December 14, 2016, 8:27 am
Following the first 16 games of the season, it was still unclear what type of team the Sacramento Kings were going to be. The team was fresh off of a blowout loss to the Houston Rockets, who drained 21 three pointers on an NBA-record 50 attempts, and they were headed back on the road with a 6-10 record on the season.
The Kings are now preparing for a rematch in Houston, and there is plenty of reason to believe that they will be much better prepared for the Rocket’s potent offensive attack this time around.
Following the game against the Houston, Sacramento owned a 108.6 defensive rating, the third worst mark in the league, so the defensive lapses in that game were far from unexpected. Sacramento failed to close out on shooters, and the energy on that both ends of the floor was awful from the very start. An incredible performance from Garrett Temple was the lone bright spot that night, and it was extremely clear that the team needed to make some adjustments.
The Kings have gone 3-5 in their eight games since, but the record doesn’t properly show just how much this team has improved. During those eight games, the Sacramento Kings had the second best defensive rating in the NBA at 99.3, and the team also had the 12th best net in the league over that stretch.
Sacramento hasn’t been without their flaws over that period, taking a noticeable step backwards offensively and failing to execute in late-game situations, but the Kings should be excited about their improved defense. The sample size is admittedly small, but there’s reason to believe that the team’s success on the defensive end is real improvement.
New head coach Dave Joerger was not completely unfamiliar with the roster that he inherited this summer, having previously coached Rudy Gay, Matt Barnes and Kosta Koufos during his time with Memphis. Given his history with those three, it wasn’t surprising to see him rely on them during the team’s first few games.
Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson were also given quite a bit of playing time early, and it became increasingly apparent that Dave Joerger valued their experience in the NBA while he was trying to implement his system. Unfortunately, this meant smaller roles than expected for players like Ben McLemore, Omri Casspi, Willie Cauley-Stein and Garrett Temple.
All three have been given larger roles over the last eight games, and their play has given the team a jolt defensively. Garrett Temple has made the most significant mark on the defense, and his contributions on that end have made him one of the most valuable players on the team. Temple has held his opponents to just 42.9% from the field, and effectively shut down James Harden during the Rocket’s blowout.
Temple has also had a great impact on the bench unit, which has been a problem for the team early in the year. Sacramento has been repeatedly saved by their bench early in games following slow starts by the starting unit, and Garrett Temple has often been one of the first players in to clean up. He has the ability to defend multiple positions, and his versatility should help get him some more time on the floor.
Sacramento has also clogged the passing lanes much more effectively over the last eight games. The Sacramento Kings have ranked third in the NBA in deflections over that period with 20.5 per game, and the team was eighth in the league prior to that at 16.7 per game. With younger and more athletic players seeing their roles expanding in the rotation, the team has been able to really frustrate opposing defenses.
The Kings’ opponents have been less successful shooting during this past stretch, shooting 42.6% during those eight games, much lower than the 46.2% that their opponents had been shooting at the beginning of the season. Not so coincidentally, the team has been more active in trying to contest shots recently, contesting 78.8% of their opponents shots over that stretch, a decent improvement over their prior mark of 75.9%
McLemore, Casspi and Cauley-Stein are all susceptible to mental lapses and can be somewhat frustrating to watch for that reason, but consistency should help all three improve. They all bring some much-needed energy to some lifeless lineups, and the three of them can effectively operate without the ball when locked in.
Dave Joerger has found success in his career by relying on tough defense to carry his teams to victories. With the scoring talents of DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, this group doesn’t need to add much offense if they can continue to be one of the better defensive groups in the league. A defensive identity could be what carries this team to success, for this season and beyond.
There are still some issues to address, with the two most glaring ones being their three point defense and their issues offensively, particularly during crucial situations late in games. Three point defense has been a known problem for this team for multiple seasons, but the offensive struggles are fairly uncharacteristic.
Offensively, the team has become somewhat stagnant, and far too many players on the court need to have the ball in their hands to score. With Cousins and Gay already getting a fair amount of isolation opportunities, the starting lineup would benefit from adding players that score in other ways.
Using Cousins in the high post will be the most effective when players are continually moving and can effectively space the floor, two things that this roster is absolutely capable of. With his court vision, Cousins should be able to use this to his advantage and find open shots for his teammates.
Ty Lawson and Kosta Koufos don’t fit this mold particularly well, but Lawson has been moved to the bench and Koufos has seen a decline in minutes during the teams last few games. Both have found success with the team’s bench, and the duo has shown some decent promise in their new roles.
The Kings will need to start stringing together some wins, but improvements have been made, and this team is starting to show what they are capable of moving forward. Early adjustments are starting to unlock some of the potential that this team has, and more changes are likely on the way. The Kings aren’t likely to sustain a top-two defense for the rest of the year, but remaining in the top half while cleaning up their offensive attack should be enough to get the team headed on the right track.