How Bad Were the Sacramento Kings Defensively Last Season?

Sacramento Kings, Chimezie Metu (Photo by Ben Green/Getty Images)
Sacramento Kings, Chimezie Metu (Photo by Ben Green/Getty Images) /
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Flashback to the conclusion of the 2018-2019 NBA season, and the Sacramento Kings, along with their faithful, had a lot to look forward to.

The team definitely wasn’t good yet – a 39-43 record along with a -1.1 net rating had them slightly below average – but this was the best season the Kings put together since their last playoff appearance, which was then 13 years ago. There was promise, even some expectation, that they would ascend forward into the playoffs as soon as next year. Fast forward two years, and things aren’t looking too rosy.

The team has finished 31-41 in each of the past two seasons, a decline in winning percentage. They’ve slipped further down in the Western Conference totem pole, and it doesn’t look like help is immediately on the way (foreshadowing a blockbuster trade for Ben Simmons, perhaps?) given the youth and lack of significant NBA experience the roster currently holds. Their playoff drought is at a record-tying 15(!) seasons, and one aspect of their game that has remained consistent(ly bad) is their defense.

How bad were the Sacramento Kings defensively last season?

They were so bad that there was buzz about them being the worst defensive team in NBA history last season. Were the Sacramento Kings really the worst defensive team in NBA history last season?

It’s pretty popular to throw out the phrase, “The Sacramento Kings were the worst defensive team in NBA history last season,” but just how accurate is it? The main culprit for this claim is Sacramento’s defensive rating last season.

At 117.2 points allowed per 100 possessions according to Basketball Reference, that is the single highest team mark recorded for a season in NBA history. It’s only natural for the public to end up at that conclusion, but the missing key in that equation is how NBA offenses have progressed in the last ten years.

Throughout the NBA’s advanced statistical history (since the 1973-74 season where such data is available), the NBA has seen its peaks and troughs in regards to offensive rating. Consider that between the 1973-74 and 1981-82 seasons, the average NBA team raised their scoring efficiency by a whopping 9.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a huge difference in the NBA, a number large enough to differentiate a championship contender from the worst team in the league.

Similarly, the nine seasons spanning the 2011-12 season to the present day have had the average team score an additional 7.7 points per 100 possessions, even still a huge uptick in efficiency. As NBA offenses continue to get more offensively proficient with each passing year, comparing offensive and defensive ratings outside of the context of the current season proves senseless because it really is a different game from how it was even ten years ago.

A better statistic to be used would be relative offensive/defensive rating, which compares a team’s offensive or defensive rating with the league average respective rating for that season. This adjusts for the rising offensive efficiency by using a reference point (the league average defensive rating in any particular season in this example) that is also adjusted for every season, and the result is a cleaner number that can be compared across years of NBA analytical data.

At a -4.9 relative defensive rating this year, according to Basketball-Reference, the Kings ranked dead last in the league. But when compared to their broader franchise ranks? It would rank ninth-worst after a handful of seasons in the ’60s (back when they were located in Cincinnati) and some in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The worst ever season regarding relative defensive rating is actually a tie between the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics and the 1998-99 Denver Nuggets, both teams sporting -8.2 relative defensive ratings. Given those teams had winning percentages of .427 and .280, respectively, it’s not hard to envision why.

To conclude this point, I’d stop short of calling the 2020-21 iteration of the Kings the worst defense of all time, so yay, I guess? But this doesn’t answer the main question, just how poor were the Kings defensively last season? For that, I did some film and highlight clip analysis to try and get to the heart of the problem.

Just how bad were the Sacramento Kings defensively last season?

To try and get a glimpse of how the Kings struggled defensively last season, I went back to watch three highlight clips of the games in which they conceded the most points (154 against the Utah Jazz, 144 against the Toronto Raptors, 140 against the New York Knicks, all losses).

I looked for common themes within their defensive structure, routes that opponents exploited against them, and any players that are sore spots for them. While you could infer the latter from looking at one-number defensive statistics, watching games and highlight clips can give you more context into those numbers.