OAKLAND CA - JANUARY 21: Tyreke Evans #13 of the Sacramento Kings looks to pass around Andris Biedrins #15 of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena on January 21 2011 in Oakland California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
When Marcus Thornton arrived in Sacramento, things changed for the Kings. The team had been 14-41 before the trade (.254); it went 10-17 (.370) with Thornton in uniform. Once Tyreke Evans returned from injury in March, with Thornton in place, the Kings went 6-5 to finish the season -- this ignores a late loss to the Thunder in which Evans didn't play. In April, Evans joined Thornton in the starting lineup for the seven games of the final eight games of the season: the Kings went 3-4 against a murderer's row.
Things changed. The Kings were more competitive and, for the first time in about 15 months, winning.
That has led to the narrative that Evans + Thornton is the right future for this team, that this duo will work and that the backcourt problem -- at least 1-3 in guard depth, with Beno Udrih off the bench -- is fixed.
This narrative is not entirely true.
Let's look at that record with Evans and Thornton both in the rotation one more time.
Six wins, five losses. The wins: at Indiana, Philadelphia, Houston and Golden State and at home against the Suns and Jazz. Two playoff teams in that mix, one of which finished the season well below .500; that is counterbalanced by the above-.500 Rockets.
The Kings faced a murderer's row late, sure. They lost to most of the murderer's row, something masked by the cupcakes that preceded. I'm no cynic: those wins were fantastic, and I cheered them with a fiery throat. And the losses were usually close. But the Kings' best win with Thornton and Evans together was at the Rockets or maybe at the Sixers. Let's not get carried away about how great the team became, no matter how huge an improvement over the dreck we'd seen all year it was.
But what concerns me more is the lineup data that results from the pairing. I used Basketball Value to break down how the team did with an Evans/Thornton backcourt vs. a Udrih/Thornton backcourt.
There were five lineups that played at least 10 minutes together that had Evans at the point and Thornton at two-guard. These lineups accounted for 145 minutes of playing time. These lineups were outscored 301-330 by opponents, or 9.6 points per 48 minutes. These lineups had an offensive efficiency of 104 (below league average) and a defensive efficiency of 115 (far worse than the worst of the NBA), despite all but 14 of the minutes including Samuel Dalembert on the floor.
All the "regular" lineups featuring Evans at point and Thornton at two-guard performed pretty poorly.
There were three lineups with at least 10 minutes featuring Udrih, Thornton and Evans all on the court; these lineups played a total of 75 minutes. These lineups were outscored 146-174, or 17.9 points per 48 minutes. The offensive efficiency was a worse-than-the-worst 97; the defensive efficiency was a worse-than-the-worst 115.
The Udrih-Thornton-Evans lineups performed awfully.
Eleven lineups featured Udrih at point, Thornton at two-guard and someone other than Evans at small forward for at least 10 minutes; these Udrih-Thornton lineups made up 463 minutes played total. In those 463 minutes, the Kings were outscored 985-1,019, or 3.5 points per 48 minutes. The offensive efficiency was 106 (right around league average) and the defensive efficiency was 110 (not good, but not altogether catastrophic).
The Udrih-Thornton backcourt wasn't great, but it performed much better than the Evans-Thornton duo or the three-guard lineup.
This isn't to strike down hope for Evans + Thornton. I like Evans + Thornton. I think Evans + Thornton can work, based on what I saw and what I think about basketball and team-building and each player's strengths and weaknesses. But the idea that it's some sure thing, that it's proven to work, that it's magic in the making ... that's dead wrong. The only thing the end of the season proved about an Evans + Thornton backcourt is that it looks shaky in the (very) early going. This is not a sure thing. This has not worked to date.