The now 15-12 Sacramento Kings are averaging 25.5 assists per game, which is good for the seventh best in the league.
That is a good spot to be in, but it is even better when you look at it from a historical perspective. That 25.5 assists per game is the team’s highest mark since the 2003-04 season – Yep, the squad that featured Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Vlade Divac, Brad Miller, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson (they averaged a league-best 26.2 assists per game).
On Wednesday night, in a highly entertaining contest with the Minnesota Timberwolves at home, the Kings tallied 34 assists and only 10 turnovers. Eight of the players who stepped on the court had at least two assists, and the team set a franchise record for most three-pointers made in a game with 19. (The Kings now lead the league in three-point field goal percentage at 39 percent, which is something they haven’t done since, guess when …. the 2003-04 campaign.)
There are a several reasons as to why the Kings assist numbers are climbing. Chief among them are: pace/space, chemistry and a growing familiarity among the players.
Let’s start with pace.
De’Aaron Fox is really fast, so there is that.
The Kings are second in the league in pace and because of that, the ball is swinging from side to side and the team successfully plays on the attack in the majority of their games. Head coach Dave Joerger pointed out after the win over the Timberwolves how Willie Cauley-Stein runs the floor so hard that it requires someone on the defense to guard him in the paint on a fast break, which allows the ball handler to kick it out to guys for open threes in transition.
In addition, the Kings are often playing with good spacing, which opens up the floor for passes.
”We like to play with the good spacing, we get two guys to guard the basketball, we get off the basketball quicker, and then we can attack and open up shots,” Joerger said.
It also doesn’t hurt that the team doesn’t need to rely on one or two players to score. On Wednesday, the Kings had seven players score in double digits.
”We a play up-tempo, high-octane, fun brand of basketball and we share the ball,” Fox said. “We know the way that we need to play ... when we’re moving the ball it’s hard to stop us, we have so many weapons ... you never know who’s going to have the best game when we step on the court.”
Next is chemistry. It is a vague term, but on Wednesday night it was on full display, and it has been for much of the season. Everyone on the Kings bench is up cheering for their teammates, the coaching staff is clapping after successful plays, the inside jokes among the players are abundant, as are the jokes from across the room as media members interview individual players. Guys are simply having fun, and it is largely due to the unselfish personalities on the team, but also because of the system.
”We’re running an open offense. Joerger has been using an equal opportunity offense this whole time and it’s starting to click for us,” said Iman Shumpert.
Not only is the system set up as equal opportunity, but the players have each other’s backs.
”Everybody wants to win, and when you want to win you will do whatever you can to help the team win in any way you can,” said Marvin Bagley. “We move the ball around very well, try to get everybody open shots.”
Lastly, there is a familiarity building on the roster as the majority of the players on the roster were here last season, and the chemistry and style of play has helped the new players adapt.
Shumpert elaborated on this.
”I think guys are starting to understand where they’re going to get their shots. We understand who likes to shoot from what spots, what guys like to do what,” he said. “I used to watch Chris Paul throw passes where it’s like how did he see that? He’s not seeing it, he’s knowing that guy is going to be there. Some games you will see him throw that pass, nobody is there, and you’ll see him have the conversation with whoever that was because he’s trusting that you’re there. When you start holding guys accountable for that and it keeps on building, it’s just a snowball effect.”
Shumpert said he has seen his teammates throw a few of these “blind passes” throughout games, and that is when “you know the chemistry is really right.”
The team’s assist numbers themselves are a positive and key to the Kings winning games, but the chemistry aspect of this team is just as important. The 2015-16 Kings did average 24.5 assists per game, which was good for a tie with two other teams for third in the league. That was the George Karl-led squad that did finish with 33 wins, but also wasn’t quite a shining example of chemistry. For several years after the Webber-Divac team disbanded, the Kings locker room was full of individuals who may have gotten along with each other, but did not seem to be on the same page with a clear direction (or style of play for that matter) to rally around. Season after season, the roster largely consisted of guys trying to further their individual careers with no light at the end of the tunnel here in Sacramento.
That isn’t the case with this club.
”We’re just in a great place right now,” Shumpert said.