Over the past week, as the Kings have mulled firing George Karl, one consistent point of discussion has arisen: the defense. Namely, how are the Kings giving up so many points? How does the opponent get so many open threes? There are multiple camps in this debate: some say the scheme is bad, others say the players need to put in more effort. Many have taken the middle route and say that both the scheme and the player’s effort is a problem.
I’m offering a different perspective: the effort is bad because the scheme is terrible. Its easy to get demoralized when the opponent gets so many easy shots, even when the defense doesn’t make a mistake.
The main problem is that the Kings don’t play defense like any other team in the NBA. The basic principle that vast majority of NBA teams operate around is that the center of the court is the most valuable real estate in the game, and its the first priority to be defended. Everything is easy from the middle of the floor; passing angles are clear if the defense collapses, and if it doesn't you can get easy shots. NBA teams defend it with what’s called ICE defense, shading ballhandlers away from the center of the court towards the baseline (here's a good video explanation of ICE defense). The best defenses in the NBA do this expertly while the worst ones try and fail at it.
As for the Kings? Its not even in their vocabulary. I kid you not, the Kings will roll out the red carpet for any ballhandler who wants to get into the middle of the key.
I mean, look at this. Rondo is shading Rose into the middle of the paint. This is something exactly one NBA team does on defense. And it invites easy shots all over the court.
...after easy shot....
...after easy shot...
...you get the picture.
The question then is, what exactly is the defensive strategy if the Kings aren’t going to ICE? The answer is that the Kings have concocted this exotic mix of man-to-man and zone defense. The Kings will defend transitioning between both. Its truly something completely out-of-the-blue and nothing I've ever seen before.
To illustrate, when defending ball-screens, the Kings will fall into a 3-2 zone alignment facing the ballhandler. Sometimes they will transition back to man-to-man, but many times they will just stay in the zone.
On the surface, it looks like the Kings are switching on the perimeter wholesale, but they’re really not. They’re just manning their spots in the zone. The Kings will be in a man-to-man, and all of a sudden fall into their zone and pass off the players, and then transition back to man-to-man.
The real switches happen when players swap positions in the zone, leading to really funky alignments with defenders either out of position or in positions that they are wildly unequipped to defend.
The Kings will also fall into a zone after doubling the post.
And against certain great penetrators like James Harden or John Wall, the Kings will fall into their zone without any action by the offense. Karl calls this the "wall-off" concept in his scheme.
Again, it will look like defenders are just floating around for no reason, and it can be interpreted as bad effort or a mental mistake by a player. But that’s exactly what the scheme calls for.
So what are the problems with this disguised zone the Kings try to run? As you can see from the clips above, it will give up A LOT of three pointers. This is because, fundamentally, in a zone the defender doesn’t guard a man, they guard a space on the floor. Defenses are always going to be sagging off shooters because they have so much real estate to cover on their own. This gives shooters plenty of time and space to get off their jumpers, usually with a weak and late contest from a defender who was assigned that particular zone.
But the problems don’t stop there. A zone naturally has holes in its center that defenses can exploit. While it is a goal for the defense to force the offense to shoot midrange jumpers, in a zone there is no pressure on the shooters. The offensive players may as well be shooting these in an empty gym, and an NBA player will hit these shots at an efficient rate. They are practically free throws.
These kinds of shots are always available to ballhandlers...
...and big men alike.
And sometimes, cutters are able to sneak behind the zone and cause all kinds of havoc.
To put it simply, this defensive scheme is hot garbage. Its an abomination in the modern NBA, and frankly I’m shocked that it even exists. Keep in mind that in none of the clips above was the offense doing anything particularly fancy or exotic. Simple ballscreens, simple postups, and simple cuts leading to easy passes around the court are enough to completely shred the Kings’ scheme and get highly desirable shots. And the proof is in the pudding; the Kings have been one of the absolute worst defensive teams all year in all categories.
The best defenses in the NBA don’t operate like this. They force the offense to go baseline into more difficult angles for shooting and passing. They help eachother by rotating and recovering. The Kings neither rotate nor recover; instead, they have their defenders floating out in space, putting no pressure on the ball, shooters, or cutters. They give up the center of the court to anybody who wants it whenever they want it.
If you're interested, here's a video of how the Spurs play defense. In particular, note how they shut off the middle of the paint to penetration, how they rotate and help eachother. The Spurs defense is beautiful to watch.
And just for fun, here is a clip of the Kings’ defensive system under Mike Malone. Note how the important concepts are all accounted for. The Blazers are able to get a solid look, but it takes smart ball movement and a stretched floor to get it; the offense actually had to work for it. That just isn’t necessary in Karl’s defensive system to get a good look.
In Karl’s defensive scheme, Lillard has the option of either going baseline or to the middle of the floor if he wants to. If he goes into the middle, he probably gets an easy look at the basket himself or collapses the defense for an open three. If he opts to go baseline, LaMarcus Aldridge has a wide open set jumper in that spot, every time.
But in Malone’s defensive scheme, Lillard has only one option: to go baseline. Malone demanded that the players rotate and cover for eachother, so Aldridge never gets an open look; Rudy stunts that shot and then immediately turns to recover to help his teammate who was helping him. Aldridge makes the right read and swings the ball to Rudy’s man Wes Matthews, but Ben was ready to rotate onto him. Even Matthews makes the right read, finding Batum in the corner but by the time the ball gets to him, Rudy had come fast enough crosscourt to run Batum off the three point line. Batum gets a decent look off the dribble, but it took two great reads and some fast ball movement to get to that point. That’s what a real defensive system looks like.
In short, this defensive scheme needs to be torn up. Then its shreds need to be doused in oil and burned to a crisp. Then the ashes need to be put on a rocket and launched to the sun, never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter if the players are putting in enough effort. It doesn’t matter if the Kings don’t have the same defensive talent as the 1996 Bulls. You could do everything right in this system and still surrender 120 points, and if that’s the case then fixing this terrible scheme takes priority over anything else.
I don't know what saved George Karl's job, whether it was minority owner intervention or a "Come to Jesus" moment with Vlade, but trotting out this defense is a fireable offense in my book. My only hope is that Karl hires a defensive assistant who actually knows how defense is played in the modern NBA. Otherwise, be prepared for another 30 games of opponents lighting up the Kings like a slot machine, the same way its been for vast majority of the last decade.