The defensive woes that hampered the Kings last season have begun to resurface. Sacramento's most recent game was its worst of the season, as the San Antonio Spurs poured it on in a 136-117 Kings loss Wednesday.
The Kings are better than their record-setting struggles on that end in 2020-21, but things aren't progressing in the right direction, and Sacramento now has lost three straight. Luckily for the Kings, the next three games offer a prime opportunity to reverse that trend and get the defense back on track.
Friday night, the Kings will visit the Oklahoma City Thunder. A team that has been mired in a rebuild for several years and possesses a treasure chest of draft picks, OKC has the league's second-worst offensive rating at 99.6.
Oklahoma City, like the Kings' duo of De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, have two talented young guards who have elite playmaking skills. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the more unheralded point guards in the NBA, but he's also the only Thunder starter with a positive offensive box plus-minus. Josh Giddey is a talented passer, and is guaranteed to give you one eye-popping highlight or two per game, but he just turned 19 on Oct. 10 and has a lot of room to grow.
Former Arizona State star Luguentz Dort is one of the NBA's best individual defenders, but he continues to demonstrate little ability to produce consistently on the offensive end.
Oklahoma City has shot just 30 percent from behind the 3-point line this season, so if Richaun Holmes and Alex Len can control the paint and force the Thunder to settle for tough shots, they should see a lot of success on defense.
After Friday's game in OKC comes a trip to Detroit for a matchup with the Pistons. Another team in the early stages of a rebuild, Detroit ranks dead-last in points per game (96.6) and offensive rating (98.0).
No. 1 overall draft pick Cade Cunningham finally has joined the rotation, and the Pistons did win their most recent game, although it came against the team that had the No. 2 pick in last year's draft in the Houston Rockets.
Detroit is shooting a league-worst 39.8 percent from the field and 28.5 percent from 3-point range. The Pistons are losing by an average of 10.3 points per game, and although the game comes on the road, this should be a night to shine for the Kings' defense.
Finally, the ideal road stretch culminates with a visit to the Twin Cities and a contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The T-Wolves are 28th in the league with a .411 field-goal percentage, and no team in the league is beaten up on the boards more than this Minnesota team. The Timberwolves' offensive rating (104.0, 25th) is slightly better than the two teams above, but not by much.
Karl-Anthony Towns is an impressive talent, but his rebounding and rim-protection are disappointing for a former No. 1 overall pick at 6-foot-11. If the Kings can't dominate the boards in this road-trip finale, expect steam to be coming out of coach Luke Walton's ears in his postgame media availability.
Tyrese Haliburton's potential return also would be a boost to the Kings' defense. Absent the last two games, Haliburton again is questionable heading into Friday night's game.
Haliburton is the Kings' only starter with a positive defensive box plus-minus so far this season. He has been dealing with a back issue, but he looked to be in good spirits in a video the Kings shared today from Paycom Center.
Walton lit a fire into his team after Wednesday night's loss in San Antonio, intimating that Thursday's practice would heavily focus on defense.
“Defense. Absolutely defense, no question about it," Walton said. "We’ve talked about it all offseason, we’ve worked on it, it’s our top priority. All four quarters they scored over 30 points tonight. That’s where it’s got to stop, it has to stop. We’ve committed to each other to make that a priority. There’s going to be nights where you can’t make shots in this league, and we’ve done a good job up to this game and half of the Phoenix game was that we gave ourselves a chance to win every night."
On paper, the Kings have a tremendous chance to work through those defensive issues in the next three games. Whether that can translate to the court remains to be seen, but they might not have a better trio of games to do so over the rest of the season.