Can Ron Artest Fix the Defense?

(This is incredibly long. Je suis desole a l'avance.)

We joked last night about Mike Bibby's inability (through little fault of his own, actually) to fix the Kings' whoa-ful defense. (As in, 'whoa, that's a bad defense!')

But can even Ron Artest fix it?

Let's look at the three wings who have started most often for the Kings this season: Kevin Martin, John Salmons, and Artest. Is Artest's defense truly an upgrade?

Here is the total season-to-date defensive on-off for each.

           Min   %Min   DRtg-ON    DRtg-OFF    Net
Artest     747    43%     106.3       111.5   +5.2
Martin     702    40%     112.8       106.7   -6.1
Salmons   1298    75%     109.8       107.5   -2.3

Based on raw defense on-off numbers, Artest makes a difference. The defense has been league-average when he's in the game and absolutely terrible when he's out. Conversely, these numbers say the opposite of Martin. Salmons (likely by virtue of so many minutes) has bad numbers when he's playing and when he's not.

But this is just the surface. Let's dive deeper.

Where are Sacramento's main defensive deficiencies? We can look at this two ways: Through the four factors (which will show which specific ways in which the Kings suck on defense) and through positional analysis (which will show at what positions the Kings' defense sucks most).

First, the four factors:

Defensive eFG:    .508 (#25 of 30)
Defensive TO-r:   17.5 (# 5 of 30)
Defensive Reb%:  70.7% (#26 of 30)
Defensive FT-r:   24.9 (#21 of 30)

So, in order, the problems are: Defensive rebounding, opponent shooting, fouling. Turnover creation is a big plus for this team.

Let's see which players' defensive rebounding is worse (per-40 minutes) than the league average for their position. (And we'll omit Justin Williams and Mike Bibby since they've barely played.)

Player    DReb/Min   lgAvg     Net
Miller         7.0     7.6    -0.6
Hawes          6.4     7.6    -1.2
Moore          5.2     6.9    -1.7
Thomas         6.1     6.9    -0.8
Artest         4.6     4.8    -0.2
Salmons        4.1     4.8    -0.7
Garcia         4.2     3.9    +0.3
Martin         4.4     3.9    +0.5
Jones          5.4     3.9    +1.5
Douby          3.2     3.2    +0.0
Udrih          3.3     3.2    +0.1

Clearly, the rebounding problem is in the frontcourt, particularly with Mikki Moore and Spencer Hawes. Really, only Dahntay Jones (in street clothes last night) and Martin are plus-rebounders at their positions. (I have Salmons listed as a small forward and Francisco Garcia as a shooting guard; 82games lists them the opposite due to a one-inch height advantage for Garcia. Clearly Salmons is a SF in the Kings system, though.)

Now, let's look to shot defense, the second major problem area for the Kings. By position:

Pos    D-eFG   LgAvg      Net
C       .532    .506    +.026
PF      .500    .490    +.010
SF      .506    .496    +.010
SG      .505    .487    +.018
PG      .489    .486    +.003

The Kings boast defensive strength at no position. Point guard is the most promising, and duties there are shared between Udrih, Quincy Douby, Martin and Garcia (in that order).

We've established the team's centers and power forwards hurt the defense more than the wings/backcourt, due to a combination of rebounding issues and shot defense. So what in the world does this have to do with our judgments on Artest's defensive impact?

This is a look which poor-defending teammates (based on the above) our three top-flight wings play with the most. (These numbers omit the past week, but should translate well nonetheless.)

Player      %+Brad   %+Mikki   %+Hawes
Artest         80%       61%       12%
Martin         75%       60%       10%
Salmons        73%       57%       14%

Basically, all three have played about equal time with the team's worst defenders (Hawes, Miller and Moore, in order). The marked difference in the wings' defensive on-off cannot be explained by disparities in the defensive talent level of teammates... because they're basically playing with the same teammates.

There's one more avenue to consider: Strength of opponents. Martin and Artest have only shared the court for 274 minutes this season (not counting last night), which is about 40% of each's total minutes. Martin had eight games without Artest, and Artest had 10 games without Martin. By looking at those mutually exclusive games, we can judge whether one's faced better offenses on the whole.

           Games       Avg Opp-ORtg
Artest        10              106.6
Martin         8              108.7

Sacramento faced teams which were two points per 100 possessions better in Martin's no-Artest games than in Artest's no-Martin games. So if Martin and Artest were defensive equals (which they are not), we'd expect Martin's on-off to be skewed by some portion of 4.2 points per 100 possessions (Martin's disadvantage + Artest's advantage) in the bad direction. That portion should be about 50% -- roughly Martin's total games came without Artest and vice versa. So Martin's defensive on-off should be adjusted 2.1 points per 100 possessions towards equilibrium based just on the schedule differences their injuries/suspension caused. Salmons, who has played the whole season, would have an average opponent offensive rating near Artest's (which is roughly league average). Salmons' defensive numbers, thus, have not been effected by a schedule disparity.

When you add it all up, Artest is a much better overall defender than Salmons or Martin (and Salmons would seem to be slightly better than Martin). However, the issue is nearly moot: Wing defense isn't the problem here. Frontcourt rebounding and frontcourt shot defense are the central issues holding the Kings back for being a better defensive team. The difference between Artest and the other wing on the defensive end is smaller than the difference between Sacramento's bigs' defense and league average. In other words, Artest is not so good defensively he can make up for the frontcourt's faults.

This team, as presently constructed, cannot be a good defensive team, Ron or not. The difference between Ron's defense and the defense of his would-be replacements is not as large as we think. Consider this a vote to let Ron-Ron fly... somewhere else.

(All statistics from 82games, Knickerblogger, and Doug Steele.)

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