Darren Collison is not one to complain, and when it comes to Kings players who make sacrifices, who adapt and adjust without quibbling, his name heads the list.
He missed half of last season because of a serious core/abdominal injury; was displaced as a starter after the acquisition of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo; had a terrific 2015 training camp, only to suffer a hamstring injury weeks into the season; accepted his backup role, only to find himself frequently paired with Rondo because shooting guards Ben McLemore and Marco Belinelli have been as unpredictable as El Niño.
The seven-year veteran also has been both a contributor to the Kings’ ongoing defensive nightmare and a victim of a roster that includes three small point guards (Rondo, Collison and Seth Curry) and no elite wing defender.
In the NBA, that is a brutal combination.
But back to the part where Collison refuses to gripe. While this is his fifth team, with previous stops in New Orleans, Indiana, Dallas and Los Angeles with the Clippers, he remains a consummate professional and a realist. Hard work and perseverence takes you places, and it even gets players traded.
The Feb. 18 trade deadline is weeks away. Collison mentions this without prompting. Who knows what Vlade Divac is plotting? Though his first offseason was unusually active, with the Kings acquiring Belinelli, Rondo, Curry and Kosta Koufos and re-signing Omri Casspi, the first-year general manager is increasingly restless and acutely aware of his team’s defensive deficiencies.
And not that it was necessary, but the Golden State Warriors’ recent visit exposed the distinctions between the haves and the have-nots. Their length and ability to switch defensively at every position, except when lumbering center Andrew Bogut is on the floor, was a sharp contrast to the unbalanced, defensively challenged Kings, who don’t appear to trust the system or their teammates.
It’s Rudy Gay failing to fight through screens and instead switching on Dirk Nowitzki – leaving the 6-foot Collison on the 7-foot future Hall of Famer – or the post-knee surgery Rondo unable to stay in front of opposing ballhandlers, or McLemore becoming lost behind another screen, or Belinelli losing his man completely …
Coach George Karl’s job is to figure this out, or at the very least place a Band-Aid on the gaping wound. Casspi’s return and Willie Cauley-Stein’s recovery, along with DeMarcus Cousins’ improving conditioning, are as essential as Divac’s ability to bolster his squad before the trade deadline. This is the season. These next few weeks likely will determine whether the Kings participate in the Western Conference playoff chase or start preparing for another offseason purge.
“This is a big test for us,” Collison said. “We’re all in this together. We’re not necessarily making the right reads on the court, but we have to get it right.”
The former UCLA standout is not averse to soul-searching. His on-ball defense has been inconsistent. At times he swipes at his opponent with all the energy of an exhausted matador. And though he claims to be fully recovered from the abdominal surgery and the hamstring strain that sidelined him for five games in November, he has yet to find a comfort zone alongside Rondo.
This goes to the theory about three players (Rondo, Gay and Cousins) wanting the ball, the uncertainty that comes with shuttling between the starting lineup and a backup role, and how a revised job description can mess with the mind defensively and offensively.
“I can play with another point guard, but it’s not the easiest thing,” Collison admitted. “You have to be able to play without the ball, and most point guards like to play with the ball. It’s as simple as that.”
At his best – and he was at his best directing the second unit that included Casspi and Cauley-Stein in training camp – he takes the ball and sprints 94 feet, accelerating and eluding longer, bigger defenders and attacking the basket. He is not a classic playmaker, a la Rondo, but is a superior shooter and scorer.
“I always look to push because that’s my opportunity right now,” Collison said.
The Kings want to run, want to win, but it starts out front, with the point of the defense. It starts there.
Tale of two seasons
Kings guard Darren Collison’s key stats since joining the team: