The Sacramento Kings have been missing a lot of things good basketball teams have over the last decade-plus of losing. The list is long, but in the interest of not going down the negative rabbit hole again, for the sake of this post, I wanted to talk about chemistry for a few minutes.
Chemistry is a pretty vague and often cliche term when you’re talking about basketball because a lot of different elements factor in to what builds chemistry, and it’s nearly impossible to measure. You need a head coach in place over multiple seasons. You need long-term players logging big minutes together. You need to build a fundamental understanding of what it takes for those players to win. You need development across the board.
The Kings have had none of those things since Rick Adelman was fired in 2006, until now. You’re starting to see Dave Joerger’s tenure pay off. You’re starting to see these young players that have been together for years learn each others tendencies. You’re starting to see chemistry build, on and off the court. You’re starting to see signature plays develop. You’re starting to see where offense is going to come from now and into the future. You’re starting to see young players grow into the veterans they will become. It’s been a joy to watch.
The Kings are 8-6 as of November 15th, and are playing some of the best basketball we’ve seen out of Sacramento since the glory days. The wins are fun, but I’ve had just as much fun watching players, combinations, and lineups develop that chemistry and figure out what works. That’s basketball.
This is most noticeable in transition where you’re seeing the young Kings push the ball at a blistering pace, earning themselves a reputation and identity around the league as a team that will run you out of the gym if you aren’t careful. The Kings halfcourt offense hasn’t been nearly as good, but you can see chemistry and tendencies developing there, too, and something I wanted to highlight is what Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield have been building and developing with a simple handoff action.
This play has burned itself into my brain over the first 14 games of the 2018-19 NBA season because the Kings have gone back to it over and over again.
Here are a few examples:
It’s an unbelievably basic play, but the Kings, Hield and Cauley-Stein specifically, are running it beautifully. Every team has simple go-to actions they can run out of any set, and this handoff combination has been a staple of the Kings’ offense all year.
Of the examples listed above, I have to give additional attention to the final clip against Joe Ingles and the Jazz. This highlights just how difficult Hield can be to guard. I don’t care who the defender is, when you’re Buddy Hield and you’re giving Ingles the hard dribble right, shot fake, quick pass to Cauley-Stein, and then back around to the top of the key for the handoff — that’s extremely difficult to cover. Doubly so if you’re running it with perfect footwork and timing like Hield and Cauley-Stein did there.
Hield’s movement all over the court has been equal parts impressive and relentless. According to NBA.COM’s tracking data, Hield is running 2.54 miles per game, good for 12th in the league. The Kings are wearing teams out, and the pressure Hield puts on opposing defenses is a big part of that. You can’t leave him for a second, and he’s always moving.
To further highlight how this simple action has become a winning development for the Kings, 10 of Cauley-Stein’s 30 assists on the season have gone to Buddy Hield, most of which occurred in this action or similar. It’s working, and the Kings keep running it.
Buddy Hield is returning the favor. 12 of Hield’s 38 assists on the year have gone back to Cauley-Stein, and among two-man combinations that have played over 300 minutes for the Kings this season, the Buddy Hield / Willie Cauley-Stein duo has been the Kings’ best across the board. They are #1 in offensive rating, net rating, assists percentage, and assist-to-turnover ratio. They are protecting and sharing the ball at a high clip while lighting up the scoreboard.
Some of the credit here certainly belongs to Dave Joerger. He found something simple and executable under any scenario that the Kings can keep coming back to, and it clearly works, but when you take all the elements that have to come together to allow a signature action like this to develop, it really comes down to chemistry.
Joerger has been in Sacramento for a little more than 2 years now, good for the longest tenured head coach since Adelman. Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein have been teammates for nearly two seasons worth of games. They’ve had two years of training camp together. The Kings have been patient with this young core and have given them plenty of time to play, practice and learn, and we’re starting to see that patience, development, and chemistry pay off.