When Michael Malone was hired this summer, the biggest focus for the team was improving the defense. The Kings were the 29th worst defensive team in the league last season and making that better was made a top priority.
21 games into the season, the Kings are basically right back where they were last year, 28th in the league in Defensive Rating after a 116-107 shellacking by the Suns that seemed a lot closer than it really was.
Now, part of the problem is the ever changing personnel and the lack of time the new guys have had to study the defense. Rudy Gay had practiced with the team just once before this game. However, it's not like the Kings have played good defense at all this season. The problem is team-wide. Rotations are slow. Help comes too late or stays too long. Guards read screens poorly. Everything that can go wrong on defense is going wrong for Sacramento.
Last night, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were like butchers at a meat market, slicing and dicing their way into the paint to get whatever they wanted. Rookie Ben McLemore has been asked to do a lot on defense and he isn't up to it just yet. The options behind him, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, and Ray McCallum, aren't great alternatives. Isaiah Thomas is probably the only plus defender the Kings have on that end, and even he is guilty of playing poorly on that end. That was especially the case last night, when he wasn't able to stymie either Dragic or Bledsoe for any meaningful stretch of time.
Defense has to start at the top though. DeMarcus Cousins has been anointed the franchise guy and he's one of the players who deserves a lot of criticism for his effort on that end. I think Cousins has shown a lot of improvement as an individual defender, but as a team defender, he's still lost, especially in the Pick & Roll. When the opposing big man isn't a featured scorer, like Miles Plumlee or Robert Sacre, I think Cousins loses track of his man too often, and opposing teams exploit that by running Pick & Roll after Pick & Roll. If you want free points on the Kings, just run a Pick & Roll if Cousins is in the game. He overhelps on the guard and his man is usually left wide open at the basket. Cousins has shown a lot of improvement this season, especially on the offensive side of things, but if he truly wants to be a star in this league, he has to show the same effort and intensity on the defensive end. He has to lead by example. I think he has both the talent, size and athleticism to be a good defender. He just needs the focus.
Another player who has contributed to Sacramento's defensive woes is Jason Thompson. To say Thompson's play this season has been sub-par would be an understatement. The last couple years we saw some growth from Jason, as he seemed more patient and polished than ever. I don't know what happened over the summer, but this year he looks more and more like rookie JT, rushing everything and playing defense with his hands and not his feet. Perhaps most frustrating is all the whining. Jason has always been a big complainer, but when he continues to do it after every possession, when he clearly fouled someone, it's like nails on a chalkboard for me. I would much rather have Thompson coming off the bench with Derrick Williams starting. Williams isn't a plus defender either, but he's playing much better right now and the Kings need their best players to be playing a lot.
The Rudy Gay trade should help Sacramento's defense in the long run, especially after the new guys get more experience with Coach Malone's schemes. Gay is a superb athlete and an above average defender. He's not a lockdown guy, but he'll stay in front of his man and not give up easy shots. He showed that tonight on a few occasions, although he did look lost a few times.
As a fan, I couldn't have asked for a better debut for Gay. He rarely forced a shot, and he made several good decisions to attack the basket rather than settle for jumpers. He hadn't shot 50% in any game as a Raptor this season, and came out and hit 8-12 for Sacramento along with 8-9 from the line. That's a supremely efficient line, and while I don't expect that to be replicated every night, I don't expect his shooting to be as bad as it was in Toronto. Having DeMarcus Cousins in the post and Isaiah Thomas penetrating will open a lot of things up for Gay, and he in turn will open things up for others.
Another new King also had a great debut. Aaron Gray played 13 minutes and looked like a more than solid backup center. He scored 7 points on opportunistic shots, and snatched 9 rebounds. More importantly, he set amazing screens that ended up turning into great looks for Sacramento's offense. Gray is a roleplayer who understands exactly what he is and what he needs to do and doesn't try to do more than that, and that's perfect for a bench big. For those of us (like myself) who had hoped the Kings would re-sign Cole Aldrich this summer, Gray seems like he'll be that type of guy for us.
Derrick Williams continues to look like a steal for the Kings. Thriller contributed 14 points off the bench, and while he shot just 4-10, a few of those were good looks. He also hit 2-3 from downtown. He and Gray were the only real contributors off Sacramento's bench tonight.
Sacramento was able to keep the game in play most of the night because they were able to score almost as much as Phoenix, at least until a stretch in the 3rd quarter where the Suns went into a zone and completely stymied Sacramento. For the first 6 minutes of the 3rd quarter, the Suns went on a 19-4 run to take a 12 point lead after being down 3 at the half. Considering the Kings lost by 9, that stretch was a defining moment of the game. Sacramento's ball movement came to a standstill as they couldn't figure out how to break the zone (penetrate). Every time Sacramento dumped the ball into Cousins, Phoenix was ready with a double, and the lack of off-ball movement resulted in forced, low percentage shots, usually late in the shot clock.
Sacramento will have to go through an adjustment period with Gay on the team, but the biggest adjustment will have to be the entire team committing anew to defense. That hasn't happened yet, and perhaps the Kings don't have the personnel for it yet. Offensively, the Kings have a lot of weapons, but it won't make a bit of difference if they can't stop other teams from scoring at will.
- Dragic (#1) and Bledsoe (#2) might have the most appropriate uniform numbers in the league. It's easy to see why the Suns have been so surprisingly good this year. Those guys are hard to game plan against. Not many teams, if any, have two athletic guards who can handle, score and defend. They can play with or without the ball in their hands, and the supporting cast is buying into their roles to a tee.
- The Marcin Gortat trade was so good for Phoenix in that it opened up minutes for Miles Plumlee, who looks like a real keeper at Center. He seems like a real fun guy to root for, if you're a Suns fan. He plays with a lot of heart and energy. His fastbreak denial of DeMarcus Cousins was jaw-dropping.
- I don't think I've ever seen a good shooter become a bad shooter as fast as Marcus Thornton this year. He had never been consistent, but he was always dangerous if left open. This year, he might as well be shooting from halfcourt the way his shots are going.
- Ben McLemore needs to spend the upcoming summer working on a softer touch around the rim, along with his ball-handling. I feel like his outside shot will come eventually, but he needs to be able to score close to the basket too.
- Heard quite a few StR nicknames from Jerry: "The Great Rudini", "If there's D-Will, there's D-Way", but perhaps the best one was when Jerry said "that was all 50 shades of Gray".