Where does Keith Smart go with his rotation?

Keith Smart animated on the Sacramento Kings' sidelines vs. the Detroit Pistons (Photo: Steven Chea)

Over the last two weeks, there has been growing concern over Keith Smart and the rotations he runs on any given night. While fans are pining for a solid nine or 10-man rotation, Smart continues to play 11 and sometimes even 12 players. We hear it, trust me, and I know he is hearing it as well, but it’s his team and he is doing what he thinks is right for his club.

“I look and Brooklyn plays 11 guys,” Smart said pregame before Sunday’s loss to the Nets. “Very seldom do you find teams now playing eight players, that’s just not going to happen. So you’re still going to have where you are at 10 players. They may not play as many minutes, but you’re still going to have 10.”

So far this season, Smart has used a handful of starting lineups, but most of the variance is due to the suspension of DeMarcus Cousins.  The changes leading into Sunday’s match-up against the Nets doesn’t tell the whole story.

Through the first ten games, Travis Outlaw has the lowest total of games played with four, but 10 Kings have played eight or more contests and newly-named starter John Salmons is not one of them. The minutes vary from one game to the next, but it is pretty fair to say that Smart is having a difficult time playing less than 11 on a nightly basis.

But 11 is too many. I don’t need to dig through box scores from every NBA game this season, but the Kings are sorely lacking continuity on the floor. I’m not sure how many players should play every night, but more than eight and less than 11 seems reasonable, unless there are major foul issues or injuries to deal with.

“Trying to get that number down to eight, we’re not dominant enough in those eight spots to say these guys are only going to play during the course of the game,” Smart said.

Smart is correct.  The Kings are not dominant enough to only use eight men on a given night, so let’s say the number of guys that should play is nine or 10. Then, deciding who gets the call and who rides the pine becomes pretty difficult.  Smart was also quick to point out that it’s early in the season and making decisions this quickly is not always the best approach.

“They say you don’t really get a great baseline until you get to around 15-20 games,”  Smart said last week.  “What you do have is an understanding of what guys are doing right now and what they are trying to and maybe can’t do right now.  You still have a low database on what guys are doing as a group.  You still need a couple more games to get a good feel for that.”

If we poll the audience, how many different combinations of players would we get if the number was set at nine? How about ten?

Clearly you have a base with Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton and Jason Thompson. Those are your four horses at this point and they should all be playing at least 30 minutes a game.  A few of them should probably be hitting the 36 to 38 minute mark as well.

After that, Chuck Hayes has clearly delivered the goods this season as the first big man off the bench and you have to give rookie Thomas Robinson at least a small amount of burn while he acclimates to the NBA game.

So, we are left with three or four more players, and the point guard and small forward positions still haven’t been touched.

At the one, I could easily argue that Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette should all play more. I could also offer in-depth analysis on why each player should be out of the rotation completely.

The truth is none of them have distinguished themselves from the others Jimmer fans can point to his incredibly efficient scoring numbers, but they would have a tough time selling anyone that he is an NBA defender.

Brooks has experience on his side, but a lot of that experience came as a mad chucker for the Houston Rockets. Brooks has had a couple of nice games, but overall, his propensity to shoot first is part of the epidemic that plagues this team.

There are a lot of folks out there that thought Thomas would be a 35-minute-a-game starter this season. He played much bigger than his 5-foot-whatever frame says, but something is clearly missing this year. Last season’s revelation at point guard is averaging just 2.1 assists in more than 22 minutes per game and his assist-percentage has dropped from 25.6 percent last season to just 16.4 percent this year. That isn’t going to cut it as a backup guard at the NBA level, let alone a starter.

Small forward is just as bad. For everything that newcomer James Johnson brings defensively, he takes away just as much on the offensive end. His shot selection and shooting percentages are horrendous, but more than that, he is constantly out of position and his lack of range kills any and all spacing on the floor. According to 82games.com, Johnson is shooting jump shots on 61 percent of his shots this season and only hitting 10.7 percent of those opportunities.

With Johnson’s struggles, Smart has had no choice but to turn back to Salmons, who has responded with intelligent and responsible play. According to 82games.com, the Kings are a +5.2 points with him on the floor (the only plus player the Kings have), while they are a -7.4 with him off-the-court for an astounding+12.6 net variance. Salmons has been a calming influence and as reports surfaced last weekend, it was actually the veteran swingman’s idea to call the players’ only meeting Friday night.

So what do you do if you’re Smart?  Which of the three point guards do you bench to get to 10 or which small forward draws the DNP-CD.  If you hand all the minutes to veterans like Brooks and Salmons, what does that do to the development of Jimmer, Thomas and Johnson?

The criticism of Smart’s rotations may be warranted, but what is the solution? No one is going to be happy. No answer makes sense for both today and tomorrow. And while the Kings sink deeper into the abyss, an answer needs to come and it needs to come now.

There can be no more games where Brooks starts at point and gets 18 minutes, while Jimmer spells him for 10 in the second, Evans steals six in the third and then Thomas finishes with 14 minutes after sitting the first 30-plus.

“I think we have enough players, pretty much our entire roster that’s here are very capable of playing a basketball game and giving us something on the floor,” Smart said. “But now I need my top guys – my starting five, my top eight guys – to be very, very productive every night.  That’s were I’ve got to get to.”

Someone has to draw the short straw for continuity’s sake. Someone has wait for an injury or foul trouble for their opportunity and then hopefully take advantage when they get it. It’s the way the NBA works.

Being a players’ coach is tough. Sometimes you have to hurt someone’s feelings and do what’s best for the team, because if you don’t, there’s a long list of unemployed coaches waiting to make those calls for you.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary film "Small Market, Big Heart".