Isaiah DeMarcus

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

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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.

Zach Randolph receives standing ovation in first game back after mother’s passing

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AP
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Zach Randolph was away from the Memphis Grizzlies and its fans for seven games to deal with the passing of his mother, Mae. When he returned to the floor, something special was waiting for him.

During Z-Bo’s arrival against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, fans at FedEx Forum gave Randolph a standing ovation in support of his difficult time.

From ESPN NBA:

Randolph dropped 12 points, collected 14 rebounds, and added an assist as the Grizzlies beat the Sixers, 96-91, in a game that went down to the wire.

Teammates of Randolph — like Marc Gasol — were glad to have him back and let Randolph know he was being thought about during his absence.

Gasol even took to Twitter after the game in a heartwarming gesture:

Cavs’ J.R. Smith sidelined with hyperextended left knee

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CLEVELAND (AP) Cavaliers starting shooting guard J.R. Smith will miss at least one game – and probably more – with a hyperextended left knee.

The Cavs said an MRI taken on Smith’s knee on Tuesday did not reveal any structural damage, but he will sit out Wednesday’s game against the New York Knicks. Smith got hurt in the first quarter of Cleveland’s win in Toronto on Monday night.

While his teammates flew to New York, Smith returned to Cleveland to undergo tests. The team said he is day to day while he receives additional treatment.

Smith’s knee buckled after he dropped a short shot in the lane in a 116-112 win over the Raptors. He had been bothered by soreness in his knee for the past week, and that may have contributed to his slow start this season.

Smith, who did not report to training camp before signing a four-year, $57 million contract before the opener, is averaging just 7.8 points and shooting a career-worst 31 percent from the floor. He’s shooting only 19 percent (8 of 42) in his last six games.

It’s not clear who will take Smith’s spot while he’s out. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has several options, including veterans Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson. On Monday, Lue gave more playing time to DeAndre Liggins, who scored five points as the Cavs beat the Raptors for the third time this season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Even John Wall’s 52 can’t get Wizards win

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) goes to the basket past Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, of the Republic of Congo, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Washington. The Magic won 124-116. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Associated Press
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We know you were busy Tuesday night assembling your hipster nativity scene — complete with bacon — so here are the three big takeaways from the night around the NBA.

1) John Wall puts up career-best 52, but that’s not enough to get Wizards win.
There is no more disappointing team in the NBA than the Washington Wizards, and Tuesday we saw exactly why. This season the Wizards have gotten good play from Bradley Beal (when healthy he has shot 41.5 percent from three and scored 21.4 points per game), Otto Porter (who has been sneaky good averaging 14.4 points on 53.9 percent shooting, plus 7.9 rebounds a game), and in particular John Wall. But that hasn’t been enough to overcome a poor defense and indifferent bench.

Tuesday night Wall had a career game — 52 points on 18-of-31 shooting, plus eight assists. He was getting into the middle of a good Orlando defense off the pick-and-roll and hitting shots he hasn’t consistently over the course of his career, plus of course getting his buckets in transition. He was fantastic.

It didn’t matter, Washington still lost to the Magic 124-116. Orlando has a bottom five offense, yet the Wizards allowed them 65 points in the first half and 96 points after three — the Magic were getting the shots they wanted, and these are NBA players if you let them do that they will hit those shots. The Wizards were bad defensively the night before against Brooklyn but still won because, well, Brooklyn. Orlando is too good for that. It was all the same problems for Washington, primarily an indifferent defense and a serious lack of depth.

But it’s not just the defense and bench — the issues are deeper than that. Wall’s postgame quote sums up the problem and should depress Wizards fans.

“Not even just defense, just playing hard. Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got any college scholarships, you played hard everyday to get to where you wanted to. To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to just do waking up.”

2) Zach Randolph returns and Grizzlies keep on winning. It was great to see Zach Randolph back on the court — he had missed seven games following the death of his mother and the home crowd in Memphis roared their support when he entered the game.

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The Grizzlies beat a shorthanded Sixers team (no Joel Embiid, second night of a back-to-back) 96-91, thanks to Marc Gasol’s 26 points and 12 rebounds (the night after his first triple-double of the season). While it may not have been the most impressive outing, the victory gives Memphis a four game winning streak — without Mike Conley. That’s huge. We said when Conley went down for six weeks (give or take) that the Grizzlies needed to find a way to stay afloat in the West playoff race, and the Grizzlies have gone 4-1. Granted, all the teams they beat are below .500, but they are beating the teams in front of them. Things are about to get tough (the next four games are Portland, Golden State, then a home-and-home with Cleveland) but this little streak is helping Memphis keep it’s head above water with it’s point guard out. This team always just seems to find a way.

3) Carmelo Anthony puts up 35, Knicks pick up a solid win. This game was close through the first half, but if you watched it you kept thinking, “the Knicks are going to get on a run and blow this thing open at some point.” New York just missed shots in the first 24 minutes — they started 0-of-11 from three — but the looks were often clean and there was a sense those shots were going to start to fall. They did after halftime, and it was the Knicks bench with Carmelo Anthony that went on an 8-0 run late in the third as the Knicks started to pull away and win comfortably over the Heat, 114-103. Depth was key in this game, Miami’s stars (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson) played well but the bench was a mess, while the Knicks got strong performances from their reserves, particularly from Kyle O’Quinn.

Mostly, this was one of those nights where when the Knicks needed a bucket, ‘Melo went and got it. He had 35 points on 27 shots, and while it wasn’t terribly efficient and was the kind of game he can give the Knicks some nights to propel them to a win.

Anthony scores 35, Knicks beat depleted Heat 114-103

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AP
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MIAMI (AP) It’s been a long time since the New York Knicks were in this position.

More than three years, to be precise.

Carmelo Anthony matched a season high with 35 points, and the Knicks took advantage of second chances all night to beat the injury-ravaged Miami Heat 114-103 on Tuesday night. At 12-9, New York is three games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season.

“Any time you can put together some wins you feel confident, you feel comfortable, you feel like you’re heading in the right direction, and I really feel we’re doing that,” Anthony said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 12 rebounds for New York, which has won four straight. The Knicks lost Derrick Rose to back spasms in the third quarter, but still scored 61 points after halftime.

“We just came out in the second half knowing that we have to win the game and that we have to play better,” Porzingis said.

Goran Dragic scored 29 points and Hassan Whiteside finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Heat, who fell to 2-8 at home. New York had a 31-13 edge in second-chance points, and outscored Miami 56-36 in the paint.

“Sometimes the ball goes that way,” Whiteside said.

The teams were tied at 68 late in the third quarter, when the Knicks went on a 27-13 run over the next eight minutes to take control. Anthony finished 13 for 27 from the field, and Porzingis and Joakim Noah combined for 22 rebounds.

The Heat had nine players, and might not have any more than that until next week. Justise Winslow missed his 12th consecutive game with a sore left wrist, and James Johnson (right rotator cuff), Dion Waiters (groin), Luke Babbitt (right hip) and Josh Richardson (right ankle) were also sidelined.

None are slated to travel for Miami’s three-game, four-day stretch that starts Wednesday in Atlanta. The Heat are leaving some staff in Miami to work with the injured players.

“They’re getting way more work in than they would get on the road,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

TIP-INS

Knicks: Coach Jeff Hornacek is now 1-5 against Miami. He’s beaten every team he’s faced, and has yet to coach against his former Phoenix club. … The Knicks missed their first 11 3-point tries, then made 7 of their last 14. … New York is over .500 this late in a season for the third time in 12 years. … Not a good sign for Wednesday, when Cleveland visits the Knicks: New York is 0-4 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: It was Dragic’s highest-scoring total as a member of the Heat. … Whiteside has led the Heat in rebounds in all 21 games this season. … Miami struggled again from the line, shooting 16 for 27.

ON PHIL

Spoelstra was asked to respond to Knicks President Phil Jackson’s comments last month about the way the Heat had to handle LeBron James when he played in Miami. Spoelstra laughed it off. “I honestly just think he gets bored and likes to throw stuff out there to get everybody all fired up,” Spoelstra said. James and the Cavaliers visit Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

TALL ORDER

Hilarity briefly ensued in the second quarter when the 7-foot-3 Porzingis had a jump ball against Miami’s Tyler Johnson, who might be generously listed at 6-foot-4. Shocking: Porzingis won the tap.

UP NEXT

Knicks: Host Cleveland on Wednesday, preceding a five-game West Coast trip.

Heat: Visit Atlanta on Wednesday, followed by visits to Cleveland and Chicago.