Can Sacramento Kings' Marcus Thornton Break out of Serious Slump?

Sim Risso@@SimRissoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

Since coming to the Sacramento Kings in a midseason trade during the 2010-11 season, Marcus Thornton, if nothing else, could be counted on the put the ball in the basket.

Regardless of his role, the guard was a consistent scorer. However, things have changed this season, as the Bayou Bomber's been mired in a season-long slump. Thornton averaged at least 19.1 points per 36 minutes during his first two-and-a-half seasons with the Kings. This year he's seen that number drop to a career-low 12.5 points per 36 minutes.

Points per 36 minutes with Kings

At only 26 years old and without any discernible injury, what could possibly be the explanation for his struggles? Perhaps more importantly, is there anything Thornton can do to reverse this trend and get his season back on track? 

The answer to the first one is relatively simple. Thornton's become way too reliant on the three-point shot to generate his offense. Not only is he struggling from downtown, but his dedication to the long ball has also caused regression in other areas of his game.

To be sure, Thornton's a solid three-point shooter. In fact, entering the season he could be characterized as slightly above average in this regard. Prior to 2013-14, the Bayou Bomber had hit 36.5 percent of his 1,242 three-point attempts. Considering the NBA average for three-point shots fell between 34.9 percent and 35.9 percent during that span, Thornton's 36.5 percent was slightly better than league average. 

However, this year Thornton's seen his three-point percentage drop all the way to 31.0 percent. The league average for 2013-14 sits at 35.7 percent. So not only has he dropped considerably from his prior 36.5 percent, but he's also fallen behind much of the rest of the NBA from three-point range.

But being a good three-point shooter isn't the be-all and end-all of a successful scorer in the NBA, even if that player is a perimeter scorer. So Thornton's struggles from downtown, while they might justify a bit of his drop in production, don't tell the whole story.

An even bigger factor is that he's become increasingly reliant on three-pointers. And when you're relying on an aspect of your game that's slumping, it'll tend to bog down everything else. Not that I'm breaking any news here or anything...

Before this season, Thornton could primarily be described as a scorer, not just a shooter. Sure, he shot plenty of three-pointers and jump shots, but he also created a lot of his opportunities off the dribble. In other words, he wasn't a Kyle Korver, not that there's anything wrong with that. But the difference between the two, other than the ability to create for oneself, is that Korver has hit 42.2 percent of his more than 3,000 three-point attempts.

Thornton hasn't become as reliant on three-point shots as someone like Korver, who has taken 67.4 percent of his field-goal attempts from downtown over the last three years. But he's increasingly made it part of his game, to the point where it's becoming a detriment.

On those first two-plus years with the Kings—the years where Thornton was most effective—39 percent of his field-goal attempts were from three-point range. This season that figure's increased all the way to 50.7 percent. That's right, more than half of his field-goal attempts are from downtown, of which he's only making 31 percent.

Percentage of Thornton's shots from three-point range

But not only is he struggling to make his three-pointers. Thornton's also seeing other areas of his game slip. Part of what made him so effective during his first years with the Kings was his all-around ability as a scorer. The guy was effective at getting to the hoop, getting to the free-throw line or shooting three-pointers when open.

With his struggles and reliance on threes, he's now ineffective in all those aspects.

Take a look at his shot charts and the problem will be highlighted. In 2010-11, 39.7 percent of his field-goal attempts came at the rim; only 29.7 percent came from downtown. The following season saw 41.8 percent of his attempts come at the rim; just 38.6 percent came from three-point range.

Over the past two seasons, Thornton's trended away from driving to the hoop. Last season saw 28.6 percent of his attempts come at the rim, and 49.0 percent came from long range. This year is even worse, as 27.3 percent have come at the hoop. The difference between the two years, as Thornton averaged 19.1 points per 36 minutes in 2012-13, is that he hit a career-high 37.2 percent of his three-pointers. He's had no such luck this season.

Naturally, a byproduct of his reluctance to drive to the hoop is a decrease in free-throw attempts. He's averaging a career-low .148 free throws per field-goal attempt. Considering Thornton's 83.3 percent from the charity stripe over his career, that's an aspect of his game he should utilize with more regularity.

But diagnosing the problem is only half the battle, and in a lot of respects, it's the easy half of it. The more difficult part is busting out of the slump. Whether or not he can do that depends on a variety of factors.

For one, Thornton simply might not have the same leeway within the offense that he had in previous years. It could be that head coach Mike Malone doesn't want him dribbling much and thus doesn't want him driving to the rack.

That may be the case, but if it were, the only way it would explain things is if last year's coach, Keith Smart, also had a similar edict. After all, it was last season when Thornton became three-point happy and quit taking the ball to the hoop.

It could also be that Thornton is simply unaware of this trend. Obviously he must know he's not playing up to his standards, especially as a shooter. But does he know the cause of a lot of those struggles is related to his shooting too many three-pointers? We simply don't know.

However, the easiest way for him to break out of his slump is to start putting the ball on the floor. It's not a coincidence that he was a more effective player when that was a bigger aspect of his game. He's still making 52.3 percent of his shots at the hoop. Maybe having some success there would give him some confidence. Maybe part of the explanation for his struggles from long range is a lack of confidence, and getting some of it back may help him find his stroke.

Beyond the confidence aspect, taking the ball to the hoop would also get him back to the free-throw line. Considering his effectiveness from the charity stripe, more free-throw attempts would equal more points for Thornton.

As for whether or not Malone and Smart discouraged Thornton from trying to score off the dribble, we'll never know the answer to that. But it's probably a safe bet that Malone would be more open to the idea if he knew it would help Thornton bust from his slump.

Because if there's one thing we've seen from Thornton, it's that he can be a dynamic player when things are going right. It would be in his and the Kings' best interests to get him back on track, and getting him back to driving to the hoop is the way for that to happen.  


Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference. All stats current through games played on Jan. 11.

You can follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso


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