Paul Westphal is a completely likable guy. On January 6, 2011, he won the 300th game of his career, a feat that he was unaware of until after the game. Unfortunately, as the coach of the Sacramento Kings, Westphal has lost more games than he or anyone else would like. There are certainly many reasons for the losses, outside of his coaching ability, such as the team’s youth, lack of talent, injuries and even bad luck. The losing aside, if there is one thing that Westphal does as a coach that drives people crazy, it is the constant line-up changes.
So far this season, Coach Westphal has used 16 different starting line-ups in just 39 games. Of those 16, only five of those line-ups have been used more than two games in a row and none more than four games consecutively. Not all of these changes have been by choice. Tyreke Evans was suspended one game and missed another four due to injury. Samuel Dalembert began the season injured, missed a game due to a funeral and hasn’t been the impact player the Kings hoped he would be when they traded for him in the off-season. Rookie DeMarcus Cousins has been erratic both on and off the court, but he is showing flashes of the brilliance the Kings hoped for when they made him the fifth pick in the 2010 NBA draft. In short, the Kings have had to deal with injuries and growing pains to go along with an imperfect roster. For some unknown reason, this particular blend of veterans and young players, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, hasn’t meshed as well as expected.
Many fans would like to blame Westphal and his tinkering for the inconsistency of this group of players, which is probably fair on some levels. Westphal has started 13 of the 15 players that have appeared on the Kings’ roster this season, leaving only rookie second round pick, Hassan Whiteside, who spent most of the last two months playing in the NBA D-League, and Antoine Wright, a player who was waived November 29th, as the only two players not to start a single game.
Is the tinkering over? I doubt it with the trade deadline looming in February and injury issues that are bound to come up again. Has the tinkering slowed? It appears so.
Over the last ten games, a clear rotational pattern has developed. Due to injuries facing Evans and Garcia, changes have occurred, but they are clearly injury replacements and nothing more. It appears that not only has Westphal decided on a rotation of players, but he has cut the rotation to nine and stuck to it.
The same starting five, when healthy, has started six of the last ten games since January 1st, and barring a major turn of events, will continue to start for the foreseeable future.
Here are the lucky winners:
Tyreke Evans (Guard)– Last season’s rookie of the year and the new face of the franchise, Evans is the player the Kings hope to build the franchise around. His numbers are down across the board, but he has struggled with plantar fasciitis and personal off-court issues. Coach Westphal would call these struggles “reasons” and not “excuses” and Tyreke is still considered the player most likely to deliver the Kings from the hell they have been mired in for the last half decade.
Stats since Jan. 1: 38.7 min., 17.7 points, 6.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds.
Beno Udrih (Guard)– Once considered a minor albatross because of his contract, the Slovenian native has become the Kings’ most consistent offensive weapon. The Kings will continue to look for the perfect backcourt mate for Evans, but until then, Beno will do. Udrih is shooting 50.4% from the field and averaging 14 points a game, both career highs.
Stats since Jan. 1: 34.5 min., 14.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists.
Francisco Garcia (Small Forward)- From opening day starter, to bench player, to DNP-CD and back to starter, Garcia is the Kings’ best pure shooter and the team’s undisputed leader. When Garcia is on, the Kings’ offense opens up; when he is off, the Kings see a lot of zones. After missing all but 25 games last year due to a horrific arm injury, Cisco has only missed four total this year including coach’s decisions.
Stats since Jan. 1: 30.9 min., 11.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists.
Jason Thompson- Considered a building block a year ago, the third year big man out of Rider is just now figuring out how to play alongside rookie DeMarcus Cousins. Sometimes lost in the rotation of quality big men, Thompson does a lot of things well. JT is not the shot blocker that Dalembert is, a pure scorer like Landry or the post force of Cousins, but he is a more versatile player than any of the other three at this point in his career.
Stats since Jan. 1: 22.6 min., 10.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists.
DeMarcus Cousins- The rookie big man out of Kentucky has had his ups and downs, but over the last 10 games he has been dominant. At this point of the season, only Blake Griffin has been a better rookie and Cousins’ best days are clearly ahead of him. DMC is showing an uncanny ability to not only improve week by week, but quarter by quarter and he looks like a pretty good bet to be the Kings’ second all-star caliber player along with Evans.
Stats since Jan. 1: 28.8 min., 17.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists.
The starting five isn’t all that is set. Westphal has pared down the rotation off the bench as well. For most of the season, Westphal has used 11 or 12 players in almost every game. In the last 10, he has, for all intents and purposes, cut that number to nine players, the five starters and four players from the bench.
Meet the second unit:
Pooh Jeter- Jeter is the primary back-up guard behind Evans and Udrih. He is a change of pace player who pushes the ball with incredible speed. If you want to know about his impact on the floor, just ask Omri Casspi who raves about the little man out of the University of Portland. Beyond his offensive prowess, Jeter has shown an amazing ability to guard some of the league’s elite point guards, even with his size limitations.
Stats since Jan. 1: 18.3 min, 4.1 points, 4.3 assists, 1.5 rebounds.
Carl Landry- Landry is the Kings number one weapon off the bench. Last season, before the trade that brought him to Sacramento, Carl Landry was in the running for the NBA’s sixth man of the year. Up until the last 10 games, he had struggled to find his rhythm, either as a starter or bench player this season for the Kings. Carl now has a role and Coach Westphal has decided to use him in tandem with Samuel Dalembert, which seems to be a good pairing of offense and defense.
Stats since Jan. 1: 27.0 min., 14.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists.
Omri Casspi- Omri’s path is similar to Francisco Garcia’s. He has been the starter and a bench player and even received the dreaded DNP-CD this season. Casspi also shares two other traits with Garcia, he is a fighter and he can really shoot it from behind the three point line. The Kings’ second unit is at its best when Casspi is hitting his perimeter shots or running the floor with Pooh Jeter.
Stats since Jan. 1: 24.7 min., 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists.
Samuel Dalembert- The veteran center has just recently started to figure out his place with his new team. In his last four games, Sammy D has put up 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds, which are major improvements over his season averages. More than the numbers, Dalembert looks comfortable, especially on the offensive end where he has really been absent all season.
Stats since Jan. 1: 16.2 min., 5.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.9 assists.
The other five players on the roster- Donté Greene, Jermaine Taylor, Darnell Jackson, Hassan Whiteside and Luther Head, are the odd men out as of today. When the Kings have been healthy (six of the last 10 games), these five have combined to play a mere 47 of a possible 1440 minutes, or 3% of the total action over those six games.
Surprisingly, three of the five players completely out of the rotation have started during this 10 game stretch due to injury, keeping with Paul Westphal’s policy regarding the importance of continuity in both the starting and second units as well as having quality players coming off the bench.
Donté Greene was the latest of the out-of-the-rotation players to get a start, playing 35 minutes in the Kings’ Martin Luther King Day loss to the Hawks. It will be interesting to see if his play will merit yet another change in the rotation. For now, I would think that it is unlikely.
There are reasons that each and every one of these players aren’t getting the playing time that they so desperately desire. Greene was given his chance. Starting a total of 19 games this season, the third year player out of Syracuse just hasn’t been able to find a consistent stroke, shooting just 37.2% from the field and only 28.9% from three. Jermaine Taylor is new to the club, arriving from Houston on December 15th via trade. Hassan Whiteside is faced with the duel challenge of being a second round pick who missed all of training camp due to injury and also having a very similar skill set to Dalembert. Luther Head has fought a myriad of injuries and illnesses, while Darnell Jackson, a player Coach Westphal thinks very highly of, is lost in a numbers game with the crowded front line.
So there you have it. Many fans have asked for a solid nine man rotation, and after trying 16 different looks, Westphal seems locked in to group that he feels comfortable with. The team has responded with quality play, but they are still struggling to translate that into consistent winning on the court. Hopefully with a little bit of time, this unit will grow together and start seeing the fruits of their labor pay off because be it a reason or an excuse, the rotation issue looks to be solved.