February 15, 2019
Not only do the Kings keep losing, they get worse every time, with little signs of hope.

Before inexplicably axing Mike Malone, and before viral meningitis revealed itself as the only thing in this universe capable of slowing DeMarcus Cousins down (besides DeMarcus Cousins), the Sacramento Kings were a budding Cinderella story.

On December 5th, they had a 10-9 record with wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, and Chicago Bulls. Cousins looked like an MVP candidate, and was finally establishing himself as one of the most difficult one-on-one covers in the world.

Ten days later, and out of nowhere, Sacramento fired Malone. Then, adding insult to injury, they replaced him with Tyrone Corbin, who led the Utah Jazz to only a 112-146 record in the previous three and a half seasons he served as their head coach.

The Kings didn’t set the world on fire with Malone at the helm, but they weren’t an embarrassment either, with an 11-13 record and ranking 16th in net rating (with no Cousins for 10 of those games). They had a league-average offense, were 16th in pace and 19th in defensive rating. They were the best rebounding team in the league, and nobody got to the charity stripe more often.

Today? They’re a basketball tragedy. Sacramento is a dismal 6-17 with Corbin at the helm; only the Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks are worse on defense, while the offense has slightly grown worse.

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Results aside, the primary stylistic difference between Malone and Corbin’s respective tenures is tempo. Since Corbin took over, the Kings have been one of the fastest teams in the league, averaging about four more possessions per 48 minutes than under Malone. They’re fourth in pace since December 15th, running a quick offense that relies on post-ups and an isolation-heavy attack, mostly for the benefit of Cousins, who the Kings want to feed before prepared double teams can squeeze the ball from his hands.

Playing fast is nice, but teams usually do it to take advantage of a backpedaling defense, racing towards the rim or launching open threes. Conversely, Sacramento is allergic to the three-point line. Some of this is due to personnel: Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, and Rudy Gay are the only players on Sac-Town’s roster shooting above 36% from deep. Rookie shooting guard Nik Stauskas, who was drafted with the sole intention of improving the team’s ability to space the floor, has been a big disappointment thus far and is shooting only 27.4% from deep. And yet somehow, his is the fourth highest mark on the team.

Not making threes is a problem, but not shooting them is brainless, especially when eschewed for less efficient shots. And as the season drags on, Sacramento’s shot selection continues to trend in the wrong direction. The Kings ranked 18th in the percentage of points that came from mid-range jumpers with Malone, but with Corbin they’ve leapt to sixth place. More long-twos, less shots in the paint, and still not a good three point offense makes for a poor offensive mix.

What about ball movement? Well, not so much. In fact it’s even worse. The Kings are dead last in assist opportunities and points created by an assist per game, per SportVU. They isolate Cousins and Gay – who still loves tough, contested jump shots – with alarming regularity (although to his credit, Gay’s assist percentage is double his career average right now; he’s quietly having a very good year) and don’t utilize the pick-and-roll all that much. All this just doesn’t jibe with how the league’s smartest offenses function. Their attack is predictable and elementary, and well-coached defenses don’t have a difficult time stopping it.

But Sacramento’s greatest offensive weakness lies elsewhere. They cough the ball up way too often, regardless of who’s coaching, and currently rank 27th in turnover ratio. 

At the issue’s center is Cousins. No player in the entire league averages more turnovers per game (4.3). Far too often he’s a bumbling, stumbling mess, whether he’s worn out his welcome trying to run a fast break, whip a difficult cross-court pass, drive into the teeth of the defense or pick up a silly foul that’s met with wide eyes and an incredulous dropped jaw. Cousins’s turnover rate is 18.6%. By contrast, high-usage frontcourt threats like LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, and Al Jefferson are all below 8%.

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Still, Good Cousins hugely outweighs bad Cousins. In the 21 games he’s played since Malone was let go, the Kings essentially play their opponent to a draw with Cousins on the court. However, they get completely demolished by 18.1 points per 100 possessions (!!!) when he sits. Almost all the damage occurs on defense, where Corbin’s Kings, as a whole, have fundamentally disintegrated.

Why is this? For starters, Sacramento’s increased pace and consistently terrible turnover rate has murdered them going the other way. They surrender a combined 36.2 points per game off fast breaks and turnovers, which leads the league. Outside of these gifts, there are no individual defenders of any great calibre on the team, which means systematic rotations must be on point, and the effort needs to stay at a high level. Neither is happening.

Furthermore, a quiet redistribution of minutes has not helped. Jason Thompson is averaging five less minutes per game under Corbin than he did under Malone. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Derrick Williams for Tuesday night’s blowout loss against the Golden State Warriors, disemboweling one of the most effective five-man units in the league. Reggie Evans and Carl Landry are seeing less action as well, while Williams’s minutes are up by about seven per game and Ray McCallum’s are up nearly 10. These subtle shifts widen Sacramento’s scoring options and, on paper, infuse more playmaking into an offense that can really use it. But they also create significant problems on the glass and defensive end.

Corbin had nothing but positive things to say about Thompson last month, which makes playing him less all the more confusing:

I can’t say enough about how I much I respect the fact that he’s understanding where he is now, especially his role on this team, and taking that challenge to play those guys where it’s not a traditional kind of four (power forward). You have to get out on the floor. We ask him to show on pick-and-rolls. His runs are a lot longer; his activity is much more. He’s done a really good job for us and made us better on the defensive end, because of his versatility and attention to detail.

Through their first 24 games (with Malone as head coach), Sacramento led the league in offensive rebound rate and total rebound rate. In the 23 games since, they’ve plummeted to 12th in offensive rebound rate and ninth in total rebound rate. It’s still above average, but when you refuse to shoot threes and constantly turn the ball over, the creation of second opportunities becomes all the more valuable. That blade isn’t gone, but under Corbin’s eye it’s grown dull.

The troubles under Corbin, however, are not entirely of his own making. In essence, he is set up to fail. Many predicted the Kings would die with Corbin as their head coach, and many people were not wrong. But he isn’t to blame for all Sacramento’s problems, and placing them at his feet would be wrong.

The fact is, no coach could lead this roster to the playoffs, as the Western Conference is just too loaded right now. Cousins is a dominant talent, but he has no support coming off the bench. Sacramento’s starting point guard is doing his best to still be so much worse than just about every starting point guard he faces on a nightly basis. There aren’t any rim protectors or three-point marksmen or lock-down wing defenders to be found, and that’s the primary problem here. The players aren’t good enough. Nor could any coach do anything about the demand for higher tempo basketball from above, a management decision that whoever they hire would have to have gone along with.

All that said, though, replacing Malone with Corbin was one of the worst decisions any team made this season. Baffling and insufficiently explained from the start, Malone at least had this mismatched, misshapen team playing with decent effort and balance, doing his best to mask the flaws on the roster and remain relatively competitive in a conference they have no right to be decent in. Under Corbin, however, this has all fallen away. Corbin is operating under a edict from the top to play a certain way, but it isn’t working, and nor is it even close to working. He will likely be the fall guy when the experiment is concluded, and although that ostensibly seems unfair, there is so little good news to report that it will be tough to argue against.

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Michael Pina

NBA writer. Published at Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, Grantland, and a few other very special places. Twitter: @MichaelVPina, E-mail: MichaelVPina@gmail.com

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