Darren Collison, who went from hot-shot rookie to journeyman, may have found niche with Kings

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BOSTON – Darren Collison lost a job because he played well. He lost a job because he got hurt. And he lost a job because he played poorly.

The point guard has moved around the NBA at nearly an unprecedented rate for someone with his early career credentials, but maybe, just maybe, he has found a place he can stay for a while.

The Kings gave Collison a three-year, $16 million contract in free agency last summer – even though that meant casting aside incumbent starter Isaiah Thomas, a player many (myself included) thought was superior to Collison. Collison has rewarded their faith, posting career highs in points per game (16.4), assists per game (5.9) and PER (18.7).

There’s little stability in Sacramento – where the coach just got fired despite exceeding all reasonable expectations, the owner has his own crazy ideas and the franchise player is brooding – but Collison has potential to stick. His speed equips him to run the up-tempo, jazzy system Vivek Ranadivé wants, and Collison’s bond with DeMarcus Cousins gives him a powerful ally.

“The opportunity is definitely here,” Collison said last week. “It just seems like everything is all coming together. I’m more confident.”

Collison has long had reason to be confident in himself, though not always his fit with his team.

He broke in with the 2009-10 New Orleans Hornets, getting a huge opportunity when Chris Paul got hurt. In 37 starts, Collison averaged 18.8 points, shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on 3-pointers, and 9.1 assists per game – All-Star-caliber numbers. Of course, no matter how well Collison played, the Hornets weren’t going to choose him over Paul.

They dealt him to Indiana, where he became a full-time starter and helped the Pacers end their longest playoff drought of his lifetime (four seasons). Reggie Miller comparisons didn’t seem outlandish. But Collison got hurt during his second season in Indiana, and George Hill Wally Pipped him in the starting lineup.

The Pacers sold low on Collison, trading him to the Mavericks. Dallas initially started Collison, but he lost the role to Dominique Jones, then Derek Fisher, then Mike James after Rick Carlisle expressed frustration with Collison’s defense. By the time the 2012-13 season ended, the Mavericks didn’t even extend Collison a qualifying offer.

He signed with the Clippers, taking a pay cut from his rookie-scale contract. Full circle, he was once again backing up and sometimes playing with Chris Paul. After the season, he opted out seeking a raise.

That’s when the Kings came calling, becoming Collison’s fifth team six seasons.

Just two other players have made an All-Rookie first team since the NBA-ABA merger and played for so many teams in their first six seasons:

  • Marc Jackson, 2001 (Warriors, Timberwolves, 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets)
  • Ron Mercer, 1998 (Celtics, Nuggets, Magic, Bulls, Pacers)

Jackson was out of the league one year later, and Mercer lasted only one more than that. The 27-year-old Collison certainly hopes he won’t suffer a similar fate.

That’s why Collison appreciates his opportunity in Sacramento.

“That’s all it is, really,” Collison said. “There’s a lot of good players in this league, but they don’t necessarily have the opportunity. Sometimes, they’re with a team, and they still don’t have an opportunity. They’re not going out there playing their games. I think, this year, I have a chance to do that.

“When I was with previous teams, it was hard to fit in. I couldn’t play my game, necessarily. So, this year, has been good for me.”

And good for the Kings’ offense.

They’re posting their best offensive rating relative to league average in a decade, and Collison is steering the ship.

Prior to this season, Collison has never had a dramatic effect on his teams’ offensive outputs. They’d all scored within two points per 100 possessions with him on the court as they did with him off.

But Sacramento’s offensive rating jumps from 95.6 with him off to 107.8 with him on.

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Some of that success can be chalked up to Collison spending most of his minutes with Cousins, Sacramento’s top player. But credit Collison for quickly learning how to play with the star center. Cousins scores better by volume (26.8 to 24.2 points per 36 minutes) and efficiency (51.7 to 46.4 field-goal percentage) when Collison is on the court rather than off.

The key to meshing with Cousins?

“Give him the ball, and let him work,” Collison said. “…It’s that easy.”

Collison’s deferential attitude aside, he’s not merely riding Cousins’ coattails. When the center missed 10 straight games with viral meningitis, the Kings still scored much better with Collison on the court than off (103.7 to 94.7 points per 100 possessions).

In fact, pair Collison with any teammate, and the Kings score better with Collison on the court. Here’s Sacramento’s offensive rating with each player and Collison on the court (purple) and off the court (black), sorted by minutes played with Collison:

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(Eric Moreland, who barely played before suffering a season-ending injury, is excluded from the visualization.)

Player Min. with Collison Min. without Collison Off. rating with Collison Off. rating without Collison Diff.
Rudy Gay 966 200 109.1 99.0 +10.1
Ben McLemore 874 254 108.5 95.5 +13.0
Jason Thompson 682 157 105.1 91.9 +13.2
DeMarcus Cousins 550 195 111.9 98.6 +13.3
Carl Landry 263 358 103.7 92.8 10.9
Reggie Evans 238 185 105.7 96.0 +9.7
Derrick Williams 206 243 111.3 98.4 +12.9
Omri Casspi 155 300 108.6 96.0 +12.6
Ryan Hollins 144 58 98.1 83.6 +14.5
Nik Stauskas 141 330 105.4 96.1 +9.3
Ray McCallum 71 205 110.7 91.7 +19
Ramon Sessions 33 394 107.4 97.4 +10
Eric Moreland 1 1 200.0 166.7 +33.3

At some point, the common denominator becomes clear: Collison.

He knocks down pull-up jumpers from mid-range, not exactly an analytical hotbed, but a part of the floor that opens thanks to his pick-and-roll probing. He has improved working off the ball, spotting up for corner 3s. And he keeps the ball moving.

In a conference where half the Kings’ opponents start a former All-Star at point guard, Collison doesn’t exactly stand out. But he’s brining credibility to the position in Sacramento.

“He’s comfortable,” Kings coach Tyrone Corbin said. “He’s gotten his confidence back. His speed, pushing the ball down the floor. He knows he’s going to be on the floor for a certain amount of minutes, so he’s relaxed and just playing at a pace that’s favorable to his style of play.”

It’d be foolish to say Collison, just 31 games into his Sacramento tenure, has found a home. His previous teams have struggled to determine whether he should start or come off the bench for fair reasons, and toeing that line has made him expendable.

But this season, Collison is showing he’s a quality starter.

“This year, I definitely proved that,” Collison said. “So, now, it’s not even about proving to be a good starter. It’s about leading the team now.”

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

Knicks vs. Bulls
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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.