So, they are doing it inconsistently, but the Kings are looking like a team that could make the playoffs in the next two years.
Right now, tare only one-and-a-half games out of the eight seed… Moreover in their past nine games, they’ve won five, with wins over Toronto and Indiana, and have been playing some very good basketball.
Part of this can be attested to the re-birth of Rajon Rondo, career seasons from Demarcus Cousins and Omri Cassipi, as well as Ben McLemore finally looking like an NBA player. Thus, the Kings young team is showing continuous improvement.
So what explains their recent good play? More to that point, where can the Kings improve over the course of this season?
Yes — as I will state ad-nausem in this article — defensively, the Kings have mainly been bad. Yet, over the past seven games, there has been slight improvement. Since December 8, the Kings have a Defensive Rating of 101.3, which is good enough for 15th in the NBA. Before this streak, they had the lowest Defensive Rating in the NBA. How has this happened?
The improvement is mainly due to the Kings defense against Offensive Cuts. Cuts consist of when the finisher catches a pass while moving towards the basket. Moreover, they are a significant indicator of contemporary offenses with two ball dominant guards and a mobile big.
Figure 1 Stats per Synergy
Figure one shows that the Warriors, the best team in the NBA, as well as Hawks and Mavericks – who are two very good teams – run a significant amount of cuts per games. Moreover, of the Warriors last nine opponents, only two – Utah and Minnesota – rank in the bottom half of the NBA in cuts per game.
The reason the Kings have been good at defending cuts this season, and moreover in their last nine games, is that Rondo and Collinson are sticky defenders, and Cousins can handle mobile big men. This results in cut plays being ineffective.
Unfortunately for the Kings, they rank in the bottom-five in defending the two most important modern NBA offensive sets: transition offense and pick-and-rolls, per Synergy. Thus, defense is not the Kings strength (for an interesting read, Rafe Wong suggests this is to be expected for George Karl coached teams).
Thus, outside of defense, where else can the Kings improve?
Here’s a hint, it has to do with lineups. More specifically, how horrendously bad George Karl is at setting them.
First, and unrelated to Karl’s decisions, Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury has hurt Sacramento from a lineup perspective. This is because Cousins-Stein was the Kings best two-man lineup that had played over one hundred minutes this season. His eventual return should give a much need low-post boost to Sacramento.
Overall though, Karl has done a horrendous job. Nonetheless, some lineups have supposedly worked well for the Kings. Jason Jones has argued that the Rondo-Collison pairing has been crucial for the Kings during the recent stretch. In some ways this is true, however, said lineup has also been the fourth worst defensively since Sacramento’s streak began. Also, the Kings’ most common five men lineups are Rondo-McLemore-Gay-Casspi-Cousins and Rondo-Collison-Gay-Casspi-Cousins. The lineup with McLemore in it instead of Collison is a net 8.1 points better per one hundred possessions. Therefore, let’s not bless Karl with false praise regarding that decision.
In fact, the only place the Rondo-Collison tandem has been effective is as a Point Guard rotation. Jason Jones has also written about how Rajon Rondo has found a home in Sacramento with the Kings and with Cousins. Furthermore, Gerald Bourguet of Fansided has analyzed how Darren Collison has been impactful as Rondo’s backup for the Kings. This is because, as players, Rondo and Collison balance each other well. Thus their strengths are effective regardless of who else is on the court.
Additionally, Collison features in the Kings’ best three-man defensive lineup. During Sacramento’s current streak, Cousins-Collison-Casspi is the fifteenth best defensive lineup in the NBA. Thus, Collison’s defense is much appreciated as the Kings seek to improve.
But still, the coach’s lineups are awful. Dear God, George Karl, please stop playing the Rondo-Collison-Casspi-Gay-Cousins lineup. During their positive streak, in lineups that have played fifty minutes or more, that five man lineup has the fifteenth worst Net Rating.
Wait, what? Can the additions of Rondo and Gay really harm a three-man lineup that is so good defensively? Yes, and here is why. Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay are horrendous team defenders. When Rondo is added to that lineup it is only the 44th ranked defensive lineup out of 250 contenders.
Let’s dig in the data even more and look at the Kings worst two-man defensive lineups during their improved “streak.”
What this means is that, during the improved stretch, seven out of the Kings ten worst defensive lineups had Rondo and/or Gay in them.
Consequently, as stated before, the Kings’ defense is awful. It is so putrid that it is hampering otherwise good lineups. The five-man lineup mentioned previously of Rondo-McLemore-Gay-Casspi-Cousins scores 108.7 points per one hundred possessions but gives up a whopping 105.8. Karl needs to find a way to harness this rotation’s offensive prowess without abandoning all hope of defense. The best bet here, is to remove one of the two horrendous team defenders in Rondo and Gay, and replace them with a player like Collison or potentially even James Anderson, who has a 94.8 Defensive Rating in the 2015-16 season.
Thus, for the Kings to improve, they need to primarily focus on the defensive end. Additionally, George Karl needs to find balanced lineups where offense and defense are not the sole goal. Furthermore, after he finds these lineups, he must choose to actually play them significant minutes. If this happens expect rapid improvement for the Kings this season. Furthermore, the return and continuous improvement of Willie Cauley-Stein should aid in this advent.