By Rob Mahoney
The Kings are a team beyond immediate repair. They need seasoning, guidance and better-fitting parts, and no amount of basketball wizardry could fix such a mess overnight. But that hardly absolves coach Keith Smart for going about his job in a fashion so curious that he effectively works against the team's most obvious goals. This isn't just a team without a rudder, but one whose skipper is too busy fiddling with the position of the sails to realize that his ship is already sinking.
If the Kings had a more developed roster, then perhaps Smart's baffling fixation with doomed veterans might be salvageable. But as it stands, the NBA roster most desperate for a sense of developmental order instead gets a healthy dose of John Salmons and Aaron Brooks, with the occasional, irredeemable dash of Travis Outlaw.
Of all Smart's muses, Brooks is the most vexing. Sacramento's offense often caves on itself due to a lack of perimeter shooting (and decidedly imperfect options at small forward), and thus Salmons' inclusion in the lineup is fairly reasonable. Outlaw isn't a very good basketball player, but he's also dead last on the team in total minutes played. Brooks, on the other hand, is a merely decent player and a clear developmental obstruction -- a veteran in the lineup who stunts the team's growth and rarely serves the Kings well by overstretching his shoot-first game into a role as a prominent ball-handler. Second-year player Isaiah Thomas was considered to be Sacramento's presumptive starting point guard, but apparently Smart thinks he's already found a quality alternative in Brooks. To put it in the kindest way possible: Smart is in the minority in that opinion.
Brooks, 27, has his place in the NBA game, but he is, both by type and by efficiency, a player the league can easily do without. He's helpful if a team can tailor his role and manage his considerable defensive weaknesses, but at the moment, he's fundamentally a scorer who isn't scoring all that much. Good on Brooks for dropping 23 on the Warriors on Wednesday, but when getting buckets is one's primary contribution, 13.9 points per 36 minutes doesn't quite cut it. That Brooks starts for the Kings is a minor issue relative to the fact that he's averaged 27 minutes per game in December, stealing time that would be much better spent on a better all-around player (Thomas) or a prospect the Kings have a vested interest in developing (Jimmer Fredette, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft).
Again, if the sole motivator in moving Brooks into the starting lineup were to better space the floor in limited minutes, then the decision would be very defensible. But all of the evidence available points to some greater disconnect between Smart's preferred style and Thomas' skill set, to the point that Smart doesn't even seem willing to allow Thomas to play his game as a member of the second unit. Instead of managing that divide, Smart often relegates his most natural pick-and-roll threat to a life of post entry passes and hand-offs to Fredette and Tyreke Evans.
There's certainly nothing wrong with Sacramento's spreading the creative duties among its interesting crop of perimeter players, but Thomas is best used with the ball in his hands at the top of the floor -- the area from which modern point guards so often craft their finest works. That isn't to say that Thomas is so good as to be above compromise, but simply that how the Kings' talent is being used leaves something to be desired. Coaching is in part a practice of maximizing talent, and the placement, role and usage of Thomas draw attention to a coach opting for a passable veteran in a safe role rather than a useful, developing talent in a more progressive one.
The mismanagement in Thomas' case is so glaring that the rest of the Kings have apparently taken notice, as intimated by Aaron Bruski in his missive on Sacramento's disarray for ProBasketballTalk:
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.
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.
And based on Smart's treatment of the Kings' rotation, I'd say the players have every right to be frustrated. Thomas was given eight games as a starter before he was yanked, and even those opportunities didn't come with a fair chance to really make an impact on the game. The role he's been asked to fill this season has limited what he's capable of contributing, and yet the starting job, the corresponding minutes and now even reliable burn as a backup have been taken away. Even if the eventual fate of the Kings' offense relies on the marginalization of creative point guard play, wouldn't Sacramento benefit from allowing Thomas to attempt to become the player it needs him to be? Or at least by throwing Fredette into the fire and allowing him to grow into that same mold?
Even though Fredette has been logging less time as a nominal point guard this season, he still handles the ball plenty and has shown substantial improvement in his work off the dribble. A role as an offensive caretaker is well within his grasp, as his initiation of the offense (often while Thomas watches from the wing) has fostered spurts of offense and mirrors a boost in his shooting confidence. All in all, Fredette could effectively replicate some of Brooks' immediate appeal while still falling in line with a presumed long-term vision. His defense is a problem, but only as much as it is for Brooks. His ball-handling, steadier though it may be compared to last season, is a work in progress, but won't be much of an issue if he's used as a floor-spacing spectator. He could give the Kings something in a similar model to what Smart clearly prefers, but in a make that's four years newer.