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.

Kawhi Leonard says he expects more boos than cheers from Raptors fans

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Kawhi Leonard joined the Raptors reluctantly. As soon as he could, he left for a more glamorous L.A. market. His advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, reportedly made unreasonable requests of Toronto on the way out the door.

This has all the ingredients of the typical “superstar departs, becomes villain” story.

Except the big mitigating factor: Leonard led the Raptors to the franchise’s lone championship after they spent years coming up short.

Now with the Clippers, Leonard will return to Toronto tonight.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

I think Leonard will be dead wrong. I expect fans to show their appreciation for everything he helped Toronto accomplish.

Of course, they would have preferred he stayed. But he did everything they could have dreamed during his lone season, including playing hurt while carrying the Raptors over the finish line.

Toronto is still riding high. The tribute video is ready.

Everything is set for Raptors fans to shower Leonard with applause tonight.

Report: Carmelo Anthony tried to convince Knicks that signing him would help lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

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The Knicks reportedly would’ve considered signing Carmelo Anthony if they first got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Apparently, Anthony tried to persuade New York to reverse the order of operations.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

According to a person close to Anthony, his representatives were in contact with Knicks management about Anthony rejoining the organization as a free agent on a minimum contract. Anthony’s camp was trying to convince the Knicks that signing Anthony would help the club’s pursuit of Irving and Durant, who became free agents on June 30.

Anthony badly wanted to return to the NBA. I don’t blame him for making whatever case he could. It’s on teams to say no.

And the Knicks reasonably said no.

Who’s supposed to believe a 35-year-old washed-up-looking* Anthony would make a difference with Durant and Irving?

*Even in his surprisingly resurgent stint with the Trail Blazers, Anthony has a -5.0 box plus-minus. He has been inefficient offensively and horrendous defensively. Better than my expectations, still not good.

After signing with the Nets, Durant and Irving reportedly pushed for Brooklyn to sign Anthony. It’s easy to believe Durant and Irving wanted Anthony on their team. Anthony is highly respected by his peers, and Anthony’s individual scoring skills fit nicely into Durant’s vision of basketball.

But Durant and Irving were tying at least the next three years of their careers to a franchise. It’s difficult to believe a factor as trivial as Anthony would have made a difference in their choices.

If they could’ve gotten Durant and Irving by signing Anthony, the Knicks screwed up. The Nets gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $39,960,716 contract in conjunction with getting Durant and Irving. Anthony was seeking just a minimum deal.

I don’t think the Knicks screwed up here.

Their real problem was years of dysfunction that turns off nearly anyone with better options. Signing Anthony wasn’t going to undo all that.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum on Ujiri: ‘Masai is here to stay’

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Masai Ujiri-to-the-Knicks rumors are heating up.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is throwing cold water on the notion of his team president departing.

Tanenbaum, via Michael Traikos of the Toronto Sun:

“We haven’t talked (about an extension) at this point in time, but if you ask him, his intentions are pretty clear.”

“Masai has a contract that goes for another two years — this season and next season — so there’s really no need at this point (to re-sign him),” he said.

“He is the best,” said Tanenbaum. “But no team can come to talk to him. That’s tampering. And every owner knows that. Masai is here to stay.”

Apparently, Tanenbaum isn’t among those in Toronto afraid of Ujiri leaving for New York.

Tanenbaum’s comments come on the heels of mixed reports of whether the Raptors offered an extension that Ujiri rejected. Though I don’t blindly trust Tanenbaum – who’d be incentivized to deny getting rejected – I appreciate him putting his name behind this information. That’s more credible than the previous reports that cited unnamed sources.

The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Ujiri. They can offer a more prestigious historical franchise, a bigger market, more connections for Ujiri’s foundation and maybe more money. They also have owner James Dolan, who is notoriously difficult to work for.

Tanenbaum sure sounds as if he knows New York won’t tempt Ujiri. The Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman is speaking in no uncertain terms. If Masai isn’t there to stay, Tanenbaum will have a lot of egg on his face.

If Masai is there to stay, Tanenbaum will have one of the NBA’s best executives.

Three Things to Know: Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start. Sometimes the headline can miss the real story.

That happened Tuesday night in the NBA, where the headline out of the Hawks/Heat game was Trae Young calling game, waving his arms and saying it was over after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

It was not over, Miami had been coming back all night long and did so again, capped by a Jimmy Butler three that sent the game to overtime.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121. Butler took to Instagram after the game to say Trae Young is no Nostradamus.

That back-and-forth is entertaining, but it missed the real story of the night — Miami won that game because it’s young core bailed them out.

As it has all season. Jimmy Butler has been phenomenal and was in this game — a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists — but the Heat don’t win if their young core guys do not go off. Miami is 18-6 and third in the East because their young core is better than anyone predicted.

Just ask the Hawks. Bam Adebayo is playing at a near All-Star level and had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Kendrick Nunn is in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race and led Miami with 36 points. Then there is Duncan Robinson, who drained 10 threes on the night.

This season Miami got back to its identity — Pat Riley’s team has always found young diamond’s in the rough and developed them into quality players as well as any organization in the league. That — and Miami’s ability to get veterans into great shape and raise their level of contributions — has fueled consistent excellence over the decades. Of course, the Heat also hunted and bagged star players (Miami is a place you can recruit big names to come).

The Heat got back to that identity this season — they went out and got Jimmy Butler, but it’s the young core of guys (and we didn’t even discuss Tyler Herro or Justise Winslow) that is at the heart of why the Heat keep on winning this season.

2) Joel Embiid was having a little fun again and the Sixers improved to 13-0 at home. Joel Embiid has been a little subdued this season. He’s still been one of the game’s elite centers, but his minutes, shot attempts, points per game, efficiency, and his trash-talking fun factor all have been down a little this season.

Which is why it was so much fun when the old Embiid broke out for a minute against Denver. Embiid hit a circus shot while being fouled and then ran out to center court to do a little shimmy for the crowd.

Last Sunday, Embiid explained his more subdued self this year this way, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The whole season it feels like I’ve been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I’m healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I’ve been part of I’ve not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I’ve been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body.”

After the win against the Sixers, Embiid said we may see more of the old-school, fun version of himself this season going forward, via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that’s kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I’m having fun, I dominate.“

With the win, the Sixers improved to 18-7 on the season — 13-0 at home but 5-7 on the road.

3) Two guys vying for Most Improved Player — Davis Bertans and Devonte’ Graham — put on a show in Hornets win over Wizards. Of all the end-of-season awards, Most Improved Player is the one that usually takes me (and a lot of media and league followers) to settle on. It’s just the nature of the award. Most improved usually goes to a player nobody expected to make a massive leap doing just that, so you don’t see it coming. Then, guys come out hot to start the season, but can’t sustain it. For MIP, it just takes longer for the field to sort itself out.

Two guys in the discussion early on for the award are Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham and Washington’s Davis Bertans — and those two put on a show Tuesday night. Bertans had a career night, scoring 32 on 11-of-18 shooting off the bench, including 8-of-12 from three.

Graham, who has gone from a guy who played in just 46 games a season ago to Charlotte’s leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets.

Charlotte picked up the win, 114-107, and if you want to dream big, remain 2.5 games back of the eight seed and a playoff berth in the East.