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Sacramento's Sucking Defensive Void: What's the Problem?

With eyes coated glassy from gimlets of joy here in points west, there remains one striking, sucking void in the burgeoning success of the Sacramento Kings: the defense remains absolutely awful. The world's worst a year ago, the Kings defense again ranks among the dregs of the league. The real problem for armchair analysts like me is that there is no easy answer.

The team's shooting defense sucks. The team doesn't create many turnovers. The team can't rebound regularly on the defensive end. The team fouls too much.

In every aspect of defense, the Kings are worse than par. Sacramento has stayed afloat (or exceeded expectations, more like it) based on a booming offense which has rung bells from McKinley to Kilimanjaro. (Well, it's currently 7th in the league. Without all but five games of Kevin Martin. I heard at least some decorative plates rattle.) The defense has attempted to again sink this team, like a malformed anchor of youthful blindness or community distraction. (Optimists, still here, will grasp for the former.)

Rebounding is easy to diagnose: our defensive rebounders suck. Jason Thompson has improved on that end, and in total is a fine, fine rebounder. He could do well to boost his defensive rebounding more, but he's not so much a problem as a concern. Spencer Hawes is a concern, absolutely. His defensive rebounding (21 percent last year, less than 18 percent now) is abysmal -- Mikki Moore level, in fact. This isn't blame so much as observation: Hawes has devolved as a rebounder, and he was subpar for his position and size already. Now he's atrocious. Moving on out of reach of the cyanide, Andres Nocioni has been a sink, of sorts -- his 9 percent overall rebounding rate is Salmonsesque (not good) and below the sinewy, frantic Omri Casspi (nearly 10 percent). Donte Greene has not been rebounding well, either. Kenny Thomas and Jon Brockman are champions, thank you.

Turnovers fit into the team defense conceit we'll discuss more later, and fouls split time between there (later) and this easy-to-grasp statement: Jason Thompson has really got to calm down on the fouls. Brockman and Thomas actually foul more frequently than J.T., and The Show actually isn't far behind, but as Thompson plays so many minutes (necessarily, because he is awesome) his matter most. It's not fair, but the cover of Good Housekeeping ain't free, Holmes.

Shooting defense. A riddle wrapped in prosciutto. Rancid prosciutto bartered from the Slovenian black market, in our example. (Apologies, underground meat salesmen of Celje. I mean no offense. I simply take the simplest path to WTF I can find, and today that route crossed your unfortunately, smelly bridge.) Shooting defense is really tricky to unfurl, even at the team level. On an individual basis, yes, guh, muy difficulto. But at the team level, it's still tricky.

Shooting defense, to me, can be broken off into two branches: shot distribution and actual shot defense. In other words, what locations do your opponents shoot from, and how well do they hit them? has made serious strides in public availability of this sort of data this season. Truly fantastic, in my book, which is the one you're reading. I can give you the last page right now, if you're the type who reads that. But first,


The Kings' opponent shot distribution ranks 15th; that is, if opponents shot league average against the Kings in every shot zone, the Kings would have the 15th ranked shooting defense. But the Kings have the 22nd ranked shooting defense, because the Kings defense actually underperforms from average; that is, the Kings let opponents shot better than they ought to.


First, shot distribution. Do opponents get lots of so-called easy shots -- near the rim, threes -- against the Kings?

Sacramento is middle-of-the-pack in the frequency of opponent attempts at the rim ... a bit surprising really. (We'll come back to interior defense in a moment.) No team gives up more non-layup/dunk shots inside the paint than the Kings, though. The Kings allow the sixth lowest rate of "midrange" 10-15 foot shots, and the 10th lowest rate of long twos. (Long twos are the worst shot in basketball, by category. More specifically, long twos by Chris Duhon are the worst shot in basketball.) The Kings give up the 7th lowest rate of threes, which is a positive.

So, essentially, Kings opponents end up taking a lot of short jumpers, compared to the league at large.

But when those opponent do get to the rim, well. Damn.

The Kings have the second-worst shot defense at the rim. There's that bad interior defense peeking out. (Out of where, well, this is a family blog, let's just move on.) This can potentially be attributed to having the league's fourth-worst block rate, and also, anecdotally, not being terribly good in transition.

Moving out, the Kings actually defend short jumpers (5-10 feet) really well, like, "third best in the league" well. From 10-15 feet, Kings opponents don't hit too much, with Sacramento having the league's eighth best shot defense from there. The Kings rank 27th in shot defense from 16-23 feet (ick), but know that 16-23 foot jump shot shooting percentages tend to vacillate wildly. (Proof: Tyreke Evans is shooting 48 percent from there this year. If that lasts, I'll eat Truck Robinson's sweatband.)

The Kings don't give up a ton of three-point attempts, but they do give up a ton of makes, with the 9th-worst shot defense from beyond the arc. Opponents shot 36.5 percent from three against Sacramento, which is the equivalent of shooting 54.7 percent from two. It's not nearly as bad as last year (where opponents actually shot better than 40 percent from downtown, if you can believe it). But it's still not good.

So there you have it. The Kings have an average opponent shot distribution, but let them make way too many attempts near the rim and from behind the arc.

Now, the big question ... whoooooooo? I can't pretend to know that answer, though I will put on the record that reports that opponent guards and centers haven't shot too terribly well against the Kings this season, but forwards have. Small forward has been the most sour defensive spot, by this source. Andres Nocioni and Omri Casspi account for 67 percent of the team's minutes at the position. It's hard to figure this with any certainty (without more data, like game-by-game, possession-by-possession data), especially considering that Paul Westphal uses such varied line-ups and Jim Eyen has installed a couple of zone schemes the team turns to often enough. It's really impossible to lay any blame on the shooting defense on any one, two or three players given the info I have. I think we can recuse the center (Hawes, who has played 56 percent of the team's center minutes, and against whom centers are shooting far worse than they have against other Kings with minutes at the position, namely Thompson), but no one else at this point. (Guard penetration affects shooting percentages across the board -- we can't blame Nocioni if a guard gets past Evans or Udrih and forces rotations which leave Nocioni's man with airspace.)

I have thrice begun a paragraph in which I blame a player thoughtfully given the information I have, but ... nope. Wouldn't do it. I can't say for sure, and I'd rather be silent than wrong.