Sacramento Kings vets coping with specter of trade speculation

Jason Thompson shrugs his shoulders while waiting for a free throw attempt. (Photo: Tobin Halsey)This season hasn’t been easy for Marcus Thornton and Jason Thompson. Amidst the excitement and buzz surrounding the Sacramento Kings due to the aggressive approach by general manager Pete D’Alessandro to reshape the roster, uncertainty looms ahead for two of the team’s longest tenured players.

Thornton and Thompson have been fixtures in Sacramento for the last several years. Thompson is playing his sixth season in a Kings uniform while Thornton, a five-year veteran, is in his fourth. But both players have struggled mightily for the Kings this year and considering the trade speculation surrounding them on an almost week-to-week basis, their struggles should be no surprise.

“It’s tough,” Thompson told Cowbell Kingdom recently of his current campaign with the Kings. “And the game was easier years before. Seems like it’s getting a little harder, but you kind of gotta adjust…”

Thompson knows the drill by now. For six straight years, the 27-year-old forward has had to deal with questions about his game. And for six straight years, he’s continued to outlast his competition.

The list is long. Thompson has faced a number of challengers to his reign in the Kings front court. Samuel Dalembert, Chuck Hayes, J.J. Hickson, Thomas Robinson, Patrick Patterson and Carl Landry are just some of the players who’ve tried to take Thompson’s spot in the past. There were others (remember Sean May?), but just like the names mentioned prior, they’ve come and gone while Thompson has remained.

Despite his track record of success, Thompson continues to face a carousel of challengers. The Kings brought back Landry for a second tour of duty and just picked up Derrick Williams, Rudy Gay and Quincy Acy who are all capable of stealing minutes from Thompson at power forward. Throw in the fact that Thompson has had 63 different teammates and five different head coaches over the course of his career and you have to wonder if the constant turnover coupled with the recent trade speculation is finally wearing on the 27-year-old big man.

“I mean it does get frustrating,” Thompson said when asked of having to prove himself time and time again. “It’s not easy when you don’t see familiar faces coaching you and on the court with you as well. It doesn’t get easy, but that’s just life at the NBA at times. I’m not sure if any other guys have gone through that, but I just try to learn from it and get better each day.”

Thompson’s struggles are evident through his play and his numbers. Despite reclaiming his spot in the starting lineup, Thompson is playing at a career-low rate. Through 23 games, he’s averaging just 22.8 minutes per contest. It doesn’t help Thompson’s cause either that he’s averaging the most personal fouls per game (3.4) since his sophomore season in the league.

His offensive output has taken a hit this year as well. After shooting above 50 percent from the field his last three seasons, the Kings big man is just at 48 percent this year. With the development of DeMarcus Cousins’ low-post game, Thompson has found himself positioned at the elbows and free throw line more often in the Kings’ offense this season.

“I mean it’s tough not getting as many touches and not being able to get into a certain type of rhythm,” Thompson said. “Especially with the different types of players that’s coming in the rotation and things like that.”

Marcus Thornton frustrated during a match-up with the L.A. Clippers. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)Thornton has struggled equally as much, if not more than Thompson this season. Two years removed from leading the Kings in scoring, Thornton is averaging just 8.1 points per game while shooting 35.3 percent from the field and 28.2 percent from 3-point distance – both career lows.  He’s also been a healthy scratch from five games this season. Not since his second year in New Orleans has Thornton missed action due to a coach’s decision.

The 26-year-old veteran came into his fifth campaign with the starting shooting guard position his to lose. With the departure of Tyreke Evans, Thornton appeared to be the ideal bridge to help ease the NBA transition for rookie Ben McLemore. However, he found himself competing for minutes with Jimmer Fredette through preseason and eventually lost the starting gig to McLemore after the Kings’ first six games.

With roughly $16.5 million owed to him this year and next coupled with his struggles on the court, Thornton has been rumored to be on the trading block just as frequently as Thompson. He has been dealt once before, but the specter of another deal hanging over his head can’t be easy to shake. Thornton’s trying his best, however, to block out the noise and do what he can when presented the opportunity.

“You just gotta keep your mind on one thing and that’s playing the game of basketball,” Thornton said recently to Cowbell Kingdom when asked about the difficulty of shutting out the distractions. “You can’t control what goes on outside of basketball. Just try to focus on what you can do to help the team win.”

As coach of the Kings, it is Michael Malone’s job to put Thornton, Thompson and the rest of his players in positions to succeed. But keeping them engaged in the thick of major turnover through the first month of the season is another story.  Malone does what he can, reminding players to stay prepared because of the anything-can-happen nature of the NBA. But ultimately, the responsibility to stay focused while surrounded by trade talk and hearsay lies solely on the player himself.

“This is the NBA,” the Kings head coach said prior to Sunday’s meeting with the Houston Rockets. “If you don’t have mental toughness and you can’t understand what the NBA is about, I don’t know how much I can help you. You’re a professional, you’re getting paid, you have a job to do. My expectations are that you come to work everyday and you do your job. And if you’re not mentally strong enough to do that, then obviously you’re not going to be ready when you’re called upon and you’re only going to make your situation that much worst.”

Uncertainty. Following the off-court events of the last few years, surely Marcus Thornton and Jason Thompson thought they’d heard the last of that concept in regards to their careers. But with the Kings still actively dealing, it’s an idea they’re having to familiarize themselves with one more time.

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About: Jonathan Santiago

Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.