Dear Sacramento, You Can’t Hack the NBA

The Sacramento Kings fired their coach today and the team’s owner wants to try something new – and maybe crazy. 

This morning, the Sacramento Kings suddenly fired their coach, Mark Malone, after a not great, but certainly respectable 11-13 start. Sacramento’s losing record is, after all, asterisk ready: The boys in black have played the second hardest schedule in the league largely without their star player, DeMarcus Cousins. From the outside, the Kings looked like an ascendant team, with a young star and stable ownership. But, after years of turbulence, Kings fans have now found that stable ownership doesn’t necessarily equal rational ownership. Tech billionaire VivekRanadivé apparent goal in ousting Malone? Implementing a style of basketball that is, to put it in polite terms, not a very good style of basketball.

Ranadivé seems to believe that NBA basketball can be disrupted start-up style. While some upper management disagreed with Malone on a number of personnel issues, which also played a part in his firing, the most interesting complaint came from Ranadivé, who accused Malone of leaning on a five on five defensive scheme like every other team in basketball. What Ranadivé wants is for the King’s next coach, whoever that turns out to be, to leave a defender hanging out towards mid-court, waiting to receive a quick outlet pass on a rebound. Apparently this strategy worked for Ranadivé’s kid’s team.

With Malone now gone, analysts are expecting the Kings interim coach to at least try this defensive scheme. While this idea works on a youth team, where children miss most of the time, it doesn’t seem likely to gain traction in the NBA, where open players make open shots. Given that many teams struggle on defense with five players, this new strategy seems (and we’ll choke on these words when Nik Stauskas hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy) like a recipe for one-sided contests. Giving an opposing team what amounts to a power play every possession seems like not only a bad idea, but an essentially flawed one.

Here’s what, in theory it would look like: A wing player would stay out near the perimeter, defending their mark, only so far as they don’t move towards the basket. Then, when the opposing teams shoot, the wing player would sprint down the court, awaiting the defensive rebound. The actual amount of times this would work depends entirely on the strength of rebounding of the team employing it, and hoping that long rebounds just don’t happen (which, unfortunately, they have a habit of).

The idea of a “hack” that ultimately leads your mediocre team to success is a grand myth in the NBA – from Phil Jackson’s vaunted “Triangle Offense” to Mike D’Antoni’s “7 Seconds or Less” offense to whatever the hell the Spurs are doing, they can really only be properly executed with elite players. For example, watch the Triangle Offense currently expire in the hands of the talentless Knicks, whose own lack of athleticism, quickness, and smarts has doomed the system from the very beginning. Or (and again, hate to harp on the Knicks here) how Mike D’Antoni’s “7 Seconds or Less” offense couldn’t work without Steve Nash after D’Antoni came to the Knicks in 2008.

Gregg Popovich, the reigning coaching savant in the NBA, has found success with the Spurs by resting star players and cultivating a deep bench, all while running an offense that works off of relentless movement and passing. While his system helps both develop a team and keep them winning, it most likely wouldn’t work without the outrageous talent he’s been able to utilize over the past fifteen years. Once Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan retire, it’s possible Pop’s style will go the way of bell-bottoms.

In the NBA, the best basketball team is usually the team with the best players. While a system has its advantages, and crazy schemes are sometimes effective (Hack-A-Shaq), nothing quite beats a team with three superstars playing together, or even two superstars playing somewhat on the same page. Right now, the Kings are a cool, young team in a very competitive conference, and probably are still a few years from any serious runs at a championship. Still, the idea of a 4-on-5 defense actually being played in the NBA is enough to make us tune in, and probably more than enough to put some butts in the seats. Even if it doesn’t change the NBA, it might help out with attendance – for a while anyway.

Photos by Associated Press