The Sacramento Kings made significant improvements on offense during the 2012-13 season. But it's the defense that's still plaguing the team, and it's an area the franchise needs to address during the offseason.
What makes the Kings' defensive woes so troubling is the fact that they've struggled with it for a couple years now despite attempts to turn it around.
Sacramento was arguably the worst defensive team during 2011-12. At 109.8, the team ranked 29th in defensive rating, trailing only the Charlotte Bobcats, who posted a slightly worse defensive rating of 110.4. However, the Kings also gave up the most points per game (104.4) and their opponent field-goal percentage (.476) was the worst in the NBA.
Things didn't really get better for the team on that front during 2012-13. Once again, the Kings posted the second-worst defensive rating, this time at 111.4, with Charlotte again being the only team worse (111.5). Sacramento still managed to give up the most points per game (105.1) and its opponent field-goal percentage of .472 was only better than Cleveland and Portland.
Now that the defense is an established problem, what can the Kings do to fix it?
Bring in Proper Personnel
There's certainly something to having a defensive-minded coach and a team familiar with each other being able to make significant improvements on the defense. However, there's also something to bringing in players capable of playing solid individual defense.
Unfortunately, solid individual defenders were something the team was simply lacking. In fact, three of the Kings players were so bad on defense that they actually detracted from their ability to win games. Those three players are John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas, and all three posted defensive ratings of 115 and defensive win shares of negative-0.1.
As you'll notice, two of those three (Fredette and Thomas) are point guards. Furthermore, both of them struggled on defense as rookies, showing it's not just a one-time thing. Therefore, it's a problematic position for the Kings and one they'll need to upgrade, even if it's just with a quality backup capable of spelling them in tight situations.
One such option is Toney Douglas, who the team acquired midseason from the Houston Rockets as part of a trade. Douglas' defensive rating of 108 is fourth-best on the team and best among guards. He's also a restricted free agent that's due a $3.1 million qualifying offer. If the Kings can re-sign him for fairly cheap and on a short-term deal, he could be a solid option.
As for small forward, where John Salmons predominantly plays, the Kings already tried to upgrade the defense at this spot for 2012-13 by bringing in James Johnson. Johnson, while not a lockdown defender, proved more than capable of harassing opponents. However, he was such a liability on offense that his minutes began to wane as the year wore on.
James Johnson almost surely won't be back next season. And although his time with the Kings wasn't a huge success, his acquisition could provide a template for this offseason.
The team still needs more capable, individual defenders and bringing them in from outside of the organization is the best way to fill that void.
Hire a Defensive-Minded Coach
It still remains to be seen whether Keith Smart will come back. Smart did an admirable job, especially in a difficult situation. But if the Kings decide to go in a different direction at head coach, they should bring in a defensive-minded head coach.
There are a few out there that come to mind. The most notable candidates would be Jeff and Stan Van Gundy. Jeff is currently garnering some interest from the Brooklyn Nets, although the New York Daily News reports he's unlikely to end up there.
If the Van Gundy brothers are ruled out, another intriguing option could be Golden State Warriors assistant Michael Malone. Malone is a defensive coach and has a track record of turning teams around.
From the Warriors' press release on the hiring of Malone in June of 2011:
In New Orleans, under Head Coach Monty Williams, Malone helped lead the Hornets to a 46-36 record and a trip to the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The Hornets were the most improved defensive team in the NBA last season, allowing a league-best 8.7 fewer points per game than in the previous campaign (94.0 points per contest, after giving up 102.7 in 2009-10.) Additionally, the Hornets limited their opponents to 45.7% shooting from the field in 2010-11 compared to 48.3% the previous season.
Malone did an admirable job turning around the Warriors defense. During his first year with the team, the Warriors posted a defensive rating of 109.1, which ranked 27th in the NBA. Golden State also allowed the second-most points per game (101.2).
In 2012-13, after the team had the 2011-12 season and this past offseason under his tutelage, the Warriors made some significant strides. They were 14th in defensive rating (105.5), 19th in points allowed (100.3) and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage (.439).
However, the Kings should also line up to interview him. Bringing in the right coach could go a long way in improving their defense.
Utilize Lineup Combinations Better
It's true that the Kings could simply use better defenders. However, it's also true that they could better utilize the players they have just by joggling around lineup combinations.
For example, the lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Chuck Hayes and Jason Thompson posted a defensive rating of 89.0. Yet this combination only played in 10 games together.
Or, before the midseason trade, the Kings had success with a lineup of DMC, Tyreke, IT, Salmons and Thomas Robinson. That lineup had a defensive rating of 92.0, but it only played in six games together.
Another example, which isn't a lineup combination, but along the same lines, is utilizing players that don't necessarily provide much individually but that contribute to overall team success.
The best example of this is Cole Aldrich. Aldrich certainly isn't flashy. However, the team posted a defensive rating of 100.8 when he was on the court. The same can be said for Toney Douglas (103.8) and Chuck Hayes (104.5).
None of these players are thought of as elite individual defenders, yet the team certainly performs better when they're on the court. Bringing in a completely rebuilt roster full of capable defenders is not feasible in one offseason. Therefore, the Kings need to do a better job of utilizing the players that they do have.
No matter what the Kings do, they're not going to go from worst to first in one season. It's just not possible, especially with the way the roster's constructed and the lack of cap space to do a meaningful makeover.
However, by bringing in a couple more capable defenders, utilizing the players they have and hiring a coach with some defensive acumen, the Kings would be on the right track.
Just to show what's possible, look at the improvements they made on offense from one season to the next. In 2011-12, the Kings were 21st in offensive rating (103.8) and 26th in effective field-goal percentage (.472). Yet in 2012-13 they were 12th in offensive rating (106.2) and 16th in effective field-goal percentage (.491).
The Kings are capable of similar progression on defense in 2012-13. It's just a matter of making the right moves this offseason.
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