Ever since DeMarcus Cousins was traded the Sacramento Kings have struggled to get to the line consistently. In the 2017-18 season, the first full season without Cousins, the Kings had the worst free throw attempt rate in NBA history at 14.3% and shot only 16.7 attempts a game. In the ensuing seasons, the Kings got slightly better, but were still among the bottom of the NBA.
That’s changed dramatically this season, as Sacramento currently leads the league in Free Throw Attempts per game (28.0) and is 3rd overall in Free Throw Rate (22.9%). Through 11 games, Houston is the only opponent the Kings have faced that has managed to get to the line more than them.
What caused such a dramatic shift?
We asked head coach Luke Walton prior to Saturday’s game against the Toronto Raptors about the team’s mentality when it comes to getting to the line.
"Attacking. We want to be in attack mindset all the time. That's a top priority and we like three pointers that come out of that, that come from attacking the rim and getting to the foul line and making teams rotate (...) we're very pleased with the aggression that we are attacking the rim with."
That attack mentality that Walton mentioned has definitely shown up in more than just the team’s free throw rate. The Kings are currently 2nd in the NBA in points in the paint as well at 53.8 a game. Only the Indiana Pacers have been better.
The whole team also seems to be buying in, as this isn’t a situation in which the Kings have one dominant player who gets to the line a ton a la Giannia Antetokounmpo or James Harden. De’Aaron Fox leads the Kings in attempts at 6.2 a game, which is good enough for 16th in the league. Next comes Harrison Barnes at 4.8 attempts and Marvin Bagley at 3.4 attempts. No other player on the team is above three attempts a game. For both Fox and Bagley, that’s right in line with what they’ve done historically, as both players do their best work around the rim.
Barnes on the other hand has transformed his game since coming to Sacramento. Gone are the mid-range shots and fadeaways, and he’s also gotten more selective with his threes as well. About 63.8% of his total attempts this season have come within 10 feet of the basket. In his final 49 games with the Dallas Mavericks, only 39.2% of his attempts were within 10 feet.
That increased time spent around the basket has led to a career-high free throw rate and overall efficiency, perhaps best showcased in his most recent performance against the Indiana Pacers in which he led the team in scoring with 30 points, including 8 of 8 from the line. Just take a look at his shot chart from the game. Aside from his few three point attempts, every shot came in the paint.
For as much as the Kings get to the line, they still need to work on their accuracy, as they’re only 26th in overall Free Throw Percentage at just 72.1%. Both Fox (70.6%) and Bagley (59.5%) in particular drag that percentage down due to their higher rate of attempts. Still, the more opportunities the better. The average NBA team scores 1.101 points per possession this season. Even shooting at just that 72.1% rate equals out to 1.442 points per possession when the Kings manage to get to the line for two attempts.
It’s a welcome change for the once free throw averse Kings, and a big reason why Sacramento has been able to beat some good teams early on in the season. There’s a lot of other areas that still need improvement (particularly on defense), but this was a big weakness that has suddenly turned into a strength.