A Diagnosis of Luke Walton’s sets and Offensive Philosophy, and how they hold the Sacramento Kings back

After experiencing some kind of normality after the 18-19 Season, the Sacramento Kings opted to fire Dave Joerger. The Kings’ 9th placed finish was their highest since Rick Adelman’s contract was not renewed in 2006. The team played at an astronomically high pace and had a clear on court philosophy. For Vlade Divac, this was not good enough. He decided Joerger had to go, citing the fact that essentially, the team should have done better. His choice to replace Joerger and take the Kings to the next level was Luke Walton. A man who had astronomically failed with the Los Angeles Lakers and was known for dismal X’s and O’s and poor rotations.

Lakers analysts I have spoken with were highly critical of Walton’s offense and general coaching ability. One analyst called Walton’s offense the worst he’d ever studied. The same analyst charted the Lakers offense, and below was his takeaway on the activity in the offensive sets and schemes.

On the whole, not a lot has changed in Sacramento. Walton’s trusted assistant is Jesse Mermuys and he was largely tasked with running the offense. The Kings have some good sets, but they don’t run them anywhere near enough. They often default to basic five-out or four-out-one-in sets that are essentially Walton allowing his players to take turns to go one on one. Even if the team had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, this would still be a poor philosophy. You need good player movement and creativity to run an effective offense in 2020, the Kings have neither. Sure, stars give you the ability to simplify your offense. But you still need to have some form of movement.

The Kings have blatant problems in the Front Office. Vlade Divac was a magnificent player but is hugely out of his depth. The team wants to copy the setups in Boston and Minnesota in terms of having multiple high-level executives as opposed to one guy. But their top two guys are former players and their other high-ranking official is Joe Dumars. Jason Jones of the Athletic suggested today that Vlade has found it difficult to bring in help because everyone he asks believes they are more qualified to run a team than he is. Nepotism can kill the perception of your franchise, not just the internal workings of your franchise. Despite Front Office instability and incompetence, this does not excuse Walton of what was one of the worst coaching jobs in the NBA this year.

Joerger’s Philosophy vs Walton’s:

The most reported difference between the 18-19 Kings and the 19-20 Kings is the pace and transition frequency. Dave Joerger simply builds his teams around what he inherits. His Memphis’ teams were always near the bottom of the NBA in pace. After a year of having a roster seemingly pulling in two different directions, in the Summer of 2018 David Joerger committed to running a fast offense. The Kings were third in pace in the 2019 season and first in the percentage of their plays coming in transition. Fast forward a year and the Kings were 19th in pace and 17th in the frequency of their plays coming in transition.

Joerger’s team ran more than any other team, which was an excellent use of Fox’ speed. In the half-court, a lot of Joerger’s offense was based on Princeton Principles. Essentially hitting teams with multiple cutters. Willie Cauley-Stein was often used at the elbow (3rd in elbow touches per game) and the high post to initiate offense. The team sometimes had issues creating in the half-court but I’d put this down to growing pains. The half-court sets were relatively good and the team was young and bound to make mistakes. The Princeton sets were difficult to defend and there appeared to be real chemistry building.

A difference from a schematic perspective has been the shot locations of the Kings. Joerger’s Kings were a mid-range heavy team when they entered their half-court sets. A lot of the Princeton offense was often neutralised by paint heavy coverage so the Kings would often end up with mid-range shots. They were not overly efficient on them either. A large part of this was that De’Aaron Fox shot a high volume of them but a low efficiency. This can probably be put down to growing pains for a player who had a tough rookie year. I’d put this down to growing pains and personnel. Four of the Kings five front-court players could not shoot. Harrison Barnes only came in towards the end of the season. Sacramento shot very few threes under Joerger but they did rank top five in efficiency on these particular looks. A fair knock on Joerger is that the team should have probably shot more of them. But shot profile does not automatically make an offense good or bad. The Kings at least had some semblance of an offensive plan.

Walton’s Kings cut down on the mid-range attempts, moving from top five in frequency to middle of the pack. They upped their three-point volume from bottom five to middle of the pack, and lost some efficiency from this area of the court. The Kings clearly tried to scheme more threes under Walton. But at times they forced up these threes with little action, which I will get into later.

From a play-type perspective, the main difference appears to be that Walton wanted more drive and kicks as shown by the higher number of spot-up numbers. Joerger’s offense was more based on guards attacking inside as opposed to spotting up for three. But on the whole, the differences in the raw play-types are minimal, they both ran the same types of plays but with wholly different executions and specific plays.

It appears that upon his arrival, Walton wanted to ‘teach’ the team to play in half-court. In December, Walton told reporters on how he wanted to emphasise half-court play. This is a large part of why he slowed the pace down and was particularly unfair on some players in his rotations. It also explains his over reliance on non-performing veterans such as Cory Joseph. It appears the reputation of the Kings were that they were only effective running, and needed a more stringent half-court system. The issue for the Kings has been that while Walton is clearly promoting more half-court play, the half-court sets, spacing and freelance actions are not good enough. They run some good stuff and some of their core actions are very effective and fit their roster really well. But these moments are too few and far between.

I must first note that Walton’s offense is not bad just because it doesn’t run a tonne of set plays. My favourite offense to study is the 2002 Sacramento Kings offense, which ran very few set plays. What makes the Walton Kings offense poor is a pace that doesn’t fit the personnel, terrible spacing principles, poor off the ball motion and how random the teams strategy appears to be on a night to night basis. Despite this, they do run some good actions which I will outline before critiquing the negatives.

Good- Ghost Screens

The Kings run one of my personal favourite actions quite regularly- the ghost screen. It’s called a ghost screen because essentially, there is never a screen. But the threat of a big man moving towards the guard often causes teams to ‘pre-rotate’ into their desired pick-and-roll coverage, often a drop coverage where the big man gets into the paint anticipating a downhill action. In ‘ghost’ action, a player moves to set a screen but darts to the perimeter for three. The first read is that the shooter is open, as seen below.

Notice how Jakob Poeltl is deep in the paint to defend the drop before Bjelica has even moved to the perimeter. Generally getting straight into your PnR coverage and being proactive rather than reactive is a good move. Ghost screens exploit this because as you can see here, Bjelica just walks into an open three as the Spurs are in drop coverage. Bjelica and Barnes both commonly attack from these ghost screens.

Not every team plays drop coverage this rigidly, so there are occasions where the shooter is tracked. This does not mean that the play-type loses effectiveness though, it creates driving lanes at an instant and this is a perfect mesh with the speed of De’Aaron Fox. You can see this below.

DeAndre Ayton tracks Nemanja Bjelica on the ghost action. But Ricky Rubio is unaware that Bjelica has ghosted and plays tight to Fox, thinking that he will be funnelling Fox into drop coverage from DeAndre Ayton. But Ayton isn’t there which creates a driving lane. Fox’s speed and any semblance of a driving angle is game over. Even if help comes, the Kings have the shooting on paper to punish help rotations.

There is also no place to hide for perimeter deficient bigs against these ghost screen actions, as LaMarcus Aldridge finds out below.

Aldridge stays with Bjelica because he wants no part of having to defend. But White plays aggressively on Fox assuming that Aldridge will be behind him. This is more of a mix up than anything particularly outstanding from the Kings but these mixups happen because many bigs are not comfortable defending as high as Bjelica’s range goes.

The Kings also use these screens to get switches, notably eyeing getting Fox onto a lower level defender. This will often happen with Buddy Hield or Bogdan Bogdanovic as the ghost screener as these will generally draw a worse matchup than De’Aaron Fox.

On the play below, De’Aaron Fox draws Kawhi Leonard. Given Leonard’s defensive prowess this isn’t a great matchup for Fox. So the Kings use Bogdan Bogdanovic as the ghost screener and this means Kawhi switches onto him. Fox ends up on Landry Shamet who is a mediocre defender and destroys him, getting the key bucket. The Kings will often go to this particular action towards the end of games. The only frustration is that they don’t use these a lot more. They’re a fantastic mesh with the speed of De’Aaron Fox.

These actions can also free up shooters, because more often than not Fox attacking a driving lane will force help rotations. On the play below, Nikola Jokic rotates across so Fox hits Buddy Hield for a spot-up three. Note again how the Kings go to this action in late game situations where the score is close.

Sometimes Good- Off Screen looks

The Kings scheme many more off-screen threes than they used to. The reason I have written that these are only sometimes good is because they can be chaotic, and Walton’s staff don’t change their screen plays if defences’ counteract them. This is the issue on the whole with the Kings offense. They force their sets on teams but have very little of a response if teams have scouted properly. Still, some of their plays are good, like the hammer play below.

They initiate the play with a pitch play which causes the defense to push high to contain a drive or a pull up three. Notice how the baseline is cleared out on this play. Bazemore pitches it to Daquan Jeffries who then attacks and hits Hield in the corner off a well-set hammer screen. The speed of this play was key because Melli had to help on the drive and had no time to think about the shooter in the corner.

Buddy Hield is very effective off-screens, ranking in the 78th percentile. The Kings should likely run these more often. But this is a major issue with them. They have some good plays and tendencies in their toolkit, but they don’t use them for the job often enough. Their offensive flow seems random and unstructured.

Other screen actions they run include ‘Korver’ action, which is shown below.

Korver action is where a big man comes to set a screen at the top of the key but afterwards darts away from the ball handler and sets a ball screen for a shooter to move towards the ball handler. These often end in three-point looks. Like ghost screens, they are a good way of compromising good pick-and-roll defensive practices. The Kings run these looks often for their perimeter guys, with Bogdanovic and Hield getting most of the looks from them. Below is another example of Korver action.

The Kings enter this action with a give-and-go just before Holmes begins to set his screens. Creating a little bit of movement before you enter a Pick-and-roll action is one of the most important ways to optimise your offense. The Portland Trail Blazers are a team who do this very well. Holmes starts by screening Fox but then moves to set a screen for Hield to pop for a three. Notice how the Spurs center is in a deep drop, so it’s hard for him to recover. This play isn’t executed to perfection as Holmes has to re screen and the shot is more contested than Hield would like. But it’s still an effective play type.

The Kings also use screens well in some of their out of bounds plays. The Kings are relatively efficient on out of bounds plays which is surprising given this was not an area Walton excelled in while he was the Lakers Head Coach. But they use screens well, such as on the play below.

In this particular game, the Clippers top-locked Bogdanovic quite regularly. The Kings respond by having him clear to the other side of the floor and setting a down screen for Harrison Barnes. After doing this, Bogdanovic comes off a Harry Giles screen at the top of the key and nails a three. The Kings generally go to Bogdanovic out of a timeout because he excels playing within the flow of the offense but can also go into isolation if that is ever required.

The Kings used Bogdanovic to attack off two staggered flare screens in a recent game against New Orleans.

These are effective because Nemanja Bjelica is capable of popping from these double screen looks, he’s capable of scoring a lot of points in this way. A lot of the Kings screen plays are basic but these are often the hardest things to defend. The issue once again, is that the Kings don’t run these with any kind of consistency or flow, and most of what they do in freelance play is awful, outdated and badly coached.

Bad: Freelance decision making

The Kings run some good individual concepts as outlined above. But plays are not just how you coach an offense. Arguably more important is what your players do when stuff breaks down, and what your philosophy is when times get tough in the half-court.

My major knock on this Kings team is that they go through stretches of just playing basketball that’s too basic and too reliant on stars making plays. The Kings have good players but not a star who can continually bail you out with jump shots. Even if they did, it’s still not good practice to run some of the stuff the Kings do.

De’Aaron Fox is a fantastic young guard who doesn’t get enough credit. I believe part of this overall picture is the fact his usage has been terrible this year. Fox improved his overall field goal percentage and the Kings usage of clearout concepts such as ghost screens and the addition of an excellent screener in Richaun Holmes helped with this. But Fox’ three-point percentage dropped from 37% to 30% and Walton had him taking more three-point shots. Joerger’s mid-range heaviness was seen as outdated but with regards to Fox, he went for quality over quantity. A lot of the shots Fox takes from three are low in quality under Luke Walton, and they’re not his fault as there is no action and just basic 1-4 high spacing that Walton played in while at College in Arizona… in 2002. Take the play below as an example.

Sacramento goes with a pick-and-roll with Four-out one in spacing. The initial action is defended. But the Kings just default to a basic look with players standing around no movement. Fox takes the pull-up three and air-balls it. Walton wants him taking more threes but these are forced because there is simply no secondary action, no wrinkle. Fox is an average shooter. Plays like this may work for Lillard or Trae Young but those are elite shooters with immense gravity. But there’s just a general spacing with a message of essentially ‘go and make a play’. In 2020, mere spacing is not enough. You have to fully lift the ceiling of spacing with player movement and ball screens.

Above, the Kings are once again in their basic spacing look. Buddy Hield gets blitzed as he tries to attack downhill so he reverses it to Nemanja Bjelica who fires up a contested three with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. Bjelica had a good year and was capable of bailing them out at times, but this is horrendous offense, it ends in another air ball. Once the Kings have the ball on the perimeter their only strategy is just having the spacing. This isn’t proper coaching. There is no hand-off or screen action when Bjelica gets the ball. His options are shoot or pass it to another stationary player. It’s as if they are not coached to play a motion-based offense or make certain cuts or go into different actions. Walton wants them playing team ball but has little idea how to coach it.

Their offense down the stretch was also poor.

In the bubble, the Kings entered with a legitimate chance of making the Playoffs. Their offensive rating appears good but in the fourth quarter when it mattered, they were 18th of 22 teams with an offensive rating of 101.4. It must also be noted that three of the teams below them (Houston, OKC and Miami) rested players pretty regularly. So the Kings were at full strength in win-now mode and put up a diabolical offensive display. Part of the issue was that the offense reverted to one-step isolation stuff. In a key game vs the Dallas Mavericks, the Kings scored just 13 points in the fourth quarter. This can be put down to being cold in some cases but in this particular instance it was just bad offense, as showcased below.

The Kings default to a pick-and-roll with basic spacing. Bogdanovic attacks downhill and takes a contested fadeaway with his left hand. Note how Bjelica and Cory Joseph get in each other’s way on the weak side. This is an easy action to defend because there’s no real organisation or movement on the perimeter. The Mavericks are able to swarm the paint because the spacing is basic and easy to defend. The Kings default to basic sets often down the stretch.

De’Aaron Fox suffers down the stretch, because the shots he is forced to take aren’t a good mesh for his game.

The Kings go again with a basic look. In the six minutes to finish this game they scored two points. Every possession was pretty similar. Fox gets the switch on the Pick-and-roll. Maxi Kleber is an excellent defender so Fox ends up with a pull-up mid-range jumper. Simplified offenses down the stretch are common but Fox isn’t an elite pull up jumper shooter right now so the offense has to be more regimented and set play based. Shots like this are not his strength. Five-out looks with him driving to the paint are acceptable but these are bland and wasted possessions.

De’Aaron Fox has a unique skillset that takes creativity to optimise. Luke Walton’s idea of a point guard seems to be them making tough shots off the dribble. Sure, tough shot making is a core part of being a star scorer. Not many of Michael Jordan’s iconic shots were wide open jump shots. But making Fox have to continually shoot these is hurting his efficiency and providing a severe roadblock to his ceiling. The pull-up and step back threes with no action aren’t a particularly great way to optimise him. The Kings could try at least using a pitch play or having him attack on a hand-off from the corner to give him some kind of initial separation. Fox shot better on deeper threes than threes right on the three-point line which suggests he’s better at hitting shots in rhythm as opposed to isolating and going to work. The Kings scheme should explore this more often. It doesn’t have to be particularly complicated stuff either. In the clip below from the 18-19 season, the Kings have Hield flash across on an Iverson cut before Willie Cauley-Stein sets the screen and gives Fox a free pull-up jumper. Just this little bit of movement creates a nicer opportunity for Fox.

Bad: Spacing Principles

Freelance play requires well coached spacing and coordinated movements off the ball. With the exceptions of veterans such as Kent Bazemore who simply have this coached into them, there is a lack of movement and players clogging the lane.

This was an issue for Luke Walton’s staff at Los Angeles, as outlined in this video by SB Nation’s Silver Screen and Roll. Take the play from a game against the Chicago Bulls as an example.

It’s a drive and kick action from Bogdanovic to Fox. But look at how poor the spacing is. The left side of the floor is empty and when Bogdanovic goes to relocate, he finds two of his own team-mates standing next to each other. Spacing like this means this is a low quality for Fox who is already a patchy three-point shooter.

The disorganisation is clear from so many Kings possessions, such as on the one below.

In the middle of the shot clock you should be mid-way through an action or starting to get into your ‘wrinkles’. Which are how your offense responds when your first action breaks down. The Kings just default to Fox attacking downhill. Harrison Barnes cuts towards the middle of the floor before retreating. Harry Giles is stood under the rim. Bogdanovic and Barnes then get in each other’s way and Fox fires up a terrible shot. This team has no idea how to move without the ball.

The play above came in a game against the Magic where the Kings essentially signalled how hopeless they were. On this play, De’Aaron Fox posts up against DJ Augustin. But the timing of the player movement to optimise this is all over the place. Bjelica and Holmes are on top of each other. There is no kick option for Fox in his line of vision which means if he did want to reverse it to Harrison Barnes it’s relatively obvious what he would be doing and the defense would have more time to recover. Bogdanovic does recover to the three-point line but just because players are on the three-point line, doesn’t mean the situation equates to spacing. Players need to be spread apart at good distances or help defenders have a lot less ground to cover. And the movement towards the perimeter needs to be faster. It would be easy to suggest Fox could make a better decision but the Walton scheme makes the end results pretty likely due to poor movement and a sense that the Kings succumb to their fate in half-court offense.

The Kings also have poor habits of clearing out a side of the floor for isolations and post-ups. Clearing out one side of the floor is a good way to create lob plays. But it’s a poor and outdated way of running isolations and pick-and-rolls.

The Kings reverse the ball to Alex Len who hands off to Bogdanovic. He comes back the other way for a side pick-and-roll. Three players are close to each other on the opposite side of the floor. Watch how when Bogdanovic crosses over, there are five players inside the paint for the Mavericks. This is largely because any pass for Bogdanovic is difficult to make as players are far away from him and standing still. More movement from the perimeter shooters would open up driving lanes.

The Kings do the same for post-ups, like they do with Alex Len below.

When Len begins to take it to the rim, there are three defenders near him. As noted before, this spacing is easy to defend because there’s little distance between the players which means defenders can feasibly be responsible for two players at once. Len misses the shot and the Rockets run in transition. What concerns me deeply is that this was the first play of the game. Most teams will design a creative play designed to smart strong. It’s feasible that an Alex Len clearout post-up was the design of the Kings staff, which is concerning.

On the whole, the Kings need to make a coaching change quickly. Giving coaches time is fine in the right situations but Walton has coached four years in the NBA and his offense is under-coached and lacking in creativity. It holds the Kings back and De’Aaron Fox regressed massively because the threes he was taking were low in quality. The Kings offense is easy to play against. What makes it more frustrating is at times they do run some nice actions and set plays. But these appear to be randomly sprinkled into the gameplan and not revisited enough. This is a basic four-out-one-in spacing scheme with very little creativity and they lose discipline and end up taking poor shots on way too many possessions. Dave Joerger wasn’t perfect, but the difference between he and Walton’s scheme were night and day.

2 thoughts

  1. Amazing article! Thank you!! As a Kings fan, I never thought someone would put so much thought into the team.

  2. Great article! Your analysis put into words what I saw with the kings this season. They lacked the extra movement and pace that they had under Dave. Dave wasn’t perfect but he adapted to his players, where Luke try’s to jam his system no matter how badly it fails.

    I don’t understand Luke’s thinking of keeping a slow pace when you have arguably the fastest player in the league and trying to make one of the best spot shooters in Hield a ballhandler and creater… If Luke doesn’t adapt to his players strengths, he’ll be fired by All-Star break especially with Vlade gone.

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