The Sacramento Kings‘ season started in stunning fashion with a buzzer-beating win over the Denver Nuggets, and when they went and beat the Western Conference runner-up again a few days later to jump out to a 3-1 start, it seemed they had a chance to be a surprise team.
A few weeks later, the only thing that’s surprising is just how historically bad they are on defense. Following their 128-123 defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, the Kings have now lost three in a row, and eight of their past 10 games to fall to 5-9, which is the second-worst mark in the West. The primary reason for their poor run of form is that they absolutely cannot guard anyone.
Just to give you a quick idea of how bad things are, here are a few stats that stand out:
- Their 120.5 defensive rating is the worst in league history
- They’ve allowed 120-plus points in eight straight games, which is a franchise record and tied for the second-longest streak league-wide in the past 35 years
- They are last in opponent field-goal percentage (50.3 percent) and opponent 3-point percentage (40.2 percent). No team has allowed opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field since the Celtics in 1997, and no team has allowed opponents to shoot 40 percent from 3-point territory since the Cavaliers in 2011.
So what does that look like in action? Let’s use the loss to the Pelicans as an example. Also, just for context, the Pelicans entered this game ranked 22nd in the league in offense, so it’s not like the Kings were having to stop some super dynamic group on Sunday.
The first thing that stands out is that they can’t keep anyone in front of them. It’s way too easy for opponents to get past their initial defender, which makes it easy for them to either finish themselves or find a teammate when help arrives.
Brandon Ingram doesn’t really even make a move here, just gives a slight hesitation and cruises straight on in to the basket.
And this one: Look, if Steven Adams is beating you off the bounce from the 3-point arc, you might have a problem.
The Kings are top-10 in pace, and as they build around De’Aaron Fox, it makes sense for them to play fast. Speeding the game up is turning into a double-edged sword, however, because as much as it might help their offense, it’s even worse for their defense.
Teams are scoring on a whopping 60.9 percent of their transition opportunities against the Kings. On the NBA‘s stats site, that category can be tracked back until 2016, and in that time no team has allowed opponents to score more than 55.9 percent of the time in transition, which gives you an idea of how bad the Kings are faring.
Here’s a play where Zion Williamson grabs a rebound under his own basket and just dribbles in a straight line all the way to the rim for an easy layup. He gets to the restricted area before anyone on the Kings even thinks about stopping the ball.
Again, no one stops the ball. There’s a scramble on the ground that allows the Kings to get players back, and yet Nickeil Alexander-Walker is still able to go right to the rim unchallenged, and gets the and-one.
Another area in which the Kings struggle is guarding the pick-and-roll. Synergy Sports’ defensive metrics are always a little wonky, but they have the Kings 25th in the league — 1.235 points per possession allowed — in guarding the roll man, and 24th in the league — 0.962 points per possession allowed — in guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler.
And those are only on shots that come directly off the screening action. They can struggle as well with rotations, which leaves shooters wide open around the perimeter.
No team is ever going to be perfect on defense, and even those that succeed on that end of the floor are going to have weaknesses against certain personnel or in certain situations. Unfortunately for the Kings, every type of personnel and every type of situation appears to be their weakness.