Believe it or not, the Kings' offense has been one of the best in the league since the trade deadline.
It’s been quite a month in the NBA. In addition to running off 27 straight wins, the Miami Heat have lifted their offense to new levels of excellence. The Oklahoma City Thunder have continued a season of dominance, also powered by an exceptional offense. The Denver Nuggets, winners of 15 straight, have been running teams off the floor with their relentless, athletic attacking style.
And then, of course, there’s the Sacramento Kings, who are second in the league in offensive efficiency since Feb. 26 with 110.3 points per 100 possessions, just a shade behind Miami’s 110.4 and ahead of the Thunder’s 109.5 for that time period. (The Kings also lead the NBA in points per game (109.6) for that span.)
No, it’s not an April Fools' joke. It’s the same Sacramento Kings who, you may recall, were universally ridiculed at the trade deadline for shipping rookie lottery pick Thomas Robinson to the Houston Rockets (along with Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt) in exchange for Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich and Toney Douglas.
Obviously, the sample sizes are still small, and as with any trade, it takes years to fully evaluate it properly. But in the early returns, Sacramento has been a wildly improved team since the deal. Check out the numbers (all per 100 possessions):
[Note: While the trade was made on Feb. 20, we are using Feb. 26 as the cutoff date because that is the first day on which any players acquired by Sacramento played meaningful minutes. Patterson played two minutes of garbage time on Feb. 24.]
Exhale and say it with me again: small sample size, small sample size, small sample size. Understood, and the Kings close with a fairly tough schedule, so these numbers may well recede a bit by the end of the season. We’re not suggesting the franchise needs to start planning for any championship parades to the state Capitol or, um, the Space Needle in the near future. But the magnitude of the improvement to date -- a net of more than 12 points per 100 possessions -- is staggering.
The 8-9 record understates the Kings' performance, as they have suffered several close losses, most notably potential streak-stoppers on the road in Miami (141-129 in 2OT) and in Denver (101-95). The plus-3.9 differential (tenth-best in the league) offers another assessment of how well these Kings have played over the past month-plus.
The Kings’ schedule has been a fairly equal mix of the league’s elite, average and dregs. Skeptics may suggest that the differential is inflated by blowouts of Orlando and Charlotte, as well as the 42-point destruction of Chicago. But those who followed Professor Hollinger’s work in these parts over the years know that blowouts over anyone are a good indicator of team quality.
Indeed, Sacramento wasn’t blowing out anyone prior to the trade. They were minus-21 in two games versus Phoenix pre-trade, and plus-23 in two games post-trade. They won in Charlotte by just four in January, before the 36-point clobbering in March. And the Kings’ 116-101 win over the Clippers on Mar. 19 might be -- along with the Chicago rout -- Sacramento’s most impressive of the year. If anything, the most misleading game of Sacramento’s differential recently is being tagged with a minus-12 at Miami after essentially playing them even in a 2OT loss.
What’s happening here? Well, in looking at the team stats, there have been two key improvements post-trade. One is in effective field goal percentage (which simply gives extra, proper credit to 3's), where Sacramento has jumped from 21st in the league (.478) all the way to second (.542).
The other is in defensive rebounding, where the Kings have improved from dead last -- 30th (69.7 percent) -- to 19th (73.5 percent). This category is something of surprise, given Robinson’s prowess on the boards, but DeMarcus Cousins has improved his defensive rebounding percentage to an elite 31.8 percent (10.5 total rebounds per game in 29.3 minutes). Chuck Hayes has also picked up the slack, and Patterson has done career-best work on the defensive glass so far.
As far as the improvement on offense, to some degree the Kings are on a hot shooting streak that’s unsustainable. But the more interesting development is that Sacramento appears to have imported the Rockets' philosophy in addition to players: They’re running and gunning, and they’ve embraced the 3, especially the corner 3.
Prior to the trade, the Kings were playing at the ninth-fastest pace in the league, averaging 95.3 possessions per game. But since the trade, Sacramento has revved it up to a league-leading 98.3 possessions, faster than even the Rockets, whose season-long mark of 98.5 ranks first (Houston’s been at 97.6 since Feb. 26).
And here’s a look at how Sacramento has shifted field-goal attempts from the midrange back behind the arc and into the corners:
The massive efficiency boost realized from shooting more 3s at a better percentage speaks for itself, but the subtle improvement in midrange efficiency has helped as well -- the Kings’ percentage there was league-worst prior to the trade and is now up to fifth-best post-trade.
Part of this improvement reflects the change in shot distribution since Patterson arrived in town. Patterson has not only been on fire from behind the arc (14-of-30) but also from midrange, where he’s nailed 54 percent on almost three attempts a game, a big improvement over Robinson, a 31 percent midrange shooter.
But what should cause rejoicing among Kings fans is that Cousins’ love affair with the midrange shot appears to have waned for the time being. Here’s a look at Cousins' shot distribution pre- and post-trade:
Not only is Cousins being more judicious in jacking 'em up, he’s also converting at a higher rate. Conventional wisdom suggests there’s a direct correlation here, as Patterson’s floor spacing allows Cousins to stay down low. But the two have played just 100 total minutes together, though they have been lethal as a two-man combo, outscoring opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions in that short period.
Let’s be clear: Guys like Isaiah Thomas (13 of 23 on corner 3s since Feb. 26, after going 10 of 38 prior) and Marcus Thornton (blistering from everywhere post-trade, including 37 of 42 in the restricted area) have been on fairly insane hot streaks.
They will regress to the mean, and Sacramento will not continue to have the NBA’s second-best offense since the trade. But the changes in shot distribution do suggest that Sacramento can remain a top-10 offense and an improved team -- solid steps forward into an uncertain future.
Patterson has been a productive player, with a 16.3 PER in 23 minutes per game, a significant upgrade over what Robinson produced in Sacramento (10.7 PER in 16 mpg). Meanwhile, Robinson continues to look like a solid rotation big more than a potential star, even in a better environment (though it should be noted that Houston has been a clearly better team post-trade, as well).
There are very fair criticisms of the trade from the Kings perspective which remain -- notably, that they likely could have gotten more for Robinson and that they took on a less-favorable contract in Patterson’s.
But maybe, just maybe, the Kings also made a deal which improved their team, both for now and the future.
Certainly, the recent track record of the Maloofs and Geoff Petrie made them easy and deserving punchlines in this trade’s narrative, but their days with the franchise are numbered. Yes, the motivations of the Maloofs may have been questionable. And yes, Petrie likely could have and should have worked harder for a better deal.
But while conventional wisdom indicated that the Kings had made some sort of historically bad deal, the early returns suggest that this trade will be far from crippling for the new management which is soon to arrive -- somewhere on the West Coast -- to take on the challenging task of moving the franchise forward in the brutally competitive Western Conference.
Mark Haubner's work appears on The Painted Area.