The 2017-2018 NBA season was an unpleasant slog for many Kings fans. George Hill was more disappointing than a warm glass of lemonade on a hot summer day, Harry Giles rehabbed for the entire year, De’Aaron Fox struggled amidst flashes of potential stardom, and Sacramento won just 27 games, their lowest mark in seven years. Adding the rotten cherry to the top of that melted ice cream sundae of a season was Dave Joerger’s archaic offensive strategy, frequently lowlighted by the old-school, inefficient bully ball of Zach Randolph. Sacramento’s offense was a nightly disaster, averaging the fewest points per game, accounting for the fewest free throw attempts, and recording the lowest effective field goal percentage. It was ugly.
The multitude of mid-range jumpers, the too frequent post-ups, and the lethargic pace prompted questions regarding Dave Joerger’s fit with the front office’s roster philosophy and construction. Players certainly seemed to like him and many improved under his tutelage, but his time traveling game plan from 1992 also prevented many members of the young core to operate at their highest level, specifically De’Aaron Fox. If Joerger couldn’t revamp his offense to match the strengths of the young core in 2019, moving onto a new Head Coach was in the best interest of the franchise.
Five months into the season, those worries surrounding Dave Joerger’s ability to adapt have been answered emphatically and with complete satisfaction. Sacramento’s previously putrid offensive production has skyrocketed into the upper echelon of the NBA, and De’Aaron Fox and his crew rank in the top-10 in the league in scoring. A team that was completely incapable of putting the ball in the bucket a year ago has evolved into one of the most feared scoring machines. What exactly did Dave Joerger do to influence such a dramatic change?
A significant increase in offensive output might first be associated with improved shooting prowess, but the Front Office didn’t exactly reinforce the roster with a cadre of snipers last July. Yogi Ferrell and Nemanja Bjelica, both more than competent outside threats, were added in the offseason, but the team also lost George Hill, Vince Carter, and Garrett Temple. Yogi and Bjelica were brought in as replacements, not additions. Sacramento’s shooting percentages remained virtually identical from 2018 to 2019.
Another theory behind the Kings’ meteoric rise from bottom-dweller to top-10 offense might be found in increased efficiency in particular play types, such as transition offense or post-ups; however, that hasn’t occurred either. Sacramento has maintained the same production across the board, regardless of the play type they happen to be running. Of their seven most commonly used strategies, their points per possession didn’t vary by more than one-tenth of a point between last season and the current campaign, and their largest increase has been just 0.8 points per possession in the pick-and-roll. The personnel didn’t magically cohere into a Spurs-like masterful study of offensive execution.
Vlade Divac didn’t dramatically influence the accuracy of the available shooters on the depth chart, and internal improvements didn’t move the needle in any one area of the offense; rather, the genesis of the Kings’ offensive transformation can be found in Dave Joerger’s adjustment to a modern day style. His departure from a post-heavy attack that operated at the clip of a sloth living in Zach Randolph’s backpack to the current iteration of run, run, and run some more has unlocked the King’s most fearsome weapron: De’Aaron Fox in the open court.
As noted previously, the Kings haven’t actually improved their effectiveness in transition from year to year. Last season, the team produced 1.11 points per play and recorded an effective field goal percentage of 60%, which landed them in the 69th percentile. In 2019, the Kings have produced at an almost identical clip, scoring 1.11 points per possession, posting an effective field goal percentage of 59%, and ranking in the 66th percentile. On the surface they look like the exact same squad; however, their transformation has come not in efficiency, but rather in frequency.
Replacing half-court adventures with lighting quick charges has increased the Kings’ transition attempts by more than 70%, increasing from 14.6 to 24.9 plays per game. That near-doubling of fast break opportunities has resulted in a similar turnaround in their number of possessions per game, as their league-leading pace of 104.47 is a far cry from last year’s 30th ranked 95.59. A compounding effect begins to take place, as the more transition plays they run, the more possessions they create, and the more possession they create, the more transition opportunities become available. And while the Kings didn’t increase their points per possession or efficiency in transition when comparing seasons, they massively increase both of those factors when contrasting open floor opportunities with other play types.
Efficiency of Play Types
As is apparent when watching games, De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley are still figuring out their exact strengths against set defenses. Until those weapons are fully developed, the Kings are better served in the open floor than they are grinding it out in the half-court. The sooner Sacramento shoots the ball, the better their chance of actually scoring.
Dave Joerger’s commitment to swapping out his antiquated offensive game plan for a more streamlined, modern edition has been one of the most important factors in Sacramento’s rise in the standings this season. It’s no coincidence that the team’s increase in points per game from 2018 to 2019, 14.9, aligns so closely with their rise in transition scoring, a total of 11.4 points per game. Individual player improvement cannot be ignored when assigning credit to the progress shown over the last year, but that growth would have suffocated under last season’s strategies, while the current emphasis on fast break buckets has allowed Fox’s confidence, Buddy’s shooting, and Bagley’s athleticism to blossom in the open court.
On any given night, fans hear Dave Joerger’s voice cutting through the ambient noise of the arena, slowing giving out as he continuously shouts “go, go, go, go, go”, and that borderline maniacal focus on playing faster has not only been instrumental in securing his future at the helm of the Kings, but in elevating Sacramento’s season as well.