Keith Smart's Sacramento Kings head coaching career got off to a terrific start on Thursday with a spirited, improbable comeback win. Though the Milwaukee Bucks were without Andrew Bogut, the team is solid and was relatively rested. The Kings are not and were not. Sacramento struggled to shoot well, struggled to defend well and wasn't hot from really any spots. But they came back and won the game in the final minutes with timely points and a few staunch defensive possessions from Tyreke Evans and John Salmons.
As it turns out, while the game was an ugly win in the box score, it was exactly what Smart said he wants for this team.
In his introductory press conference, Smart actually got into Xs and Os, saying that his style is up-tempo, but that he feels the Kings have the size to rebound and run. That's important: most running teams are pegged as soft in the paint, unable to seal off the glass in critical moments or for sustained periods. That was certainly true of Mike D'Antoni Phoenix clubs, despite their success. It was certainly true of Don Nelson's Warriors clubs that Smart saw first-hand. The teams ran, but they weren't at all successful on the defensive glass. It appeared to be an either/or proposition.
But Smart said he thinks the Kings' combination of size and speed allows the ideal to survive. It's exactly what the Kings did on Thursday: they rebounded extremely well on both ends, and in the second half they ran quite a bit with a few stand-out fast breaks.
I wanted to see how often up-tempo teams thrive on the defensive glass. I set decently high benchmarks for each -- 95 or more possessions per game (which four teams beat last year) and a 75 percent or better defensive rebound rate (earned by about six teams a year). Excluding the short current season, the only team to match those criteria ever: last season's 50-win Denver Nuggets.
Drop it to a 74-percent defensive rebound rate, and you add a very interesting second team from last season: the Sacramento Kings. The 2008-09 Indiana Pacers and two clubs from the mid-70s also join the party.
So right off the bat, Smart's right, because this team has already played up-tempo while rebounding well on the defensive glass. The question is whether it can be successful and sustainable. And that's comes down to two players: Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins.
For Evans, it's about hitting the glass hard (as he did on Thursday); he's the one wing on this squad that can far outrebound his position. Even as a small forward he's at average. But when Evans gets those rebounds, it's on him to swing the ball upcort to Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons or Isaiah Thomas, or to get on the run himself, depending on traffic, the state of the game and where the carom falls.
For Cousins, it's about continuing to own the glass and it's about hustling down the floor, straight into the paint. Making the opposing center work to get back down the court every time makes the most of Cousins' playing time, which will unfortunately be limited by conditioning (even this season, when he's in much better shape) and foul trouble. Get into position quickly and give the guards on option before running the old high pick and roll.
Jason Thompson and J.J. Hickson fit into this, so long as they are getting their touches inside of 10 feet and are rebounding hard. Travis Outlaw, if he finds his stroke, can be a rebounding weapon at the three or four, and has the added lure of being a deep threat on the secondary break. Thornton is the only wing getting playing time that looks like a poor passer; Evans and Salmons are maligned in that area, but that's mostly because Evans is playing point guard and Salmons is so methodical. They pass just fine, if not great. Fredette continues to look like a solid playmaker, though we haven't seen him run many breaks yet.
As far as rebounding from the wings, Salmons is a disaster -- I'm not sure if it's slow reaction times, the hefty defensive responsibility he's taken or what, but he's just not going to get you many rebounds -- and Fredette will have low numbers, I'm sure. Thornton can bang, Evans is (again) stupendous and Isaiah will earn a surprising number when he's out there. If Garcia continues to get minutes, he's not an aid there. But Evans should carry the load outside of the big men.
I look forward to seeing whether Smart gets his wish. The tools look to be in place.