The Sacramento Kings had a good thing going at the start of this season. A 5-1 start featured wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns, and while that was followed by a tough three-game road losing streak, the Kings bounced back by winning four of five.
Sacramento was 9-6 when All-Star DeMarcus Cousins went down for an extended period of time with a nasty bout of viral meningitis. Not surprisingly, the Kings stumbled, giving management all the excuse they needed to fire head coach Mike Malone. Not only did upper management have rather unrealistic expectations for the team, but there was a clash of philosophies between them and the head coach. New ownership, led by Vivek Ranadive, had a vision of up-tempo and “innovative” basketball (4-on-5 defense!), while Malone was a defensive coach who preferred to play in the half court.
People were shocked when Malone was fired, especially because it seemed he had gotten through to Cousins. While the big man has always been one of the most talented players in the league, there had been questions about his maturity and buy-in on the defensive end. Those questions appeared to have been answered early this season, as Cousins was playing some of the best ball of his career.
Tyrone Corbin took over as interim head coach, and while there were rumors of a pursuit of George Karl, that likely won’t happen until the offseason. If at all. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be Corbin running the show after this season.
The Kings have gone into the tank since Corbin took over for Malone, as an 11-13 record has turned into a 17-30 record after a 121-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors. Sacramento surprisingly jumped out to a 20-10 lead in the game, but the good times were short-lived and soon turned into an embarrassing blowout defeat.
Defense was again the main culprit in the loss to the Warriors, as it has often been since Corbin took over. When Malone was fired, the Kings had a defensive rating of 104.2, per NBA.com. That’s not good, but it represented an improvement over the past year and also included nine games without the improved Cousins. (The defensive rating was 103.6 in the first 15 games with Cousins healthy.) Since Malone was fired, Sacramento has a defensive rating of 108.1, the third-worst in the NBA during that span.
The defense began to take a dive almost immediately after the coaching change, and Cousins was open in the media about the need to get back to the way they had played at the beginning of the season. But that hasn’t happened, and we have seen too many embarrassing defensive lapses, including some by Cousins himself (although he has generally still been pretty good on that end):
The offense has also declined since Corbin became coach. The team’s pace has picked up significantly, just as management envisioned, but the efficiency has gone down. The Kings remain the best team in the league at getting to the free throw line, but they shoot threes poorly and turn the ball over at a high rate. Not a healthy combination in today’s NBA.
What’s interesting about all these struggles is that Sacramento has one of the best starting units in the league, as pointed out by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller. Ziller notes that the Kings’ usual starting group of Cousins, Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay and Jason Thompson has the fourth-best net rating in the entire league for units that have played at least 150 minutes, behind only two Warriors lineups and a group from the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the strength of Sacramento’s starting lineup has been mitigated by several factors, including non-existent depth and poor coaching. That has led to the disaster this season has become, and it doesn’t look like much will change anytime soon. The results would likely see some improvement with more consistent effort, but the Kings need more talent and a better coach to drag themselves out of the depths of the Western Conference moving forward.