Dave Joerger knew it would be hard to turn the Kings into a team that put defense first.
He often points out that prioritizing defense takes a mental toll on players as they adjust to the effort needed to defend at a high level for an entire game.
So through 11 games and after four days off, Joerger said he was encouraged by his team’s progress.
“I think the effort’s there,” Joerger said before Wednesday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs at Golden 1 Center. “We’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time, so I think sometimes you’re going to take your nicks and have some slippage when you don’t have practice time or your legs get tired or your mind gets tired.”
Entering Wednesday, the Kings were allowing 103.6 points per game, 16th in the NBA. Being in the middle of the league in points allowed generally isn’t something to celebrate. But last season, the Kings gave up a league-high 109.1 points per game.
The Kings also were allowing 38.9 points in the paint per game, fourth fewest in the league. But they still face a lot of work to get the defense in position to produce sustained success.
Sacramento is allowing opponents to shoot 46.2 percent, 26th in the NBA. Its defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is 107.1, 27th in the league.
Occasionally, the Kings have shown they’re buying into Joerger’s philosophy. Perhaps their best win was against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 6, when they held league scoring leader DeMar DeRozan to 23 points, one of only two times he has scored fewer than 30.
What makes Joerger cringe are open lanes to the basket and opponents that look too comfortable.
“We’ve had some flashes of success on defense,” center Kosta Koufos said. “We have some things we need to work on. From bigs to guards, we need to improve on both ends. I feel we’re better, but we still have things to learn. Eleven games is still early in the season, but we have to improve sooner than later.”
Koufos played for Joerger with the Memphis Grizzlies, so he has an idea of what the coach wants long term. Koufos said the Kings are beginning to grasp aspects of Joerger’s strategy.
“Bigs are hedging more on the screens. Guards are more vocal,” Koufos said. “It’s just one of the things that’s important on defense, talking more, and we’ve been doing that.”
The Kings have four more games on this homestand, then go on a six-game trip, so Joerger hopes to make the most of the team’s practice time at home.
Before this recent break, the Kings didn’t have much practice time on the road and played four sets of back-to-back games, which are always followed by a day off.
“It’s a tough stretch to start the season out with,” Joerger said. “Your mind and body get used to it at a certain point. It just seems like you play a ton of games in March wherever you are, but to start out with that at the start of the season as you’re trying add stuff and new things can be difficult. Hopefully, playing every other day gives us that opportunity.”