The Kings have a problem. To be honest, the Kings have several problems but today we’ll focus on just one. As a team they are currently recording an assist on just 42.96% of their made baskets. Not only is that the lowest mark in the league, but no team in the past five years has finished a season with an Assist% below 45.00%.
This is not the problem in and of itself, but a symptom of a deep offensive dysfunction. Of course an offense doesn’t have to be predicated on passing and ball-movement to be successful. Oklahoma City, with a foundation built on isolation and individual brilliance, has the second highest Offensive Rating and the fifth lowest Assist%. In fact the Kings don’t even have the worst offense in the league. That honor is held by the Washington Wizards, a title they seem unlikely to relinquish.
I also don’t mean to imply that the ball doesn’t move in the Kings offense, it does. The ball zips from player to player, around the court, into and out of the paint. The problem is that the ball doesn’t often move with purpose, and when it is time to take a shot, the ball has usually been moving in the up and down pattern of a dribble immediately before it’s launched. I think the Kings lack of assists speaks to a lack of understanding by both players and management as to how the individual skills of this roster best complement each other.
The chart below is an attempt to put the Kings passing, or lack thereof, into a graphic context. The solid color represents the assists each player gives out per 40 minutes. The line represents their assisted shots made, or assists received, per 40 minutes. For comparison I also included a chart for the Utah Jazz, middle of the pack in Assist%, and the Denver Nuggets who are among the top teams in the league in Assist%.
The Kings are egalitarian in their lack of ball movement. No one player does much distributing, and no one player sees much benefit. The Jazz have three primary distributors with a handful of eager and willing recipients. The Nuggets look similar in the distribution of assists, but a much wider base of players benefit from those handouts.
While it’s interesting to look at each player and see how they contribute to the offense in this regard, the real point of these graphs is to see the size of the array for each team. The Kings graph is tightly held around the center, just as the ball is tightly held by each player who receives it.
Admittedly, I don’t watch the Kings every night. But when I do, I see a collection of talented offensive players who share similar mindsets – attack to score. Tyreke Evans is a willing and able passer, but seems to share the tunnel vision of Kobe Bryant, passing primarily when a scoring opportunity is assured. The Kings are in the bottom five in Assist% on three-pointers and long two-pointers. You can choose to see this as a team that is lacking shooting acumen. I see it as another sign that they pass when the opportunity is too obvious to miss. It seems that many of the players on the roster trust their own scoring talents above that of their teammates, seeing a forced drive into the teeth of the defense or a wild shot in traffic as a higher percentage opportunity than a kick out to an open teammate. This is not to condemn them as selfish, merely as poor judges of shot quality.
More evidence of this comes in the balance of their pick-and-rolls. The Kings have run 260 pick-and-rolls this season, 17.1% of their total offensive possessions. 76.15% of those pick-and-rolls have been used by the ball handler, either through a shot attempt, turnover or foul. Only New York, Orlando and Philadelphia have boasted an attack that is more lopsided. The Sacramento ball handlers are seeing that screen as a chance to remove defensive pressure, opening a lane, however narrow, to get to the basket. They are missing the dynamic, multi-channel scoring opportunity that the play is meant to be. It doesn’t help that their ball-handlers aren’t particularly effective in looking for their own shots off the pick-and-roll, averaging 0.76 points per possession, 25th in the league. You can direct plenty of the blame towards Evans, who’s averaging just 0.52 points per possession in those situations.
An offensive system built around DeMarcus Cousins in the post and perimeter players hammering the ball on the wing looking for a lane to the basket is not really an offense. Management has seemed to focus on talent, ignoring fit in a most Isiah Thomasian way, adding players who add to the problem. This off-season Travis Outlaw was brought in, a player who the past two seasons has scored most of his points on unassisted mid-range jumpers, unequivocally the least efficient shot in basketball, and J.J. Hickson, who was asked to do progressively more offensively each season in Cleveland and responded by ultimately doing more individually and consequently less efficiently.
Fingers can be pointed at Paul Westphal, but the relief that brings is likely to be short lived. Despite Evans’ ten assists last night against the Timberwolves, the offense hasn’t looked drastically more coherent under Keith Smart. There may not be a whole lot that can be done with the roster as is, but a place to start be in finding a balance on the pick-and-roll. Cousins has been very effective in the pick-and-roll as the screener, averaging 1.06 points per possession, but he’s finished a possession that way just 17 times this season.
The players acquired, although talented, can’t emulate the individualistic offense of a team like the Thunder. A new identity must be sought, and the roster adjusted accordingly. As a Pacers fan I can say it’s unlikely this process will make much forward progress this season, a bitter salve to the fans in Sacramento.