Unsung Hero -- Part 1
After finishing last season ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency at 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the Sacramento Kings have lept into the top half of the league this year. Their current rating of 103.3 has Sacramento at 14th overall, a particularly remarkable improvement given that the team has played the second hardest schedule in the NBA through the first 13 games. Part of the reason for their early success has been the unheralded play of veteran big man Jason Thompson.
As I mentioned in my piece about the impact of Omri Casspi on the team’s depth, Thompson has one of the most blue-collar roles in the league right now. Night after night, it’s usually Thompson, and not Demarcus Cousins, battling with the bigger and more effective frontcourt opponent. It’s a thankless job that rarely gets a player credit despite the fact it frees Cousins to use his energy to unleash hell (or more specifically, foul trouble) on opposing teams at the other end of the floor.
Even better for the Kings is that Thompson isn’t just absorbing body blows, he’s helping the team shut down opponents. Per NBA.com, Sacramento’s defensive rating is 96.5 when Thompson is on the floor, the second lowest mark on the team behind Darren Collison. Opponents have also shot just 40.7 percent from the floor when Thompson is on it -- a number that puts him second, again, to Collison -- compared to 46.8 percent when the blue-collar big man sits.
Now, as usual, these early season numbers could be subject to some drastic changes as the games continue to pile up. Thompson also definitely benefits from spending a lot of his time on the floor with not just Collison, but the team’s star duo of Cousins and Rudy Gay playing with much more consistent energy and effort on defense. All of this makes Thompson’s role with the team a fascinating subplot as the Kings move forward. If the data holds and Thompson continues to be a key part of the Kings defensive improvement while, at the same time, being a total zero on offense outside of the occasional rim finish, it puts Sacramento in a weird spot.
On one hand, the team could try to upgrade his positions and replace Thompson’s willingness to battle opposing bigs down low with someone who adds more offensive punch. But removing Thompson’s role as something of a designated hitter (or maybe battler?) could do untold damage to both Cousin’s production -- he already has foul issues despite the arrangement -- and the team’s defense. Yet it’s pretty clear, that Thompson makes life harder offensively for the rest of his teammates until he finds an efficient way to exploit a defense.
At least for right now the Kings can be happy with the the status quo. Despite less than flattering performances on offense, Thompson has played a key role in Sacramento’s early success.
Unsung Hero - Part 2
Throughout his career, Zaza Pachulia has never really had a stand out attribute to his game. He’s been solid in most areas -- from rebounding to leadership in the lockerroom -- but unlike role-player extraordinaire Nick Collison, Pachulia was never a plus/minus darling at any of his spots. This year in Milwaukee has been a little different.
The Bucks surprising sprint out of the gate (well, compared to last year which was a drunken stumble down a 20-story flight of stairs) is a little bit of a mirage -- 7-7 starts are a little easier to come by when facing the ninth easiest schedule in the league -- but Pachulia has been one of three players with a positive net rating, per NBA.com. Part of that is due to head coach Jason Kidd’s management of his minutes, as Pachulia typically plays against more physical frontcourts that match his strengths (literally) well. But the other part of it is that Kidd’s insistence on running Corner action, the offensive concepts made famous by Rick Adelman, has allowed us to a see a new side of the Georgian big man.
Though his assist numbers aren’t noticeably better, Pachulia’s passing has created opportunities for a Bucks team that has been pretty poor offensively to start the year. Check out this dime against OKC:
Milwaukee is still at their best when their long and active defense gets stops and steals that lead to their young athletes scoring on the break. It’s probably a primary reason why Kidd has his group so focused on that end of the floor. As we all know though, it’s impossible to rely solely on transition or even semi-transition (or early) offense. Teams will make shots and other game stoppages will force the Bucks to go against set defenses.
With so many young players (and, correspondingly, bad decision-makers), putting the ball in the hands of Pachulia really helps the Bucks offense in half-court situations. And yes, that sentence was as weird to type as it was to read. I’m not sure if running Corner action is in the best long term interest of Milwaukee, but until their kids figure out NBA basketball -- and/or add skills to breakdown set defenses -- having a post player like Pachulia use his previously unappreciated passing to create easy shots in walk-up situations will be a nice boost for the team.