Everyone around the NBA-sphere is familiar with the KANGZ! Memes that seem to plague Kings’ fandom. Every free agency move is met with dismissal, every draft selection with ostracism. While some of the criticism is warranted (I am not ready to talk about Bagley vs. Luka yet, but it feels like this might go on the list even though Bagley has been solid), the Kings have made a few sneaky acquisitions to help this young core turn the corner and remain firmly in the playoff hunt through December.
This summer the franchise added a highly valuable piece at the last minute in one of the league’s strangest situations, signing Nemanja Bjelica to a three-year, $20.5 million dollar contract when he had just de-committed from the Philadelphia 76ers to return to Europe. And the move has paid off in spades. Belly has become the fulcrum of one of the league’s most fast-paced, high-impact offenses.
This season the Kings are rated thirteenth in offensive rating, eleventh in assist-to-turnover ratio, sixth in assists per game, eighth in true shooting, and second in pace. The turnaround from last season has been remarkable. Over the past three games (not including the SEGABABA schedule loss where the starters sat most of the night), they have scored 141, 125, and 120, all against competitive Western Conference foe, including the defending champs.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Sacramento is five points better on offense when Bjelica is on the floor (75th percentile), shoot 5.5 percent better (96th percentile), and has a better assist percentage.
So why does the ball flow better with Bjelica in the lineup?
Among his many contributions to the evolving offense, he has one HUGE but largely unquantifiable contribution: Spacing.
Last season, Zach Randolph and Skal Labissiere soaked up a majority of the minutes at the four. Clogged lanes and limited three-point shooting are a nightmare for a rookie point guard whose offensive game is predicated on breaking down defenders off the dribble. But this season, the addition of Bjelica (as well as the continued evolution of Buddy Hield) has opened up the floor for De’Aaron Fox, making him look like a totally different player than last season.
On this play, Fox uses a side pick-and-roll to penetrate to the second level of the defense causing DeAndre Jordan to have to drop to contain penetration. Drop coverage slides the responsibility of tagging the roller on to the help side defender, in this case, Luka Doncic. Once Fox sees Doncic commit, he feeds Bjelica for an absolutely wide open three-pointer. Playing a four without three-point range means he would be in the position to shoot a midrange jumper or dive to the glass, giving Doncic the option to contest on either player effectively, but because Bjelica is 26 feet from the basket, the defender has to choose to give up a two-foot lob or a three-pointer.
Or sometimes it works in reverse where Belly’s gravity frees up others. Watch here as Fox settles into an uncontested three:
Ignoring for a second that the Cleveland defense is a total dumpster fire (literally, no one guards Fox after the primary action. Cedi Osman looked like he was playing hedge and recover, Collin Sexton switched, and Larry Nance is caught in the ultimate no man’s land doubling the roller with tag help behind him), the Cavs can’t overcommit to guarding Fox because Bjelica is a dangerous three-point shooter (48.5 percent, third in the league among players who shoot more than three per game) as well as a quality passer (two assists per game in a low usage role).
He uses that same gravity to create for teammates inside (definitely aided here by the fact Bogdanovic, Fox, and Hield are all dangerous shooters in their own right, precluding the possibility of a double):
While he isn’t a flashy passer, he is certainly a high IQ player who knows the ins and outs of the Kings offense, finding Bogdanovic on a quick post up against rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander:
Defenders are so afraid of his ability to knock down shots beyond the arc, they can’t leave him to hedge and help. His simple presence provides lanes which wouldn’t be available to slashers. Maxi Kleber (a high IQ defender) is frozen in place while Fox dashes to the rim with Jalen Brunson on his back hip:
While many pundits will spend the season talking about De’Aaron Fox’s improvement (a legitimate topic for a rare second-year player who warrants Most Improved Player talks), the addition of Bjelica might be the thing which has spurred this offensive turnaround. The spacing he provides is hard to quantify but easy to see. And because of what he brings to the table, the Kings have put together a positively modern offense, centered around slash-and-kick sets and quality three-point shooting.
NBA fans don’t want to give Vlade Divac too much credit, but convincing Belly to stay in the NBA was one of the most potent offseason moves which for this young team, has paid off dividends.