The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A Hall of Fame coach installing his system and philosophy since training camp, a completely revamped roster, a new President of Basketball Operations serving as architect and steward of the franchise, countless team building activities throughout the off-season. All of these ostensibly fit the narrative that many national NBA writers predicted. They anticipated a significantly more competitive team in Sacramento, and a number of them even picked the Kings to contend for a playoff spot this season. This year was going to be different, they said.
Less than two weeks later, the Kings have limped out to a 1-7 start to kickoff the 2015-16 campaign. To be fair the schedule has been absolutely barbaric, as six of the eight Kings’ opponents were playoff participants a year ago, and almost all of those were teams that enjoyed deep playoff runs. Furthermore, the Kings have yet to play a single contest against the lowly East and the countless bottom feeders that reside in that conference. DeMarcus Cousins and Darren Collison each missing multiple games has clearly played a powerful role in the Kings’ early season struggles as well. But it was widely believed that the Kings had improved their depth tremendously and were better suited to handle stretches if their All-Star big man were to miss games.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Sacramento Kings’ defense is a major concern eight games in. The Kings currently rank 29th in the league in defensive field goal percentage allowed, yielding 48.7%, only ahead of the winless New Orleans Pelicans. Sacramento opponents are averaging better than 111 points a game. To the Kings’ credit, the Kings have shown vast improvement in defending the three, as they allow just 32.4% shooting from beyond the arc, good for 12th in the league. But opposing guards are getting into the lane consistently and are shooting free throws at alarming rates.
On the offensive side, several players have labored through a trying first two weeks. Granted, it is a small sample size, but the Kings premiere scoring options of Cousins, Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Marco Belinelli are each shooting under 40% from the field. Coach George Karl has been searching for units that play a cohesive and unselfish brand of basketball, and has been attempting to balance the minute distribution between his point guards Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison. Karl has found opportunities to play the two together, including to finish games at times.
A closer look at several advanced stats suggest that the Kings may be a lot better than their 1-7 record might indicate. The Kings have seldom used the lineup of Rondo, McLemore, Gay, Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein, but they boast the league’s best +/-. That’s better than any lineup the Warriors have used, any lineup the Cavaliers have used, any lineup any team in the league has used. For those that aren’t familiar, it is an analytic measurement that records how much every five man unit in the NBA wins or loses by while they share the court together. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, that five man group has only seen the court together in two games this year, for a total of 43 minutes. The Kings and their analytical team, headed by Roland Beech, are no doubt aware, and I would fully expect that group to earn more minutes going forward.
As porous as the Kings’ defense has been, their offense has actually been tremendous one tenth of the way through. Sacramento is averaging 99.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 11th in the NBA. It is a metric used to equally assess how efficiently every team in the league scores by accounting for teams that both slow down offensive tempo and those that emphasize pace. The Kings are shooting threes at a 36.2% clip, seventh best in the league. And perhaps most importantly, they are averaging 23.6 assists a night, also seventh in the league.
All of those offensive stats that were provided aren’t just lipstick on a pig either. They are tangible strengths that often times, over the course of a complete 82 game NBA season, result in winning basketball. Those metrics indicate that the Kings have an impressive offense at their disposal. With DeMarcus Cousins back in the lineup and regaining his conditioning, Darren Collison set to return in the next handful of games, and the schedule getting decidedly less difficult the next few weeks, the team has a chance to right their wrongs and piece together some wins to regain some much needed confidence. If the defensive effort and execution improves, perhaps those preseason playoff predictions can indeed come to fruition.
Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Kings