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In Isolation: The Kings' Defensive Bright Spot

Sacramento's defense improved in 2010, but not to the point where anyone would actually feel good about it. The Kings finished No. 20 in the league in defense, with the biggest improvements coming in shot defense (No. 19) and defensive rebounding (No. 18). I know, I'm as surprised as you. Shot defense and rebounding. So while neither total defense, shot defense or defensive rebounding were even so much as average this season, there's some light at the end of the tunnel.

You want a real bright spot, though? Look even deeper into the numbers. Using the fantastic Synergy Sports, I took a detailed look at the Kings defense. I'll have a series of posts over the next few weeks on this data. Today, we start with the most positive finding: the Kings were really good at defending isolation plays. Like, the fourth best team in the league.

The team allowed opponents to score 0.82 points per possession on isolation plays, a better mark than all but three NBA teams. (Oklahoma City ranked No. 1 at 0.78 PPP, the Lakers were No. 2 and Milwaukee No. 3. Boston tied with Sacramento at No. 4.) About 13% of all opponent plays were isolation plays, fitting a rough level average. (For the sake of comparison, the pick-and-roll took up about 15% of opponent plays, and spot-up shots made up 16%. Transition was another 13%, and post-up plays were 12%. So about 70% of all the Kings' opponents play fall into those categories. The Kings finished well in isolation, No. 9 in transition defense and really really bad in all other categories.)

So, isolation defense -- that would indicate the Kings have some good man defenders, right? Hmm ...

According to the data, the Kings indeed do have a few good man defenders, assuming the data is more signal than noise. Three Kings who defended at least 100 isolation plays finished in the league's top 25 (among more than 400 NBA players) in opponent points per possession. I asked for guesses on Sactown Royalty's Facebook page last week, as the answers aren't all that obvious.

One of the players, No. 25 in the league in isolation defense, is Tyreke Evans. Check his I.D.! Evans was less successful in other defensive opportunities (particularly guarding players coming off screens), but he was fantastic in isolation. He forced turnovers on a full 20% of opponent iso plays. Opponents scored only 0.68 points per possession in isolation against Evans, and shot 31.2%. Credit his length and strength for those turnovers and the shot contesting, I imagine.

But who else did a good job ... or a better job? Would you believe it's Jason Thompson? J.T. held opponents to 0.66 points per possession on isolation plays (No. 19 in the NBA), and just 33.6% shooting. Despite his well-known propensity to foul, J.T. actually avoided sending opponents to the line when they ran iso plays, fouling on just 5.5% of the plays and surrendering just one And-1 all season. Compare that to the post, where Thompson was mediocre, fouling on 11% of opponent plays. A brief survey of the video clips of Thompson defending in isolation shows J.T. forcing opponents to pull up on jumpers, thanks to his length and relative quickness.

Our final isolation hero is another youngster, Omri Casspi. According to Synergy's data, Omri was actually the team's best defender last season, No. 30 in the league in total opponent PPP. In isolation, he finished No. 10, allowing just 0.63 PPP over 134 plays. (Only Evans and Beno Udrih defended more iso plays, and only by a few despite more minutes for the point guards.) Casspi forced turnovers on 14% of these plays, and limited the opponents to 31.1% shooting otherwise. Holy tenacity, Batman!

Other Kings did not fair so well. Beno finished middle of the NBA pack with 0.87 PPP in his 142 plays. Donte Greene allowed 0.97 PPP in more than 100 plays. Andres Nocioni allowed 0.87 PPP, and Spencer Hawes 0.96. The other Kings had 50 or fewer opportunities to defend iso plays.

When investigating the Kings' defense, it won't get prettier than this, with three young Kings making magic. So cheers to Reke, J.T. and Omri for putting the MAN in mano a mano defense.