Wait, what? The Kings made the playoffs??
After 16 years of not playing past early April, the Kings will finally be seeing action beyond the regular season, in what is a success story that no one can really hate on. Beloved former Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown has enacted a culture shift upon a team that hasn’t really had one since the early-2000s Kings teams that had the likes of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Peja Stojaković.
When Brown’s hire was announced in the middle of the Warriors’ legendary 2022 playoff run, many expected him to address the Kings’ defense. After all, Brown has been considered a top defensive coach for several years.
He took command of the Warriors’ defense last season and immediately instilled a culture of accountability, most notably in practices where he would award players who stood out defensively and wasn’t afraid to call out those who were lacking. The players appreciated that kind of coaching, and the results — a second-ranked defense in the regular season that translated into the playoffs — reflected it.
Nothing was more fun than watching the Warriors’ defense — under Brown’s tutelage — employ a variety of schemes and coverages. All sorts of zones (3-2, 1-2-2), various pick-and-roll coverages (drop, screen-level meetups, hedging, switching, blitzing, switch-to-blitz, etc.), and even “junk” defenses (box-and-one, triangle-and-two) — Brown wasn’t afraid to throw out everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink.
It wasn’t a surprise that he took his approach of taking everyone accountable to the Kings and found success. What was a surprise, however, was that the success didn’t come in the form of a defensive awakening.
Rather, it was on offense where the Kings finally broke out from the doldrums. Not only did they post the best offensive rating in the 2022-23 season (118.6) — they posted the best offensive rating in NBA history.
The Warriors will be facing an offensive juggernaut to start their 2023 playoffs journey — and if they don’t pay attention to details defensively (something that has plagued them throughout the regular season), they could find themselves being constantly run out of the gym.
When you look at the Kings’ offense, there are some striking similarities to that of the Warriors’ offense. They run the least number of pick-and-rolls in the league, instead preferring to run their offense through central playmaking hubs at the elbows/high-post, with multiple shooters and cutters whizzing around like spokes on a wheel.
Their high dependence on their bigs acting as hubs reflects in the number of handoffs they run — 10.2 per game, the most in the league. Having Domantas Sabonis, who is one of the best big-man passers in the NBA, gives them the luxury of having a premier handoff big. Through him, the Kings posted the second-best half-court offensive rating (104.6) during the regular season.
The individual stats have been equally gaudy: 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 7.3 assists (11th in the league and second among centers) on 61.5% shooting from the field and a 66.8% true shooting mark.
Sabonis’ partner in crime on offense is De’Aaron Fox, who is having one heck of a season: 25.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists on 58/32/78 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT) and a 59.9% true shooting mark. His speed in fastbreak situations and in the open floor is arguably unmatched, and has allowed the Kings to post the third-highest transition frequency in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
The acquisition of Kevin Huerter — posting a career-high three-point percentage of 40.1% on nearly seven attempts per game — has given them a dangerous movement shooter that has further unlocked their potency. Keegan Murray has been a rookie godsend for them (41.4% on 6.2 three-point attempts), while Harrison Barnes has been a sturdy and dependable veteran wing.
This series has the potential to be a barnburner, with each team trading bucket after bucket. But if the Warriors are to win this matchup, it’ll be due to the stark difference in one key area: defensive ceiling.
As presently constructed (assuming Andrew Wiggins sees time in this series and returns to form), the Warriors’ defense has the capacity to slow down the Kings’ offense, while the same can’t be said for the Kings’ defense — on paper, at least.
Projected starting lineups
|Steph Curry||De'Aaron Fox|
|Donte DiVincenzo||Kevin Huerter|
|Klay Thompson||Keegan Murray|
|Draymond Green||Harrison Barnes|
|Kevon Looney||Domantas Sabonis|
Relevant regular season team stats
|Offensive Rating||115.1 (10th)||118.6 (1st)|
|Half-Court Offensive Rating||101.0 (6th)||104.7 (2nd)|
|Defensive Rating||113.4 (14th)||116.0 (24th)|
|Half-Court Defensive Rating||98.3 (18th)||102.0 (29th)|
|Effective Field-Goal Percentage||57.4% (3rd)||57.5% (2nd)|
|Pace||102.54 (1st)||100.99 (12th)|
|Assist Percentage||69.1% (1st)||62.6% (7th)|
|Turnover Percentage||15.8% (29th)||13.3% (6th)|
|Free-Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions||19.5 (30th)||24.6 (9th)|
|Free-Throw Percentage||79.4% (9th)||79.0% (12th)|
|Three-Point-Attempt Rate||47.9% (3rd)||42.3% (5th)|
|Three-Point Percentage||38.5% (2nd)||36.9% (9th)|
|Offensive Rebound Percentage||27.7% (16th)||26.5% (23rd)|
Defending the Kings’ offense
Watching the Kings’ offense is a whole ton of joy from a pure basketball-fan perspective. One thought comes to mind when you see how they approach the game: They play basketball how it was meant to be played.
That sounds mighty familiar — because the Warriors have also been described in the past as a team that plays the “correct” way.
The most statistically potent NBA offense in history has plenty of schematic weapons at their disposal. As aforementioned, they eschew a ballscreen-based offense in favor of running their offense through big-man hubs.
Spacing is an important component of their offense, resulting in the Kings turning into one of the league’s top shooting teams:
- Sixth in total three-point attempts (3,060) and attempts per game (37.3)
- Fifth in total three-point makes (1,128) and makes per game (13.8)
- Fifth in three-point attempt rate (42.3%)
- Ninth in three-point percentage (36.9%)
Brown likes to surround Sabonis with multiple shooters who not only can spot up but also make life hard for defenses by moving around off-ball screens, relocating to other spots on the floor in Steph Curry/Klay Thompson fashion, and pair up with hubs on two-man dribble-handoff (DHO) actions.
These hubs — just like the Warriors like to do — can be stationed as far out as the top of the arc. From such a vantage point, Sabonis can initiate a bunch of actions from a 5-out “Delay” configuration where the Kings can run movement shooters off of one or multiple screens (“Chicago” action, a wide pindown into a DHO; or “Stagger Away” with two staggered screens for a corner shooter).
Occasionally, they also like to run “Wedge” action — a screen angled diagonally for Sabonis near the elbow/free-throw line — to get him low-post position. These are set up either for the other four players on the floor to run around and perform second-side movements such as split action, or for Sabonis to isolate in the block, preferably against a mismatch.
The Kings ran a few of these Wedge actions during their regular season matchups against the Warriors:
The Warriors were able to prevent forced switches by having the screener’s defender bump Sabonis in order for his man (Kevon Looney or Draymond Green) to recover on time. After the post entry, it was a matter of balancing help with watching out for off-ball/second-side movement.
But perhaps the most common part of the floor where Sabonis and the other Kings bigs like to initiate action is at the elbow/high-post area. If the Warriors can be described as low-post split action merchants, the Kings can be described as high-post split action merchants.
The Kings having Sabonis run split action and handoffs at the high post is reminiscent of Rick Adelman’s Kings teams in the early 2000s. Their “Corner” offense often had Divac be the passing hub on the elbows and two movers running around him on split cuts.
It’s highly appropriate — from a narrative point of view — that an extremely similar philosophy is being run for the same franchise 20 years later, one that has propelled them to their first playoff berth in a decade and a half.
These high-post actions require utmost focus, discipline, and communication if you’re the Warriors. Switches need to be properly called out and executed, while lock-and-trail principles need to be adhered to.
Screen navigation is arguably the one important factor that can make or break a defensive possession when it comes to guarding high-post handoffs. If defenders fall ever so slightly behind, that puts Sabonis’ defender between a rock and a hard place:
The Warriors certainly have the personnel and capability to lock-and-trail, top-lock, fight over screens, and blow up actions:
Having Green guard Sabonis and play the middle ground between the ball handler and the handoff hub/roll man gives the Warriors one heck of a solution. His ability to synchronize his foot and hip movement to shift from one player to the next is arguably unmatched.
Having revolutionized the switch-everything ethos and having been on the receiving end of a switch-everything scheme that aims to stagnate a motion offense, the Warriors know better than anyone that switching almost everything can be the bane of an offense that banks on off-ball screens and split cuts.
They’ve shown flashes in the past of pulling it off against the Kings:
Switching is an especially important concept in one area: “exit” screens. Much like the Warriors, the Kings like to run their shooters off of pin-in screens as auxiliary actions behind main actions such as ballscreens, handoffs, and high-post splits.
There’s an element of deception when it comes to these exit screens. Off-ball defenders who ball-watch and/or don’t have their heads on a swivel, fail to communicate, and don’t pay attention suddenly find themselves being pinned in by a screen and unable to close out toward corner shooters.
Other times, two defenders jump out at the shooter, which opens the slip for the screener:
The boo-boos above aren’t ideal. But this possession — in which Green and Thompson are on the same page on a switch — is how the Warriors should take away exit screens:
Thompson and Looney switch the exit screen for Huerter, who goes to Sabonis in the post to take advantage of the switch. This forces early help from Green in the form of a double, which triggers the skip pass to Murray. Wiggins closes out on time, forces Murray off the line, and funnels him toward Green. Murray tries to thread a pass to Sabonis, but it’s off the mark.
In terms of matchups, Looney and Green (in small-ball lineups) will take turns guarding Sabonis, while a committee of Wiggins, Donte DiVincenzo, and Gary Payton II will take the reps on Fox.
Wiggins’ availability and condition coming off a long hiatus is an interesting storyline and could have ramifications in this series. His length and physicality — especially around screens — gave Fox fits during their regular season meetings.
Having Payton around as a perimeter specialist is a luxury the Warriors almost didn’t have this season, if not for the James Wiseman trade. Not much needs to be said about his caliber as a defender.
DiVincenzo can certainly hold his own against Fox. While not as lengthy as Wiggins and not as physically hounding as Payton, DiVincenzo has a knack for doing his work early and getting his hands on the ball without taking many risks.
This possession against Fox was intriguing, to say the least:
DiVincenzo shades Fox to his weak hand (called “Weak” coverage) and makes it difficult for him to use the screen. He forces Fox to give up the ball, after which he switches out toward Chimezie Metu. The ball finds its way back to Fox — but he finds himself having to face off against Wiggins, to no avail.
Another matchup quirk to watch out for: having Green guard Fox — not only to put length on the Kings’ primary ball-handler but also to switch possible screening actions with Sabonis. This is something the Warriors have done in the past against the likes of Jalen Brunson and Chris Paul.
Draymond on Fox here, that allows any of his actions to be a switch. Draymond's defense going to be huge in this one. Question is how much do they want to put Looney on Fox and their wings on Sabonis in the post. pic.twitter.com/NaZcIZJvoy— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 10, 2023
This is a Kings offense that can definitely explode for a game or two — if not more — against a Warriors team that ranked 12th in non-garbage-time defense (114.2 defensive rating) and 18th in half-court defense (98.3 defensive rating). They’ll have their work cut out for them in terms of keeping things contained and flattened.
Attacking the Kings’ defense
As much of an offensive behemoth as the Kings have been, they have been the complete opposite on the other end.
They finished the regular season as a bottom 10 defense (117.3 non-garbage-time defensive rating, 25th in the league, per Cleaning The Glass), a bottom three half-court defense (102.0 defensive rating, 28th), and allowed opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 56.7% — 27th in the league.
One fact sticks out from looking at their defensive shot profile: They have had a particularly difficult time defending the most valuable spots on the floor. They’re in the bottom five in both opponent rim field goal percentage (69.0%) and opponent three-point field goal percentage (37.7%).
It’s not due to a lack of effort. Not having the kind of personnel to execute multiple coverages has given Brown a tough time trying to shore up his team’s defense. The Kings’ wing room, in particular, has been lacking in versatile defenders who can handle all sorts of assignments and schemes.
Barnes, by default, is their best wing defender. Kessler Edwards has defensive value but is somewhat canceled out by his lack of offense. Murray’s length gives him potential as a perimeter disruptor (which could mean reps of him on Curry) and switchable asset, but he has a tendency to get lost in the shuffle — especially when trying to defend off-ball actions and navigating screens.
Davion Mitchell has been their best option against premier perimeter guards. But being only 6-foot tall doesn’t provide him much scalability in terms of switching up the positional spectrum. There’s also the trade-off of having someone on the floor who may contribute little on offense.
Given the extremely high value that the likes of Sabonis, Fox, and Huerter provide, the Kings have been more than happy to run their explosive offense at the expense of having personnel that can give up as much — if not more — as they dole out.
But over the course of a prolonged playoff series where matchups are important, having three potential liabilities on defense will be extremely difficult to scheme around. The Warriors bank on a varied diet of offensive looks — off-ball motion, cuts, handoffs, and ballscreens — all of which require discipline, focus, and a certain threshold when it comes to fundamentals in order to keep under control.
As the first line of resistance, a ton of pressure will be placed upon Fox and Huerter to navigate screens, keep their heads on a swivel, and survive laterally at the point of attack. If they can’t find a consistent groove on defense, they’ll have their work cut out for them.
If not for their own sake, Fox and Huerter — and everyone else behind them on the depth chart tasked to defend out on the perimeter — must do so for the sake of whichever big is out there anchoring the paint.
The Kings haven’t been scaring anyone with their rim protection and deterrence (or lack, thereof). They allowed 53.5 paint points per game in the regular season — fifth most in the league. Only the Miami Heat (3.0) have fewer blocks per game than them (3.4).
The caveat behind the Kings’ subpar paint defense, however, is that the Warriors don’t score in the paint all too often. Their 44.9 paint points per game is third lowest in the league — only the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets averaged fewer paint points. They go to the rim at the second-lowest rate (26.9%), with only the Phoenix Suns having a lower rim attempt rate. Only 20% of their shot attempts have been taken in the “short” mid-range area (floater range) — 20th in the league.
Despite the scarcity of paint excursions, it would help a ton if the Warriors do put some pressure on the rim and attack the Kings’ dubious paint defense through drives and opportunistic cuts/slips to the rim.
Due to not having any switchable bigs on the roster, the Kings have been handicapped by a serious case of scheme inflexibility. Defensive versatility is arguably the main currency of a team that goes deep in the playoffs; the Kings simply don’t possess that capability with the kind of personnel they have.
The main face of that inflexibility is Sabonis, who is highly limited as a defender. In terms of pick-and-roll coverages, he can only really do either one of the following:
- Step up to the level of the screen
Such limited coverages place a hamper on the Kings’ ability to keep actions contained. Attempting to keep things strictly two-on-two with drop is made hard by the fact that the Kings — save for Mitchell — lack capable screen navigators across the board.
As shown in some of the possessions above involving Fox and Huerter, that puts Sabonis in no position to contest a shot from the likes of Curry, Thompson, and Jordan Poole — all of whom can easily ignite into flamethrowers with a made bucket or two.
Forcing Sabonis to defend in space — typically in the form of late switches — is ideal for the Warriors and a nightmare for the Kings.
Sabonis trying to defend Curry in ballscreen action becomes even more of a daunting task for the Kings if and when the Warriors do decide to add additional layers. The three defenders behind the main action not only have to prepare to rotate to account for the numbers disadvantage — they also may have to look out for second-side movement that may give them even more headaches.
Fox and Sabonis double Curry around the Looney ballscreen, with Curry pitching the ball to Green on the left slot for pressure release. After setting the ballscreen, Looney goes over to set the wide pindown for Thompson in the corner (called “Veer” action).
Since two went to the ball around the ballscreen, Malik Monk is left on an island to defend the Veer action. Him falling behind forces Barnes — the low man on the weak-side corner — to rotate into the paint and help on Thompson’s drive. This results in the Kings being put in rotation against the swing-swing sequence, ending with Curry being wide open on the wing.
The Warriors run the same action (called “Thumb Out”) the next possession. The Kings make the adjustment of having Sabonis fall back to account for the Veer action:
Sabonis does fall back — but Monk falling ever so slightly behind on the lock-and-trail puts the fear of the shooting gods in Sabonis, who has to step up to close space. What virtually happens here is an empty-corner situation where no “tagger” is there to help on Looney’s roll, which forces the low man on the weak side to have to be the one to help.
But Barnes is late on the rotation — perhaps hesitant to commit off of Wiggins and give up a corner three or trigger another swing-swing sequence — and Looney has an easy dunk.
In the first two regular season meetings, Brown mixed conventional coverages for Curry (e.g., drop) with a dose of aggressive ones (e.g., screen-level meetups, hedges, and blitzes). The third meeting — especially during the second half — was when Brown went into heavy anyone-but-Curry mode.
He continuously sent out multiple bodies toward Curry in order to get the ball out of his hands, which left the short-roll option open and put the Kings’ outnumbered backline defense into scramble mode.
If push comes to shove, I’d expect Brown to do the same during this series. If anyone other than Curry touches the ball in such situations, the Kings will live with the results. It’s up to the Warriors to make the most out of them by making the looks made possible by Curry up front.
Who will round out the rotation?
In terms of who Steve Kerr fully trusts in a playoff setting, there are four “givens” beyond the starting lineup. Poole’s season has had its ups and downs. His ability to carry an offense and — more infamously — his defensive troubles are always concerns, but he’ll most certainly be in the rotation because there’s simply no one else in the depth chart behind Curry who is capable reaching a high ceiling in terms of shot creation and playmaking.
As was mentioned above, Wiggins’ conditioning will be carefully monitored during this series. More on him in the following section.
Payton is another no-brainer against an elite perimeter guard in Fox. Being able to pick up full court and hound ball handlers the entire way can be the perfect counter to Fox’s tendency to push the pace.
This is a matchup in which Jonathan Kuminga can thrive. No one on the Kings can match his athleticism on both ends. His wing defense will be crucial as a stopgap measure until Wiggins regains his footing.
Moses Moody seeing minutes is definitely not out of the question, although I wouldn’t count him as a no-brainer. If his recent play is of any indication, his ability to spot up and finish advantage situations with his shooting, defense, and hustle should give Kerr enough reason to put him on the floor.
The million-dollar question: Will Anthony Lamb see minutes in this series? He’s been out of the rotation the past couple of games, a victim of what was an apparent rotation crunch. Knowing how he operates, it’s not out of the question that Kerr finds a way to play Lamb — but I’m willing to bet that won’t be the case.
My prediction of who will round out the rotation.
- Jordan Poole
- Andrew Wiggins
- Gary Payton II
- Jonathan Kuminga
- Moses Moody
X-factor: Andrew Wiggins
When taking the projected starting lineup into consideration, I thought about Wiggins and his long absence due to a serious family matter. He’ll no doubt see minutes during this series — but the question is whether that will be as a starter or coming off the bench.
Knowing how Rick Celebrini and the organization operates, my guess is that he won’t be starting (initially) — which is why I have DiVincenzo as a projected starter.
In any case, how Wiggins looks during this series could be an important factor in the degree of difficulty the Warriors will have in this series. The wing defense — in particular, his reps on Fox — is a given. Him being on the floor gives the Warriors a high degree of defensive versatility that few teams can match.
However, it’s his offense that may be even more important. The Kings will definitely sell out on Curry and, to a lesser extent, Thompson. Brown will throw out aggressive coverages to get the ball out of Curry’s hands. The shooting Wiggins provides — in addition to knowing how to play off of the attention Curry demands by cutting into space — was important during last year’s championship run.
I won’t go as far as saying that without Wiggins in top condition, the Warriors won’t win this series — but they might have a much harder time putting the Kings away.
This is probably the most intriguing — and quite potentially the most entertaining — first round series. The narratives are enticing: the NBA’s two Northern California teams facing each other in the playoffs for the first time. A former Warriors assistant coach facing off against the team he won multiple championships with.
But the one that excites me the most is what will happen on the court. Two teams that not only pass the ball a lot — they pass the ball with purpose. Two teams that have several moving parts, with offenses that are as beautiful as they are efficient.
Sabonis and Fox are a duo that will be tough to contain, surrounded by plenty of shooting talent that can wax burning hot. The Warriors still have the core of Curry, Thompson, and Green — one that hasn’t lost a playoff series with all three healthy during the entirety of their run.
I mentioned one key differentiating factor above that would spell the difference, which is defensive ceiling. While their track record on that end of the floor this season gives people pause, their track record over the course of their run as the NBA’s preeminent dynasty should give them the benefit of the doubt.
If they manage to steal at least one of their first two games in Sacramento, they’ll have full control of the series. Experience also plays a role — the Warriors are battle tested in the playoffs, while the Kings may just be happy to be in the playoffs after a long drought.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Warriors should rest on their laurels. The Kings will try to punch them in the mouth out of the gates; they’d be best served to do the mouth-punching first.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kings win a game or two off of their offense exploding in the Warriors’ faces. They’ve accrued enough credibility — as the Western Conference’s 3-seed — to make the defending champions bleed.
Ultimately, however, the Kings’ defense is too much of a glaring weakness for me to believe they’ll pull this off. The Warriors will pick at their pressure points without mercy — something they’ve been doing for the better part of a decade.
Warriors in 6
As of this writing, the Warriors are a slight one-point favorite for Game 1, with the total being 238.5. Oddsmakers think that the first game will go down the wire and that it’ll be a high-scoring affair. Do you think the Warriors take Game 1? I think they will.