Omri Casspi wants to call Sacramento home. He wants to be here. He never wanted to leave in the first place. The Kings’ 2009 first-round draft choice, who also has spent time with Houston and Cleveland, rejected more lucrative offers to re-sign with his original club two offseasons ago.
But this on-again, off-again relationship appears destined for another split. The Kings have a new coach, a glistening new arena, a new roster with a surprising number of older players, and seemingly little need for their popular small forward.
It doesn’t matter that Casspi is coming off a career year, is a quality teammate and an energizing, engaging role player. In the NBA, role players are expected to fit into the system and accept whatever opportunities are presented, regardless of who is in office.
George Karl and his fast-paced system worked well for Casspi. But things have slowed down around here. Dave Joerger has implemented a more structured, post-oriented offense – recall his “grit and grind” philosophy in Memphis – and at least for now is more comfortable with offseason acquisitions Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple, Arron Afflalo and Anthony Tolliver.
Play small, play big, play fast, play slow. These are Joerger’s decisions. This is his team. He was hired to coach his team.
Yet expecting Casspi to slow down is like asking Kanye West to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. He wouldn’t last two songs.
What the Kings (5-9) should do – and this comes straight from that suggestion box inside Golden 1 Center – is pursue a trade that would benefit both parties. In other words, it’s time to free the freewheeling Omri, to swap him to a team with a style more compatible with his skill set and, just as importantly, one that offers available minutes.
At his best, the lanky, athletic Israeli outhustles opponents for rebounds and breakout dunks, cuts baseline for quick hits and floaters, converts open 3-pointers, and gets into the passing lanes to deflect and swipe passes. The isolation game isn’t for him. Ballhandling isn’t his strength. He has to move, always has to be on the move.
“It’s difficult,” Joerger said Tuesday, acknowledging the impact of the newcomers and the minutes crunch. “I’m not saying it won’t change. It can change from season to season. Roles change. Players change. We have a lot of new faces. But we got those guys for a reason. And at some point you have to go with something for a while.”
Though his agents quietly have been making inquiries around the league, Casspi, who has remained on the bench for five of the past six games – four of which were losses – has not formally requested a trade. That isn’t his style, either. But based on his demeanor, a change of address undoubtedly would be welcomed. Clearly he is miserable. He leaps off the bench to congratulate teammates during timeouts, remains engaged in huddles, and works out privately after games and practices to maintain a reasonable level of conditioning. Yet transparent to a fault, his dulled brown eyes, occasional head shakes and emotional gestures reveal his frustrations.
“It’s a tough spot to be in,” he said Tuesday. “I’m 28. I feel like I’m reaching my prime. After last year, when I proved that if I got minutes, I could really contribute, to go from that to not playing is very hard. People don’t realize we are human beings. We talk to friends, agents, fans. Sometimes you just have to shut the phone down and focus.”
In his best season as a pro, Casspi started 21 games last year and averaged 27.3 minutes, 11.8 points and 5.9 rebounds and finished among the top five in the league in defensive rebounds per minute. He also shot 48.1 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range, and though inclined to commit unforced turnovers in bunches, his energy and enthusiasm never waver.
That is the lingering dilemma. It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t produce, wouldn’t liven things up, in a lineup that includes speedsters Ty Lawson and Darren Collison. For all their value, the advanced analytics fail to reflect the boost Casspi not only brings to his teammates but the crowd. He remains a fan favorite for a reason.
“The team is trying to figure out its identity,” Casspi said. “I understand that. But I really wanted to be part of building something special here. The fans have been through hell and high water. They are incredible. They get me going. Hopefully, I will still be part of it. I think I can fit in. The system is a lot like Michael Malone’s, and I adjusted. But I want to play. I need to play. If not here, then somewhere.”