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De’Aaron Fox defensive struggles are a problem for the Kings

De’Aaron Fox’s struggles on offense have been publicized, but defense might be the bigger issue.

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

De’Aaron Fox’s offensive struggles through the first 21 games of the NBA season have been well-documented for good reason. After a breakout campaign in 2020-21, Fox has regressed across the board and just hasn’t been able to find any consistency on that end for the Sacramento Kings.

But while he’s certainly struggled offensively, an arguably more concerning long-term issue has been his inability to guard anyone on defense. Prior to this season, Fox pointed out defense as something he knew he needed to improve on for him and the team to take the next step.

“I know that I have to be more consistent on that end of the floor from the first quarter to the fourth quarter,” Fox said in the team’s late September media day. “That’s what I want to be: one of those guys that can guard the best perimeter player on the team and still do what I have to do offensively to help the team win.”

Well, now with the season a quarter of the way through, that has yet to come to fruition.

Sacramento Kings v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Individual defensive statistics tend to be flawed, but most metrics rate Fox out as one of the worst defensive players in the NBA through more than a quarter of the season.

Fox’s defensive rating is an abysmal 115.0, which is the third-worst among starting point guards — only Kemba Walker (116.3) and Ja Morant (116.8) have been worse. RAPTOR, a stat that measures the number of points a player contributes to team offense and team defense per 100 possessions lists Fox as 245th out of 250 qualified players in the defensive version of that metric.

Even when you compare Fox with past versions of himself, it’s clear that the arrow has been continually pointed down since his second season. For someone with Fox’s athletic ability and measurables, that shouldn’t be the case.

via FiveThirtyEight

Arguably the most startling stat, however, is how much better the Kings are on defense with Fox off of the floor this. Per 100 possessions, the Kings have given up 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Fox on the bench. That’s not just the worst on the team, but it’s in the first percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

So even though Fox has managed to maintain his status as the Kings’ most impactful player on offense, posing a team-high +9.3 point differential on that end, his team is still worse with him on the floor because of his dreadful defense.

It’s hard to know whether it’s a scheme thing, an effort thing, or something else. Against Memphis, Fox was getting worked off the dribble by guys like De’Anthony Melton, who Fox has the physical advantage over. Recently, in the Kings’ disappointing 102-94 loss to a depleted Philadelphia 76ers team, Fox was worked by Tyrese Maxey.

Getting blown by at the point of attack more this season might have something to with his lack of explosion. Fox has been considered one of the fastest players in the NBA since he entered the league, but this season that guy is M.I.A.

Whether that’s a result of Fox adding that 10 to 15 pounds of muscle or just a lack of interest, Fox doesn’t look as dynamic. In years past, Fox would have a couple of “wow” moments athletically every other game, where he’d get up to block a shot or have a speedy coast-to-coast finish, but this year you can count the number of those moments on one hand.

Entering the NBA, Fox was billed as a guy that could at a really good defender. But now in year five, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case.

Part of his struggles on defense could be attributed to being dragged down by the constant cycle of losing and firing coaches, which is now in its fifth straight year. Fox wouldn’t be the first player who came to Sacramento with wide eyes and was eventually dragged down by the losing.

Despite his struggles on both ends of the floor this season, Fox is the best player on the team and the most important player in the franchise. At a certain point, he needs to realize that he sets the tone for the team defensively, and they are never getting out of the gutter unless he makes strides on that part of the floor.

Offensive struggles happen when the shot doesn’t fall. Defense on the other hand is a lot more effort-based and it’s clear that Fox just isn’t putting enough effort in. Fox is too talented and capable to keep going down this path.