Eight games into a new season and 3-5 record, and our Kings team is at a mini-crossroads, with a new head coach, the loss of a front court starter for 3 to 4 weeks (12 to 15 games), and ball movement that smells like dirty diapers marinated in motor oil and pickle juice.
OK, maybe slightly worse.
To best ensure stability, scoring punch, and 48 Minutes of Hell, or at least mildly unpleasant conditions for daunted opponent, one of the (loosely named) Big Three is on the court at all times. In particular, rarely do LeBron or Wade sit on the bench simultaneously. It is also unusual to see Ray Allen, Rondo and Pierce rest at once (I exclude KG from this trio because he is more of a defensive presence than offensive priority at this stage of his career.)
As Coach Smart strategizes a player rotation to improve spacing, freedom and ball movement, and as he strives to maximize available talent and compensate for the loss of Chuck Hayes, we can anticipate Smart to at least mimic this proven strategy with his own version of the Big Three.
One of Tyreke, Marcus or DeMarcus will be on the court at all times.
And they will all continue to start.
Coach Smart wants to create a family atmosphere. There would be no better way to do the opposite, to create tension and risk alienation, than to tell the Godfather to do the dishes.
Marcus Thornton is not giving up his starting spot to a rookie.
Not only is Jimmer undeserving and unprepared, and yet to have a break out game, Marcus has been the best and most consistent professional on the team so far (16th in the NBA in scoring at 19.4 PPG, 6th among guards; 26.3 PPG on 52% shooting in our 3 wins).
Moreover, Marcus can continue to start while being the focal point of the second unit.
There is a misperception floating around that to improve bench scoring requires a team to bring one of its most capable scorers off the bench.
Instead, Coach Smart will substitute early, and stagger the break times for Tyreke and Marcus, while being sensitive and responsive to slow team starts.
It can work like this: Jimmer enters at the 5:00 remaining mark in the 1st quarter. Marcus sits. Marcus rests for the next 7:00 minutes of game and substitutes back in at the 10:00 remaining mark of the 2nd quarter for Tyreke.
As a result, Marcus is on the floor for almost all of the 2nd quarter, together with back-ups along the front court. He becomes the primary scoring option to help to prevent against scoring lulls.
Interchange Tyreke and Marcus if you like, depending on match-up advantages, and who has the hot hand, but the strategy remains. Tyreke and Marcus rarely, if ever, sit simultaneously. Primary back-ups play (almost always) with a primary scorer.
In this example, Marcus plays 17 minutes in the half, which equals on prorated basis his 35 minute per game average. Tyreke checks in late in the second quarter to accumulate same number of minutes. Jimmer logs one 12-minute first half stint, equivalent on prorated basis to his 25 minute per game average.
Smart basketball in the Smart Era.
What else can we expect with a new coach at the helm, and with a front court in flux? There’s been a lot underperformance at the ‘3’, ‘4’, and ‘5’ positions so far. Is more instability and inferior production destined? Or will one or more than one player emerge to provide winning play?
First, a quick summary analysis with a few ghastly stats included:
DeMarcus is shooting 40%, although he is coming off two consecutive strong games (17 out of last 30 FGs). He has 5 assists against 19 TOs. His target ratio of 1 to 1 as evidence of improved ball handling decisions, is instead 1 to 4. He leads the NBA in fouls. A foul magnet last year, DeMarcus is fouling more often so far this year, up from 4.1 FPG to 4.9 FPG. Cousins has emerged as a beast on the boards, with his slimmed down physique allowing him to react and snag with ferocity, tallying boards with Kevin Love-like aplomb.
JJ Hickson is shooting 37%. His defense has been poor, barring an occasional swat. He lets his man score easily, rarely sends a message he intends to provide resistance, as evidenced by a foul rate of 1.5 FPG. His rebounding has been terrific. At 6.9 RPG, he doubles the rebound total of JT, a supposed board hog. JJ Hickson’s activity level has been impressive. His efficiency level has been just the opposite.
John Salmon has been a disaster. He’s playing out of position, and looks to have lost half of a step from his former King days. Of all players in the NBA playing more than 25 minutes per game, Salmons has the 6th worst PER (player efficiency rating) in the NBA at 8.14. Only Corey Maggette, Jameer Nelson, Stephen Jackson, Michael Beasley and Marco Belinelli have performed worse. ‘Nuff said.
JT has been limited by opportunity and his own skill level. Positively, he seems to have improved his inclination to give away the ball and foul excessively. Ideally suited as 4th big off the bench (10 to 15 minutes), he will be thrust into role of 3rd big (20 to 25 minutes) for the next month. He must perform in competitive stretches, not just garbage time. In 3 wins, JT has been invisible, scoring 2 points and 3 boards on 37% shooting.
What does Coach Smart do with this motley mix of forwards and centers and early season underachievers?
(1) He wipes the slate clean.
DeMarcus and the Grim Reaper of Coaching could no longer co-exist. Travis Outlaw and Donte Greene are two players who especially need to push the reset button on their recent play. A new coach could be catalyst to spark turnaround.
Coach Smart made it a point to emphasize each player would be evaluated anew, with past lapses and transgressions dismissed. He can only hope several players capitalize on second and third chances they are granted to carve meaningful minutes and advance their careers.
If DeMarcus and Donte were at all hindered by a coach that lost belief, faith and patience in them, that obstacle no longer stands in their way.
Coach Smart can also anticipate a statistical reversion to the mean and beyond, for individuals and the team, and that by installing a functional offense that grants freedom and focus, shooting percentages will rise. His players will be inspired to play with energy and hustle that he imparts through enthusiastic guidance.
(2) He juggles his defensive style of play to avoid front line foul trouble.
Perhaps the biggest early challenge facing Coach Smart will be to defend along the frontline without his best post defender, and without getting into major foul trouble midway through the 3rd quarter.
Until Hayes gets healthy, his options are limited to a chronic fouler (Cousins), a bad defender (JJ Hickson), a hyperactive defender who provides zero help defense (JT), and a SG trying to defend SFs (Salmons).
Coach Smart can institute a zone defense to minimize fouls against his team, and double the post to try to slow the toughest post scorers on the schedule this month (Dirk, Al Jefferson, LeMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard).
More energy and hustle will compensate for the fundamental shortcomings, but interior defense has to be at the top of his list of potential issues.
(3) He makes Donte Greene his new starting ‘3’.
John Salmons was an acquisition spurred by the former coach and his preference for veteran performers, even those with tendency to monopolize possessions, and coming off his worst NBA season.
Coach Smart has no such allegiance to John. Patience for improved play will not be infinite, nor at the current pace, until February.
Unlike Salmons, Donte has the size to defend small forwards. He could benefit from playing around three scorers in the starting line-up, allowing him to concentrate on defense, open looks and simple passes.
Donte gets garbage points in the paint, fills the lane on break, catches and finishes alley oops.
Unfortunately, he has shown no ball handling ability, rebounding skills, or scoring prowess between 3 point line and a dunk. He’s mistake prone and antsy under pressure.
And yet, if he was ever going to develop into a real NBA player, the firing of Paul Westphal may be the best thing that ever happened to the career of Donte Greene.
If Coach Smart can turn Donte into a legitimate performer, then 21 point comebacks, a hug from DeMarcus to his coach, a genuinely happy locker room, and a playoff run in 2012 will be just the "tip of the iceberg" as the Smart Era unfolds.