Michael Malone tinkers, finds winning combination versus Phoenix Suns

Michael Malone watches action from the Sacramento Kings' sidelines. (Photo: Tobin Halsey)

Michael Malone was hoping to avoid the traps that both Keith Smart and Paul Westphal fell prey to in their tenures in Sacramento.  Constant changes to the starting lineup and rotation typically result in inconsistent play and confusion on the court.  Malone knows that there isn’t a fast forward button that will magically skip forward to the good times.  Hard work, patience and luck are needed as the Kings attempt to rebuild from the ground up.  But in the mean time, he has lemons with which he’s attempted to make lemonade.  Changes were needed and he has reacted as best he can.

Five-game losing streaks are going to happen.  2-7 records to start the season are going to happen.  That is the reality for this team because the culture of a franchise was built on the loose sand of Las Vegas for over a decade.

Things are changing in Sacramento, but it is going to be a process. Malone is still figuring out his roster.  He needs to get a feel for this group of 13 players and then he needs to prepare for some of them to be gone, sooner rather than later.

“I knew when I took this job, this is going to be a process,” Malone said before Tuesday’s win over Phoenix.  “And it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better when you’re trying to change so many things.  The reality is, I just want to make sure we do two things every night: play hard and defend.  Hopefully that will give us a chance to be in the game and win the game.”

There is no excuse for not playing hard, and defending well comes from playing hard.

It took six games, including a five-game losing streak, for Malone to see that the starting lineup of Greivis Vasquez, Marcus Thornton, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t going to work.  A bad mix?  For some reason, yes.  The reason why is not a mystery, but the reason behind for reason is.

Vasquez as a pure passer with Cousins dominating the post makes sense.  Surrounding that duo with shooters like Thornton, Patterson and Salmons makes sense. Last season, these trio of shooters combined to go 256-for-682 (37.5 percent) from 3-point range and that was the reason each of these players won starting jobs.  Through the first six games, the same three players hit only 15 of their 61 attempts for a 25 percent clip.  There is no rhyme or reason for this lack of shooting, only a reality.

Without shooters, the defense collapsed on both Vasquez as a ball handler and Cousins as a post scorer.  The lineup was broken and Malone had to make changes.

“The people we’ve taken out the lineup, those guys are not the reason we’re 1-5,” Malone said before making major changes to the lineup.  “This is a collective – players, coaches, everybody.  We have not done a good job, so if I change one guy who’s not starting, I don’t want everybody to say, “Well, Malone’s pointing the finger at that guy,” because that’s not the case.  We’re in search mode.”

The knee-jerk reaction by fans was to replace Vasquez with Isaiah Thomas.  Thomas has been a revelation this season.  He ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), and Malone has turned to the 5-foot-9 dynamo to save the day in almost every game.

While Thomas has been impressive, Vasquez wasn’t the issue.  In fact, Thomas would probably have some of the same issues playing in a starting lineup that included Salmons, Patterson and Thornton.  Everyone needs room to operate.

Coming into the seventh game of the season, Malone made changes.  Salmons kept his starting job, but Patterson was replaced by Jason Thompson and Thornton by rookie Ben McLemore.

Before the Kings took the court against the Brooklyn Nets, we asked coach Malone an important question – the starting lineup was changing, but did that mean that the rotation was changing as well?

The answer was no.  Despite a 1-5 start to the season, the same basic nine-man rotation took the floor, just in different combinations.

The result was a 107-86 win over the veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets.  Neither Thompson nor McLemore played particularly, but the switch lit a fire under Thornton, who finished with 24 points off the bench.

But the celebration was short-lived.  Two nights later, the Kings laid an egg against the Detroit Pistons, losing 97-90 on their home floor.  The lack of effort in front of the Kings’ home crowd was embarrassing.  Malone responded by removing Salmons from the starting lineup and inserting Luc Mbah a Moute for the following game.

Mbah a Moute didn’t have an immediate impact against Memphis, but that was to be expected after a knee injury limited the forward during training camp and throughout the preseason.  Again, the Kings came out flat and got worked over on their home floor.  Travis Outlaw made it interesting, but the final score of 97-86 was an accurate representation of the game as a whole.

Before back-to-back games against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday and Wednesday, we asked coach Malone if he had considered giving Jimmer Fredette a look in the rotation.  The answer was surprising.

“I think about a lot of things,” Malone said with a smile.  “When you’re 2-7, you think a lot.”

When it came time to go to his bench on Tuesday night, Malone called on Jimmer for only the third time this season.  The results weren’t anything spectacular, but the Kings won.  The same thing happened the next night in Phoenix and sure enough, the Kings won for a second straight game.

Malone has tried very few changes to his rotation, but the addition of Mbah a Moute and Fredette has made an impact and so has the changes he has made to the starting lineup.

As advertised, Mbah a Moute is an incredible defender.  While he isn’t an offensive juggernaut, Mbah a Moute is a smart player who understands the limitations of his abilities.  He plays to strengths and those strengths are what Malone has been searching for at the small forward position.

Jimmer isn’t setting the world on fire with his scoring ability, but that will come if he gets a chance to reacclimate to the NBA game.  What he has already added is an important element to the second unit.  You have to defend Jimmer because everyone knows he can shoot.  He is spacing the floor like Thornton was supposed to, and he’s also making plays for others, which Thornton does not do.

These changes might be temporary.  Heck, this whole team might be temporary outside of Cousins and McLemore.  But at least Malone is leaving no stone unturned.  It’s only two games, but Malone may have found a group that works together.  They will be tested again this weekend when the Kings play back-to-back games against the Clippers and Lakers on the road.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.