Kings season preview: Defense improvements or bust!
Kings open the 2023-24 season with plenty of familiar faces
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The practice facility was filled with the sound of squeaking sneakers and the thumping of a bouncing ball. Players raced from one end of the court at a feverish pace. The ball kept going into the hoop, which in one respect, is a good thing.
Head coach Mike Brown called his players in and his group, including coaches, training staff and the medical team surrounded the 2022-23 NBA Coach of the Year.
What happened next was unexpected. Or maybe it wasn’t.
With cameras rolling and the regular season a little over 24 hours away, Brown unleashed a profanity-laced torrent of anger at his team. It wasn’t PG-13. It was a full-blown rated R tirade that left the room quiet.
This isn’t the first time the media has heard Brown come down hard on his team, but it may have been the first time he filled up a swear jar in one sitting while cameras were rolling.
The issue Brown was addressing following practice was the ease in which the offense scored baskets in a two minute situational scrimmage to end practice. The Kings’ offense, which set an NBA record for highest rating in league history, is really good. But the defense was also not up to par and Brown wasn’t having it.
“We have to be better, especially if we’re going to be in those types of situations down the stretch,” De’Aaron Fox said. “You have to be able to get a stop. We can’t just go in and outscore people.”
Fox admitted that the players see this side of Brown quite often, but this was a special performance from the Kings’ front man. He is demanding that the team turn over a new leaf on the defensive end this season. He will not accept the team finishing 24th in defensive rating this season like they did last year.
Year two of Brown is intense, but also what this group needs. Taking a jump from 30 wins to 48 in one season is an incredible accomplishment, but Brown and his players understand that the next jump is a lot more difficult.
Here is a look at the Kings as they head into an extremely important 2023-24 campaign.
PG: De’Aaron Fox
SG: Kevin Huerter
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: Keegan Murray
C: Domantas Sabonis
Fox is the head of the snake and now he can add NBA All-Star and All-NBA third team to his resumé. The 25-year-old blossomed in his sixth NBA season, winning the NBA’s Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year award while averaging 25 points and 6.1 assists per game.
Up until Tuesday afternoon, the starting shooting guard position was up for grabs. Huerter won the battle with Chris Duarte, but it was injury aided and his spot in the first group might be revisited down the road. Huerter is a knockdown 3-point shooter, averaging 15.2 points per game last season on 40.2 percent shooting from distance. Brown wants more from Huerter on the defensive side of the ball, like he does the rest of the roster.
“Kevin is going to start and everytime we practice, everytime we have shootaround, it’s my job to evaluate the team,” Brown said following Tuesday’s practice. “I told the group there, I know for sure I’m not going to sit back and watch us play the same way we played defensively, without making changes.”
Mike Brown on Kevin Huerter starting and whether that is a permanent move.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 24, 2023
Harrison Barnes is the grizzled veteran of the starting unit. Entering his 12th NBA season, the 31-year-old forward returned to Sacramento on a new three-year, $54 million contract during the offseason. He started all 82 regular season games for the Kings last season and another seven in the playoffs. He’s a pro’s pro who averaged 15 points and 4.5 rebounds last season while shooting 37.4 percent from 3-point range.
The long term ceiling of the Kings might depend on the development of Murray. Entering his second NBA season, the No. 4 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft put up a solid rookie season that saw him smash the NBA’s rookie mark for 3-point makes. In his sophomore season, the Kings are hoping for a major leap forward from the 12.2 points and 4.6 rebounds the 23-year-old posted a season ago.
Like Fox, Sabonis collected a trophy case worth of awards last season, including his third All-Star bid and an All-NBA third team award. Sabonis led the league in rebounding and double-doubles while compiling an overall statline of 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He accomplished all of this despite suffering an avulsion fracture in his right thumb in December. There are questions about Sabonis and his impact on the Kings’ ceiling from some national media members, but this was one of the most impactful players in the NBA last season. He finished second in the NBA in win shares and seventh in MVP balloting.
PG: Davion Mitchell
SG: Malik Monk
SF: Chris Duarte
PF: Trey Lyles
C: JaVale McGee
Mitchell is the best defender on the Kings’ roster and he worked tirelessly all offseason with Stephen Curry and his trainer to clean up his 3-point shot. The former Baylor Bear has plenty to prove in his third NBA season, but he is a reliable backup to Fox and one of the hardest workers on the team.
Fox recruiting his former college backcourt mate during the summer of 2022 was a nice story and then Monk made it a great one. An energizer bunny on the court, Monk is entering the final year of his contract in Sacramento and has a lot to prove. He’ll play the role of Sixth Man with the Kings, but there will be times when Brown leaves him on the court to finish games.
Up until last week, Duarte looked like a major competitor for the starting shooting guard spot. A bone bruise to his left knee slowed down his progress, but don’t be surprised if Duarte is pushing for minutes early on. While he isn’t the pure shooter that Huerter is, Duarte brings an expansive toolbox to the table. Talent isn’t the issue. Duarte is a multi positional player who can do a little of everything. If he can stay healthy, expect big minutes from the 26-year-old wing.
Like Duarte, Lyles had an injury setback in camp. He won’t play in the opener due to a left calf strain, but the Kings are counting on big things from Lyles this season after he returned to the club on a two-year, $16 million contract. Lyles can play both the four and the five in the Kings’ rotation and his balanced game and high basketball IQ stand out.
McGee was a late addition to the squad, but he might be just what the doctor ordered. The 35-year-old is still a strong rim protector on the defensive end and his ability to finish off the lob in the pick-and-roll is top notch.
The other guys
Sasha Vezenkov may play in the opener due to Lyles’ injury, but the former EuroLeague MVP could be on the outside looking in on the rotation once Lyles is back in the fold. He’s a knockdown shooter and a very smart basketball player, but his reaction time and understanding of the offensive and defensive sets needs work.
Vezenkov is a rookie by NBA standards, but he’s been a professional basketball player for the last 13 seasons in Europe. Colby Jones is the lone true rookie on this squad and he might be one of the x-factors. The Xavier product impressed throughout the preseason with his versatility on both ends of the court and his composure. He looks like a ballplayer and Brown is going to have a tough time not giving him a look at some point.
Sabonis is the starting center. McGee is the backup. Lyles is in the mix as well. Alex Len is somewhere after all of this. The veteran was impactful in limited minutes last season and he’s back for another tour of duty this season. It’s a long 82 game season and Len will be ready when his number is called.
Kessler Edwards might be the 14th man on the roster, but he brings defense and an improved 3-point shot. The 23-year-old bulked up over the summer and is ready to play either forward position. If Brown gets super serious about the defensive changes, Edwards could also get a look at some point.
All eyes are on Murray. Between the California Classic and during preseason, Keegan looks primed for a breakout season. There is a lot more to his game than what we saw in year one and his teammates are going to push him to reach the lofty expectations.
Playoff Malik is a thing. Monk has a lot riding on this season with his impending free agency this summer. If he can translate the player he was in round 1 of the playoffs last season to the 2023-24 regular season, the Kings could take another huge leap in the win column. Adding McGee as a pick-and-roll partner was a stroke of genius.
Entering his third NBA season, Mitchell needs to take another leap forward. He’s proven in bursts that he is more than just a defensive stopper, but he needs to find the flow of the offense and consistently hit his 3-point shot to take the next step.
Brown wants the defense to improve now. He isn’t going to wait until 20 or 30 games into the season to make adjustments. Duarte is the player most likely to benefit from this mindset. As a rookie, he was stellar on the defensive end while playing for the Pacers and he already has strong chemistry with Sabonis from their time together in Indiana.
Path to improvement
After a breakout 48-win season last year, the Kings have high expectations internally for the 2023-24 campaign. The talk throughout training camp and preseason was about pushing to win an NBA title, which is lofty for a franchise that just snapped a 16-year playoff drought.
There are two primary ways for the team to improve this season. For starters, they have to improve on the 24th rated defense in the NBA. Without making major changes to the rotation, this will have to come through organic growth as a unit and through more physicality, which has been a theme for the last few weeks.
In addition to improvements on the defensive side of the ball, the Kings need to find a way to protect home court. Brown’s squad finished last year with a road record of 25-16 and a home record of 23-18. If they are truly going to jump into contender status or even repeat their 48 win total from last season, they will need to take care of home court.
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