If the Kings distributed holiday gifts to their players, Omri Casspi should receive a nice fat bonus.
The veteran small forward is one of the season’s pleasant surprises, an increasingly significant contributor whose battery pack never runs out of juice.
Rebounds. Breakouts. Dunks. One-handed floaters. Entry passes to the post. Leading and finishing fast breaks. Improving defender, particularly in the passing lanes.
“Omri played great for George (Karl) the second half of last season and we wanted to bring him back if we could,” said Kings general manager Vlade Divac, who re-signed Casspi for two years and $6 million. “His threes are like layups now. I’m very happy it worked out so well for both of us.”
11.9 Omri Casspi’s career-high scoring average this season
Actually, at today’s prices, the organization got the better part of the deal. Casspi, who thrived with the second unit before Willie Cauley-Stein fractured a finger, has been equally effective as a starter alongside Rudy Gay and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Besides point guard Rajon Rondo, the league leader in assists and the Kings’ undisputed floor leader, Casspi, 27, is the only player who memorizes his lines, walks onto the stage, and delivers consistent performances night after night.
Next up: Paul George and the Indiana Pacers. This will be challenging. When the Kings function as an energetic ensemble, they can be a team that competes for a playoff berth in the Western Conference. When they don’t? When selfish habits and one-on-one tendencies reappear? They are equally capable of sinking to the bottom of the Pacific Division.
With neither Cousins nor Gay giving peak performances, one can only imagine what the Kings’ record would be without Rondo and the increasingly reliable Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA when he was drafted by the Kings in 2009.
Casspi’s development offers a case study in hard knocks, tough lessons and determination. Overseas coaches and teammates who had dabbled in the NBA warned about the rigors and physical demands of the 82-game season. Former national team coach Zvi Sherf reminded Casspi that the training programs and facilities within Israel were inadequate, contrasting with those of, say, war-ravaged Serbia or Croatia. He was encouraged to train harder, train longer, to train, period.
But the league is an undertaking all its own; it has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.
Despite flashes of promise, Casspi’s inconsistency his first two seasons prompted his trade (with a first-round pick) to the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2011. After languishing on the Cavaliers’ bench for the better part of two seasons, he signed as a free agent with the Houston Rockets and enjoyed then-coach Kevin McHale and his first playoff experience. Primarily for salary cap purposes, he was swapped again, this time to the New Orleans Pelicans in a three-team deal in 2014. Then came the ultimate indignity: The Pelicans waived him while he was packing for the flight.
“I had to grow up real fast,” Casspi admitted. “You learn. You mature. I made a big mistake because I had stopped working in the summers with coach (David) Thorpe in Florida. I realized I needed him. He was my mentor, my psychiatrist. We talk about the game, sometimes 10-15 minutes about one play. In the offseason, we get in the gym and it’s all about the fundamentals.”
Thorpe describes the Casspi who returned to his Florida gym as humbled and emotionally fragile, and thoroughly confused about his skills.
“He had lost everything,” Thorpe said recently. “His shot was all jacked up. He had no confidence. I started by asking him, ‘Omri, what do you have? Speed, agility, passion, a huge motor.’ He can play super fast, plays super hard, and he is a ball mover. He makes the right pass, plays the right way. Then we spent a lot of time working on his three-point shot, the footwork, the balance, making sure he didn’t drop the ball below his waist.”
I get so mad when we lose. We have a great coach and a great system, and now we have pieces. We have to get it together.
The 6-foot-9, 225-pound veteran who rejoined the Kings in the 2014 offseason was sleeker, stronger, wiser and improved, particularly flourishing after Karl took over during the All-Star break last season.
In a style that demands pace, rebounding, ball and body movement, and defense that leads to transition opportunities, Casspi is producing career bests in scoring (11.9 points), rebounding (6.2), field-goal percentage (50.4) and three-point percentage (44.9).
In ESPN’s “real plus minus ranking” that rates players on both offense and defense, he is eighth among small forwards and among 24 players shooting 40 percent or better beyond the arc.
Then there are the surprises, the no-look pass on the break, the perfect lobs and entry passes, the outlet in transition, and a reduction in those silly turnovers, primarily because he has curbed his habit of dribbling or passing into crowds. In his seventh season, he likes to think he has established an identity, recognizing both strengths and weaknesses, and is driven to help transform the franchise.
“I get so mad when we lose,” he said. “We have a great coach and a great system, and now we have pieces. We have to get it together. We have to play together and we can’t be selfish. Man, I just hate it when we lose. This should be our time.”