whether to pass it to a teammate or take it all the way himself.
Forward Harrison Barnes, acquired from the Dallas Mavericks at the trade deadline, told Business Insider that one of the things that stuck out to him upon arrival was Fox’s talent.
Cauley-Stein said Fox and the team’s tempo put opponents in a dilemma.
“You have to give up something,” Cauley-Stein said of Kings’ opponents. “Do you wanna go offensive rebound or do you wanna give up transition buckets? A lot of bigs get caught in between like, ‘Damn, should I go get this ball even though I might not even get it? Or should I just go back and load up on Fox?'”
He added: “I feel like a lot of big dudes don’t run like that. So every time I have an advantage because all of our bigs run like that.”
A young team on the rise
On paper, the Kings are as stocked with young, intriguing talent as anyone in the league.
Of the 10 players who have played the most minutes for the Kings this season, eight of them are 26 and younger. Five of them were selected in the lottery in the last four years.
The Kings coaching staff undoubtedly deserve credit for bringing these players to a new level, particularly with their system.
The coaches, however, credit veteran guard Iman Shumpert for establishing a culture and setting an example for the team’s young players. The Kings traded Shumpert to the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline, but Lewis says his influence has remained.
“Shump did a lot of very good things for our team. Iman, he was an ice-breaker. He showed our guys a lot about what’s important on and off the floor. And I think he was very important in setting the tone. He’s in Houston now, but the lessons he taught the team are still there.”
Fox seems primed for the role next. Still just 21 years old, he’s a natural leader on the floor, capable of taking over when needed, as he did against the Knicks when he scored 12 of the team’s 22 points in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with a 30-5-8 line on 66% shooting and was a +19 on the floor.
The rest of the Kings’ roster may not be so easy to figure out going forward. Hield is averaging 20 points per game, but is 26 and will be eligible for an extension after the 2019-20 season. Cauley-Stein will be a restricted free agent this summer. Bojan Bogdanovic, the team’s third-leading scorer, will be a free agent in 2020. Harry Giles, picked 20th last season after falling in the draft due to injuries, has shown bits of his immense potential, but still has the “project” label.
All of these players could continue to progress and take the Kings to new levels. But if this Kings roster tops out as a low playoff seed, they will have some tough decisions to make. Sacramento is not historically a major free agent destination.
At this moment, however, the team isn’t worried about that. Lewis said they knew they were good, even if others did not.
“As coaches and players, we never put a limit on what we can do,” he said. “So it’s not a surprise to us as a staff and as a team, but I think what newspaper articles and that kinda thing were saying, nobody predicted this.”
The expectation is that the team will remain competitive, improve, and contend for the playoffs.
Oh, and they will continue to run, too.
“I assume that’s what we’re going to be doing for years to come,” Cauley-Stein said. “Training camp, we’re gonna get out and run and exert ourselves on that side of the ball. Just go. Just push it, push it. Good things happen when you do.”