30Q asks the important questions about the Kings all through September.
If a thing is destroyed to the point which not even wreckage remains, you can't perform an autopsy. That basically describes the difficulties in figuring out everything that went wrong with the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings, and even moreso the defense of the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings.
So little remains from the start of last season that it's hard to assess what's next. At least three and possibly four positions in the starting lineup will be different than last training camp as practice begins today. The coaching staff has been remade, expectations lowered, styles changed.
And while we have an idea of what to expect on offense -- Kevin Martin will score efficiently, Tyreke Evans will draw fouls, Jason Thompson will get put backs, Spencer Hawes and the small forwards will shoot tons of threes -- we have no clue how the team will perform on defense.
But we can try to predict it.
The numbers say that the team won't be as bad at defending the three-point line, that opponents will get fewer second-chance points and that the removal of Brad Miller can only help the interior. But it remains to be seen how much those changes will improve the Kings defense, and whether it will be enough to get the Kings out of the league's defensive cellar.
First, on the topic of opponent three-point shooting: Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference took a look at season-to-season correlation of the statistic. In other words, is a team with success defending the three-point line likely to have success defending the three-point line in the following season? Is a team which sucks at defending the three-point line likely to continue to suck defending the three-point line?
Paine found very little correlation between season-to-season opponent three-point shooting. Regression to the mean would predict the Kings' three-point defense to improve regardless of any moves (strategically or in terms of personnel); Paine's study reinforces regression to the mean in this instance by showing that there is plenty of variability in the statistic leaguewide. In all likelihood, and though leaguewide shooting typically improves year-to-year, it seems unlikely the Kings will again allow opponents to shoot 40% from three. So there's some improvement there.
We have discussed defensive rebounding, and I believe it's a good opportunity for defensive improvement on this team. Sean May and Jon Brockman are big improvements over Mikki Moore on the boards; Andres Nocioni, Omri Casspi and Donte Greene would all be an improvement over John Salmons at small forward (and Noce is fairly even with Moore at PF); and Tyreke Evans will be a monumental rebounding upgrade in the backcourt. The Kings finished 29th in defensive rebounding last season; I don't think league average would be out of the question this season.
Finally, I do think the expulsion of Brad Miller could help the defense. According to 82games.com, the Kings defense was 1.4 points per 48 minutes better when Miller was out of the game. Miller's backups were Moore, Hawes and Thompson. Think about that.
In the 2002-03 season, the Kings had the No. 2 defense in the league. The starting five was Bibby/Christie/Peja/Webber/Divac. Webber blew out his knee in the playoffs and missed most of the 2003-04 season, during which the primary starting five was Bibby/Christie/Peja/Miller/Divac. The bench defense definitely downgraded -- from Jim Jackson, Keon Clark and Hedo Turkoglu to Anthony Peeler and Darius Songaila. But primarily, the major minutes change was from Webber to Miller.
The 2003-04 team had the 21st ranked defense in the league. Before Miller, the team had allowed opponents to shoot .439 from two-point range. With Miller, the team allowed opponents to shoot .477 from two-point range. That's roughly a 5-point per game difference.
Now this isn't to say Hawes and Thompson are a major difference from Miller. But there is potential that they will be a major difference, and you can't ignore that given how truly awful a defender Miller has proven to be over the past five seasons. There is a sincere opportunity for defensive improvement in the frontcourt.
Again, we'll see how all this adds up.