[Editor’s Note: The following is a reader submission. Please welcome first-time submitter Zack Venero]
During the 2022-2023 season, The Beam Team proved that an all-time great offense could elevate the 24th best defense to a top 3 seed and a Pacific Division chip. This standout season raised questions about whether or not it was an anomaly given various factors, such as a weaker western conference, remarkable team health, and possible regression from the inaugural clutch player of the year, De’Aaron Fox. Another intriguing aspect is the potential of defensive improvement. Can the Kings break into the upper half of the league in terms of defensive rating? Let’s dig deeper into this possibility.
Let’s begin by revisiting where we left off last season. In a recent Deuce and Mo pod, Deuce pointed out that the Kings finished the regular season with an impressive 8th ranking in defensive rating on the road. …..8th! This means that over the course of 41 games, the Kings proved themselves as a top-tier defense. Such a substantial sample size cannot be ignored and begs the question: could this success be attributed to the team bonding and building camaraderie on the road? Perhaps. Alternatively, could it be linked to relying excessively on the comfort of the outstanding home court advantage at Golden 1? Regardless, the Kings have clearly demonstrated a proof of concept through these 41 games, and there is no reason for them to halt their progress at this point.
What about the postseason? Remember that seven-game heater of a playoff series against the Warriors? Yeah, it will forever be burned into my brain too. Throughout that intense run, the Kings ratcheted things up in numerous ways – except for defending the three-point shot – but we won’t dwell on that. We had the misfortune of facing a guy named Steph Curry who seemed to light us up every step of the way. However, in the halfcourt, the Kings made significant strides in the postseason, going from 28th in the regular season to an impressive 9th in terms of points allowed per 100 plays . This improvement demonstrates enhanced connectivity, communication, and overall effort among the players on the court. Speaking of effort, the team’s leaders truly led by example. Take De’Aaron Fox, for instance, whose steal and block numbers saw significant growth on a per 36-minute basis. In the regular season, he averaged 0.3 blocks per game and 1.2 steals per game, but in the postseason, the numbers rose to 0.5 blocks per game and 2 steals per game — a remarkable 66% increase in both categories. Domantas Sabonis also showed remarkable improvement on a per 36-minute basis, he went from averaging 0.5 blocks per game and 0.9 steals per game in the regular season to 0.9 blocks per game and 1.5 steals per game in the postseason, showcasing an impressive 80% increase in blocks and a 66% increase in steals. Just imagine if some of that heightened effort and leadership could spill over into the regular season, and the kind of impact it would have.
There is certainly room for additional internal improvement, especially with players like Davion Mitchell. Undoubtedly, Davion’s on-ball defense is his standout skill, and one can’t help but wonder what would have transpired in game 7 of the Warriors series if he had consistently guarded Steph. As discussed earlier this offseason with Deuce and Mo, Davion has been diligently working on refining his shooting form. If he can establish himself as a dependable threat from beyond the arc, he’ll undoubtedly earn the trust of Mike Brown, which should lead to more playing time and more “off nights” for the rest of the league.
It’s hard to consider internal improvement and not think back to the late season swap of Chimezie Metu for Alex Len. Once Len joined the rotation, the Kings experienced an outrageous improvement in their defensive performance. Admittedly, the sample size is quite small, consisting of only 77 possessions during the 2022-2023 regular season. However, when the lineup of Fox, Monk, Barnes, Lyles, and Len took the floor, the Kings boasted impressive numbers. They had an overall plus-minus of +55.2, a 33% offensive rebounding rate, a defensively effective field goal percentage of 35%, and held teams to 75 points per 100 possessions. Essentially, during those last 15 regular season games, the Kings looked like the Sprite remix version of the 2004 Pistons with Len and Lyles as the bigs. While these numbers may seem unreal and likely an outlier, they offer an intriguing glimpse into what the Kings could potentially achieve with a legitimate 7-footer possessing decent length and rim protection skills.
That brings us to the various additions at the center position during this offseason. We have Javale McGee, who possesses a guaranteed deal and the legacy of Shaqtin a Fool MVP, along with ghost of Kings past Skal Labissiere and great-on-paper-but-weak-in-the knees Nerlens Noel, both on non-guaranteed deals. They will be joining a competitive battle for the backup center position, alongside Neemias Queta, Alex Len, and Trey Lyles, who is expected to see more playing time as a small ball five this year. While McGee seems to have the best chance of securing the backup spot, both Noel and Queta offer significant size and a similar role to what Len provided last season. There is also a possibility that Len retains his position, and one could argue for that based on consistency and chemistry. Len is familiar with the system and performed well in his limited minutes last year. The key takeaway is that we now have reliable rim protection, and even a fraction of the impressive late-season performance from Len can greatly improve our defense compared to last season.
Enter the upgrades — Greg provided a thorough analysis of the Mezi for Sasha Vezenkov and Duarte for Terence Davis swaps on the offensive end, but it’s important to emphasize the significant upgrade that Duarte brings on the defensive end. Not only is he an improvement over TD, but also over Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk. Unfortunately, last season was a bit of a lost year for Chris Duarte due to injuries and limited playing time, with rookie Benedict Mathurin cutting into his minutes. He only played a total of 877 minutes compared to the 1527 he played during his rookie year. However, during his rookie year in the 2021-2022 season, Duarte ranked in the 75th percentile in effective field goal percentage when guarding the small forward position. Having a player of his caliber could have a tremendous impact on the Kings’ ability to guard small forwards.
Are you still with me? If so, here is the answer to the original question: Can the Kings see a defensive improvement in year two of the Beam Team reign? As a devoted lifelong fan, I would be genuinely surprised if we didn’t break into the top 20 this season and potentially approach the top 15. This optimism is grounded in the factors I presented earlier, including internal growth, consistent rim protection, the momentum from the postseason, and an improved perimeter defense. With these elements in play, I believe that the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” – the Kings have a strong opportunity to make significant progress on the defensive end.