Defense Wins Championships, But It Can Also End Playoff Droughts

It’s well known that throughout this absence of playoff basketball in Sacramento, there’s been an equally long period of defensive deficiency as well. 

The Kings have not had a defense in the top half of the league since 2006, when they finished 12th and last competed in the postseason. 

Trips to the playoffs and defense are inextricably tied together. Furthermore, success in the playoffs is reliant on defense.

During the Kings-Pacers Summer League game a few weeks ago, Kings head coach Mike Brown joined the broadcast and underlined how important defense is to today’s NBA, observing that all of the final four teams in the playoffs were top-10 defensively and that three were in the top four. More to the point, the Finals came down to the two best defensive teams.

Only four out of the sixteen playoff teams last season were in the bottom half defensively, which included Atlanta and their second-best offensive rating as well as Brooklyn, who was in the top-ten offensively. Fact is, all four of those teams lost in the first round, illustrating the immense importance of defense.

In today’s league, there’s no shortage of scoring relative to previous eras. In the last four seasons, not one team averaged less than 100 points per game. Extending it to the last six, only three teams have finished beneath that mark. For reference, eight teams finished below 100 PPG in 2015-16, and the year before that, half the league did. 

It can be attributed to the rise in three-point attempts and makes, the higher average pace factor, as well as other reasons, but the fact is teams are scoring more. And with the capacity to score over a 100 points per game being commonplace around the league, the thing that differentiates many of the good teams from the bad ones is defense, the ability to come up with stops.

That’s the case whether you’re up or down in the game, whether it’s early or late—defense is imperative. 

As it relates to the Kings, Alvin Gentry partly articulated this in a postgame press conference following a loss to Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans this past March. The Kings could just never mount a comeback in that game, and as the interim head coach noted, it had less to do with offense than it had to do with the fact that “the only way you can get back into the game is that you got to be able to come up with stops.”

Similarly, after Sacramento’s stars had gone down with injuries, the Kings were able to flip the script and win three out of four games on the road later that month. The reason for the sudden stint of success—albeit, against Indiana, Orlando, and Houston—was that the Kings were finally getting those stops, mainly through the short lived partnership of Davion Mitchell and Donte DiVincenzo.

There were plenty of times last season where games were headed for a neck and neck finish or even a Kings win before it was all blown up by the inability to secure stops. For example, early on in October against the Warriors, the Kings lead by 2 at half and trailed by 2 at the end of three quarters prior to losing the game in the final quarter. And in January, they played Detroit at home and were up 10 points with just under 3 minutes to play before falling apart and losing by 2. Then came a game at home against the Nuggets in late February where Sacramento trailed by just 5 before collapsing in the fourth quarter, surrendering a 21-9 run in the process.

If the Kings are going to end their streak of 16 consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, they almost certainly have to have a defense in the upper half of the league, which is all the more true in a very tough conference.

The organization clearly viewed things the same way when they conducted their coaching search this past spring, pinpointing defense as the hiring process fell to three candidates with good reputations for coaching that end of the floor. And it was obvious when they decided on Mike Brown, who, on top of having a good track record on the defensive end, was primarily responsible for Golden State’s second in the league defense.

So the Kings are off to a good start trying to whip out a good defense next year by hiring Brown, but even more than just bringing in a guy to lead the change, it’s perhaps more vital that the team he is taking control of has some real potential.

Of course, the reader just spent time reading how awful Sacramento was defensively and is probably asking what ‘real potential’ exists within this roster, which is fair. However, recall how things ended last season.

Amid the 3 wins in 4 games that was previously mentioned above, the one loss came at the hands of the Heat. After that game, former King Donte DiVincenzo expressed that he saw “a lot of potential” in the team’s defense despite surrendering 123 points in a blowout. 

The main reason behind that was Davion Mitchell. Despite having his up’s and down’s in terms of minutes and efficiency this last season, it seemed like Mitchell’s defense was consistently solid and vastly improving to the point where its impact on the game was undeniable.

Mitchell is simply a dog defensively, living up to his nickname and providing physical pressure that affects nearly any offensive player. Last March against the Bucks, Sacramento utilized a three guard lineup of Fox-DiVincenzo-Mitchell that had the 6’0″ rookie guarding the 6’7″ Khris Middleton.

His defense seemed to go on to the next level when a combination of things happened: his role expanded after Fox’s injury, he began to gel with the championship-winning DiVincenzo, and he was beginning to adopt a more vocal role.

Going into this year, he’ll be able to build off that and come in with comfort and knowledge of this league that is not afforded to rookies. 

Mitchell himself expressed the need his team has for him to assume more leadership on defense. During the Summer League broadcast for the Kings and Magic, he said that his two primary areas of focus are improving his shooting and becoming a communicator defensively. He said he showed what he can do, but now he has “to talk” and generate collective success.

More than the defensive stalwart Davion Mitchell, there were flashes of nice defensive play from other guys on the roster.

Following the trade of Haliburton, De’Aaron Fox looked different, going on a hot streak unlike any other. One of the primary things that made it stand out compared to other second half stretches in his career was the fact that he appeared committed to being locked in defensively.

Coach Brown vouched for his potential. Brown saw him as a high school player and recalled noticing how good the young guard was on that end of the floor, alluding to his capabilities. And Fox has been working a lot with Brown’s assistant coach Luke Loucks.

If it feels like it’s a matter of focus or intent regarding Fox’s defense, it’s because that might just be the case. James Ham called attention to a stat found by Sacramento’s former head of analytics which shows that Fox had the second best field goal percentage allowed when he defended 23 of the top 30 scorers.

As Ham put it, and as many fans and observers see it, “Fox can be a good defender when he wants to be.” 

If the Kings are able to have and maintain a confident demeanor at the start of next season, Fox is bound to be more engaged than ever before, which could produce the speedy guard’s best defensive year yet.

It’s also worth noting that this team also has Richaun Holmes, whose athleticism and size has always made him a plus defender. They also just drafted Keegan Murray, whose length, versatility, and high effort should boost defensive mettle. Plus, the additions of KZ Okpala and Chima Moneke appears to show the team’s emphasis on the importance of length and athleticism in order to have success on that end.

And for what it’s worth, GM Monte McNair said that both newly acquired shooters in Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter are “defensively underrated.” 

A lot has to go right for Sacramento if they are to make a sudden ascendance in the defensive rankings next season. It’s only July and the defensive side of the ball has consistently remained a barren wasteland for this franchise over the last decade-plus, so to say the Kings are going to be a great defense next year may not be the brightest of wagers. Even Brown himself admitted that they’re a long way from doing what Golden State did last season.

However, there is potential for this team to put themselves on the other side of the defensive rankings next year, say in the 12-15 range. And it seems they’ll have to depend on that to happen if they want to be a playoff team in the Western Conference.

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