An Unstoppable Offense? How the Sacramento Kings Are Obliterating NBA Defenses

Despite the obvious dangers of losing Tyrese Haliburton, the Sacramento Kings forged ahead with their contention plan last season and traded for All-Star center Domantas Sabonis. They once again ignored the immense upside of Jaden Ivey at the 2022 Draft and selected NBA-ready forward Keegan Murray fourth overall. During free agency, Sacramento continued to improve their roster by signing Malik Monk and trading a 1st rounder for Kevin Huerter. 

It remains to be seen whether the Kings calculated correctly long-term, but their 24th Offensive Rating and 9th fastest pace last season has spiked to the 4th Offensive Rating and 6th fastest pace this season. How have they managed to achieve such immediate improvement with a revamped roster, and is it sustainable? 

Potent Passing Network & Off-Ball Movement 

Sacrificing Haliburton hurt, but the Kings acquired the second best passing center in the league. Sabonis understands angles and windows better than most forwards and guards, and his height allows him to throw on a plane that is impossible for shorter playmakers. Therefore, the Kings are able to station Sabonis at the high post or elbow and trust him to find the fleeting passing lane that leads to an open shot. He has a plethora of opportunities because a player in the high post is encircled; he will have spot up shooters in the corners, above the break, or a cutter inside. It’s a far more effective home for a passer than the typical top of the key because there are more outlets and no wall of defenders. 

Sacramento isn’t simply dumping the ball to Sabonis on an island though; they are running dribble handoffs and leveraging Kevin Huerter’s (7.2 3PA, 45.6 3PT%) lethal shooting to create multiple avenues of offense. In the clip below, Sabonis uses a dribble handoff to provide Huerter space for either a pull-up three or drive. Because Suns defender Landry Shamet is trailing him closely, Huerter drives into space for a high percentage layup. If Devin Booker had contested more closely, then Huerter would have had Terence Davis (3.4 3PA, 41 3PT%) in the corner for a wide open three. 

What happens if Huerter’s defender navigates the screen and expertly sticks to Huerter? The Kings have a deadly counter, and it’s because of Sabonis’ superb vision and timing. In the clip below, defensive ace Dejounte Murray stifles the first option and deters Sabonis from handing it off to Huerter. However, Sabonis initiates Plan B and finds Malik Monk on a fantastic backdoor cut for a dunk. It’s worth noting that Sabonis threw that beautiful bounce pass before Monk had even created the space yet because he anticipated the window opening. 

Breaking down that clip displays just how many options Sacrmaneto’s offense has. In the left frame of the image below, although Murray shut down the first option, he is out of position because of it. Huerter quickly turns the corner and cuts to the basket while Murray is on the outside track trying to recover from Sabonis’ screen. Meanwhile, Monk’s backdoor cut completely burns his defender, and Dellavedova slides to the top of the key for a catch and shoot three. As a result, Sabonis has three potential options that force the interior defenders to quickly choose. Aaron Holiday (the Hawks defender with three blue arrows) trusts De’Andre Hunter behind him to rotate and contest the cuts, so he moves to snuff out Dellavedova’s space. 

Kings Offense Analysis

However, in the right frame, four Hawk defenders are now out of the paint and helpless, so it’s too much responsibility for Hunter. He has to contest Monk, but that leaves a wide open layup for Huerter or a pass to the corner for a wide open Davion Mitchell three. Hunter ends up not getting there in time, and Monk throws down a monster dunk. 

The Kings repeatedly weaponize the dribble handoff because of Sabonis’ passing, their active cutters, and Huerter’s screen navigation and shooting. It’s nearly impossible to stop even with great defense, and it’s highly replicable with various branches to tweak it when needed. Because of this, when adjusted for pace, Sacramento ranks 8th in passes per game and 2nd in possessions with 4+ frontcourt passes. The following chart displays their volume and efficiency in offense playtypes with plenty of motion (handoffs, cuts, off screens). 

NBA Motion Offense

The Kings rank 2nd in pace adjusted possessions behind only the Warriors and 1st in efficiency with a staggering 1.236 points per possession – for context, a 41 3PT% shooter produces 1.23 points per possession. And the teams in the same neighborhood as the Kings for efficiency? Offensive juggernauts Boston (1st Offensive Rating) and New Orleans (6th Offensive Rating). 

Drive, Finish, Drive, Kick, Repeat 

Not only do the Kings possess this offensive game plan, but they also have a lethal drive option. When adjusted for pace, Sacramento ranks 3rd in drives per game, 2nd in drive FG%, and 3rd in FTA per drive. De’Aaron Fox is shredding defenders on the perimeter and finishing at a high rate, which forces the defense to collapse inside. In the following clip, the Sabonis Huerter screen duo commands the defensive attention (rightfully so), which allows Fox to utilize his lightning-quick first step and blow past DPOY-candidate Mikal Bridges for a layup. 

Because Bridges is terrified of Huerter coming over the screen, he shades a step to his left to deter Fox from passing there. However, that slight moment is all Fox needs, and he catches Bridges momentarily off balance – a deadly mistake. Fox knifes his way through the double team and converts the layup; he’s at a tremendous 59 FG% on drives for the season. The following chart from BBall Index highlights Fox’s offensive leap this season. His shooting has radically improved, and Fox is dominating opponents at the rim at nearly the same level as Ja Morant. 

BBall Index Fox Talent

While Fox often drives out of isolation, Sacramento also uses Sabonis as a screener for Fox to initiate his drive. The Fox Sabonis screen duo results in 10.1 screens per game and produces an excellent 1.22 points per possession (per NBA CourtOptix). 

Defenses often collapse against the Kings because they cannot surrender layups, and it has led to Fox being the 11th most double teamed player in the NBA (per NBA CourtOptix). Sacramento produces a team 1.24 points per possession on plays when Fox is doubled, which is similar efficiency to when Luka (1.25), Giannis (1.27), and Durant (1.22) are doubled. 

Subsequently, Sacramento owns the 3rd highest pass percentage out of drives. The Kings are patient and always seeking the optimal shot attempt from their drive, which is often a loosely guarded spot up opportunity. When adjusted for pace, the Kings attempt the 7th most catch and shoot threes, and they are converting at a desirable 37.5%. Huerter paces the team with a 44 3PT% on 4.4 catch and shoot 3PA. Of the seven players who attempt at least two catch and shoot 3PA, four of them are shooting over 40 3PT% on those opportunities.  

Posting Up & Bully Ball

While Sabonis thrives as a passer, he also eagerly punishes mismatches down low. In the following clip, 6’4” Derrick White immediately attempts to front Sabonis after being switched onto him. Sabonis shifts his hips to hold White outside the paint and set up for an inside pass. When White navigates around him to avoid this, Sabonis seals him inside, calls for the ball, and converts an easy layup. 

The other four players patiently allow Sabonis to gain a positional edge and don’t force a rushed shot. The Celtics are left helpless because they have to allow Sabonis to bully White in the paint or rush inside, which likely leads to a swing pass for an open three. This dimension of Sabonis’ game only diversifies Sacramento’s offense and allows them to truly squeeze out every advantage possible. 

Shot Quality & Long-Term Success

Overall, because of Sacramento’s unique personnel and talents, they are basking in high shot quality attempts, which is a strong indicator for long-term success and sustainability. When adjusted for pace, the Kings rank 5th in wide open FGA (6+ feet from nearest defender) and 7th in open+wide open 3PA. They have the shooters to knock down these attempts, and they should be able to consistently create them due to their foundational trio of Fox, Sabonis, and Huerter. In addition, the Kings can rely on Barnes, Murray, Monk, Davis, and Mitchell to contribute their own offensive strengths – whether that’s shot creation, shot making, or the dirty work. 

In the end, was the Haliburton trade worth it? It’s unknown still, but the fact that it’s not an immediate no is a ringing endorsement for this team’s bright present and future. It also makes tonight’s Pacers Kings game a must watch; it’s the first time Haliburton plays at Sacramento since the trade. 

Braxton has been writing for Lineups since December 2021 with the majority of his articles focused on the NBA. He is currently a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he has spent the last few years working with various UPenn athletics teams and contributing to the UPenn Sports Analytics Group.

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