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30Q: Can the Kings crack the top 15 in defense?

Are internal growth, postseason momentum, and minor roster tweaks enough?
By | 18 Comments | Sep 8, 2023

Apr 26, 2023; Sacramento, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) has the ball knocked out of his hands by Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) in the fourth quarter during game five of the 2023 NBA playoffs at the Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

[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.

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Hippity_Hop_Barbershop
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September 8, 2023 9:33 am

I don’t think so but if we keep our offensive production this year like last year, any significant improvement on defense will be massive.

murraytant
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September 8, 2023 9:47 am

Defensive ratings- by any scale- are a bell-shaped curve for the most part. The difference between top and bottom is great but the gradations in between are small.

While the playoff performance was better, there were less teams to compare to and a much smaller sample size. So that can be deceptive and besides, the game slows in the playoffs.

That stated, I do believe that the kings will improve on defense, at least statistically. It is clearer to the coaching staff just who plays the better defense and how to use that player. Rim protection and defense in the paint was a weakness last year. Some of that was due to Metu who was out of position. Len helped overcome that, but he brings another set of issues. This year, however, while Lyles will play small ball 5, his minutes at that spot will be clearly planned and planned so that the defense does not suffer. JaVale may play more to provide some protection in the paint, but he too brings other issues.
A few minutes per game by Len or JaVale (and not Metu and Holmes) will help move the curve.

Duarte is a better defender, at least in the past, than TD and while he does not shoot the 3 as well, he is a threat. Edwards can help if his 3 is falling.
The competition for minutes will be driven by defensive effort.
Moving along the curve just takes a slightly more improvement. So, all factors point towards that.
I say from 24th or whatever it was, to around 14 or 15.
and since the offense will be better, less open court opportunities for opponents. Best defense is a good offense.
LTB

RikSmits
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September 8, 2023 10:21 am

Hi Zach, welcome and thank you for an excellent piece.

I love defense, and I would love for the Kings to be better than average on defense. Your arguments give me hope.

RobHessing
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September 8, 2023 11:13 am

Welcome Zach, and thank you for the well thought out and informative article!

My much shorter hot take / bold prediction is that the Kings will finish in the top 15 of the bottom 20 teams.
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Last edited 8 months ago by RobHessing
1951
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September 8, 2023 11:26 am

Just tell them it’s the 4th quarter every quarter.

andy_sims
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September 8, 2023 1:00 pm

What a nice breakdown of defensive numbers! I agree with you that cracking the top twenty on that end should be eminently possible, and top half isn’t out of the question.

A lot of the recent acquisitions and guys playing for a spot in camp have good reputations for defense, which is a great sign. If Veznekov does nothing more than increase team proficiency with defensive rebounding, that alone could be a real difference-maker. There is, in fact, no way for a team to score on multiple possessions in a series if you just grab that first rebound. I looked it up!

Huerter is never going to be a great defender, but if he can box out his man when shots go up, he may free a teammate up to grab the defensive board. Buddy Hield was a really good rebounder at his position, but was a tremendous slouch defensively. KH might be able to improve team numbers if he can be more helpful in rebounding, both by team metrics and his own.

I like that there are guys like Ellis and Edwards that can be thrown at a player on a hot streak, and Davion Mitchell takes a back seat to no one in that regard. Even at his height, he can still stop players from getting to where they want, and while many can shoot over him, he routinely forces bad or rushed shots. I don’t have his numbers for possessions against players say, 6’6″ or taller, but I’d bet that they’re surprisingly good.

This is a reachable team goal.

AnybodyButBagley
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September 8, 2023 1:41 pm
Reply to  andy_sims

Put Ellis and Edwards in with Mitchell and watch the losses pile up.

andy_sims
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September 8, 2023 2:53 pm

Because that’s exactly what I suggested.

I know you can’t help responding to me, which is certainly understandable. I’m very compelling! But I’d appreciate it if you would address what I’ve written, and not post non-sequiturs, unless they’re hilarious.

RobHessing
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September 8, 2023 3:34 pm
Reply to  andy_sims

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andy_sims
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September 8, 2023 4:43 pm
Reply to  RobHessing

Still do!

AnybodyButBagley
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September 9, 2023 11:19 am
Reply to  andy_sims

Always so sensitive.

SelecaoKOJ
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September 8, 2023 1:17 pm

Top 15. No way. Kings were bad last year. But the caveat.
Most of the teams in the West dealt with major injuries to their stars. If it was bad last year. I can’t imagine it being much better when all those players out with injuries are healthy this year. The other thing is you are hypothesizing the kings will automatically have better rim protection? Based on what metrics? Definitely not the addition of McGee. Who is real a net negative player in the playoffs. The thought that he is an effective rim protector is a myth. Backed up by no real stats. The Kings front line of desperate plug ins. Len, Noel, McGee doesn’t really strike fear in any decent front line team. Include Sabonis in that.

I still think they will be bottom 10. Improvement based on Hypotheticals is too much fandom for me. Defense is not coaching. It’s mentality. I see one player on the roster with that. Expecting a bunch of players to turn on a switch and be locked in? Not going to happen.

Last edited 8 months ago by SelecaoKOJ
AnybodyButBagley
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September 8, 2023 1:39 pm

A purely defensive lineup for this team probably has three average NBA defenders in that lineup. No way this team wins with that line up and no way they crack the top 15 in defense.

3 v 5 on defense at best is not going to do it.

Klam
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Nostradumbass 18
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September 8, 2023 2:12 pm

Welcome to basketball hell TKH, Zack! It’s great you get to be here as the Kings are actually good for once!

ForKingsandCountry
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September 8, 2023 7:03 pm

I doubt it, but hope springs eternal. Do I think they can go from 24th to 20th? That seems semi-attainable. I just don’t think going from TD to Duarte does enough for you on the defensive end to really move the needle all that much and I expect Vezenkoz to be pretty bad on that end. So, slight improvement but nothing earth shattering unless Sabonis becomes a much better rim protector.

scottymusprime
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September 8, 2023 8:11 pm

According to stat muse the worst was the Spurs with a 120ish D-Rating, the Kings were sitting at 116.8. The next four were all within a half point, but then it jumps to 115.6 with Washington at 20. Then anywhere from 17-10 is 114.5-113.9. Really, what we need is to break into that top 17 range, becuase that’s what makes us a respectable defense. If we can get within that range, we’re within spitting distance of a top 10 defense, and that’s the next big jump. We need to jump into the middle of the solid enough rating (see below), which is still nearly 2ppg better. The ratings I’m seeing look like this:

Elite (110-112.5):
Cavs
Grizz
Celtics
Bucks
Bulls
Pellies

Damn Good (113-114)
Suns
Sixers
Heat
T’Wolves
[Redacted]
Raptors

Solid Enough (114-115)
Nets
Thunder
Nuggets
Magic
Dubs
Clips
Knicks

Mediocre at Best (115-116)
Hornets
Washington

Woof (116-117)
Hawks
Jazz (which suprised me)
Mavs
Kings

Real Real Bad (117-120+)
Pacers
Blazers
Pistons
Rockets
Spurs

Bluejohn
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September 8, 2023 9:05 pm

Hey Zach, nice piece. I hope the mods accept another of your submissions. This one was worth reading. The one thing I really miss from the old site are the fan posts. Both Akis and Greg Wissinger were selected from the mob at the old site by Tom Ziller based on their fan posts and comments and after he moved on were trusted to continue to manage and contribute until TKH became necessary and they have done a hell of a job here. After being subjected to nearly a month of “Kings Sign Neemie” and the other post which remained up even longer which I have since forgotten I would have welcomed a new daily Fan Post. We have a lot of good and thoughtful writers here.

With regard to the question you posed I believe the Kings are capable of achieving a sub 20th ranking. I have a ton of faith in Coach Brown and if he can be as successful with the rest of the roster as he was with D. Fox this past season, who became a decent and engaged man defender I don’t think getting below the 20th spot and perhaps as low as 15th is impossible.

I can’t accept all of your stats just because of the small sample sizes but had our players had to have a wake up call about their lack of defense costing them a trip to the second round. If sufficiently motivated by their first round exit and benefitting from the coaching by the widely held belief that Coach Brown is an elite defensive coach I believe it’s possible that the will, want to and defensive effort might finally be revealed this season.

UpgradedToQuestionable
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September 9, 2023 4:08 am

If the offense is going to remain at around the 120 ppg mark then expecting the defense at less than 115 means the point differential will be at least 5.

That means the Kings will be winning a lot of games.

With a high power offense and teams at parity – expecting a bigger point differential is a big maybe.

Just win games either score more points than the other team – or – if you want to be defense oriented; keep the other team from scoring as many points as you. These Kings are gonna score points in bunches- if it’s 114 and Sac drops to 118.5 or if it’s 122 on O and 117 on D ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tomato/Potato or some such thing.

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