It is assumed, for several reasons, that the Kings are a good offensive team dragged down by their poor defense. Usually, this is true. For much of this season, that was true. Sacramento actually sat around the top 10 in offense during that surprising stretch of success before the New Year. The defense at that point hovered around the bottom five of the league.
The offensive shine wore off, both once Kevin Martin returned and after he was traded. The Kings are now a mediocre offensive squad, just 21st in the league, stuck with Philadelphia and Detroit, hardly efficient units. While the team's offensive rebounding remains great -- seventh in the NBA, taking 27.8 percent of all offensive rebound opportunities -- the shooting is poor (20th in the league, .490 eFG), the turnovers too frequent (7th most, 13.8 of possessions end in turnover) and, surprisingly, the free throws too infrequent (25th after being top 10 most of the season).
But something else happened as the offense fell off: the defense actually improved. And now, the Kings' defense actually rates as better than its offense, if only slightly.
The Kings rank 20th in the league in defense, up from 27th at the trade deadline. This is still bad, of course. Mediocre. Sacramento ranks 18th in shot defense, no better than 20th in the other three defensive factors (turnovers, defensive rebounding, fouls committed). But the team has improved, and the progression is actually visible.
That's the team's cumulative Defensive Rating over time. Lower is better -- the measure describes how many points per 100 possessions your opponents score. Obviously, such measures are volatile early in the season when one good or bad game can really throw the season average around. As you add games, single-game changes are more muted. But the trends still pop out, and since about February 26 -- the date of the infamous Chest Bump between Paul Westphal and Spencer Hawes, almost two weeks after Martin was traded for Carl Landry and a week after Beno Udrih became the full-time starter next to Tyreke Evans -- the defense has improved.
Is it Hawes? The improvement began when Hawes re-entered the starting five, and seems to have disappeared once Hawes left the rotation due to injury a few games back. Is it the absence of Martin? Doesn't that imply, then, that Beno is a better defender than Garcia? Isn't that the most insane question you've ever read? Aren't you laughing hysterically right now? Is Landry a better defender than we assume? Did Donte Greene fix things, only for Andres Nocioni's return to the starting line-up to mess things up? Is it just dumb luck, or statistical noise?
It's hard to assess, impossible for me. My heart wants to credit Hawes and Greene. But Greene was a starter when Martin returned, and -- unless Martin's defense introduced fog to the raw numbers -- the Kings defense was no better during that stretch than at any other point. Hawes played a lot prior to Feb. 26, as well -- his minutes were just inconsistent. Did an assurance of a larger role really matter that much?
We won't likely see any sort of answer any time soon. The team is young -- Greene is 22, Hawes still 21, potentially the best defender of the bunch, Evans, just 20 -- and the coaching staff is still working hard to get the results it desires. I still believe a frontcourt defender will be necessary at some point, but we'll see.