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Kings players want Isaiah Thomas to start; don’t know what they’re running on offense

Dec 19, 2012, 10:17 PM EST

Isaiah DeMarcus

If you’ve caught yourself watching a Sacramento Kings game lately and thought to yourself, ‘this can’t get any worse’ only to see it get much, much worse – you’re not the only one.

As it turns out, the Kings players themselves are having a real hard time understanding the train wreck they’re a part of on the court every night.

“They know that they’re playing terrible basketball right now,” said one source close to the players. “But they’ve thrown their hands up trying to figure out Keith Smart.”

Smart is in his fourth year as a head coach in the NBA. He had an interim stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2002-03, and then took a job as an assistant for Don Nelson in Golden State until he was elevated to head coach after Nellie’s retirement prior to the 2010-11 season. He took a roster primed for improvement to a 36-46 record, but the Warriors’ new ownership opted not to keep him.

The reason team insiders overwhelmingly pointed to for his departure was his handling of franchise player Stephen Curry, who Smart benched nightly for out-of-the-NBA guard Acie Law.

Smart could never clearly articulate to the press what Curry wasn’t doing to please him, and while Curry could have played more defense or taken better shots he was twice the player that Law was. Curry’s benching cost the team games and it cost Smart respect in the locker room and within the organization.

The same thing is happening in Sacramento all over again, but this time Smart has the backing of general manager Geoff Petrie – who appears to be more interested in promoting his free agent acquisitions and draft picks than he is in playing the right guys.

Namely, sources close to key Kings players have told ProBasketballTalk that they are frustrated with the fact that point guard Isaiah Thomas isn’t starting and acting as the team’s floor general. Thomas finished seventh in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting, but arguably could have finished as high as second place when one compares his numbers to that of Ricky Rubio, who held that spot.

Thomas boasted shooting lines of 47.7/40.6/84.1 while averaging 14.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.0 turnovers in 31.6 minutes per game in 37 starts, which compare favorably to Rubio’s shooting lines of 35.7/34.0/80.3 with averages of 10.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 3.2 turnovers in 34.2 minutes per game in 41 starts.

Independent of that comparison, Thomas played well against the league’s best guards, holding Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, and Rajon Rondo to 26-of-76 (34.2%) combined shooting for a stretch while being considered by scouts to be an above average defender at his position. Despite standing 5’ 9” tall without shoes, his strength and leaping ability made him a surprising plus-defender in the post.

Being the team’s best player at times down the stretch of last season, Thomas was able to win the starting point guard position, but the Stephen Curry treatment continued. On a team that has lacked ball movement in recent years, one would think that a playmaking point guard with charisma on and off the court would be a high priority. But the window to develop Thomas last season was lost, and separate from the Kings’ off the court struggles, the window to create a cohesive team approach is rapidly closing this season and Kings players are frustrated with it.

Perhaps the team didn’t have faith that Jimmer Fredette could turn into a competent NBA player, or maybe it was Petrie’s well-documented quest to obtain Aaron Brooks, but the Kings took a big step toward destroying their continuity at the position when they signed Brooks over the summer. He was a cheap acquisition after playing and talking his way out of Houston and Phoenix, and with Fredette looking like he couldn’t dribble the ball up the court most Kings analysts were okay with adding depth at the position.

Unfortunately, nobody in Sacramento fully understood Smart’s history with point guards, nor did they fully appreciate the impact Thomas could have to rally the team and rally the city toward a product they could be proud of. Immediately Thomas’ role was questioned by team-friendly media sources, despite the fact that Brooks had lost backup duties to Zabian Dowdell in Phoenix before spending a season in China.

Meanwhile, Thomas spent an offseason organizing team workouts, building camaraderie, and eventually he and his teammates would be tasked with learning a tough new Triangle offense.

The Kings started off slow and the resulting confusion and losses gave Smart and Petrie the window they needed to get Brooks in a starting role, which was aided in part by Thomas pressing just like Curry did in Golden State, albeit in a much more dysfunctional situation.

That offense has since been scrapped according to player sources, and right now “they don’t know what they’re running.” The Kings turned to the old failed strategy of Tyreke Evans left and Tyreke right, with random excursions to the hoop by DeMarcus Cousins, high-post offense initiated by Chuck Hayes, and the occasional Jason Thompson post-up.

When on the court, Thomas has been sent to the corner to watch the carnage unfold, because like last season the team refuses to run a pick-and-roll based offense featuring him as the primary or even secondary decision-maker with the ball.

With Kings players in an utter state of confusion nightly, they have reverted to one-on-one ball and rank dead last in assists per game (18.2) and that number has dipped in the last three games to 15.3. This is a far cry from the days of when Thomas was piling up between 5-10 assists per game in 17-of-23 outings to finish last season despite being a second, third or fourth option handling the ball.

Since moving Brooks into the starting lineup, Smart and Petrie have also put a premium on playing their bad contracts, giving heavy minutes to Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, and Travis Outlaw while Thomas and an improving Fredette ride the pine. It’s crazy, because the only time the team looks coherent on the court is when the Mighty Mite lineup of Thomas and Fredette is on the court – even if Fredette can’t cover a rocking chair and shoots nearly every time he gets the rock.

The players already know, and Cousins even took to wearing an IT jersey for the press the other day, but even casual observers can see that the Kings need to get their high basketball IQ guys on the court. While Brooks’ scoring ability has never been in dispute, he knows only one way to impact a game, and too many times that’s with poorly conceived jump shots and flailing drives to the hoop. More importantly he can’t make it through screens and is responsible for more points on defense than he scores. Evans is the same type of player and is a physical freak, but his inconsistent jumper and bad shot selection in a standstill offense negate any gains he could possibly provide. Marcus Thornton has been dealing with very real off the court issues due to his mother’s health, but his deployment within the non-existent offensive structure has bordered on laughable for one of the league’s best big-time shot-makers. Cousins still takes bad shots, but it’s hard to fault any of these guys when there is no plan, their best playmaker has been sidelined, and the team is making playing time decisions from the Smart and Petrie handbook.

Then again, the Maloofs might just be making Major League 4: The Search for More Money, which makes any conversation about basketball a moot point.

  1. bigmeechy74 - Dec 19, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    That article was entertaining as hell. I used to really believe that coaches were smart and knew what was best in all sports. But after watching football, baseball, and basketball closely for years I’ve started to realize that a lot of coaches completely lack common sense. This looks like an example of that.

    • davidly - Dec 20, 2012 at 7:22 AM

      I agree, bigmeechy74.
      When you watch all the sports, you begin to notice that there are a few quality coaches, and then the rest of the revolving-door nepotism network. I reckon that transfers to just about every industry of employment.

      I also imagine that some of the people who could most revolutionize the game are outsiders with interesting ideas. But I think that aside from a natural risk-aversion, there are other financial interests which preclude the creative side of the common sense you allude to.

      In short: The reason Thomas isn’t starting could have to do with idiotic contract considerations, the ownership’s plans for the future, and petty personality differences.

  2. saint1997 - Dec 19, 2012 at 11:53 PM

    Great article analysing why this team is struggling. Wonderful research and a great argument. Thomas and Jimmer are still improving (even without the minutes) into potentially much much better players than Brooks, yet they continue to play Aaron more. Keep it up!

  3. 00maltliquor - Dec 20, 2012 at 12:37 AM

    This was a really good article with substance. Man, I was wondering why Thomas wasn’t starting all of a sudden. I had the Kings as a 9th seed before pre-season started, I think their core is talented as ****, but I honestly don’t know what is going on over there. Good read.

    • jimmygrahamchrisivory - Dec 20, 2012 at 2:03 AM

      Yeah they are pretty deep. Cousins, Thomas, T-Robinson, Fredette, Thornton, Evans, Jason Thompson, and now Aaron Brooks is playing well again. 6 of those 8 were 1st rounders, 2 others were 2nd round gems that has 1st round lottery talent. So much talent and they are all still very young, which is huge. If they were committed to defense and/or had a good coach, Sacramento could be at the top of the West.

      • moseskkim - Dec 20, 2012 at 7:20 AM

        That’s what I thought too.. Great talent. But I think only Jesus could revive this team. It’s poorly constructed with inefficient ball dominating players in Evans and cousins. They need to get rid of both and rebuild with it3, Thornton, thompsons ok, and trob. Sprinkle some Hayes and Garcia. Let Evans walk and trade cousins for whatever u can get.

  4. The Buffer Zone - Dec 20, 2012 at 12:57 AM

    Great article- It’s been extremely frustrating not seeing Thomas on the floor. Thomas and Thornton should both be starting at guard with Jimmer coming off the bench. Put Tyreke at small forward & let Thomas decide how and when Tyreke sees the ball. Evans is very talented, but I’m done with the one-on-one drives.

    A decade ago the Kings dominated with a transition game and a lot of ball movement. Thomas is the guy who can reinstate that type of play.

  5. abchome - Dec 20, 2012 at 2:09 AM

    It’s like the Maloofs are using similar strategy that OKC used to move the team out of Seattle.

  6. bahston - Dec 20, 2012 at 6:23 AM

    Why isn’t Stern fining the Madoofuses for conduct detrimental to the league. Where’s the concern for the fans who have to put up with this scam. Oh right, the Kings aren’t nationally televised playas.

    • moseskkim - Dec 20, 2012 at 7:22 AM

      Madoofuses lolol

  7. genericcommenter - Dec 20, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    Just don’t let him run the front office.

  8. nman087 - Dec 20, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    The Kings are the NBA’s version of the Dallas Cowboys…talented roster but as long as they have an owner(s) more concerned about the sideshow than the actual team they’ll never reach their full potential.

  9. kingsfan1988 - Dec 20, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    I really hope that the Maloofs will sell the team.

  10. norcaldeportes - Dec 20, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    This is a long article about a below average player on a bad team. Isiah Thomas was only good last year because they had no other option at PG (Jimmer, Tyreke, and Thornton are NOT nba level PGs). Same thing with Tyreke his rookie season. He was only good (20,5,5) because the Kings had NO ONE else on that team. If Petrie actually cared about his job the past few years, the Kings could have Damien Lillard, Ryan Anderson (instead of J. Thompson) and anyone other than Jimmer. Not to mention the bad players he wouldnt’ve signed or traded for if he actually cared (Outlaw, Salmons, James Johnson, Hayes) and the player he would’ve amnestied already if he actually cared (Garcia).

  11. fanz928 - Dec 20, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    The kings suck they have the players and don’t play them. I don’t know why they even sign Keith smart. Benching curry ? That’s like the only good player on golden state

  12. allthingssports247 - Dec 21, 2012 at 12:19 AM

    the article in my opinion is ridiculous…. i have watched every kings game and the one missing the min he is owed is fredette, who u so easily seemed to sweep under the rug… thomas is constantly being abused on the defensive end of the floor, yet to hear most media outlets, jimmer is the defensive liability… last night vs golden state thomas was abused by jarrett jack…. thomas is a shoot first point guard as well… not the type of guard that is known for catering to teammates with his passing…. so if ur going to go with a shoot first guard… why not go with the guy who is #6 in the entire NBA in points per min…. bet aaron brusk did not even know that fact…. he also is the only kings player in the positive department in the plus minus stat on the season…. he actually looks for his teammates as well, reguardless of the fact that they freeze him out nightly… he is shooting the ball from the field at 47%, from 3 point range 40%, and from the line 95%, each of those three marks are higher than brooks and thomas in each of those 3 categories… in his last two games, jimmer has played 37 min… in those 37 min, he has 37 points… yet u mean to tell me the players what thomas… i wonder why…. they have been envious of fredette since he stepped foot in sacramento…. thats coming from keith smart in a sports illustrated article, not from me… he said when fredette arrived that there was alot of envy towards this guy… then in the same freekin article goes on to say the reason why he couldn’t play jimmer was because his teammate dont trust him… wait the same ones that are envious of him… when do jealous teammates decide to trust the player they are envious of… never if left to do it on there on… as the coach its ur job to kill that garbage… that garbage has gotten worse over the two year span smart has been in charge… its like he has joined in with the rest of them in his distain for fredette… almost like he is looking to gain brownie points with guys like evans and cousins… and u can see y he would feel the need to when u look at what happened to westphaul for dare trying to discipline cousins… he was fired immediately… to stroke the rotten ego of a 20 year old spoiled to the core rotten brat…. this is how this franchise is ran… the magooofs should not be allowed anywhere near a professional sports franchise… period

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