Entering Sunday, 29 of the NBA’s 30 teams were averaging at least 20 assists a game.
The only team below that mark was the Kings at 19.4.
This isn’t new for Sacramento. The Kings were last in assists last season and haven’t finished better than 20th since the 2005-06 season, when they were fifth.
Cultivating a passing culture hasn’t been easy. Kings rosters in recent seasons tended to have players who excelled at getting their own shot rather than setting up others. Those players were reluctant passers, giving up the ball as a last resort when they couldn’t find space for their own shot.
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“I don’t want to break the news to you, but breaking habits in the NBA takes a year,” Kings coach George Karl said. “I’m asking for at least a year.”
The Kings were a little better at playmaking Sunday in their 110-99 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at Sleep Train Arena.
Andre Miller had 10 assists off the bench, the first time a King had at least 10 assists since Darren Collison had 10 on Dec. 27 in an overtime win over New York. It was just the fourth time this season the Kings had a player with double-digit assists. Collison also had games with 12 and 11 assists.
The Kings finished with 24 assists, the third time in five games under Karl they have had at least 24.
“I think right now you just want to make the passing contagious, let it filter out to everybody else,” Miller said. “This is an unselfish team. It’s just that we kind of fall into playing on one side of the court. I think the uptempo style is going to force everybody to be involved.”
Karl wants more passing from his point guards, Miller and Ray McCallum, who is starting in place of Collison, who is injured. Center DeMarcus Cousins, one of the Kings’ better passers, missed his second consecutive game because of a sprained left ankle.
Regardless of who is in the lineup, Karl wants to see the ball move to help the Kings develop the pace and rhythm he likes.
While the assist totals have been good in three games, the Kings had only 15 and 18 assists in the other two games under Karl.
“I have no idea (why), but we’re not making simple basketball flow plays enough,” Karl said. “We have our moments. We have that six-, seven-minute spurt of ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ But we don’t sustain it enough.
“When Memphis turns up the heat, when San Antonio turns up the heat, we kind of go back to a brand of basketball – I call it muddy. It looks like we’re playing in mud and there’s stickum on the ball.”
McCallum said getting more passing into the Kings’ offense is his job. He’s learning Karl’s offense while getting tips from Miller.
“It’s on the point guard. It’s what I’ve got to do,’ McCallum said. “I’ve got to get my guys involved. I’ve got to get my guys easy shots.
“We’ve got a lot of scorers on this team on the offensive end, so put them in the best position to make a play. I’ve got a lot of help around me, so it makes my job a lot easier.”
Karl said the Kings’ lack of assists at times isn’t just about missed shots. Bad passing that leads to turnovers has been a problem, too.
The Kings had only 13 turnovers Sunday. But they couldn’t slow down Damian Lillard (31 points, seven assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (26 points, 15 rebounds) as the Blazers shot 49.4 percent, including 41.7 percent (10 for 24) from three-point range.
Miller, who played for Karl in Denver, said the coach is more patient than he’s been in the past as he learns the Kings’ personnel. But it didn’t long for Karl to know the Kings must become a better passing team.
“I’ve told them I think everyone on this team has to be a better passer,” Karl said. “Our big guys have got to be better; our guards have got to be better; our point guards have to be better. Everyone’s got to ugprade their respect of the pass.”
Check back with Karl in a year to see how things are going.