The success of an NBA team might be pinned to its superstars, but the health of any locker room depends heavily on the unassuming. These are the role players, and the best among them recognize that team chemistry can be strained by ambition. As natural as it may be for a professional athlete to yearn to do more—to score more points, to influence more possessions, to play a more central role—the realities of a basketball ecosystem demand that some individuals find peace with less.
Sacramento’s Omri Casspi is one of them. The 27-year-old forward is in the midst of a career-best season that still, in the grand scheme of things, has yielded fairly modest production (11.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game). Where Casspi thrives is in finding quieter ways to smooth over the faults in a strange, unbalanced roster. He is a ball-mover in an offense that needs facilitation; a small forward in a Kings rotation that often calls for him to be a power forward instead; a willing and capable three-point shooter (now up to 43.1% on the season); a smart, instinctive contributor to a team defense; a cutter whose effort doesn’t depend on whether he gets the ball; and a player who seems completely comfortable with who he is and the role he’s asked to fill.
We caught up with Casspi to talk about the Kings, his friendship with DeMarcus Cousins, and the unglamorous life of making a career out of the little things.
Rob Mahoney: This past summer was a pretty crazy free-agency period around the league, and within that you chose to come to a situation that was particularly volatile. The Kings had a lot of cap space, a lot of uncertainty. What was it about Sacramento that spoke to you and what you were looking for?
Omri Casspi: Number one, I just like Sacramento. It's the team that drafted me, and I just felt a good energy around the team and the fans and everything that was going on. I feel like it's really a second home for me outside of my country, outside of Israel. And number two, when Coach Karl stayed and signed a long-term deal, I felt like we had the right base to start winning games this year. DeMarcus is our go-to guy and he's our star. It's been a drought in Sacramento. I want to be a part of a winning situation and a team that's building toward an NBA championship. I feel like we've got the right pieces, the right coach, and the right system in place. Now it's about us coming together to start winning games.
RM: There is—as I'm sure you hear from people around you and on the internet—an image of the Kings as an organization that's a little hectic, a little crazy. How do you compare the way the Kings are viewed as an organization to your experience there?
OC: It's hard to tell. I feel like we don't have the stability yet to talk about this organization because it changes every year. Last year we changed through three coaches during the year and that's hard in itself. Now we have a new GM in place. We need to get some stability from the top, and I feel like now we have everything in place. Vlade's running the show and has a good team with him. I feel like he's doing all he can to make this team successful. You bring in the right pieces, the right players—players that have been in winning situations—and you can have a winning culture. But right now we're building it, and I think Vlade is the guy that it starts with. He brought in Rajon, who won a championship, Kosta [Koufos] being in Memphis a few years and Denver where he won a lot of games, Marco [Belinelli] won in San Antonio. So you bring in the right pieces and you start building a winning culture, a winning mentality. That's how you really go back to where the Kings need to be.
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RM: One of the things I really like about the way you play is that you move without the ball in a way that seems really unselfish. You're cutting not necessarily to get the pass but to suck in the defense or because you have to fill a certain lane. Was that something that came naturally to you? A lot of guys in the NBA don't do those things.
OC: Well, I think one of the guys that really influenced me early in my career was Pete Carril. He was our mentor in Sacramento—he was one of our assistant coaches. He really taught me to move without the ball. We watched a lot of film together and kind of talked about the game of basketball the way he sees it and it really helped me.
The game is changing in the sense that the ball is moving faster. It's a pick-and-roll game. You have a go-to guy on every team, a superstar on every team, but other than that one guy—let's say the Warriors, they have Steph [Curry]. Everybody else is shooting off of the flow of the offense. If you want to be successful in the new basketball, you need to move without the ball, you need to knock down open shots, and you need to get high-percentage shots. The teams are going in a certain direction where it's open threes (threes from the corner, preferably), layups, and less of that in-between game.
I watched a lot of tape over the years and worked with Coach [David] Thorpe, who's been my mentor since day one in the league. He helped me with my game and helped me develop. I had a year in Houston where they really preached about layups, threes, and free throws. We really made it a point of emphasis in our summers, watching tons of film of me and other players that I can relate to.
RM: Was there any particular advice or insight from Carril, Thorpe, or any of your coaches as it relates to moving without the ball that's stuck with you?
OC: One of things we emphasize when we watch tape is that we have those guys who are going to play one-on-one. DeMarcus is going to get his touches. Everybody else, pretty much not. In order to be effective, you're going to have to create different opportunities. You want to defend. You want to rebound the ball hard on the defensive end. But at the offensive end, I've gotta move and I've gotta somehow find ways to score and be effective.
One of the ways is obviously to knock down open threes—and that's something we've worked on consistently the last three or four years with Thorpe every summer and getting tons of shots up. Another way is to find those gaps. Sometimes I'm looking at my defender and I'll see the back of his head; that means he's not looking at me, so I have a good opportunity to cut. Or, sometimes we have a post up and everybody is obviously so scared of DeMarcus, so that's my time to go. I'm trying to look for different angles.
RM: You're kind of a power forward now—in some lineups, anyway. I guess it's a little more ambiguous when you're playing with Rudy Gay as to who exactly is in that spot. What do you make of that shift being part of your game now?
OC: I always look at myself just as a basketball player. I'd rather play the three, coach knows that. I'm a three by nature. I feel like one of the things Coach Karl and his staff emphasizes is when I'm playing with Rudy, they want me at the four spot because they feel like I can move the ball from side to side maybe better. But Rudy has his ability to score and get his movement. So I'm just trying to find whatever I can do to be on the court.
The defense has to move. If you're stagnant and playing on one side of the floor, teams in the NBA are pretty good defensively in that manner. You've got to move the ball side to side and kind of make the defense collapse. I feel like when I'm playing at the four, I'm moving it from side to side a little faster than other guys to create some misdirection.
RM: Now that you've been guarded by bigger guys a little bit more consistently, how does that change the way you play?
OC: It depends who's guarding me. Let's say I'm being guarded by Dirk [Nowitzki]—he's probably a flat guy, defensively. So I'm trying to get into more pick-and-rolls and make him commit to the ball and have the advantage from there. Some teams are putting a smaller guy [on me] so I'll let DeMarcus run pick-and-roll with the other big to kind of be the shade guy behind where I can shoot the open three. Or I can work the baseline to get different opportunities from there. I try to find different attacks, depending on who's out there.
RM: I've gotta ask about your friendship with DeMarcus, just because it seems like you guys have a really positive bond. How did that come about? How did you connect with him?
OC: In my second year—that was his rookie year—we were both young guys coming into the league. We just became good friends. We've always been real with one another. When we do some bad things or some good things on the court, we always talk and share that with one another. He's like my brother now. We've been through a lot on the basketball court and outside the basketball court. Seeing him grow from a young man with the way he was when he came into the league to the player that he's become... I don't know how to even describe it. It's like my brother is fulfilling his dreams.
RM: DeMarcus is a guy who, for the media, can be hard to get to know—just because he can be very guarded, and I think understandably so given some of the way he's been treated and criticized. As someone who knows him well, what is the real DeMarcus Cousins like?
OC: He's an honest guy. He's a really good guy. If you be real with him, he'll be real with you. He'll give his heart to the team and his friends are his best friends. He'll do whatever it takes and he'll be there for you when you need him. It's something I'll never forget: When I came back to Sacramento, one of the first things the GM did is call DeMarcus. And DeMarcus said, ‘I want Omri back on our team and I think he can help us win.' Two years ago, not a lot of teams were giving me offers. I signed back on a minimum deal. I had different options but not where I wanted to be. DeMarcus had my back. Now it's my turn to repay and do whatever I can to help this team win because at the end of the day, if we win we're all going to share that excitement and positive energy.
RM: There was that video that floated around last season of you and DeMarcus sitting on the bench where you fixed his headband and he daps you up. Is that a funny memory for you? Is it a video you're tired of seeing? What's your relationship like with that clip?
OC: It was really funny, man. Me and him, we saw it after the game—it was viral right away. We came back the next day to the facility and we kind of talked about it and we just laughed. It's funny because I really didn't know the camera was on us. It really caught it at that moment. It was funny. We talk about it every once in awhile.
RM: You had a strong start to your career in Sacramento before you took a detour in Cleveland, where it seemed like things stalled for you a little bit. What are you getting out of this situation in Sacramento—or even in Houston—that wasn't necessarily going right for you with the Cavs?
OC: I take it upon myself more than anything. Sometimes when you're younger, you think you've got the world in your hand. This game is going to push you and it doesn't matter who you are—it's going to get you to your knees and you're going to have to bounce back somehow. I felt like I had opportunities in either situation to play better, and I didn't play to the level I expected myself to play.
I worked on my game every summer. I was always a 35–37 percent three-point shooter, so I said, 'Alright, I want to get that to 40 percent.' So last year was my first year in the 40s, and I'm working with Coach Thorpe and he said, ‘Listen: You can be a 45 percent three-point shooter. There's no reason for you not to.' So now that I'm at 45 percent, I want to keep that for the season. I want to be in that group of 50–40–90. Right now I'm really slacking on the free throws, so I’m getting 200 free throws every day to get my percentage there up as well. I feel like I'm making strides. I'm working on my game every summer. I'm working on my game during the season. I want to keep getting better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.