When Dave Joerger arrived in Sacramento from the Memphis Grizzlies, he brought a reputation as a good defensive coach. But through a combination of scheme and personnel, the Sacramento Kings maintained a below average defense for all three years of Joerger’s tenure, consistently registering a defensive rating above 110. But Joerger is now gone, the Kings will have a new defensive scheme, and the Kings adding multiple solid defenders in free agency, could the Kings be a good defensive team this season?
A quick caveat. In this post I’m relying heavily on Defensive Rating. I understand that DRTG is not an end-all be-all assessment of defense. That said, it’s the easiest way to look at defense as a whole, and it’s a reasonable metric when looked at over the course of an 82 game season. All stats via NBA.com/stats.
The Los Angeles Lakers had a worse defensive rating than the Kings three year ago, but improved and had a better rating than the Kings for the past two years. Assuming the coaching staff implements the same system, there’s indicators that Walton’s defensive system can result in a better-than-average defense. The question then shifts to the personnel.
This offseason the Kings brought in Dewayne Dedmon, Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph, and Richaun Holmes, while losing players like Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, Frank Mason, Alex Burks, and Corey Brewer. At first glance that feels like a defensive upgrade, but it does raise some concerns when we look into the numbers. Koufos, Brewer, Burks (in a very small sample) and Cauley-Stein were four of the team’s 6 best players in defensive rating last season. The other were Justin Jackson, who left at the trade deadline, and Nemanja Bjelica.
Looking at who the Kings added, Dedmon, Ariza, Joseph and Holmes all have reputations as defenders to varying extents. Dedmon is known as a rim protector, but he still finished last season with a defensive rating of 112.0, much worse than Cauley-Stein’s 108.7. There are a number of factors that could account for this (Atlanta as a whole was pretty terrible defensively last season), but it is surprising nonetheless. Trevor Ariza won’t be asked to lock down opponents primary scorers like he would have in his prime, but his defensive rating of 114.4 emphasizes just how much his defense has fallen since his heyday.
On a more positive note, Richaun Holmes’ numbers back up his reputation. Holmes plays with a high motor and is active on defense, and his defensive rating last season finished at a respectable 108.9. But the real bright spot is Cory Joseph. He finished last season with a stellar 102.4 defensive rating despite playing heavy minutes and primarily being used to defend opponents’ best guards. Joseph is by far the biggest defensive addition for the Kings.
The challenge for the coaching staff will be to implement their system, and to figure out how to use lineups effectively. De’Aaron Fox is an active defender, and deploying Fox with Joseph in key defensive situations makes a ton of sense. But I’m more worried about the bigs. We all assume Marvin Bagley III will be a starter this season, replacing Bjelica. But as I mentioned before, Bjelica ended the year as one of the Kings top defensive bigs statistically. We all remember the moments where he struggles to stay in front of athletic stretch fours, but overall he was still a more successful defender than Bagley. We can hope Bagley improves defensively (not an unreasonable assumption in year two), but Dedmon will need to step up to cover up for mistakes.
So will the Kings be a good defensive team? The pieces are certainly there. It’s possible. But there are a lot of components that will need to come together. It may end up being too much to expect the new coaching staff to implement their system successfully in an abbreviated training camp.