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The Kings are being forced to live, and mostly die, by the three-point line

Injuries have decimated Luke Walton’s options on the offensive end of the floor. 

Kimani Okearah

When the Sacramento Kings assembled their roster and coaching staff this summer, their intensions were clear: they were going to join the modern NBA in taking and making as many three-pointers as possible. Their projected starting five was chock-full of three-point snipers, while the bench didn’t lag far behind in their proficiency from beyond the arc. Over the first 13 games of the season, that hypotheses of strong shooting held true, as the Kings knocked in 38% of their 35 long-balls per game, the fourth-best mark in the NBA. Over their last seven contests, five of which they’ve lost, Sacramento has plummeted to 29.4% shooting from three-point range, easily the worst accuracy in the NBA. Those shooting troubles go far beyond a simple shooting slump.

Luke Walton’s offseason promise of an actual half-court offense, highlighted by a significant increase in three-point attempts, was met with a moderate amount of skepticism from a fan base that had been promised many things by many people for many years, but the Kings actually started to execute a sensible game plan after a rough 0-5 start to the season. De’Aaron Fox’s lane penetration acted as the pebble in the pond for the rest of the offense, a catalyst that allowed multiple options to exist simultaneously. If De’Aaron chose to run the pick-and-roll with Richaun Holmes or Dewayne Dedmon, he could use his centers as a safety valve in the lob game. When that was spoiled by a third defender collapsing into the paint, the elite shooting of Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, and Nemanja Bjelica made defenses pay dearly. And when the team needed to change the look on that end of the floor, Marvin Bagley III’s unique combination of mid-isolation scoring, free throw magnetism, and offensive rebounding waited in the wings. Like a good-hearted, if initially unfriendly green ogre, the offense had layers and layers of available resets. Three-point shooting was an important pillar in Luke Walton’s strategy, but it was by no means the centerpiece of scoring.

That playbook has been thrown out the window, at least in the short term. When Marvin Bagley broke his thumb in the opening game of the season, the team lost their only post threat, their springiest big man, and their most adept foul-drawer. A four-pronged attack became three: still manageable, but not nearly as malleable. And then the hits kept coming. De’Aaron Fox’s severe ankle sprain stripped the Kings of their best playmaker and one of their few contributors who could work his way into the teeth of the defense and produce positive results.

When Fox went down, Bogdan Bogdanovic stepped up in a big way. He averaged 19.5 points and 8 assists in a four game stretch that saw the Kings win three of four contests, and his skillset could mostly replicate that of De’Aaron’s. And then Bogdanovic went down, his injury and hobbled play coinciding precisely with Sacramento’s recent poor three-point shooting and 2-5 record:

*Red line denotes league average

The team as a whole has been awful – there isn’t a single culprit to blame. Buddy Hield probably shoulders the largest burden, as he’s the best remaining player and one of the most accurate volume shooters in NBA history, but no one else, outside of Harrison Barnes, has been any better.

Recent Three-point Struggles

Player 3P 3PA 3P%
Player 3P 3PA 3P%
Hield 27 86 31.4%
Bogdanovic 11 41 26.8%
Bjelica 8 29 27.6%
Barnes 9 24 37.5%
Dedmon 4 16 25%
James 3 11 27.3%
Joseph 3 10 30%
Ferrell 3 10 30%
Ariza 2 10 20%

That level of inaccuracy from three-point range may prompt a desire to shift the plan and focus on other areas around the floor, but that simply isn’t an option for the current iteration of the Kings. The absence of Fox and Bogdanovic, and to a lesser extent Bagley, has diluted much of Sacramento’s offensive potency, to the point that hoping and praying for a big night from beyond the arc is one of the few realistic options. Pick-and-rolls are heavily weakened with Cory Joseph at the helm, as his lack of shooting threat allows defenders to collapse in the paint and protect the rim, and Yogi Ferrell’s lack of size limits him physically in what he can see and where he can place the ball. No reliable post threat exists either, outside of the occasional Harrison Barnes mismatch, but tossing the ball down to your small forward 30 times a game isn’t a viable option.

Cries for more lane penetration and additional trips to the free throw line are similarly untenable and unrealistic. Barnes is the only player drawing more than one shooting foul per game, and no other players’ talents lend themselves toward the charity stripe. Buddy Hield is a turnover machine whenever his ball-handling is pressured, and the other guards are just as ineffective in the paint.

That leaves three-point shooting, the area in which most of the remaining players excel. Nemanja Bjelica can’t suddenly morph into Brandon Ingram, Yogi Ferrell isn’t going to grow four inches overnight, and Buddy Hield’s handle won’t become reliable anytime soon. Instead of their vaunted diversity of attack at the start of the season, the Kings have been left with a cadre of high quality role players and Hield, a contributor who is best suited as a secondary or tertiary option with teammates setting him up, not as a primary threat in an offensive system. They’re bereft of options, outside of shooting, shooting, and shooting some more. Of course, the trick to that treat is that opposing defenses are quite aware of the lack of creativity available, hence their laser-focus on three-point defense and Sacramento’s requisite poor shooting. Until Bogdan Bogdanovic is fully healthy, De’Aaron Fox makes his return, and Marvin Bagley can provide some isolation scoring, the Kings will be left to live, and mostly die, by the three-point line.