Over the first five games of the NBA restart — three scrimmages and two seeding games — the Sacramento Kings have conceded 120.4 points per game. They have gotten off to lousy starts in essentially every contest, giving up an average of 35.6 points in the first quarter, including 43 and 44, respectively, to San Antonio and Orlando in the last two losses.
There have been several issues with Sacramento’s play in the bubble, but the primary problem has been on the defensive end, where the Kings simply haven’t been good enough to be a playoff team.
“The defensive intensity is just not OK,” head coach Luke Walton said on a Zoom call after practice on Monday. “We’re not going to win games without a much higher level of defensive intensity.”
The Kings weren’t a stellar defensive unit during the regular season, but they were close to league average with a defensive rating of 110.8 points per 100 possessions; in Orlando, that rating has dropped to 123.1. Even an average defensive showing would have been enough for two wins in the first two seeding games. Alas, the team has been far worse.
The blame can be spread all around. Richaun Holmes has not been the rim protector Sacramento needs. After forcing opponents to shoot 2.1% worse when he was on the floor pre-hiatus, Holmes doesn’t seem to have the same presence, and his explosiveness just isn’t there. He hasn’t been aided by his teammates, as most of the Kings perimeter players — particularly the starters — have essentially been turnstiles letting opponents to the rim. Either that, or they protect the paint too aggressively and fail to close out on shooters.
Walton singled out Cory Joseph and Corey Brewer as players who brought the appropriate intensity on defense, and Joseph said it comes down to everyone on the team collectively having that mindset.
“It starts individually, and then you know you have to think, how can I help my team out?” Joseph said after practice Monday. “It’s a team game, how do you help the team? I’m not saying we’re not doing that, we just got to lock in to the game plan and execute it well.”
Kent Bazemore doubled down on the fact that the schemes are not the problem. He repeatedly acknowledged the work that the coaching staff has done to scout the opponents. However, the players simply have not been ready.
“At the end of the day, it’s just effort, that’s it. That’s what defense is, it’s 100% effort, and another 100% of following the game plan,” Bazemore said. “If you got five guys on the floor making those kind of efforts, you will be in a really good spot at the end of the day, so I won’t say anything on different schemes because our coaches are professional, they’re really good at what they do. It’s just the effort that it takes to really execute these defensive schemes that we’re lacking right now.”
There isn’t much more time for the Kings to figure out how to reclaim some modicum of defensive intensity, but the team remains hopeful that it can happen. They earned the right to play in the bubble, even if 21 other teams did as well, and they’re determined to prove that they are better than the product they have put on the floor so far.