How is that Defense Looking Sac-town?

When the Kings hired Dave Joerger after they fired George Karl, a year after they fired Tyrone Corbin, after they head scratchingly fired Mike Malone, after they fired Keith Smart, and after they fired Paul Westphal, and before that Kenny Natt…the Kings don’t care that in a ten year period they have had 9 coaches. However, their current coach is different than the others. Dave Joerger has a defensive identity and a playoff track record.

In 2013-14, the Memphis Grizzlies coached by Dave Joerger were third in points allowed. The next year, they were second in points allowed. Last season, with injuries to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, they were 11th. Without Joerger running things this season, the Grizzlies are third in points allowed. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to come to the conclusion that for good defense you need defensive players, you need Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the paint and Mike Conley and Tony Allen on the perimeter.

In those same years that Joerger had great defensive teams, Sacramento was defensively clueless. In 2013-14, they were 24th in points allowed, coached by Mike Malone. They were 28th the next season in a triangulation of coaches, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin and George Karl. Last season under Karl, the defense was no longer on life support but the walking dead, the worst in the league, 30th in points allowed.

Desperate for a playoff berth in the Boogie Cousins era, it had to start with defense. Consistency is more complicated than having the best center in the league. Look around. The Celtics stockpiled defensive players and got back into the playoffs. The Celtics don’t have a star as good as Cousins. That is what is so frustrating about the Kings despair. They have an All-Star. That is supposed to be the hard part.

If you want to emulate someone, start with Charlotte. The Hornets won 7 games in 2011-12. Since then they have been to the playoffs twice. They drafted a defensive only player with one of their lottery picks (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and they hired a defensive coach in Steve Clifford. The Hornets are currently on track for a top -4 seed in the east and Kemba Walker is going to make his first All-Star team. The Hornets ended last season 9th in points allowed and the 8th best defensive rating.

It seemed obvious to all paying attention that the overhaul for the Kings had to start with defense. So Vlade Divac snatched up Dave Joerger. Joerger promised physical toughness. He had a resume to prove that he understood and could teach defensive principles. But there was the small problem of the roster. None of the Kings had ever been defensive players.

So how is the defensive experiment going? The Kings have improved.

King Me? Points Allowed Fg% Defense 3-Point Defense Defensive Rating
2015-16 109.0 (30th) 46.2% (24th) 36.6% (23rd) 108.4 (22nd)
2016-17 105.2 (21st) 45.7% (21st) 36.4% (23rd) 109.2 (25th)

They are 21st in points allowed. They are 21st in field goal percentage defense. They are 23rd in 3-point defense. Last year, no team was worse than the Kings in letting the opponent score. But it didn’t stop there. The Kings were also 24th in field goal percentage defense. They were 23rd in 3-point defense.

It seems like baby steps. The Kings are four games under .500 (7-11). This time last year, after 18 games and with George Karl leading a divisive group, they were 6-12. So the improvement has been small. Will it stick though? Will it build upon itself?

The minimal impact of Dave Joerger on individual defense can be seen in defensive ratings, from this year to last year. The ratings of DeMarcus Cousins, Omri Casspi and Darren Collison are worse. Rudy Gay, Willie Cauley Stein and Ben McLemore are unchanged.

Defensive Ratings

  • DeMarcus Cousins: 105 (+2)
  • Rudy Gay: 108 (+0)
  • Omri Casspi: 111 (+3)
  • Willie Cauley Stein: (+0)
  • Ben McLemore: (+0)
  • Darren Collison: (+1)

The Kings roster is not built to shut down offensive players. But they can work hard at it anyway. Joerger has the players giving more effort. This time last year, the Kings had given up 110+ points 9 times. Twice they allowed 120+ points. They were 2-7 in those games. This year, the Kings have given up 110+ points 5 times. Twice they allowed 120+ points. They lost all five games.

Defensive Real-Plus Minus (Position Rank)

  • DeMarcus Cousins (49th, Centers)
  • Rudy Gay (18th, Small Forwarards)
  • Arron Afflalo (74th, Shooting Guards)
  • Kosta Koufas (14th, Centers)
  • Ty Lawson (19th, Point Guards)

Defensive Real-Plus Minus measures a player’s impact on an overall team’s defensive performance, for 100 possessions. In the top 20 at their position, the Kings have three players, Ty Lawson, Rudy Gay and Kosta Koufas. Unfortunately for the Kings, Arron Afflalo’s dismal defense is at a position with gifted scorers dropping buckets. Cousins is disappointing this year too. Last year, he was ranked 6th among all centers. So Boogie can complain all he wants but he’s not defending.

Perception being reality, Sacramento has been in the valley so long, it doesn’t seem like much progress, the Kings small steps towards a greater whole. But it is progress. The bigger questions are less about the defense and more about DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings don’t have a playoff roster. There isn’t much talent there, just NBA years. But Cousins is the best big man in the game. Do you trade him for pieces and draft picks?

The problem is the Kings have shown zero ability to evaluate talent. They could have had Serge Ibaka, Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, C.J. McCollum, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zach LaVine, Rodney Hood, Devin Booker, Larry Nance Jr. None of those players are in Sacramento. So how much trust should anyone put in their ability to get Cousins out of Sac, and in return, replace him with versatile pieces to make the Kings a Lakers north, a lot of young players with key veteran talent that can make shots?

The answer is simple. Forget about trading Cousins. Instead, rebuild the long (right) way. Don’t take shortcuts. Have a plan. I repeat, have a plan.We laugh at the 76ers and “The Process” but at least they had a plan in place, a blueprint to refer to, even if they had to make adjustments. Even the Lakers had a plan. Let Kobe ride out his last three years in style, stockpile talent and then turn the page.

The Sacramento plan is simple: Joerger needs a season or more to build a defensive identity, incentivizing toughness. It is Vlade’s job to find the right players to fit that identity and make it work over time. Otherwise, leave town Vlade.

The Kings have proven that doing it on the fly has been a disaster. Cousins is a unique talent who deserves the best around him. Joerger and his defensive principles are a start. But, there is a long way to go before the Kings can be a serious player in the NBA.


photo via llananba