While it’s believed George Karl will often use a small lineup this season, the Kings’ coach is still looking at the “big” picture.
A bigger lineup might not provide the same flexibility on offense, but the Kings’ defense this preseason has shown that playing big can be beneficial.
Karl said “protecting the basket” has been key to the good stretches of defense, led by big men DeMarcus Cousins, Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein.
“Great players can beat any coverage you put on the court,” Karl said. “But I think the big thing is Cuz is a very good defensive player, doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is defensively. Kosta, that’s what his forte is: defending and rebounding. And Willie, surprisingly, is being an effective, long guy who can jump and create some problems. I think all three have been pretty special.”
Although Karl’s top two point guards, Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison, reputedly are able defenders, defense was perhaps the coach’s biggest concern entering training camp. And there are concerns about who will emerge as a staunch wing defender.
If Karl can rely on his post players to be solid around the basket, it will go a long way toward solidifying the Kings’ defense, which has struggled for years.
Under former coach Michael Malone, the Kings’ defense showed signs of being consistent early last season. But that progress quickly unraveled in December when he was fired after 24 games.
Some of the major changes this offseason, such as signing Koufos and drafting Cauley-Stein, were aimed at improving a defense that seemingly has allowed players to score at the rim at will.
“If we don’t give up layups, I think we’re going to be difficult to beat,” Karl said. “And I think that’s true with anybody in the NBA. If you can control the paint, conceptually you can design pick-and-roll defenses that hopefully will control that.”
Koufos said the Kings are progressing defensively in part because their big men each have their own way to help out. Koufos isn’t one for the highlight block, but teammates can feed off his savvy and toughness.
“For me, that’s my thing, defending and protecting the rim,” Koufos said. “We’re all unique in our own right, but we all contribute defensively.”
Cousins, who has always shown good instincts around the rim and the ability to draw charges, said the perimeter players are making it easier for the big men to do their jobs.
It’s risky for Cousins to attempt to draw a charge because he could be called for a blocking foul, but if the team is connected with a defensive concept, he shouldn’t have to take as many chances around the basket.
“We’re pressuring the ball,” Cousins said. “I think guards are doing a pretty good job of staying in front, and us bigs, we’ve got a tough combination at that rim right now. I think it’s pretty tough for teams to get in there and score around the basket.”
Cousins already has expressed trust in Cauley-Stein. The rookie has shown a knack in practices and preseason games for leaping to block a shot that would appear to be out of his area.
Cauley-Stein and Cousins have started the past three preseason games.
“For him to be a rookie, you trust him in those positions, and that’s a compliment,” said Cousins, entering his sixth season. “Most rookies, you’re pretty tough on them, especially on the defensive end. But he’s got so many good instincts on the defensive end, there’s not really much you have to teach him.
“He’s still got a lot of learning to do, but the potential is there – you can see it. It’s only a matter of time.”