• While the Kings began the 2018-19 season with plenty of exciting young players on their roster, expectations for the team were about as low as possible. That’s the reality for teams still in the early stages of developing a core, and despite owning the longest playoff drought in the NBA, the Kings are about as close to the beginning of the development process as a team could be.
    With that said, the team has started off well. After ranking at or near the bottom of the league in just about every measure of offensive or defensive aptitude last season, the Kings have shown a commitment to playing fast, and the offense has seemingly taken a few steps in the right direction.

    Defense, on the other hand, has been another story entirely. The team gave up a combined 272 points to the Jazz and the Pelicans, with more than a few stretches where the team just couldn’t get a stop. So, while the offense has been enticing, it would be fair to wonder how much these defensive results matter for a team so young that doesn’t truly expect to compete.

    The answer isn’t exactly straightforward. Some of their poor performance can be chalked up to it being a small sample. For these two matchups in particular, the Kings’ results are almost certainly biased by the fact that they have dealt with two teams well-suited to exploit their young bigs. According to NBA stats, the Kings currently rank in the 16th percentile guarding the ball handler in pick and roll situations and rank in the 0th percentile guarding the roll man.

    It’s easy to see why the Kings would struggle with these two teams. The Jazz have an abundance of athletic wings and guards that are crafty with ball screens, as well as an elite lob target and roll threat in Rudy Gobert. The Pelicans have an even more dangerous roll threat with Anthony Davis, along with plenty of highly skilled big men, and two great facilitators in Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday.

    Both teams did a great job of taking advantage of the Kings’ lack of experience as well. In the video below, you can see that Willie Cauley-Stein doesn’t come up and contain Joe Ingles after he comes around the screen set by Gobert, leaving him with a wide-open runner in the lane:

    Cauley-Stein, who has been much better this season in terms of defensive effort and awareness, does a good job of containing after that, but he still got burned by Ingles multiple times. In this next clip, you can see an improved reaction from Cauley-Stein, but he ultimately struggles to stop Favors from getting to the rim:

    The Kings’ younger frontcourt players have also contributed to the team’s defensive issues. Giles and Bagley have both played with an encouraging commitment to the defensive side of the ball, but the game does still seem to be slowing down for them. Giles didn’t play much in the first game, but he was given plenty of opportunity against the Pelicans. He was immediately tasked with guarding Davis when he came in off the bench, and understandably struggled. According to NBA stats, Giles defended Davis for 15 possessions, giving up 12 points on 4-of-4 shooting.

    Davis was able to get past Giles whenever he wanted, and off the ball he was sure to take advantage of any mistakes the rookie made. In the example below, you can see Giles get caught watching the ball for a split second in transition, leaving Davis wide-open for an alley oop:

    Bagley has been more encouraging through two games, but he’s certainly had his struggles. According to NBA stats, Bagley defended Nikola Mirotic for 32 possessions, giving up 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. While his energy and activity has led to some highlight-reel defensive plays, you can still see him adjusting to the speed of the game and the talent level in the NBA.

    To be fair, Bagley does a good job of containing Jrue Holiday, and I would also argue that Cauley-Stein should have been more decisive with his help defense, but ultimately Bagley should have gotten back to Mirotic earlier.

    Part of this can be attributed to the talent level of both teams, as well as the Kings’ lack of experience. For that reason, these numbers should get better as the team gains experience and plays against less talented teams. At the same time, as Hoop-Ball’s own Aaron Bruski pointed out on twitter, the Kings should focus on finding a talented interior defender:

    The team should hope that Bagley and Giles can develop into more effective defenders, but adding a more talented defender in the short-term would provide stability and facilitate their development.
    That Kings don’t have that type of player at the moment, but for now they’ll need to rely on Cauley-Stein to provide that stability. Nemanja Bjelica has helped when he’s on the court, but Cauley-Stein is the only player on the roster with the size, athleticism and experience to protect the rim.

    Acquiring a player of that ilk should be a priority to help with the frontcourt’s development, but that’ll be easier said than done. The Kings are going to go through stretches where they struggle to get stops, but more important is the fact that the team has been playing a much better style of basketball, and the young players have shown a commitment to playing with energy and effort.  At this point, that’s really all you can ask for.

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