Basketball is a pretty straightforward game. Two hoops, one ball, five players on each team doesn’t sound that complicated. But let’s be honest, it is dramatically more complex than it appears.
What’s more is that you can have two players who are nearly identical in every measurement, including experience and age, but they play the game at completely different levels. What separates the bad from the good or the good from the great? Is it desire or confidence or one of a million other immeasurable concepts?
The Sacramento Kings have struggled with this exact issue. They have assembled 13 players, each with different levels of both life and basketball experience. Tyreke Evans was considered a prodigy at a very young age. Jimmer Fredette learned the game playing with his older brother and friends, while Isaiah Thomas was born with a ball in his hands.
When you watch the Kings, something is missing on most nights and it’s hard to put your finger on it. They have been called mismatched. Their youth has been used as a crutch for at least three or four seasons and they have even been called a dumb team by certain talking heads.
So what gives? What is the issue and how do you fix it?
Is it something as simple as a trade? I doubt it as the Kings have had plenty of roster turnover and little results. Same goes for coaching. Paul Westphal and Keith Smart have had two completely different approaches, but a similar outcome.
We could ponder the who and why and when for a while, but does it really boil down to the most abstract of NBA concepts? Do the Kings have a low basketball IQ and if so, what can be done to rectify the problem?
“I guess you can learn it, an IQ, just from playing,” veteran John Salmons said before Saturday night’s game against the Utah Jazz. “Just from being in different situations, but I think it’s more just being willing to learn the game and try to play the right way.”
Salmons was inserted into the Kings starting lineup four games ago along with veteran Aaron Brooks in an attempt to stabilize the first unit. The outcome has been a 2-2 stretch that easily could have been 3-1. The brand of basketball being played has clearly improved even though the pieces inserted were similar to the ones that were replaced. The two main differences between Salmons and James Johnson or Brooks and Isaiah Thomas are age and experience.
“It comes with time and experience,” Coach Smart said yesterday. “You can’t speed up knowledge. Knowledge comes when your body is ready to absorb it, so you can’t speed it up.”
Veteran Chuck Hayes wasn’t as certain as his head coach.
“I don’t know if you can teach that,” Hayes said from his locker room stall. “It’s studying the game, watching the film, knowing what it takes. You really just have to be a student. You have to be a student of the game in order to increase someone’s basketball IQ.”
“(They) really opened my eyes to not just going into a game and playing the game,” Smart said. “But really trying to study the game and understand what happens when this (happens). There’s a cause and effect in every situation you’re in. What happens next when something is taken away from you, you have to go into a position or possession already knowing where your outs are. And you don’t learn that until you get valuable experience playing or someone is there teaching you.”
Smart understood the daunting task in front of him when he took over the Kings. He also understood that he needed help, especially with his tremendously talented center DeMarcus Cousins. Smart turned to an NBA legend that has worked with some of the games best big men in Clifford Ray.
“You have to have a lot of patience with young players,” Ray said as he left the playing floor during pregame workouts Saturday night. ”Because they’ve had everything done for them from the time they start with AAU. And so a lot of things when it comes to just recognizing things on your own, they don’t have because they haven’t had that.
“They go from straight out of high school or a year of college to the NBA,” Ray continued. “And now you’re talking about a pick-and-roll game, a reactionary game, where you have a second to make a pass. If you have to think about it, it’s over. To become natural with things has to happen during the course of practicing or happen during the course of a game and as you are working with them on these various things that don’t make sense to them now. But then once it happens to them one time, then it sticks.”
Ray knows a thing or two about the NBA game. He played ten seasons in the league and was a member of the 1975 Golden State Warriors team that won the NBA championship. Since retiring, he has made his way around the league developing players like Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson.
“You can’t substitute maturity,” Ray said. “If you’re looking at a 20 or a 21 year old player who would be in college…they would have been in school under the discipline of a staff for four years. So all the immature things, all the stupid things that they do, you would have to deal with them.”
More and more the Kings are learning and building a knowledge base, but that process takes time.
“It took a while to understand that you don’t just play the game now,” Smart said. ”You have to start paying attention to the details. The details will hurt you in a basketball game, especially when it’s a close game.”
With maturity and understanding comes a willingness to sacrifice a portion of what you think you can do as an individual player to do what’s best for the entire team.
“Some guys get that right away,” Salmons said of sacrifice. “And then you get to a point in your career where you’re just focusing on winning. It just takes time to get to that point.”
While the Kings could easily be called selfish, coach Ray believes that there is something at the root that can be fixed with time.
“It’s not necessarily being so selfish,” Ray insisted. ”But what it is they don’t have the confidence to let go of a pass or a quick pass or a quick pocket pass or just move the basketball and have the confidence that the ball’s going to come back to you – that you have to trust the game, you have to trust your teammates. All of these things you have to do from a defensive to an offensive standpoint and they have to flow relatively easy. It’s just (doing it) over and over and over again, until it becomes reactionary.”
Between Ray, Jim Eyen, Alex English and Bobby Jackson, Smart has a wealth of NBA knowledge at his disposal. The trick is to somehow speed up the process. For now, that means Salmons and Brooks instead of Thomas and Johnson.
The short-term plan is in place and if Smart has his way, the long-term plan as well. While the Kings coach walks the fine line between developing young players and trying to win games, the knowledge is building and hopefully, the IQ is increasing.