Last night the Los Angeles Clippers blasted the Sacramento Kings for 39 points in the first quarter, and the Kings fell into another early hole. The Clippers were scoring from a variety of ways, but most alarming was how they got to the rim with regularity. In that specific span, there was one players’ poor play that jumped out: Willie Cauley-Stein.
Sure, the Clippers were hitting a lot of perimeter shots, and lets be clear that Cauley-Stein is not the lone defensive weakness on this team. The Kings, between De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Iman Shumpert, have a solid crop of defensive guards, but they are very small on the wings, with Shumpert and Bogdanovic often being forced to guard much bigger small forwards while playing out of their natural positions.
But those are physical limitations; here, we’re only talking about effort. Back to the Clippers game last night - from the very beginning, it was clear that Cauley-Stein was asleep at the wheel and not ready to defend the paint at an NBA-level.
This was a drag screen in transition for Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After Fox gets caught by the screen, it’s Cauley-Stein’s job to “drop” into the paint to impede the ballhandler and allow Fox to recover. Cauley-Stein not only drops late, but he escorts Gilgeous-Alexander to the rim, not bothering to even put his hands up and contest the layup.
Here, Avery Bradley basically drives through Buddy Hield right to the rim, but Cauley-Stein refuses to leave Boban Marjanovic until its too late. Buddy forces a miss, and if Cauley-Stein had been there earlier he could have gotten the rebound or contested the putback. But he was late. I get not wanting to leave Boban, but in such tight spaces, Cauley-Stein can defend both. He must make his presence known around the rim, but does not.
This time, it’s a straight-line drive given up by Yogi Ferrell, but Yogi at least forces Gilgeous-Alexander to the baseline as opposed to giving up middle penetration. Cauley-Stein has to be ready to help at the rim, but he’s stuck to Montrezl Harrell at the free throw line, too distracted by Harrell’s split screen for Bradley. Plenty of egg on Yogi’s face for getting blown by, but Cauley-Stein needs to be aware of where the ball is going. Let Bradley shoot the three off the screen, don’t give up a layup.
Another drag screen set in transition by Harrell, and another failure by Cauley-Stein to “drop” into the paint to slow down Harris. Thankfully, Harris missed the layup, but Cauley-Stein was nowhere to be seen.
The Clippers ended up shooting 10/17 from the field, including 3/6 from three point range, during the 8:23 that Cauley-Stein played in the first quarter. But most killer was that the Clippers shot 5/7 around the rim - that’s 10 points on 7 shots, at a ridiculously high FG%. Even that included a blown open layup from Harris, which would have made it 12 points on only 8 shots.
After Cauley-Stein re-entered the game in the second quarter, something strange happened - he woke up! Somebody must have yelled at him on the bench because Cauley-Stein suddenly got the memo, finally defending the paint the way a center of his physical measurables should.
Patrick Beverley gets by Fox, but Fox funnels Beverly correctly to the baseline (remember: denying middle penetration is the bulwark of modern perimeter defense). Cauley-Stein helps off of Harrell (correctly!) and contests at the rim (and gets a block!). The Kings fly out in transition and Bogdanovic gets a layup.
Hield harasses Gilgeous-Alexander’s dribble in transition but gives up a drive down the middle of the paint. Cauley-Stein, however, is there to protect the rim and gets a nice block. Excellent work by Cauley-Stein here to bail out his guard.
Here was a great effort by Cauley-Stein to stay active after an offensive rebound. Bjelica got credit for the block, but Cauley-Stein got his hands on it as well. That’s literally all we’re asking: make your presence known.
Cauley-Stein’s effort in the second quarter begs the question: why wasn’t he locked in from the beginning of the game? And lets not pretend it was an off-quarter either. Over the course of the season, you could pick out many, many times where Cauley-Stein is just absent around the rim. There are 34 centers in the NBA who have started at least 10 games; Cauley-Stein ranks dead last in field goal percentage surrendered at the rim. This worse than all of the terrible defensive centers you can name off the top of your head, including rookie Deandre Ayton, groundbound Nikola Jokic, or even the much-maligned Enes Kanter. Players actually shoot three percentage points better than average at the rim when defended by Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein. Shotblocking is an overrated metric of defense, but Cauley-Stein still is 31st out of 34 starting centers in blocks per game, and 32nd out of 34 in Block percentage. The numbers are just as damning as the film.
At the end of the day, Cauley-Stein’s defense is maddening because his focus level and intensity are wildly inconsistent. I’ve been a detractor because when it comes to hunger on the defensive end and on the glass, I believe you either have it or you don’t. Some guys just want to get dirty in the paint: see the way bodies flew around in the paint whenever Montrezl Harrell went after a loose ball or rebound last night. And for others, you have to coax out that kind of effort, in which case it won’t show up consistently. Cauley-Stein is decidedly in the latter category.
Vlade Divac has done a good job putting together a fun young team, but there is still major work to be done. The Kings can be a contender one day but these weaknesses (size on the wing, softness in the paint) must be addressed. Cauley-Stein remains the biggest enigma of all; he should have locked up the starting center job a long time ago. He has the athleticism, the talent, and the smarts to be a great rim protector and rebounder. But he simply doesn’t have the consistent focus and effort. And, if the Kings really want to take the next step, Cauley-Stein showing up every now and then is simply not good enough.