clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kings of the Dribble Handoff

Inside the play powering the most efficient offense in NBA history

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The fulcrum for the most efficient offense in NBA history crossed an unprecedented milestone last Friday, and just about nobody noticed.

The Sacramento Kings were trailing in the third quarter in a key matchup against the Phoenix Suns, and Domantas Sabonis held the ball on the left side, just beyond the 3-point arc. Kevin Huerter curled around Sabonis, who placed the ball right up against his teammate’s belly, while Suns defenders Chris Paul and Bismack Biyombo bumped into each other in their frantic attempt to snuff out the Kings’ pet play. That confusion gave Huerter just enough space to hop to his left, rise, and splash a 3-pointer from 25 feet away.

That sequence didn’t involve an especially daring dribble or highlight pass. It wasn’t unique, either: Huerter made five 3-pointers in the Kings’ second-half comeback against Phoenix, as Sacramento effectively secured both the Pacific Division title and a top-three playoff seed, and four of them were precipitated by a Sabonis handoff.

But this play is notable because it was Sabonis’s 1,000th dribble handoff of the season. In the decade since Second Spectrum started tracking every action of every NBA game, no other player has exceeded 858 dribble handoffs (Nikola Jokic in 2018-19). This season, no other player has even 40 percent of Sabonis’s total.

The Kings are on the verge of clinching their first playoff spot since 2006, and they’ve reached this threshold because of an offense that scores 118.9 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in league history. The play that powers their unprecedentedly prolific offense is one that Sacramento exploits more often and more effectively than any other team in the NBA.

“That’s our whole offense,” Huerter said earlier this month in Chicago. “We have a lot of movement, we have counters to everything … but the handoff has been effective all year.”

Examine the above graph again, and notice that Sabonis isn’t the only King near the top of the DHO leaderboard this season. It’s a teamwide effort, with guards De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell (and, to a lesser extent, backup big man Chimezie Metu) getting in on the action, too. Overall, the Kings set dribble handoffs nearly twice as often as any other team, with near league-best efficiency on the action.

But Sabonis is the tip of Sacramento’s spear. He and Huerter form the most frequent DHO duo in any season in Second Spectrum’s database, and hilariously, five of the top six pairings this season all involve Sabonis.

Most Frequent Dribble Handoff Combinations

Setter Receiver Handoffs
Setter Receiver Handoffs
Domantas Sabonis Kevin Huerter 323
Domantas Sabonis Malik Monk 178
Jalen Brunson RJ Barrett 150
Domantas Sabonis Keegan Murray 141
Domantas Sabonis Harrison Barnes 126
Domantas Sabonis De'Aaron Fox 123

Or, to put Sabonis’s DHO dominance another way: There have been 34 games this season in which a single player set at least 15 dribble handoffs, and Sabonis has 33 of them. (The other, inexplicably, is Orlando’s Moritz Wagner, with exactly 15 against the Bucks in December.)

The Kings didn’t immediately adopt this strategy when Sabonis arrived in a trade midway through last season. His handoff rate barely budged after his trade from Indiana (13.6 DHOs per 100 possessions) to Sacramento (13.9). But over the summer, the Kings hired Mike Brown—now the Coach of the Year front-runner—and added shooters Huerter and Malik Monk, and Sabonis’s DHO frequency increased by more than 40 percent.

For Brown, the idea to run the offense through Sabonis in this fashion reflects a desire to adapt to his best players’ strengths—a lesson he learned while coaching some of the sport’s brightest stars this century.

“I’ve been thinking this way ever since I got an opportunity to be a head coach, even back in my days when I coached in Cleveland with LeBron,” Brown said. “You know, you put him at the top of the floor and play Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall and play spread pick-and-roll. Everybody would say, ‘Post him up! Get him off the ball!’ but that’s his strength; his strength is with the ball at the top of the floor. And so we try to do that with our best players, which is obviously Domas and Fox.”

Brown’s model for Sabonis extends beyond LeBron. Surrounding the Sacramento center with lots of shooting—the Kings rank fifth in 3-point makes and eighth in 3-point percentage—allows him to mimic another future Hall of Famer whom Brown, a Warriors assistant for six years, saw up close.

“Keep the floor spaced,” Brown summarized, “and let your big playmaker, similar to Draymond Green in Golden State, [play] the DHO game.”

It’s not as if the dribble handoff is some magical offensive play that the Kings discovered. Leaguewide, it’s about as effective on a per-possession basis as any other half-court action.

Leaguewide Offensive Efficiency for Different Play Types

Action Frequency Per 100 Possessions Points Per Chance
Action Frequency Per 100 Possessions Points Per Chance
All Half-Court Possessions n/a 0.99
Pick 51.8 0.98
Isolation 17.1 1.00
Dribble Handoff 12.9 0.98
Slipped Screen 9.6 0.97
Handback 7.6 0.99
Rejected Screen 7.3 1.01
Post 5.6 1.04
Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data. This data is more for illustrative summary purposes than close analysis, as many possessions involve multiple actions.

But the DHO maximizes Sabonis’s skills as both a passer and screener, just as spreading the floor for isolations optimized LeBron’s talents 15 years ago.

In his first full season in Sacramento, Sabonis is averaging a career-high, and Draymond-esque, 7.2 assists per game. He will become just the third center in NBA history, joining Jokic and Wilt Chamberlain, to average so many assists in a season.

Sabonis has also always been a stellar screen setter. He makes contact with 77 percent of his picks after a handoff, per Second Spectrum, which ranks second among 90 players with at least 100 DHOs this season. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is first at 79 percent.) His 5.7 screen assists per game lead the league.

Asked what makes the Kings’ handoff actions so effective, Monk was direct with his answer: “Domas, man. Domas just being unselfish. Him not wanting to score the ball the whole time. … He just sets great screens, man, and we get open, and we just do what we do—and that’s knock shots down.”

The expansion of Sabonis’s DHO game comes as he finally finds himself in the optimal role, with the right players who fit around him. Fox is an All-NBA candidate and a shoo-in to win the league’s inaugural Clutch Player of the Year award; the two southpaws hummed down the stretch last season and continued in 2022-23.

And it’s no coincidence that the Kings took off as soon as they acquired Monk, rookie Keegan Murray, and most of all Huerter. In his last two seasons in Atlanta, Huerter received 4.6 handoffs per 100 possessions. This season, that figure has nearly tripled to 12.1 handoffs per 100 possessions, and he’s averaging a career-high 15 points per game on 41 percent shooting from distance.

Sabonis has assisted on 80 of Huerter’s 3-pointers this season, the second-highest mark for any combination in the league. Sabonis to Murray ranks third. (Ironically, no. 1 is a pair of former Kings: Tyrese Haliburton to Buddy Hield, both traded for Sabonis.)

“They’ve got very very good cutters and movers,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said during the Kings’ trip to Chicago. “Monk moves really well off the ball, Huerter moves well off the ball, Fox moves well off the ball, [Harrison] Barnes moves well off the ball. And Domas has got very, very good vision, so he can make those kinds of reads and those plays, but I don’t think it works effectively if you [don’t] have a lot of guys that are willing to move and cut the way they do.”

Donovan was Sabonis’s coach during the latter’s rookie season in Oklahoma City, and he saw up close what his former player can do during the Kings’ recent win in Chicago. Constant DHOs helped Sabonis record his second triple-double in two games against the Bulls this season.

The first read for Sacramento’s standard DHO is simple: It can free Huerter for an open 3, with Sabonis’s body blocking off the defender.

The Kings also use off-ball actions to open up space even before the handoff commences. On this play, Murray sets a screen on Huerter’s defender, springing the knockdown shooter for an even more wide-open 3 than normal.

Huerter is also a good passer on the move, and he can find teammates for better looks when the defense ruptures in its scramble to respond to the two-man DHO.

Or he and Sabonis can morph a DHO into a quick-hitting, balletic pick-and-roll.

Moving, cutting, and spacing the floor around a central creator is part of Brown’s vision for how to succeed in the modern NBA. For a coach best known for stout defenses, Brown’s team is much better on offense this season—but he’s adapted along with the sport. Many of the Kings’ offensive principles stem from what Brown taught the Nigerian national team leading up to the 2020 Olympics, he said: “It was a carryover from me thinking about what I would do if I got another opportunity” to be an NBA head coach.

Chimezie Metu, who is both the Kings’ backup center and a member of Brown’s Nigerian national team, said he also saw similarities between the two teams’ offensive plans. “The biggest thing that he was trying to get us to do was not to hold onto the ball, to keep it moving and pass and cut, and I think that’s worked really well for us this year,” Metu said.

Just about every available statistical measure demonstrates how the Sacramento offense has taken those principles to heart. The Kings rank fifth in passes per game and fourth in points off cuts. On half-court possessions (i.e., stripping out transition chances), they’re the fastest team to both cross half court and initiate the first offensive action, per Second Spectrum, which is crucial because starting the offense early correlates with more points.

The sheer variety of options in the Kings’ playbook—of moves and countermoves, feints and wrinkles—should also make their league-best offense harder to slow in the playoffs. The Kings aren’t the beautiful-game Hawks of the mid-2010s, who were undone by playoff scouting; Sacramento can also run pick-and-rolls, isolations, and post-ups with great efficiency. (Sabonis is an elite post presence, as my colleague Michael Pina explored earlier this season.)

Kings Offensive Efficiency by Play Type

Play Type Scoring Percentile
Play Type Scoring Percentile
Isolation 100th
Dribble Handoff 93rd
Pick 93rd
Post 93rd
Rejected Screen 83rd

The handoff, in other words, is only one (important) part of the Kings’ offensive arsenal. “You can scout against it, but ... we run a lot of different actions that, if something doesn’t work, go to something else,” Fox said. “Or if something does work, continue to run that.”

The Kings’ new, flourishing ecosystem hasn’t just improved the team’s fortunes. It has also allowed Sabonis to expand his individual game. To be fair, he had already been voted to two All-Star teams before arriving in Sacramento, but he’s now enjoying his best season by basically every stat other than points per game, and seems like a lock to receive his first All-NBA nod.

Until now, Sabonis had never found an opportunity to stretch his entire skill set with a full complement of supporting players who made sense alongside a ballhandling center without a reliable 3-point shot. In Indiana, he often played in awkward two-center lineups with Myles Turner; before that, he was an ill-suited stretch 4 and supporting character in the Russell Westbrook show during the point guard’s MVP season in Oklahoma City.

“It was a tough role for him,” Donovan said when asked about Sabonis’s rookie season. “We were so dominant in the front court in terms of size. We had Enes Kanter, we had Steven Adams, we had Taj Gibson. … Domas became really a floor spacer for us.”

During Sabonis’s rookie season, a third of his shot attempts were 3-pointers; this season, fewer than one-tenth are. But in the other direction, his screen assists have increased from 1.1 per game as a rookie to 5.7 now, and his DHO frequency has multiplied threefold.

The Kings version of Sabonis is the hub of his team’s offense, and every game he displays his creativity as a passer, with subtle nuances that elevate his handoffs in both aesthetics and effectiveness. For instance, many bigs who execute DHOs literally hand the ball to their teammates. Sabonis, however, often bounces his handoffs, like an extension of his dribble, to give his targets a running start and an extra step on the defense.

Other times, he’ll engage in a bit of razzle-dazzle, with a handoff behind his back or between his legs.

Or, in his most devious twist, when Sabonis catches his defender leaning to take away the handoff, he’ll instead abort the action and just drive the lane himself. In addition to actual handoffs, Sabonis also leads the league in fake handoffs, per Second Spectrum, and the Kings score 1.12 points per chance off these “quarterback keepers”—a top-five mark for high-usage players.

Sabonis’s growth on the court parallels his maturation as a team leader off it. Last summer, he invited a group of about 10 teammates to his home in Napa Valley, where they ate meals and watched the NBA Finals together, and that chemistry has carried over to Kings games. “When you have that type of connectivity,” Brown said, “maybe that backdoor cut that you made, maybe that was felt by the other guy just a little bit more.”

The Kings hope all their small advantages carry over to the playoffs, too, because they will likely look like underdogs despite their lofty seed. A 25th-ranked defense—the worst for any team with a winning record—is a legitimate reason for concern, and they might face opponents with more big-game experience and more household stars.

Yet those opponents will have to slow the Kings on the other end, and that’s easier said than done because Sacramento’s DHOs provide such a unique approach and high-octane offensive output. The Kings can always go to 176-175 if they need to.

Of course, regardless of what happens in the playoffs this spring, Sacramento’s season is already a resounding success. Snapping a 16-year playoff drought is sufficient. But the Kings haven’t merely sneaked into the postseason field; they’ve done so with verve and excitement and whirring cuts and open 3s. For the Kings and their fans, the dribble handoff is a fitting embodiment of, and reason for, their triumph: It offers an exhilarating marriage of specially skilled players and a specially suited style to match.

Stats are current through Monday’s games.