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Wednesday Mail Sac: Which guards can guard?

Coach Michael Malone wants defense. Who is going to provide it out of the back court?

Mail Sac proudly presents "31Q," where members of our community ask questions that are just too dang big for the regular confines of September's 30 days.

dannyboy55 takes us to September 31st with the following: "Which guard can step up to be the best defender? With Tyreke gone, our perimeter/wing defense took a huge hit. We have a logjam at both backcourt positions, yet none of the guys are above average defenders (maybe Thomas). Whoever can prove to stand out on the defensive end and lead that first layer of defense might get additional pt in Malone's system. It's an interesting question but would be tough to answer at this point. McLemore looks to have the most upside here, but he wasn't drafted because of his d. It would be interesting to hear your guys thoughts. The more I look at this, the more grossed out I am by the defensive capabilities of our guards."

Great question, as this is a competition that is wide, wide open.

The current roster of candidates: Greivis Vasquez, Isaiah Thomas, Ray McCallum, Marcus Thornton, Ben McLemore, John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette and Trent Lockett.

There are a few things to factor in here. First, I'm not sure that any analysis of prior stats is really applicable here. Only four of the eight players listed above played for the Kings last year, and none of these guys have played under Michael Malone as head coach. The system and the focus on defense will allegedly be far different than what we have seen in Sacramento.

Expanding on that thought, if any of us would have been asked to predict the likelihood of Golden State being a plus defensive team last year, our guesses would have fallen somewhere between slim and none. David Lee? Steph Curry? Klay Thompson? Harrison Barnes? Jarrett Jack? None of these guys came to mind when the conversation was about defense. Andrew Bogut appeared to be on an island all by himself. But somehow the Warriors developed a system that enabled the sum of the team's parts to be a far better defensive unit than the individual components would have led you to believe. And that's what the Kings are shooting for here.

Expanding on this just a bit further, Tony Parker is not an especially gifted defensive player, but years ago he learned that by cutting off the baseline and turning his man towards the middle, he could benefit greatly from the help of his teammates. The system bred success for Parker on the defensive end (and having Tim Duncan shoring up the middle never hurts, either).

Another example might be Ray Allen. Allen was never known as a lights-out defender, but for the past six years (and while becoming an NBA "old man") he has been a vital contributor to a couple of the best defensive teams in the league (Boston and Miami). Again, Allen benefits greatly by playing alongside some incredible defensive talent. That will not likely be the case for the Kings guards in the near term.

So some of this will come down to talent, but I think that a lot of it will come down to desire, and the single most important ingredient could very well be trust. Trust in the system and your fellow teammates that if you rotate to help on someone, someone else will have your back. Much in the same way that the extra pass will be crucial to the success of the offense, the extra rotation will be crucial to the success of the defense. That and intelligence - knowing which guys to slide away from on the perimeter and which guys to stick to like glue.

Greivis Vasquez: Vasquez lacks the great lateral quickness and foot speed that you would like to see in your point guard, but he makes up for some of that with above average length - his wingspan, which is seven inches longer than Isaiah Thomas, is on a par with guys like Jared Dudley, Chase Budinger and Jrue Holiday. It would probably be safe to assume that Vasquez would have a greater challenge covering smaller, quicker guards such as Chris Paul, Ty Lawson and Tony Parker, while he might match up at least a little bit better against bigger, stronger guys like Deron Williams, Goran Dragic and Ricky Rubio.

From a mentality stand point, Vasquez could be one of the guys that adapts to the team defense concept a little more quickly. He's already a team-first guy on the offensive end, so it would seem that it would not be too difficult for him to apply the same concept on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest challenge for Vasquez will be improving his footwork so that he can offset some of his speed disadvantage with his length.

Isaiah Thomas: Don't sleep on the Hustlin' Huskie. Wes Matthews underestimated Thomas once. Once. And Thomas is a guy that is always looking for that extra edge and advantage that will get him and keep him on the floor. In-your-face defense could be the ticket for Thomas.

In Thomas' favor is that he fears no one (who could ever forget him taking on Kobe Bryant in his rookie season?), and would be the most likely of the Kings guards to get into his teammates for not carrying out their defensive assignments. While Vasquez might be the better offensive facilitator, Thomas might wind up being the better defensive spark plug. Thomas will always be challenged matching up against the likes of Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams, but he might match up better against the smaller, quicker guards.

Ray McCallum: One gets the feeling that McCallum will be the best defending point guard of this bunch within three years. Simply, McCallum's a smart kid, and he's going to figure out that an all-out defensive focus will be his ticket to more minutes. In the short term, however, McCallum is likely to get serious minutes only if Vasquez and/or Thomas crash and burn.

Marcus Thornton: My guess is that Thornton will give maximum effort on the defensive end, but his lack of height and length at shooting guard (his wingspan and reach are more in line with guys like Jeremy Lin and Beno Udrih), coupled with the fact that he is really not all that much quicker than the average shooting guard, will not yield great results. Thornton has always been a pretty decent passing lane defender. His biggest challenge seems to be finding his man (or any man) after he has left him. And you can expect the bitter beer face whenever he gets frustrated on a defensive rotation, and that is probably going to happen on a nightly basis.

The key for Thornton won't be whether or not he becomes a good defender. The key will be for him to become a good enough defender that his offensive attributes outweigh his defensive deficiencies. Thornton and DeMarcus Cousins may be the only two players on the roster that will be graded in this manner, due to their importance offensively.

Ben McLemore: Athletically speaking, there is no reason why McLemore can't become a good defender. His wingspan is the same as Russell Westbrook, Gordon Hayward, and Jon Brockman(!). He is not especially long for a shooting guard, but not terribly undersized, either. He possesses good leaping ability, and he moves well. However, young guards traditionally get eaten alive for at least a little while in the NBA, so don't be looking for McLemore to become a decent defender overnight. But he does appear to have the athletic tool kit to potentially become a plus defender.

Jimmer Fredette: The challenge for Jimmer is that he lacks the length of most two guards and the speed of most point guards. Fredette's talents translate much more to the offensive end than the defensive end. His guts and guile and desire will help, but it's tough to envision a scenario where he will be a better defensive option than virtually all of the other guards on the roster.

John (Johnny) Salmons: Salmons has been a considerably better defensive shooting guard than a defensive small forward, and he may currently possess the most overall defensive ability of all of the candidates. If Thornton and McLemore can't hold their own defensively, coach Malone won't hesitate to go to Salmons to by-God-get-things-done!

Trent Lockett: I still think that Lockett is destined for Reno, unless another back court player is moved off the roster by the beginning of the season. Lockett's reputation is that of a defensive hawk, and he displayed some of that effort and desire at Vegas Summer League. He also showed that he does not have to be overly involved offensively to be completely engaged defensively. However, given the dues that rookies are seemingly forced to pay in the NBA, I doubt that he would be as effective as Salmons this season.


Bottom line, there is no one in the Kings back court that will secure a job based solely on their defensive acumen. There are no "stoppers" in this group. However, most of these guys don't look any worse than Curry/Thompson/Jack looked prior to the beginning of last season. The core rotation will be determined by which guys contribute the most from baseline to baseline, and the hope is that the system that Malone brings and the focus that he will demand will make a substantial difference on each end of the floor. The key will be a team-first selflessness.


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