Despite a mostly impressive all-around win for the Sacramento Kings in Toronto last night, the rebounding issue this team has been trying to overcome since Willie Cauley-Stein dislocated his finger in Mexico City reared it’s ugly head again, and could have cost the Kings another win had the defense and offense failed to execute down the stretch.
This is becoming an every-game issue at this point. The Kings are getting hammered on the glass, and as Omer mentioned in his recap of last night's win, there really isn’t an end in sight. Let’s dive in.
Pre-Willie Cauley-Stein injury, the Kings were a middle-of-the-pack rebounding team. They rebounded at a respectable 50.5% rate from the beginning of the season through December 3rd (the Mexico City game). From December 4th through last nights win over the Raptors; the Kings are rebounding at 46.4%, third-worst in the NBA during that time frame.
And yet, the Kings have undoubtedly played better since Casspi was promoted to the starting lineup in Cauley-Stein’s absence. That isn’t hard to explain, as Casspi is a much better basketball player than Cauley-Stein is at this point in his career, and so long as nothing implodes in the locker room, this team should be trending in a better basketball direction. We all knew that this would take time, and I’m not suggesting that things are great right now, or that the development of this team hasn’t been way too slow for my liking, but improvement, no matter how slight, is evident.
I keep returning to that December 3rd Mexico City game as a point where things in Sacramento shifted, for the better, at least temporarily. That doesn’t mean I’m putting the Kings’ pre-December 4th issues on Cauley-Stein, but shifting from Cauley-Stein to Casspi is such a monumental change in terms of skill set and play style that the pre-Mexico City Kings and the post-Mexico City Kings are almost incomparable.
For some all-compassing perspective, the Kings had a -4.6 net rating (23rd in the NBA) in 20 games through Mexico City, and have had a +2.0 net rating (9th in the NBA) since. That’s a +6.6 change. The Kings are even defending better since the Cauley-Stein – Omri Casspi swap, which, on paper, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and to be fair to the numbers, the Kings are defending better as a team, the new Kings starting lineup of DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi, Ben McLemore, and Rajon Rondo is still a horrendous defensive unit. That new starting lineup has a +3.5 net rating, though, despite how poor they rebound and defend, which is a testament to how dynamic it can be offensively, but I digress. The rebound problem, let’s get back on track.
How can the Kings fix it?
Getting DeMarcus Cousins closer the basket on offense is a start. He’s averaging just about 3 less rebounds per 100 possessions this season, two of those being of the offensive variety. His offensive rebounding under any statistical measure has declined this season, and beyond his own rebounding numbers, having him closer to the basket increases rebounding opportunities for everyone. That is a system change that can help the Kings on the glass without changing personnel.
From a personnel standpoint, options are limited. The Kings don’t really have a traditional power forward on this roster, and that’s including a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein. The Cousins – Kosta Koufos pairing hasn’t looked good for most of this season, Cauley-Stein and Cousins had created a more comfortable pairing, but that never felt like it had Karl’s complete approval. That wasn’t the direction he wanted to go coming out of training camp, and he limited Cauley-Steins minutes heavily even when he was in the starting lineup.
The truth is, the jury is still out on how well any of Cousins, Cauley-Stein, and Koufos can play together. Any two of them coupled with Rajon Rondo creates either a spacing issue or a Cousins-on-the-perimeter issue. This is something we talked about all offseason, and Cauley-Stein’s injury has sort of placed that discussion on the backburner for now.
If I can speculate for a moment, I would imagine Karl keeps Casspi in the starting unit long term, and in other words, I don’t think a change in how poor the rebounding has been since Mexico City will come from a personal adjustment. If the Kings can fix their rebounding issue, it’s going to have to come from an execution and schematic change.
Despite the small ball nature of the Kings’ current starting lineup, they shouldn’t be this bad on the glass. Rajon Rondo is one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA. While neither Casspi, nor Gay rebound at an acceptable clip for a prototypical starting power forward, they combine for a solid SF – PF rebounding pair. For every bit of ‘small’ they are at power forward, they are pretty big at small forward.
It doesn’t need to be this bad, but you could say that about so many of the Kings' issues this season. It's going to come down to a stubborn head coach admitting that schematic tweaks needs to be made, and frustrated players playing with a little more urgency and effort. Where have we heard that before?