Four ways Kings can improve on defensive end in 2022-23 season
Adding Mike Brown can only do so much, Kings need more from these four players
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How do you fix one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA? This is a question the Sacramento Kings are still pondering.
General manager Monte McNair added three primary rotational pieces during the offseason in Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk and Keegan Murray. Of the group, Murray, a rookie, is likely the best defender.
There is still time to adjust the roster and McNair is working to accomplish that, but asking for defensive improvement without adding defensive players is a tall task, even for new head coach Mike Brown.
Brown is an excellent defensive coach and his staff will work hard to promote a culture of accountability. Even if they get 100 percent buy in, that may not be enough.
Players like KZ Okpala, Chima Moneke and even two-way player Keon Ellis are all known for their defensive effort, but getting them on the court won’t be easy. The true improvement has to come from the players who are seeing the most court time.
Evan as a rookie, Murray will help. At worst Huerter is considered a league average defender and he may be able to improve in a different situation. Monk has been clear that when accepting his contract it came with the understanding that he would have to improve on the defensive end.
The rest of the improvement has to come from a group of players that are considered the core of the team. Here is a look at the top four candidates who will either make or break the Kings’ defensive efforts for the 2022-23 season.
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Head of the Snake
De’Aaron Fox has to be better on the defensive end, but the stats are more complex than you would imagine.
Roland Beech of 82games.com shared with The Kings Beat that the Kings’ starting point guard ranks second in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed against the top 30 scorers in the league. It’s a strange stat, but also one that starts a conversation.
In case you don’t know who Beech is, he was once the head of the Sacramento Kings’ analytics department and he is a well-respected stats man. And in case you still aren’t convinced, here is a chart from Will Z that backs everything up.
Last season, Fox guarded 23 of the top 30 PPG scorers in the NBA. The table below shows their %'s when guarded by Fox vs their season Avg's, and how all other players fared against Fox vs their Avg's
— Will Z. Stats (@will_zimmerle)
Jul 25, 2022
Beech’s point, as well as Will Z's, is simple. Fox can be a good defender when he wants to be. The question is how do you get him to balance out being a star defender against star players and a poor defender against everyone else?
Overall, Fox ranks in the 30th percentile of all NBA defenders and has a rating of “below average” according to Synergy. Where he truly struggles is in the pick-and-roll, especially against the ball handler, where he ranks in the 13th percentile and gives up 1.052 points per possession.
Can this issue be fixed? That will test Brown and his defensive acumen.
Outside of the pick-and-roll, Fox is actually solid and in some instances, excellent. In isolation, Fox ranks in the 95th percentile. Against pick-and-roll bigs, he ranks in the 95th percentile. Even in spot up situations or against screens, Fox ranks as league average.
The focus has to be there each and every night, regardless of who is suiting up across from Fox. He knows this and it’s something he will be reminded of on a daily basis from the Kings’ new coaching staff.
The mystery of Harrison Barnes’ defensive metric last season will take some time to digest. The 30-year-old forward plummeted in defensive rankings, falling all the way into the 12th percentile of the league last season.
Where Barnes struggled the most was in close out situations, where he ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the league allowing 1.352 points per possession, and against the pick-and-roll ball handler, where he allowed 1.039 points per possession.
Unfortunately for Barnes, these two situations made up 57.1 percent (440 out of 770) of all of his defensive possessions.
Here is where things get strange. During the 2020-21 season, Barnes rated as a good defender through Synergy, finishing in the 62nd percentile and allowing just .923 points per possession. He was average in spot up and pick-and-roll ball handler situations and very good in isolation opportunities.
Barnes is a player who treats his body like a shrine. He does everything in his power to not only prepare himself for a season, but to recover during the year. Writing him off as a player fading at age 30 would be a mistake.
It’s possible that three and a half years in a Kings uniform has taken a toll on Barnes. It’s also possible that he was surrounded by such poor defenders that he was constantly chasing his own shadow last season.
Can Barnes rebound and go back to a league average or better defender moving forward? Can the Kings find players who can take some of the load off of his shoulders?
Barnes is a pro’s pro. He’s not at an age where he should see the type of regression that occurred last season. If he can hold his own at the three, the Kings are instantly a better defensive team.
Richaun Holmes had a disastrous 2021-22 campaign. Two eye injuries cost him major time. A bout with Covid hurt as well, and then he had to step away from the team to deal with ongoing personal matters for the final 11 games.
Nothing went right for Holmes and that was before the Kings traded for Domantas Sabonis and gave away his starting job. Still under contract for the next three seasons, the Kings need to find a way to get Holmes on the floor.
If we rewind to the 2020-21 season, which seems like so long ago, Holmes was one of the lone standouts on the worst defense in the NBA. He earned a ranking of good on Synergy by finishing in the 54th percentile and allowing just .936 points per possession.
Those numbers dropped last season to the 34th percentile and .97 points per possession for a ranking of average. Even average is pretty solid for the 2021-22 Kings, but the team needs more.
Holmes is in a battle for minutes this season, but the arrival of Brown could make a difference. Rumors around Sacramento have the Kings’ new head coach asking for Holmes to stick around, despite his hefty price tag for a reserve center.
Brown put on a defensive coaching clinic last season with the Warriors, delivering a top defensive rating, despite having plenty of marginal defensive players. Part of his design was to use two defensive-minded big men in Draymond Green and Kevon Looney side-by-side, despite neither having the ability to space the floor on the defensive side of the ball.
There is potential for Brown to use Holmes and Sabonis together for stretches this season, especially if one of them can hit 3-point shots on the offensive end. Holmes is a more versatile defender than Sabonis. He has the ability to stay with shooters on the perimeter and we are just one season removed from him averaging 1.6 blocks per game.
Holmes’ personal issues seem like they are behind him, although it’s likely this will be a distraction that pops up on occasion. The Kings need him to bring the defensive intensity that earned him a four-year deal last summer, whether he’s playing 14-16 minutes as a reserve center or 22-25 as a high-end rotational player.
Stealer of Minutes
At some point, Brown may come to a very basic revelation. Better defensive players help improve a porous defense.
The Kings chose Davion Mitchell with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft for his ability to lockdown opposing perimeter players. In year one, “Off Night” lived up to his billing, earning a synergy rating of “very good” on the defensive end and ranking in the top 82 percent of the league.
Mitchell’s offensive rating was not nearly as kind, but that’s for a different day. The 6-foot-1 point guard rated very good against pick-and-roll ball handlers and in isolation. He also ranked good against spot up shooters and in the post. He can show improvement in screen and hand off situations, but overall, there isn’t a true weakness to his defense.
In total, Mitchell averaged 27.7 minutes per game in his rookie campaign, but those numbers are skewed by an increase late in the year. In March and April, as the Kings’ season was winding down and injuries shut down starters, Mitchell played 33.5 minutes per game versus 25.7 during October-February.
If the players Mitchell is fighting with for minutes in the rotation decide not to improve on the defensive end, then it is possible that they may learn a new meaning to the nickname Off Night.
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