The best about the Kings in 2016? Um, um, um. That’s a tough one. Another coach was fired. Another coach was hired. The reconfigured roster became older and more experienced. Better defenders were added. Three youngsters were drafted, and though they have received almost zero minutes to date, coach Dave Joerger ended the year with a bang: The kids will get playing time.
But back to the present. Of all their issues – erratic production at shooting guard, how to complement DeMarcus Cousins’ enormous talents, how to keep the fans interested enough to renew their season tickets in gorgeous Golden 1 Center – that eighth playoff spot likely will elude the Kings unless Darren Collison enters a phone booth, slips into his Kings uniform, and emerges as Darren Collison.
Faster than a speeding bicycle. More powerful than the Polar Express. Able to outleap taller players with a single stride.
The Kings don’t need Collison, 29, to be Superman. They just need him to be a veteran who pushes the pace, consistently converts the mid-range jumper, scores on a variety of twisting, acrobatic driving layups and pressures opposing ballhandlers.
And the Kings need an effective Collison now more than ever. In Saturday’s sluggish 112-98 loss to the visiting Memphis Grizzlies, backup point guard Ty Lawson, who is having a nice little career comeback, suffered a sinus fracture and was listed as day-to-day. The backup to the backup is Garrett Temple, and the valuable offseason signee will be the first to tell you he is much more comfortable at shooting guard.
Collison just as quickly admits that, in the previous four games in particular, he was out of sorts, was a shadow of himself. Now, if he were a blur of himself – and his game is predicated on speed, remember – that would not be an issue.
“My game is going downhill, being aggressive,” Collison said Saturday, “and I felt like the last week or two, I took a step back mentally, kind of deferring to the offense instead of playing off my instincts. I felt comfortable (Saturday). I’ll be all right now.”
Before the Kings succumbed to the Grizzlies’ superior passing, movement and second-chance points, and meekly contested the visitors’ attempts from beyond the arc (Memphis was 17 for 35 from 3-point range), Collison was enjoying one of his most effective outings.
A wiry 6-foot and 175 pounds, he slipped underneath and scored on an assist from Cousins, drove and spun inside for two more points, made a 3-pointer from the right corner, sank a pull-up jumper from the foul line and had another driving layup. By halftime – with Lawson having departed late in the second quarter – the former UCLA standout had 12 points, and the Kings had themselves a game.
That lasted, oh, until midway into the third quarter, when the Grizzlies repeatedly exploited gaps in the interior, dominated the boards and hit 6 of 9 3-point attempts – three by Mike Conley, two by JaMychal Green and one by Chandler Parsons.
Memphis’ defensive scheme is increasingly (and eerily) familiar: double-team Cousins as soon as he catches the ball and before he contemplates passing back outside and occasionally send a third defender as he burrows into the lane and muscles toward the basket.
“A disappointing game from our standpoint,” said Joerger, who played rookies Malachi Richardson, Skal Labissiere and George Papagiannis in the closing minutes. “They just lined up and beat us, start to finish, position by position, up and down. They’re a good team, and they can do that to you. But it was not one of our better performances.”
Especially not with the eighth playoff berth in the Western Conference sitting there, tantalizing, and in their tenuous grasp as they entered the game. The upcoming schedule is not kind, either: a road matchup against Denver followed by a lengthy homestand with games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Detroit, Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
Consistent point guard play would improve the Kings’ prospects for the postseason exponentially, but as is often said, it’s complicated. In contrast to hot-button author George Karl and his up-tempo style that played to the strengths of both veteran point guards – Collison here last season, Lawson during his four years with Karl in Denver – Joerger’s offense is more structured, and includes significant play-calling that features his primary scorers, Cousins and Rudy Gay.
Lawson, 29, admittedly has struggled when in the lineup with two bigs, Cousins and Kosta Koufos, and is more comfortable with the spacing and rhythm of the faster-paced second unit. Trouble is, so is Collison, the son of Olympic-caliber sprinters.
Last season, Collison averaged 14.0 points and 4.3 assists and shot 48.6 percent from the field, including 40.1 percent from 3-point range. This season, he is shooting 44.1 percent overall and 35.9 percent on 3s to go with 11.9 points per game.
“(Adjusting) has been in the back of my mind,” said Collison, who finished with 16 points on 8-for-16 shooting Saturday, “because I haven’t had that type of stretch since I’ve been here, or even for a while in my career. We’re still trying to figure out a way where it’s beneficial for my style and for the bigs we’re playing with.”
A huge chunk of that puzzle falls to Joerger, who was presented a roster composed primarily of older, slower, experienced players to complement Cousins and Gay. But the complementary part hasn’t necessarily occurred. Despite a recent four-game winning streak, the Kings ended 2016 with a clunker of a home-court performance and a 14-19 record, and their next opponent (Denver) is tied with them for the No. 8 spot.
Yes, it’s early.
Yes, the Western Conference is down.
Yes, the best thing about the Kings and 2016 is simply this: G1C is truly gorgeous. And if the Kings as we now know them can’t find that rhythm – that symmetry and synchronicity synonymous with beautiful basketball – the February trade deadline becomes far more intriguing. The fans were on the edge of booing the team Saturday, but not on the edge of their seats oozing enthusiasm and anticipation.
It will take more than a beautiful new building to engage Kings fans in 2017.