The day prior to Sunday night’s preseason game against the Warriors, head coach Mike Brown said he was going to start Chris Duarte over Kevin Huerter, who was the starter all of last season, citing his desire to “experiment” so as to get a look at “different guys with different lineups.”
Brown noted that he’d done something similar in the previous game against the Lakers. After Sasha Vezenkov started that contest, he went with Duarte in the second half for no other reason than to get a glimpse of something different.
However, this could end up being more than a mere experiment. After all, in the first week of training camp, Brown said something interesting about the starting lineup and his duty to make “hard decisions” when necessary.
“We have a pretty good idea where we want to go with (the starting five),” he said over a week ago. “The group that finished the season last season — we’re going to give them another opportunity or first crack at it, but at the end of the day, if somebody steps up and separates themselves from the rest of the pack, it’s my job to make those hard decisions.”
It’s early and there are two preseason games remaining, so there’s no definitive indication who Brown will start, but with the primary focus of camp being physicality—particularly on defense—it’s evident that Duarte currently has an edge over Huerter in that department.
Duarte looked sharp on both ends last Wednesday, proving to be gaining comfort with his new team and in his return to play after more than 200 days of no live basketball action.
While he was indeed perfect from the field, Brown clearly liked the physical effort from Duarte on defense more than anything, especially in regards to defending the pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff, which are two critical aspects for the team if they are to improve defensively since they were, according to the head coach, the worst at doing so in the entire league last year.
Brown said on Friday that De’Aaron Fox, Davion Mitchell, and Duarte were bringing physical on-ball pressure at “a high level.” That is high praise for the newcomer.
On Saturday, he repeated much of the same sentiment. Additionally, he was asked about what Huerter needs to do to preserve his place in the starting lineup.
Brown made a point of not singling out Huerter, but it is clear the issue is his on-ball defense. All of last season, there were moments when the redheaded sharpshooter looked solid on that end, but he did not always bring it. In fact, it’s fair to say that—outside of his weak side defense—Huerter was the worst defender of the starting five.
“On the ball and in pick-and-roll situations, you got to get up into that ball and you got to get over the screen at the same time because what we are doing as a group — and not just Kevin, there’s a few of our guys that are doing this — we’re staying here, we hear the command, so we’re sending the ball to the screen, which is where the help is, but then as the screen’s coming, we’re not getting into the ball to skinny up and get over the top, we’re chasing the ball,” coach Brown explained this past weekend. “And now that ball’s turning downhill and now you got Domas (Sabonis) there and you have our other defenders trying to play five on four against a team … and it makes it tough. So I have to put more pressure on our guards to help us better in the pick-and-roll so we don’t face that pressure getting downhill.”
On top of keeping guys honest, Brown seems to be making an explicit challenge. Of course, he says it’s not just Huerter, but Brown appears set on establishing a high standard for his starters.
That same day, he also said that in aiming to win it all—as they’re trying to do—defense is key. He noted that with the number-one offense last season, there’s only so much growth that can take place on that end in order to take steps forward overall, to go from good to great. On the flipside, there’s a ton of room to grow on defense after Sacramento finished 24th among the NBA.
Brown is challenging all of his guys, but Huerter is the most prominent example. At this point, his on-ball defense is such that there is ample opportunity for someone to “step up” and “separate” himself from Huerter in that regard.
And that someone is clearly Chris Duarte.
Duarte did not play in the second half of Sunday’s game early due to knee soreness after he’d banged it in the second quarter (according to Brown, there’s “a small bone bruise,” but his MRI “came back clean”). Nevertheless, in his 12 minutes, he continued to play commendable defense. On several occasions, he looked terrific guarding Klay Thompson, keeping his chest on him and making shot attempts as difficult as possible.
Postgame, his head coach described his defense as “really good,” seemingly pleased with his integration with the starters on both ends while specifically noting Duarte’s efforts against Thompson.
Huerter, on the other hand, did not have as much success guarding Thompson. Early into his floor time, Huerter struggled to bring the right level of physicality, fouling Golden State’s future Hall of Famer.
Perhaps more notable, there was a moment where Huerter blatantly failed to provide fearless physicality as he was evidently slow—and maybe even hesitant—to cut off a driving Jonathan Kuminga after he brought the ball past half court. Kuminga was Huerter’s man in that instance, and the easy lane he allowed resulted in an immediate timeout from Sacramento’s bench.
There’s little room to argue that Huerter is equal to Duarte on the defensive end, but the argument in favor of Huerter could be shooting. However, so far this preseason, Huerter has shot just 3 of 16 (18.8%) from beyond the arc while Duarte has hit 4 of 10 (40.0%) attempts.
Right now, Duarte has simply looked like the better two-way player even as his first preseason game was admittedly rocky. More importantly, the team’s stars are noticing.
“(Duarte) shoots the ball so well — he can really score the ball — and defensively, he’s really getting after it, he’s being physical, trying to keep the ball in front of him, (and) he’s communicating,” De’Aaron Fox appraised after Sunday’s game when asked about how the former Pacer fits in with the starters. “He’s doing everything we need and I think he’s been really good out there with us.”
Is a lineup change on the horizon?
It may be that Brown lives up to his word and gives last year’s starting lineup another go when opening night comes around in a little over a week, but things should be considered fluid. Anything can happen.
Included in the possibilities going forward is that Huerter responds with a resounding answer. Coach Brown declared he was “better defensively,” saying he thought his 3 early fouls were products of good efforts.
Even still, the matter of the starting lineup remains intriguing.
Almost echoing his comments from the first week of camp, Brown said Saturday that he’ll “consider anything” in terms of rotations and lineup changes. Through three preseason games, Chris Duarte has definitely given him a lot to consider.