When Michael Malone took over the head coaching job for the Sacramento Kings, it was with the knowledge that he was inheriting one of the league’s worst defensive teams. Ranked last in the NBA or close to it in most defensive stats a season ago, change is going to take time. Better defensive players have been added and a new scheme is being implemented to help hide some of the weaknesses, but playing defense at the NBA level is a mindset.
In Monday night’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Kings looked rough on the offensive end, turning the ball over 26 times and shooting just 41 percent from the field. But the defense was solid, especially early in the game.
“I thought our defense for three quarters was great,” coach Malone told the media scrum last night after the loss in Oakland. “And then they started off the fourth quarter on a 24-10 run.”
The Kings starting frontline of Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins stood out in game No. 1. They looked extremely comfortable together, with each player showing glimpses of the new defensive mindset. While the results weren’t earth shattering, there was a noticeable difference in these two players in particular.
“Coach is giving me the confidence of doing certain things defensively,” said Thompson.
The veteran forward looked like a completely different player defending the pick-and-roll. He showed hard on the dribbler, but kept his man pinned deep. When the Warriors tried to throw over the top, he was balanced and in position to steal the entry pass. The official scorer gave him two steals, but from my seat, it looked closer to four. In the battle for the starting power forward position, Thompson took an early lead with his play on Monday night.
While Thompson was working on sealing off the post, Cousins was flying in to block shots and even cut off the baseline as a help defender on multiple possessions. Cousins has great feet, which helped him lead the league in drawing charges during his second season, but his teammates need more.
“Forget all of the terminology and all of the different coverages,” Malone said of his team. ”We have to trust, communicate and help each other every night.”
Trust and communication have never been a strong suit of Cousins or this group as a whole, but those concepts are the only way this team will succeed as a defensive team.
Cousins has to set the tempo. He has the strength, quickness, length and intelligence to be an above-average post defender, but it has to be more than just an individual growth. He has also taken on a new leadership role with the Kings and accepted the title of franchise cornerstone. If this team going to move forward, Cousins not only must accept the challenge, but convince teammates to follow him into battle.
“I think everyone on our team has bought in,” Malone said. “And they understand that we have a ways to go, but this is a good start for us. Whether it’s pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, post up, transition – they are all buying in. They are all taking the teaching they have been given so far.”
The Kings gave a solid effort for 36 minutes of the game, but fell apart late. This was their first preseason game and their first game with Malone at the helm, so a let down against a tough opponent is understandable.
“I think everyone needs to remember, this is the first time we’ve played against new faces,” Malone said. “The timing, the spacing, the reads, our counters, all of that will come. This is a process and I believe, that even though we lost the game tonight, we did get better tonight.”
A foundation is being built in Sacramento, but it’s not the first time. The Kings have talked a tough game in the past. They have promised to play better defense and even showed glimpses. They have the infrastructure in place this time around, but it means nothing if they don’t follow through.