Breaking down the defense with Jim Eyen.

The Sacramento Kings have struggled defensively in the first half of almost every game this season.  Overall, the Kings are allowing 107.7 points per game which ranks 26th in the league and their defensive rating of 112.6 places them at number 29 of the 30 NBA teams.  Tom Ziller and my friends over at Sactown Royalty, recently looked into some of the team’s issues in Kings’ Defensive Deficiencies: At the Rim, Behind the Arc which opened up some questions that maybe we could get to the bottom of.  Fortunately, this allowed me the opportunity to sit down again with Kings coach Jim Eyen, one of the men in charge of defensive game planning.  Here is Coach Eyen with The Purple Panjandrum:


TPP: As one of the coaches responsible for game planning the defensive scheme, how much easier does your job get with Dalembert moving into the starting line-up?

Coach Eyen: Well anytime you are able to add to the mix a shot blocker like he is, that’s going to help you defensively because not only is he going to be able to erase some mistakes, he’s going to be able to alter shots and basically change their approach.  It’s a terrific asset to have, a shot blocker like him, and particularly a veteran one who knows how to play and how to do all the intangible things that goes along with being the anchor on defense that he is.

TPP: With the current rotation that we are seeing so far, how does it influence your job at hand when maybe you could use an Antoine Wright or a Donté Greene to match up on defense but they are kind of planted on the end of the bench right now?

Coach Eyen: I think that the good thing about our roster is that we can go down the bench and use guys in particular roles.  There still in a position to do that, nothings changed.  We’ve got enough guys in the rotation to plug any hole that we need plugged- we can play big, we can play small, we can play conventional.  I think Paul has a lot of options of how he can use his roster.

TPP: During the first handful of games this season, you guys have struggled defensively in the first half.  Is that a function of the young players not quite understanding the speed and positioning of the NBA game yet or is there more to it?

Coach Eyen: I think so.  I think that has merit.  It’s taken us a while to adjust to the game, to the flow of the game, to what the offense is doing and the flip side of that is that it has been a positive how we have adjusted on the fly in the game.  We’ve made some minor changes during the course of the flow that maybe will help us later on.  But overall I think it is something that our younger players will get better at, starting games.  They are starting to understand that a 48 minute game is a long game.

TPP: It seems like overall, we have seen an increase in three point shooting to start the NBA season.  The Lakers came in and they had already shot 90 three pointers in the first four games of the season and then they put up 21 against you guys as well.  Do you think that is where the league is heading or is this just an early season anomaly?

Coach Eyen: I think it just depends on the shooters that you have on your team.  Some clubs are doing quite well that don’t shoot a lot of three’s at all- Utah is one of them.  It depends, if you have that in your line-up then you utilize it and you try to make something out of it.  When you spread the floor, it opens up the inside for you and it gives you that punch.  If you don’t have those good percentage three point shooters, then you find other ways to score and other ways to keep the defense at bay.

TPP: How does that make your job tougher, coming in against a team like the Lakers who have great size with Gasol, Odom and even Artest with his strength, but then they have another five guys shooting over 50% from three as well?  How do you combat that as the defensive coach?

Coach Eyen: I think that what you do is try and focus on taking away what they like to do and hopefully allow them to take the shots you want them to take.  It’s basically a game of percentages and over the course of a long game, like the pro game, percentages usually play themselves out.  Now if a team is going to score inside and then shoot three’s and they’re going to control the boards, then you are usually going to lose is what it comes down to.  What you have to do is be able to take away the one or two things they like to do best and against the great teams and the good team, you’re just not going to be able to take away everything.  Again, it’s a game of percentages.

TPP: You have two players that, age and experience-wise are so far apart, but they still play such a similar game in Dalembert and Whiteside.  With Dalembert being in the last year of his contract and you never know what happens at the trade deadline with an expiring contract- how far away is Whiteside from contributing some good, solid NBA minutes?

Coach Eyen: I think a large part of that is up to him.  I think he started out behind the eight ball with his injury during the pre-season and he lost some valuable playing time where we could have seen considerable growth.  Even right now, as he’s come back, we see a lot of growth in practice everyday.  So where he ends up in the short term is up to him, how hard he works, how quickly he picks up the NBA game and everything that follows in line with that.  As for right now, I think his role is a spot role and that can blossom with his own play, with his confidence, with our confidence in him so really the only way I can answer that is to see how he develops, but I think a lot of that depends on him.

TPP: Where is Cousins at defensively in your mind right now?  How far away is he from being a serviceable defender?

Coach Eyen? I think that what he has to learn right now is the NBA game.  I’ve seen a lot of payers come into the league and the game just seems so fast.  It’s faster, it’s stronger, it’s more aggressive than the college game.  It’s like jumping on a treadmill or something, you have to get up to speed first. The game will slow down for him and when it does, he won’t foul as much, he’ll be able to see things quicker, read things quicker and then he’ll become an even a better defender.  I think with his size and his timing and his basketball IQ, it’s all there.

TPP: Similar question with Tyreke.  I know that last season, one of the other coaches made a reference that when Tyreke is playing off the ball on defense, it’s like he’s waiting for a bus.  Do you plan on getting him more active away from the ball like working passing lanes etc?

Coach Eyen: “We work on that everyday with all of our guys and then we show film to our guys.  We show them what they look like on the other side.  One of our mantras, everyday, is that it takes probably more concentrated energy to play weak side defense than it does to play on the strong side or on the ball.  Not only do you have to focus and be in a cat like position in your stance, you have to be able to react to things, you have to be able to anticipate, and all of that is something that is not easy to jump into this game and be credible at.  You have to work at it and some guys get there quicker and some guys it takes some time.   It’s through drill work and it’s through film work and it’s through concentration that they get to the point where they can be an all around defender.”

TPP: Do you think Tyreke has the potential to be an elite defender with his size and strength or do you think he is going to be more of an offensive player that sometimes plays defense?

Coach Eyen: I think Tyreke can be one of the best defenders in the league.  He has all the tools, he has the size, he has long arms, he has the tenacity- and I think he will be.  I think it’s just a matter of time.  He will get to know players in the league, which is a large part of being a good defender is to know your opponent and know their tendencies.  As he gets more comfortable with the league and more familiar with it, he’ll get even better.  Without a doubt, I look for him to be one of the better defenders in the league.

TPP: I’ve listened to Samuel Dalembert talk about defense and I’ve seen him working with Hassan Whiteside here at the facility.  He played with Dikembe Mutumbo as a young player, he’s a great defensive rebounder and both a weak-side and man on shot blocker.  I know you’ve been coaching in the NBA for over 20 years, but can you use a player like Dalembert as a resource?

Coach Eyen: Absolutely.  As a teacher, you use any resource or tool that you have and he is a great tool- a great resource.  There are some times when I’ll put him and someone else together and I’ll say- “Sam, tell them about this.”  He’s heard it from me, but they may need to hear it from someone else kind of thing.  You use whatever resource you have, absolutely, and Sam is well spoken and he understands a lot of things, so you utilize that aspect of his presence on the roster.

Coach Eyen is one of my favorite people to catch up with.  His answers are thorough and honest, but I think most of all insightful.  As this current team gels on the court, you can see how they have the potential to be a quality defensive team.  It will be interesting to see how quickly their young players not only learn the system, but the finer technical aspects of defense that separate a marginal defensive player from a very good one.  The Kings certainly have the athletes to play defense, but there is question as to whether defensive players like Antoine Wright and Donté Greene can earn their way back into the rotation.  With Coach Eyen breaking it down and Samuel Dalembert as a defensive center piece, the team can only get better.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also provides game day coverage for NBA.com and is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart".