Saying the Kings didn’t talk on defense last season isn’t completely accurate.
There was a lot of talking – occasionally. It just came at the wrong time.
The chatter usually followed a basket by the opposition, a blown defensive assignment or a failed defensive switch. The players also demonstratively pointed at who should have been where to prevent yet another easy score.
Those problems illustrate a bad defensive team.
Last season, players complained about coach George Karl’s defensive schemes, and their effort on many nights reflected their lack of faith. If you want to make a player from last season’s Kings wince, mention the idea of constantly switching on defense.
Meanwhile, superstars, aging veterans and mediocre players were circling the Kings on the schedule as their chance to break out of a slump or post season or career highs.
The Kings’ defense ranked last in 2015-16, allowing 109.1 points per game. But let’s not pretend Sacramento’s inability to stop opponents started last season. The Kings have been bad defensively for some time. And every preseason they talked about improving.
We always felt last year we could score on anybody, but we couldn’t get stops. We’ve emphasized in camp if we get stops, we’re going to be tough to guard. We’ve always known that we have enough talent to score. So when you put guys in the right situations, right spots everyday and force your will on the defensive end, you can see better results.
Omri Casspi, Kings forward
But they never backed up the talk partly because they didn’t talk on the floor.
Now the Kings again are talking about being better defensively. Only this time the fellow doing most of the speaking is first-year coach Dave Joerger. And he’s set on putting those words into action.
“It’s coming along,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “It’s really being preached. We need to talk more. We need to find our voice out there. I think we’re all coming along. It’s a process and we’re on the right path.”
With the Memphis Grizzlies the last three seasons, Joerger developed a reputation as a defensive-minded coach. His teams never finished lower than 11th in points allowed per game and wound up outside the top 10 in opponent’s field-goal percentage only once. That occurred last season, when the injury-riddled Grizzles ranked 18th but made the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Kings forward Matt Barnes, who played for Joerger last season, said repetition helped the Grizzlies remain competent defensively.
“I think it’s that we practice it so much – it’s something we do every single day,” Barnes said. “Shootaround, whatever it may be, so it becomes habit. Once you pick it up, it’s ingrained in you and it really becomes a part of you. So even though we lost a lot of people last year, we were able to plug guys in and they were able to pick it up.”
Last season, Kings players privately complained that practices did not focus enough on defense, and the coaches grumbled about the players lacking attention to detail when executing the game plan.
Those issues shouldn’t return this season. Joerger preaches defense constantly. Barnes, who has played for nine teams in his 13-year career, said Joerger practices defense more than any coach he’s had.
If you’re not making shots or you’re turning the basketball over, your defense always has to be there. Your defense has to travel on the road. Your defense has to be there on nights that ball’s not going in.
Dave Joerger, Kings coach
Kings players still around from recent seasons seem to welcome Joerger’s approach.
“We always felt last year we could score on anybody, but we couldn’t get stops,” forward Omri Casspi said. “We’ve emphasized in camp if we get stops, we’re going to be tough to guard. We’ve always known that we have enough talent to score. So when you put guys in the right situations, right spots everyday and force your will on the defensive end, you can see better results.”
Joerger isn’t revolutionizing defense. He’s just stressing fundamentals.
“We practice defense more than we practice offense, and for me, I think that’s a good thing because defense is what’s going to win you games,” Barnes said. “Offense is going to come along, but like I said, it just becomes such a habit that it’s contagious and you can become effective at it.”
A sound defense is paramount in today’s NBA. This is not the 1980s or ’90s, when rough play was allowed and winning with scores in the 80s was a badge of honor.
Rules now restrict contact for defenders, thwarting a revival of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” or the physically imposing New York Knicks. Consequently, teams no longer simply count on each player to guard his man one-on-one.
As the basketball cliché goes, it has to be five players “on a string” simultaneously covering for each other.
“It’s definitely more a team defense concept in the league now,” Barnes said. “They really don’t let you touch anybody anymore. You definitely have to rely on your help-side (defense) and people being in the right coverages, people coming back and cracking back for you. It’s a foolproof concept that we drill so much that it’s second nature to us.”
Kings forward Anthony Tolliver has played for coaches known for effective defenses, including the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and the Charlotte Hornets’ Steve Clifford.
Tolliver said the string concept is the “common denominator” on solid defensive teams.
“It sounds very simple, but it’s not,” Tolliver said. “It’s very hard. It takes a long time to do, to get the defense to a level where you know if you make a mistake, you’re covered, and if somebody else makes a mistake, you’re going to cover for them. A lot of trust and patience to get there, but I think we’re on the road to do that.”
While the defensive scheme must be dependable, the defenders must be willing to do the work. In past seasons, not enough Kings were committed to defending. When the offense was struggling, strong defense could have provided a spark. Instead, missed shots and turnovers often caused the players to hang their heads transitioning back to defense.
Joerger saw that bad habit in the Kings’ preseason finale against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday.
“If you’re not making shots or you’re turning the basketball over, your defense always has to be there,” Joerger said. “Your defense has to travel on the road. Your defense has to be there on nights that ball’s not going in.”
Casspi said Joerger’s success on the defensive end elevates the Kings’ confidence in his system.
It would be easy to say Joerger’s Memphis teams clamped down because he had defensive stalwarts such as Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. But Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, is not known for highlight-reel blocks like the Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside. Gasol was honored for anchoring a unit that allowed a league-low 88.7 points per game.
“Obviously, great defenders in a great system are going to look even better,” Casspi said. “You look at Kawhi (Leonard) in San Antonio. Their team defense is always good and you always respect the way they play, and they play hard. And then you have Kawhi, he makes it even better. I think you can make it about team defense to a certain extent, but special defenders can always take it to another level.”
The Kings have been at or near the bottom of the league’s defensive rankings for most of the past decade. A turnaround will require more than effort and Joerger putting the players in the best position to succeed. It will require constant communication on defense and a commitment to Joerger’s principles.
“Defensive teams that aren’t good, they don’t talk,” Tolliver said. “It’s very quiet. That’s one focus we’ve had all camp, increasing the amount we talk because of how important that is, early and often.
“Also just knowing that against a bad defensive team, you get past the first line of defense, there might be a second, but there’s not going to be a third. There might be one rotation, but the second rotation is almost never there on a bad defensive team. As a vet, you learn those things and hope to be on the better end of that.”