Only James Harden and Damian Lillard took more 3-point attempts per game in 2019-20 than Sacramento Kings sniper Buddy Hield. He shot a higher percentage from deep (39.4%) than Trae Young (36.1%), Bradley Beal (35.3%), Zach LaVine (38.0%) and Harden (35.5%). Only three players in NBA history have multiple seasons with over 270 3-point makes: Stephen Curry, Harden and Hield.
Hield, who will be 28-years-old in December, inked a 4-year extension with the Kings last October that will pay him until he's 31. The Kings front office certainly recognized the blistering pace Hield was setting as a shooter and the elite level of his play. But their coaching staff acts differently.
First-year head coach Luke Walton moved Hield to the bench on January 22nd, where he resided for the final 28 games of their season. It's hard to argue with the results: the Kings were 16-12 with their starting lineup, and Hield still hoisted 9.1 treys a game, making an absurd 45.1 percent of them. But Hield's minutes plummeted after January 22nd, down from 34.4 to 25.1.
The Bahamian sharpshooter has been openly disgruntled with this role in Sacramento and the demotion to the second unit. Issues with Walton aren't the first for Buddy; he clashed with prior coach Dave Joerger, reportedly about Hield's attention to detail on defense and his recall of important scouting points.
Herein lies the dilemma for the Kings. Hield is an elite shooter, a valuable commodity in the modern NBA and next to their franchise player, De'Aaron Fox. They've committed a near-max salary to him, but haven't committed a role in their starting (or finishing) groups on the floor. His skillset next to Fox is only valuable if they'll share the floor for meaningful minutes.
The cognitive dissonance is great here. The Kings are wishy-washy about when to play Hield and how to keep him satisfied, but Walton's offense seemed specifically catered to letting Buddy serve as the focal point in much of what they did.
Hield is an outspoken shooter who has been publicly critical of the organization he's employed by. Last October, he told reporters in the locker room that free agents don't come to Sacramento (accurate, but still a sting within the context). But a rival executive doesn't seem to think Hield's public unhappiness and pettiness to be pressuring the Kings to make a move.
“I think it makes a lot of sense, them trying to move him, start with a clean slate, they were better without him in the starting five, all of that. The logic is there. But there does not seem to be a lot of action there, not yet at least. It is not something where they seem to be shopping him very actively. Maybe it would be better to wait, to see how the season starts, but I don’t get the sense that they’re out there really laying the groundwork for a deal. They’re just not yet shopping him.” - Anonymous general manager to Forbes Sean Deveney
Yes, the Kings were better with Hield on the bench, but they need to be realistic about what they'd be like completely without him. Buddy wasn't just 20 points a night and unbelievable sharpshooting, he was the focal point of many of their offensive sets and the way they wanted to play.
The Kings' franchise player is undoubtedly De'Aaron Fox. Entering his fourth season, Fox averaged an impressive 21.1 points and 6.8 assists last year and averaged 24.5 points after the All-Star break. Fox's best attribute is his speed; he's blistering in the open floor and weaves through traffic at will. Fox generated 8.9 points per game in transition, through both scoring and assisting.
That raw speed automatically forces defenses to retreat, sinking deep into the lane and building a wall so Fox cannot get to the rim. That opens up semi-transition reads and actions for shooters like Hield to read. Screeners can seek out Hield, knowing Fox's push will take care of their man. Buddy gets so many open looks based off who Fox is.
De'Aaron does a great job of directing traffic and instructing teammates to set those brush screens for Hield in semi-transition:
Walton's pedigree as a coach is heavily shaped by his time playing for Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers and coaching under Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors. Learning from two NBA Champion coaches, Walton's experienced success on ball movement-heavy teams who run more concepts than actions, teaching read-and-react as much as memorization of patterns.
One such concept constant in both Jackson and Kerr's playbooks has been movement for shooters while the ball goes into the post. In Golden State, the Warriors rarely ran post-ups to score one-on-one on the block, but to create a unique angle at which shooters could cut off screens above the level of the ball. Having Kevin Durant, David Lee, David West or Shaun Livingston as scoring threats helped suck in the defense, and two elite shooters like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson maxed out the action in terms of creating gravity.
Walton once again weaponized this concept for Hield within multiple sets and actions. While the Kings don't have many back-to-basket threats, they would design movement around pinch post entries to send Hield wrapping around screens to the ball-side wing for shots. He made a killing here all season:
Any of these actions, and all these post-based concepts, are ineffective without a credible threat like Hield. With two of the top eleven single-season 3-point totals of all-time under his belt, Hield can't really get more credible than he already is. Teammates sought out Hield on screens and would read the concepts based on where he was.
Walton's coaching style is not just concept-based and motion-centric. He's run plenty of set plays and specific actions to get players into their sweetspots. Hield, a deadly shooter off screens, is often the recipient of these sets.
It's easy to see why the Kings adored Hield and how much they've valued him. The statistics speak volumes about his production, and the playbook is boisterous about its emphasis on getting him shots. These Kings, despite being better once they made the adjustment of sliding Hield to the bench, are likely not in a position to pay $24 million a year to a sixth man that plays 25 minutes a night and be able to fill out their roster elsewhere to make a playoff push.
Hield has made it known he's not happy in his reduced role, going as far as not responding to any interactions from Walton. They've committed money to him and an offense built around him, more than most folks even realize.
The next-biggest factor in this equation is the man the Kings started over Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent, certain to command a large sum on the market. After moving into the lineup, he put up averages of 15.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He turned down a four-year, $51.4 million deal before the season (wisely so) and now some experts anticipate he'd earn up to $15 million a year.
The Kings have the right to match any deal he inks as a restricted free agent, and Bogdanovic knows this. If he hopes for new destinations and doesn't like what's on the market, he could come back under his qualifying offer, then walk next summer as an unrestricted free agent. The cap crunch and lack of clarity around spending power for new teams gives the Kings a distinct advantage to keeping Bogdanovic. If ownership is willing to spend into the tax to keep him, he's likely back in Sacramento regardless.
There's considerable downside to ponying up and paying Bogdanovic. The Kings must keep cap space available for an impending extension of Fox, the team's best player who is in the final year of his rookie deal. Expecting a near-max for Fox, the 2021 Kings have $32.8 million committed to Harrison Barnes and Cory Joseph, upwards of $22 million to Hield and could owe $28 million to Fox. That's just shy of $90 million to four players, not counting Bogdanovic, or the $11.3 million player option belonging to Marvin Bagley III.
That's the quandary in front of Monte McNair as he takes over this Kings front office. As a small market team, they can't let Bogdanovic walk out the door for nothing, especially if the relationship with Hield is rocky. But retaining him means a lot of money spent on a nucleus that has yet to prove playoff-worthy. It also likely makes smoothing over the relationship with Hield that more difficult, as it likely keeps him in a bench role.
Moving on from Hield isn't a great option, either. Leverage isn't on the Kings side, so it's hard to expect a boon of a return with over $90 million locked into him over the next four years. Their playbook is also inexplicably linked to Hield's presence and, unless they find a replacement for him elsewhere, I fear this Kings offense sputters.
Pressure is on McNair right away to navigate these waters and guide the franchise to safe shores. One thing is clear the more Sacramento Kings film I watch: Hield is as vital a part to this team as anyone outside of De'Aaron Fox. To undervalue him, regardless of his tensions with coaches and slip-ups on the other end, would be to takeaway the best partner their franchise point guard could find.
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Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).