Kings coach Luke Walton is forming a new data-driven dynamic with general manager Monte McNair while the team forges a new identity behind closed doors under strict COVID-19 provisions at Golden 1 Center.
Changes in the style of play have been the subject of intrigue as the Kings begin a season of uncertainty after making changes to their roster, coaching staff and front office, but new clues are emerging.
Walton is working with new associate head coach Alvin Gentry and assistant coach Rex Kalamian to implement changes at the offensive and defensive ends. McNair, who worked closely with coaches to interpret basketball analytics data during his time with the Houston Rockets, might have his own ideas about optimizing lineups, rotations and on-court execution.
Walton previously hinted at subtle changes, specifically mentioning plans for improved pace and a 5-Out motion offense. He went a little further during Zoom sessions with reporters Sunday and Monday, explaining how the Kings plan to push the pace and create certain kinds of 3-point opportunities, and how McNair’s ideas will influence coaching decisions.
“It’s been great working with Monte,” Walton said. “We’ve talked and he’s going to bring ideas analytically to what he sees, and then at the end of the day I can take what ideas I want and leave the ones I don’t. The coaching decisions are mine to be made, so it’s nice to get different perspectives. You try to do that when you hire a coaching staff around you — the type of people you bring in — so having an analytical mind like him and his staff to throw those suggestions out there is great, and then it’s up to me to pick and choose which ones we want to implement.”
After grinding their gears for a variety of reasons in 2019-20, the Kings are renewing their commitment to a fast-paced attack led by dynamic young point guard De’Aaron Fox. Walton said the Kings are “putting a huge emphasis on getting the ball out and getting up that court as quickly as possible.”
That sounds like a page from former coach Dave Joerger’s playbook. Fox would catch the inbound pass on the run and the Kings were off to the races. They finished third in the NBA in pace and won 39 games, but defenses adjusted and the Kings missed the playoffs after struggling down the stretch.
When Walton came in to replace Joerger, he had to implement a new system with new terminology and new player-coach relationships. He had three days to start that process before the team circled the globe for a preseason trip to India. In 2018-19, Joerger pushed his team so hard in training camp he had to be held out of a media session because he lost his voice. In 2019-20, Walton’s team spent 40 hours on an airplane.
Walton admitted the Kings weren’t in good enough shape to start the season last year. Injuries to Fox and Marvin Bagley III didn’t help either as the Kings finished 19th in the NBA in pace. They used Fox’s quickness in the half court, but they didn’t always take advantage of his end-to-end speed. That was never Walton’s intention, but it was the end result as he emphasized half-court execution and defense as prerequisites for winning basketball.
This preseason presents a whole new set of challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Walton said tempo will be one of the things “we’re going to have a little more commitment to from Day 1 now that we have somewhat of a foundation set from last season.” Fox talked about initiating offensive sets quicker. Walton mentioned an “emphasis on our spacing and our speed and getting the ball in and out every time.”
What the Kings have described is an up-tempo offense that looks to attack in transition and then spread the floor, using dribble handoffs and screens to create open paths to the basket and 3-point opportunities. Fox referred to the offense Gentry ran as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. Harrison Barnes pointed out “how much of a track meet that was.”
The Kings want to spread the floor when they aren’t attacking the basket in transition. McNair said he is eager to see what Kings guard Buddy Hield — one of the game’s most lethal 3-point shooters — can do in the team’s new offense.
“I think we’re really excited to see him in this system, and obviously with coach Walton as well as Alvin and Rex and the system they’re going to implement, I think buddy’s going to look really good in it,” McNair said. “I’m excited to see him in training camp and how he can progress there.”
Walton was asked about the team’s continuing focus on 3-point shooting after the Kings achieved their goal of shooting 35 3-pointers per game last season. Walton wouldn’t commit to a number this season, but he revealed something else about his team’s plans for perimeter shooting — something that might have been derived from McNair’s background in analytics.
“We don’t have a set number, but we have a very firm understanding of the type of 3s that we’re trying to get this year,” Walton said. “We’ve shared that with our guys and we’ve changed the scoring system when we scrimmage to value the type of 3s we want. … We’re really looking to continue to improve on what we believe to be good shot selection for our group.”