Sacramento Kings

Bombs Away!: Luke Walton puts Kings on path to become a top 3-point shooting team

The late Cotton Fitzsimmons coached the Kings back in Kansas City when the NBA introduced the 3-point shot in 1979. Those Kings didn’t exactly light it up from outside. They only made 25 3-pointers all season, shooting 21.9 percent on an unenthusiastic 1.4 attempts per game from that faraway land.

Today’s NBA is different. James Harden makes 3s while doing the Running Man, Stephen Curry hits them from the hallway and most modern NBA offenses have weaponized the 3-point shot. The Houston Rockets set a record with 26 3-point goals in a single game last season, more than Cotton’s Kings made from October of 1979 to March of 1980.

Forty years have passed. Three-point shooting has changed.

“Not only has it changed,” Kings coach Luke Walton said. “It’s changed the game.”

Three-pointers change the game

Basketball has evolved, and, now, as they prepare for Wednesday’s season opener against the Phoenix Suns, so have these Kings. During a team dinner before training camp began, Walton shared some team goals with his players as they prepared for their first season together. He said he wants them to average 35 3-point attempts per game, a number that puts them on a path to become one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the league.

“As you join a new team, you look at what their strengths were,” Walton said. “Three-point shooting was a strength for them, so we not only want to shoot a lot of 3s, but we have a number we’re trying to hit that we feel will give us an advantage to win games.”

The Kings were fourth in the NBA in 3-point shooting at 37.8 percent last season under former coach Dave Joerger, but they were 20th in 3-point attempts, averaging 29.9 per game. If they had attempted 35 3-pointers per game at the same rate last season, they would have been sixth in the NBA with 2,870 3-point attempts and fourth with 1,085 3-point goals behind only the Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors.

“Just seeing the numbers that we had, up there in percentage but not up there in attempts, we feel like we should shoot more 3s,” Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox said.

The Kings have one of the game’s great 3-point shooters in guard Buddy Hield, who just agreed to a four-year, $86 million contract extension with the team. Hield shot 42.7 percent on 7.9 attempts per game last season, breaking the team’s single-season record for 3-point goals and becoming the first player in league history to make 600 3-pointers over his first three seasons.

Hield was asked during training camp how he felt about Walton’s plan to shoot more 3s.

“You already know how I feel about that,” Hield said. “There’s no question. Whenever he wants me to shoot, I’ll shoot.”

Barnes, Bjelica, Fox and more options

Harrison Barnes (.408), Nemanja Bjelica (.401), Fox (.371), Yogi Ferrell (.362) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (.360) are all dangerous 3-point shooters as well. Marvin Bagley III struggled early in the season but shot 39 percent from long distance after the All-Star break.

The Kings added to their stable of bombers over the summer when they replaced center Willie Cauley-Stein with Dewayne Dedmon, who signed a three-year, $40 million contract. Dedmon took 358 3-point shots over the past two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, shooting 38.2 percent in 2018-19. Cauley-Stein only made four 3-pointers four seasons with the Kings.

“We really value shooting around here and (Dedmon) is a 5 man who can shoot the ball,” Walton said.

Dedmon will stretch defenses even further in Sacramento’s run-and-gun offense, providing additional spacing for Fox to penetrate and Bagley to operate in the post. Joerger opted to start Bjelica instead of Bagley last season because he wanted a big man who could spread the floor next to Cauley-Stein. With Dedmon starting at center now, Bagley can be unleashed.

“(Dedmon) is somebody that can shoot, spread it out, space the floor for attacking and getting to the rack to create some stuff for my team,” Bagley said. “It’s great to have a guy like Dewayne to play alongside.”

Legendary Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach couldn’t have envisioned the stretch 5 when the 3-point shot was introduced 40 years ago. Coaches and journalists considered it a gimmick.

“It may change our game at the end of quarters,” then-Phoenix Suns coach John MacLeod told the New York Times in 1979. “But I’m not going to set up plays for guys to bomb from 23 feet. I think that’s very boring basketball.”

Twenty-three feet? Way out there? Who would watch that?

NBA teams averaged 2.8 3-point attempts per game during that first season. That number gradually increased to 13.2 over the next two decades, but it was only over the past few years that it soared to an all-time high of 32 3-point attempts per game in 2018-19.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni have played defining roles in changing the way the game is played. Walton worked as an assistant on Kerr’s staff and served as interim head coach in 2015-16, the year Golden State became the first team in NBA history to make 1,000 3-pointers in a season. Seven other teams have joined that club since then as the game continues to evolve, and this season, under Walton, the Kings could join them.

The game has changed. This team has changed, too.

“We paid a center who shot 38 percent from 3 last year,” Walton said. “You’ve got Houston, I think, averaged 45 3s a game last year, so it changes the way you play defense, it changes coverages, it changes what type of personnel you’re going after. You’ve got a lot of teams switching everything (on defense) now because you can’t play the traditional drop coverages that you would play before when big men couldn’t shoot the ball, so, yeah, it’s changed everything on both ends of the floor.”

Kings at Phoenix Suns

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

TV: NBC Sports California

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Jason Anderson is an award-winning sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee. He started his journalism career at The Bee more than 20 years ago and returned to cover the Sacramento Kings in September 2018.