If you take a look at last year’s Sacramento Kings team, you can quickly find yourself wondering, why didn’t they do better? Headed by a genuine triple threat in Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, who combined for 63.1 points a night, how did the Kings not manage more than 28 wins? The easy answer is to say it’s because they’re in the Western Conference, and build an argument around the principle of their toughness of schedule, but it could be much simpler than that.
The fact of the matter is the Sacramento Kings were an incredibly selfish team last season. They ranked dead last in the NBA in assists with only 18.9 per game. Now, with Isaiah Thomas having departed for Phoenix, the Kings have not only lost a player who contributed 20 points a night, but also the man who led the team in assists with 6.3 per game.
So, do assists really matter? Is it not more important to have a team with multiple players who can score? Well the only way to answer that is by taking a look at how assist rates can translate in terms of results. For the last two seasons, the San Antonio Spurs have topped the NBA’s assists table, culminating in two trips to the final and last year’s championship.
Digging even deeper, only two of the bottom ten ranked teams in assists last season reached the playoffs. One of those was the Brooklyn Nets, who just scraped by Toronto in the first round, before a comprehensive loss to Miami. The other was the Indiana Pacers, who faced off against the Atlanta Hawks, the second best assists team in the league, and struggled to cope with their barrage of ball movement and three-point shooting.
Ball movement as a strategy is crucial in the modern NBA, as defenders have grown bigger and stronger, and coaches continue to place even more emphasis on the defensive end of the floor. It’s not enough to have star players any more, a roster needs to have a much more rounded offensive look. If the Kings’ opponents know that the ball is going to Gay or Cousins every time down the floor, it’s easy to create a game plan to counter that.
If we cast our minds back to two pivotal moments in the Miami Heat’s season last year, we see LeBron James, not only the team’s best player, but the best in the world, passing out to an open teammate with a better shot. On both occasions Chris Bosh was the man on the receiving end of the pass. In Game 5 against Indiana, he missed, and LeBron was criticized. In Game 2 against San Antonio, Bosh made the shot, and LeBron was praised.
The reality was that on both occasions, James made the correct decision. By passing he created the best scoring opportunity for his team, and changed things up to give the opposing defense a different look. This is something the Sacramento Kings could do with a lot more of, but have they got players in place that are not only capable of doing so, but also willing to?
When the Kings decided to bring in Darren Collison and let Thomas walk, whispers around the league suggested that it was an intentional move towards more of a pass-first point guard. Although that seems like sound reasoning in theory, Collison will need to up his game if that’s to be successful. For his career to date, Collison averages only 6.1 assists per 36 minutes, falling below Thomas’ assist mark last year, and he doesn’t even marginally come close to his points tally.
Away from the point guard, the Kings will be looking to young guards like Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas to get involved in moving the ball and setting up teammates. Whether that’s a realistic expectation of the pair, remains to be seen. The irony of all of this is that the Kings gave up Greivis Vasquez, an extremely talented and willing passer, as part of the trade for Rudy Gay, the move that kickstarted the team’s current roster construction.
Is there hope for the Kings to become a more fluid, selfless team this season? Unless there’s a systematic emphasis placed on greater passing by coach Mike Malone, it’s hard to see how this part of their game would improve. Unfortunately for Kings fans, a repeat of 18.9 assists isn’t going to lead to an improved record.