Yes, the Sacramento Kings are coming off a magical season. But under all that success lies an ugly truth.
The Kings had the highest offensive rating in NBA history, and it was so impressive and enjoyable to watch that it almost made up for how bad their defense was. At the same time, it was frustrating for the team knowing that if -- if -- it could hold it down on defense, it could take its overall success to the next level.
Sacramento ended last season ranked 24th in defensive rating (116.0). On the road, though, the Kings were a completely different team, as they finished the regular season ranked eighth in defensive rating away from Golden 1 Center. Not to mention they turned up their defensive intensity in their first-round playoff matchup with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
So, the Kings are capable of playing good team defense. But can they commit to it for an entire season?
That will be the next big challenge for the Kings, if they truly are serious about transforming their playoff goals into NBA championship aspirations.
Given the Kings' overall rating last season, one might think the front office would make defensive improvement a priority entering the offseason. A number of big-name, defensive-minded players -- Draymond Green, Khris Middleton, Kyle Kuzma and Brook Lopez, among others -- were tied to Sacramento in free agency.
No player mentioned above will light the beam this coming season, though, as the Kings ultimately decided to re-sign Harrison Barnes and run it back with essentially the same core.
Following the initial irritation and “What?!” shouted out by Kings fans, general manager Monte McNair’s master plan began to make a lot of sense. Green returned to the Warriors for $100 million over the next four years. Kuzma re-upped with the Washington Wizards for $102 million over four years. Middleton’s new Milwaukee Bucks deal is three years for $102 million. Lopez also returned to Milwaukee, signing a two-year, $48 million contract.
Rather than sign a star player to a lucrative contract, McNair made subtle, under-the-radar moves while still improving the Kings' roster, including signing EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov and acquiring Chris Duarte from the Indiana Pacers in a trade.
OK, so no big offseason splash. But what does this mean for Sacramento's defense?
It means McNair is so confident in this group that he’s willing to rely and bet on each individual’s defensive strides. The question is, did each player make them this summer?
Only time will tell, but it would be surprising if Sacramento’s team defense didn’t improve. Continuity should help, and the Kings' first playoff appearance in 17 years showed them the physicality they need to win meaningful contests.
Alex Len is a great example. Len registered 51 DNPs (Did Not Play) last season and averaged just over three minutes in the first 18 of the 26 games he played. In that limited time, Len averaged 0.7 points, 0.9 rebounds and zero blocks. Kings coach Mike Brown mixed things up late, though, and inserted Len into the lineup for the final eight regular-season games, and Len responded by averaging 3.8 points on 61.1 percent shooting, with 5.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 13 minutes.
Brown was comfortable using Len's length during the playoffs, too. Once Len joined the rotation, the Kings experienced an improvement in their defensive performance. While his numbers might not jump out on a stat sheet, he did all the intangibles that Brown had been begging for all season from the rest of the guys. Defending without fouling. Finding a body to box out and secure rebounds. Protecting the rim. All things a defensive-minded coach like Brown can appreciate that help make all the difference.
At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds, Len provided the Kings with more size in the frontcourt than the Kings' other backup options. And to be frank, his late-season impact and postseason appearances were more impactful than Chimezie Metu's or Richaun Holmes'.
Len's rim protection and rebounding skills will be needed next season, and not just toward the end. Luckily for him -- and the Kings -- they added 7-foot big man and three-time NBA champion JaVale McGee this offseason.
Sacramento essentially swapped Metu for Vezenkov and Terence Davis for Duarte. Vezenkov's NBA journey is just beginning, so there are question marks around what he will bring defensively. From the sound of it so far, though, he already has the Kings mentality and is committed to doing what it takes to win.
Meanwhile, for Duarte, not only is the former first-round draft pick a significant defensive upgrade over Davis, it's safe to say he also holds that distinction over Kings guards Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk -- for now.
Last season was a bit of a lost cause for Duarte in Indiana because of injuries and limited playing time. He played just 897 total minutes in 2022-23, compared to the 1,541 he did during his rookie year. But he showed in that first NBA season what he brings on defense, ranking in the 75th percentile in effective field-goal percentage when guarding the small forward position (h/t The Kings Herald).
Even Davion "Off Night" Mitchell -- the Kings' best defender and one of the NBA's top on-ball defenders -- said he's working on improving parts of his already-elite skill set.
So, the good news for the Kings is they know they must improve. They were tested under the bright playoff lights against a team with scorers such as Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole. Their offense got them to the playoffs, but stepping up on defense kept them there and forced a Game 7 against the then-defending champions.
Sacramento played the best defense of the season in its first two playoff games in 17 years. The Warriors averaged the second most points per game in the regular season (118.9), and the Kings held them to 106 in Game 2, 114 in Game 3 and 99 in Game 6. Fulfilling Brown's season-long request to turn up the physical intensity on the defensive end certainly helped.
Plus, Mitchell doing the impossible (defending Curry and defending him well) made a noticeable difference, too. While there's no stopping Curry, Mitchell did what he could to limit the two-time NBA MVP. In the first five playoff games against the Warriors, in which Mitchell averaged 24.1 minutes, Curry shot 36.7 percent from 3-point range. In the final two games of the series, when Mitchell averaged 9.7 minutes, Curry's efficiency from behind the arc jumped to 40 percent, and the Warriors superstar exploded in the final game of the season with a historic 50-point game, in which Mitchell played just over eight minutes in that same game.
Brown later explained why Mitchell saw limited minutes in the most important game of the season, and his reasoning to prioritize Sacramento's offense over defense was valid at the time. But the Kings must find a medium to balance out their bad defense with their great offense next season.
By no means do the Kings have to be the NBA's best defensive team. But if they could break into the top 20 next season and potentially approach the top 15, they could reach completely new heights.
The Beam Team proved that an all-time great offense could elevate the 24th-"best" defense to a top-three playoff seed and a Pacific Division title last season. But making those defensive adjustments as a team could give last year's Cinderella story a fairytale ending next year.
Last season, assistant coach Jordi Fernandez selected one King as the Defensive Player of the Game after every win, rewarding them with a blinged-out chain. It's important for teams to find joy during a lengthy 82-game season, but being rewarded for good defense when your team isn't good defensively seems to defeat the purpose. The Kings can make that DPOG chain mean so much more next season.
And in the end, they'll be rewarded with more than just some heavy jewelry around their necks, but a real shot at climbing atop the Western Conference mountaintop and fighting for an NBA championship.