Posted December 20, 2012

Smart’s moves stunting Kings’ growth

Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette, Keith Smart, Rob Mahoney, Sacramento Kings
Keith Smart, Isaiah Thomas

Keith Smart’s misuse of Isaiah Thomas has been one of many frustrating aspects of the Kings’ 8-17 season. (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

Brooks isn’t some great villain in this scenario, merely an underqualified player denying two more promising prospects of their royal jelly. This is a time for the Kings to not only lay the cultural groundwork for the team they hope to be, but also to groom the players who would best benefit the franchise — endeavors both offset by giving Brooks the kingdom. Let him start if that best serves the team. Let him play if it helps space the floor. But not at the cost of both of the backcourt players Sacramento is tasked with developing, especially when doing so tests an already delicate locker-room balance and upsets a rebuilding plan that’s tenuous at best.

7 comments
CardiffKC
CardiffKC

As a long-time Kings fan who watches every game, I couldn't agree more with this article.  Coach smart has done a fantastic job of over-coaching and essentially killing Isiah's game for no reason.  The one thing that wasn't broke last year was the fast paced offense with Isiah being aggressive at the point, but this year inexplicably Smart switched to a triangle offense where Isiah does little more than dump the ball to the post or high post.

 

Also, the Kings' point guards are forced to look over to the coach and get the play on almost every possession.  Give me a break - let them play.  Coach Smart is constantly yelling at Isiah and telling him to back off and I'm not sure why?  He isn't given the same leash as players such as Garcia, Salmons, Evans, Thorton and Cousins who can all miss 10 shots and play horribly without consequence.  However, the minute Isiah or Jimmer makes one turn-over or misses a couple shots they are immediately pulled. 

 

There really is no long-term reason that Hayes, Garcia, Outlaw and Brooks should ever even see the floor.  Salmons has been a pleasant surprise, but the others I just mentioned are pretty awful.

jsteppling
jsteppling like.author.displayName 1 Like

Yes yes yes. Its so obvious that the team needs to develop its younger guys. Thomas and Fredette have been excellent this year,,,,contrary to a lot of fan opinion. Jimmer in particular has clearly put in the time and his defense isnt half bad. He could well become a Reddick type of player. Thomas could be ty lawson. Smart hasnt a clue.....and clearly has an unfortunate last name.

damasias
damasias

Smart is a dumb ass coach,the Kings will never win with this has been.No improvement since he"s been there,what else has to be said.

Larry22
Larry22

 @damasias  Smart isn't really a has been. More like a never was.

Steve Moore
Steve Moore

I appreciate your thoughts and guess I'm in the 'minority' so to speak. I would respectfully argue that Ellis/Curry backups were C. Bell, Acie Law and Reggie Williams, hardly reasons to not even look at Lin. Bell proved to be so toxic that they used their amnesty to get rid of him, and he played more than Lin. So easy tp trash Lin but Rockets record ain't bad.

Steve Moore
Steve Moore

The lost look on Smarts face during games tells it all - he's the guru who never played Lin at GSW when they stunk.

Timmyw
Timmyw

I can find a lot of reasons to be critical of Keith Smart, but I don't think not playing Lin ahead of Curry and Ellis is one of them. Lin was a rookie who didn't show much. He was later cut by the Rockets, was sent to D League and was riding the bench in NY until injuries force D' Antoni to play him. He had a handful of outstanding games there. He's the starter in Houston and has been pretty lackluster.