Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The King is dead... long live the Kings...

No, this isn't a post about the self-proclaimed King, rather about the Sacramento Kings, and their current situation. A win against the Lakers was nice, but in two games there has been little to no consistency with the number of shots taken by certain players, or the minutes played, or even who is running the point guard position. I know, it's only two games, but it's also been a couple of seasons under Paul Westphal and he has neither the respect of his players or seemingly the willingness to dub either Tyreke, Cousins or Thornton as the clear first option, rather choosing to let the players run wild so to speak, and preventing them gaining a rhythm. This wasn't so much of a problem in Tyreke's rookie year, where it was obvious that he was the man, but since the talented and more experienced Thornton has entered the fray the lines have become blurred. Cousins only complicates the problem further.

Those of you who watched the remarkable OKC-MIN game would have noticed the startling change from last season, Adelman had his players motivated and defending to the best of their ability. The people who watched the Wolves play the Bucks would have also seen how different they were without Adelman on the sidelines. The moral of the story being this; a bad record doesn't indicate a bad team, sometimes it just comes down to bad coaching or a bad coaching fit, and everything I see in the Kings feels the same way. The sooner they do away with Westphal the better, and with the right coach they could actually take positive steps with all that talent, provided the players buy into the new coach's philosophy.

So let's take a look at the candidates in no particular order;

1. Mike Woodson
To me, Woodson was hard done by when he was unceremoniously booted from the Atlanta Hawks for having them hovering around the 50-win mark for the last few seasons of his tenure. How dare he take a team of talented youngsters and teach them how to play as a team! The state of the Hawks when Woodson took over bear similarities to this young Kings team. They were very talented but inconsistent and saw a gradual improvement under Woodson's care. A consistent approach from a coach who stresses fundamentals and good defensive play like Woodson would do wonders for the Kings. It also doesn't hurt that he has a knack for relating to younger players and was well respected by his team during his tenure in Atlanta. A massive shift in power is taking place in the Western Conference, with powerhouses like the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks seemingly taking backward steps. In two to three years the transition from young to old will be complete, and if the right coach doesn't develop these players the Kings will miss out and be forced to start rebuilding all over again. Now, to quote Chris Rock "He won't get you to the promised land, but he'll get you to the playoffs, which is good enough". Like Doug Collins paved the way for Phil Jackson in Chicago, so too will Woodson prepare his young charges for a championship run by instilling them with good fundamentals and hard work.

2. Jeff Van Gundy
A coach who knows a thing or two about winning games in a lockout shortened season, as evidenced by his run to the Finals with the 98-99 Knicks, Jeff has expressed an interest in coaching again, and with his protege Mark Jackson finally given a shot at a head coaching position, it might be time for the mentor to do the same. Van Gundy brings a great pedigree and a thorough understanding of how the game of basketball should be played, which is something a number of Kings players have struggled with in the past. While I confess I'm not too familiar with Van Gundy's system, you can't argue with results, and his teams have always been competitive, which is what the fans in Sacramento need.

3. Brian Shaw
Shaw served his time as an assistant coach under Phil Jackson and was the man many expected to take over from the Zen Master when he retired. However, Dr Buss decided to go in another direction and the Lakers were left with Grimac- I mean Mike Brown. While Shaw is unproven as a head coach, he's a young ex-player who knows the triangle intimately, and when you look at the Kings roster, they have all the pieces there to be very successful with that system. You have the star SG in Tyreke Evans, whose passing ability will come to the fore and help him emulate his predecessors Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan as focal points of the triangle. There is rookie Jimmer Fredette who is a sharp-shooter in the mould of Steve Kerr with more moves, and Marcus Thornton is a similarly gifted combo guard. Finally, the requisite big man in DeMarcus Cousins whose skill-set and brute force would allow him to combine some of the best attributes of previous post players to run the triangle in Shaq and Gasol, although obviously Shaq is inimitable. However, the biggest case for this system is that they lack a true point guard and the triangle removes the need for one whilst providing the young Kings with more structure in both spacing and movement off the ball. For these reasons and more, Shaw would be an upgrade over Westphal.

4. Phil Jackson
I know, I know, he's retired. We've heard that before though, and look at the results - two more rings. As nice as it would be for Shaw to be given a chance to work the magic of the triangle, no coach has ever implemented it as successfully as the thoroughly unique Phil Jackson. While the system is important, with young players sporting attitudes which can be deemed questionable at the very least, Jackson's ability to get player to buy into his philosophy using his Zen Master voodoo is what truly sets him apart from any coach before or since he came along. However, this is a wildly unrealistic hire given Jackson's age and retired status, but if he ever changes his mind, a damn near perfect roster for his needs will be waiting for him.

So there you have it, the list of coaches I think would be best suited to replace the underachieving Westphal in Sactown. While they all have their faults - although some have nothing to do with ability - each one would be an improvement over the current King. The ideal situation, if we are talking absolute best case scenario would be for Woodson to prepare this team for a few years and have a rejuvenated Jackson/Winter combo take the reigns. Whatever the case, the Sacramento Kings are in dire need of a revolution, and Westphal's should be the first head to roll.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Dark Knight

I know I wrote a post about rookie PG Brandon Knight a few months back, when the lockout was fresh, but so much has happened since then that he's almost completely dropped off the radar. With all the talk of incoming rookie PGs Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and even, dare I say it, Jimmer Fredette, many people have forgotten about the next in a line of great Calipari point guards; Brandon Knight. Really, the more I think about it, the more I can't figure out why. Let's take a look back at his amazing achievements to date and see if we can perhaps understand why he's dropped off the radar so suddenly.

Knight had an illustrious high school career, which was capped off with back-to-back selections as Gatorade National Player of the Year, joining only a handful of players (including Lebron James) to win it as a junior in high school. His stats for that junior year? 31.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 3 steals per game. Despite all this, he was overlooked as top player in his class in favour of players like Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Kyrie Irving and even Josh Selby by the time he graduated. It's possible that he peaked too soon, or that he didn't dunk enough (which is somewhat true) and couldn't stay on top in the AAU world we lived in.

With all the accolades of high school (including about every type of All-American you could imagine) behind him, Knight was set for stardom in following John Wall to Kentucky and succeeding Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose as Calipari-coached PGs. It was apparent from the get-go that the freshman was going to be a one-and-done, as he overcame his early struggles to quickly become a leader of the young Wildcats. He did more than just lead, he put up some damn fine numbers too; with averages of 17.3ppg, 4.1apg and 4rpg while shooting 42% from the floor, 37.7% from deep and 79% from the charity line in the 38 games played.

Stats aside, he also led the Wildcats to the SEC championship, and the Final Four of the 2011 NCAA tournament. His great run with the Wildcats included a memorable performance against Harrison Barnes and the Tar Heels in the Elite Eight, with the two of them trading clutch makes from deep down the stretch. Ultimately, Knight would prevail over the number one ranked player of his class, only to fall just short of glory by facing the eventual champions UConn led by Kemba Walker. Bearing in mind that John Wall and Demarcus Cousins could only get to the Elite Eight, despite arguably a deeper team which was certainly more talented, Knight's accomplishments stand for themselves. And yet, and yet...

The pre-draft frenzy came along after the Finals, and it seemed certain that Knight would be a top-five pick; Utah needed a long-term prospect to replace the departed Deron Williams, Cleveland could take Derrick Williams first and require a point, and Toronto surely wouldn't pass up on the opportunity to finally get a young, athletic PG to replace Calderon? However, the top-5 picks came in and a surprising move to grab Thompson 4th overall by the Cavaliers left promising big-man Valanciunas available for the Raptors, whose need for a true inside presence was too strong for them to take Knight. The Wizards selected 6th, but they had Wall to run the point, and as good as Brandon was, Wall was coming off an amazing year, despite his injuries. Somehow, the Bobcats found themselves with the 7th and 9th picks, and a chance to replace the underwhelming Augustin with a cold-blooded scorer with star potential in Knight. Knight was being hyped as a possible 3rd overall pick, and amazingly, was there at 7.

However, MJ decided to lock up Bismack Biyombo instead, certain he'd found a winner (I'm still shaking my head at this one), and finally, Knight was taken 8th overall by the Pistons. Jordan would go on to select Kemba Walker with the 9th pick. Despite this, I figured Knight had ended up in a good situation after all; new ownership was incoming, the Pistons had young talent in Daye, Monroe and Jerebko, and Stuckey looked to be on the way out. At the time, I thought Brandon might just have a shot at ROY, with the minutes and responsibility he'd get.

Then the lockout happened, and unlike some of the less-grounded players in the NBA, Knight put his head down and carried on killing it in the classroom, because they couldn't lock him out of there. Nary a peep was heard of him for the whole lockout, and consequently he just slipped the minds of many. When the lockout ended, people turned their attention to those aforementioned rookie PGs, leaving Knight on an island seemingly by himself.

Detroit fans should rejoice though, because while he not be as flashy as Rubio, as accomplished as Kemba, as popular as Fredette or hyped as Irving, over the games I saw of him, there were flashes of a quiet, cold, passion driving Knight which makes you think that when all is said and done, he'll emerge from the shadows as a basketball hero for the city of Detroit. To paraphrase the Batman film, Knight might not be the flashy, ratings-boosting hero they need after the horrors of the economic recession, the Kuester era and the terrible BG/CV signings, but he's the hero they deserve; the hard worker, the quiet assassin, the dark knight.

Forget him at your peril.