The current state of Sacramento basketball is unlike anything the franchise has witnessed since the early 2000’s, a period in which excellent point guard play from Mike Bibby — paired with the DeMarcus Cousins-like domination of Chris Webber — made the Kings one of the NBA’s most exciting franchises. A team which had been one of the Western Conference’s best slowly deteriorated into the stagnant state of the Kings in the modern era. It was a breaking-down that the team refused to confront out of embarrassment, out of pity, out of denial for how historically bad they really were.
This team is no different from every other, going through months to years to decades of sub-par performance before rising to a level that we can call “good” once again. For the first time since the 2005-06 season, Sacramento has a good basketball team. Not great like the Spurs, not awful like the 76ers, but good like each and every Western Conference team fighting to the bone to take the eighth seed in the playoffs. Considering how the team has played in the years before, they’re pretty content.
The success can’t be pinpointed to one area of the Kings’ roster, or to its coach, or even to its ownership which kept the operation in California. The hyper-aggressive moves made by Pete D’Alessandro have virtually flipped the roster’s talent from nothing into something. Rudy Gay came to the team, Ben McLemore and Nik Stuaskas entered as a remedy to the shooting woes, and Darren Collison replaced what had been the city’s poster-child, Isaiah Thomas.
The departure of Thomas just might be the biggest contributor to the 7-5 record that Coach Mike Malone’s team is experiencing right now. Collison’s presence as a replacement, too, has given Sacramento something new to root for, to cherish, to call its point guard. He does so in a different manner than did Thomas in his years with the team, a way that has been nothing but beneficial to the rapid chase for success instilled by Vivek Ranadive’s ownership presence.
When Collison was first inked to his three-year, $15.04 million deal during the offseason, the Kings organization — fans and players alike — felt more than uneasy at the notion of giving up their firecracker in Thomas. He was a player that the team rallied around for offense, for late game situations, for any moment in a contest in which a bucket was needed.
The reason, then, that Collison has established himself as a better fit for Sacramento is purely in his style of play. His pride as a basketball player doesn’t come from putting the ball in the hoop, regardless of how longed for and sexy that aspect of the game may be. He is a worker, a player who would rather quit playing basketball completely than admit that another point guard could possibly get by him. This is displayed purely in his defense, a defense he utilizes so consistently while battling the Tony Parkers, Stephen Currys, Chris Pauls, Ty Lawsons, and Damian Lillards of the NBA.
He has been Mike Malone’s defensive anchor for all of the 2014-15 season, holding Jrue Holiday to just nine points in 34 minutes, and Tony Parker to 11 in 35. It seems that as the level of offensive ability an opposing point guard has, Collison’s defensive ability becomes elevated. He provides help on shooters, contains his man on pick and rolls, contests shots, and plays defense in a way that can only be described as flawless.
Thomas was never and most likely will never be a particularly problematic defender. Everyone knows by now that his 5’9”, 185-pound frame is less than acceptable when given the task of guarding the league’s fastest, most talented ball-handlers. He failed in this respect of the game in Sacramento — a particularly negative fact when one considers that much of Malone’s defensive schemes start and end with a guard capable of being everywhere on the court at once.
While Collison’s defense is better than Thomas’, his offense may be, too. It’s in a different way than the traditional scoring attack that Thomas boasts when he plays, a way more favorable to what the Kings’ organization is attempting to build.
Collison is a much more willing passer than was Thomas. Nobody surrounding the franchise will ever doubt it or disagree with the fact, a fact that explains why D’Alessandro deemed it a good decision to ship off Thomas and slightly overpay for what had been only a backup guard in Collison.
Not only does his ability as a passer translate to more opportunities for Cousins and other offensively capable Kings players, but Collison passes in a different way than Thomas. Where Thomas dishes to players in order to gain an assist, Collison does so to kickstart offensive sets, to get his teammates going, to remind DeMarcus that he is one of the league’s best centers and that he should take a back seat to no man, not even Collison. Isaiah had this exact complex with his center, one which forced him to dribble the ball back and forth while his teammates watched, ending always in a tough, highly contested shot. The necessity to prove himself and assert that he stacks up to his big man was destructive, breaking down offense in almost every game, for some stretch of time.
Kings players clearly see Collison as a willing leader, someone capable of taking on the challenges his teammates have in certain aspects of the game. Ben McLemore, a player who struggled in his first year in the league with his shooting consistency, relays his recent improvement as a result of Darren’s leadership:
“He’s always there to help us even though he’s still learning with a new team for him. But still, just knowing that he’s been in the league for a while and that he’s been on playoff teams helps a lot for us younger guys.”
While the aesthetic of the Isaiah Thomas story — one in which the underdog fights through adversity to become a starting NBA point guard — is not present in Collison’s case, he has clearly presented himself as a better fit for the franchise. The mindset of Sacramento’s management and ownership feels that they are close to forming a team that can consistently make the post-season, and a large portion of how far they’ve come can be accredited to the signing of Collison.
The Kings are a team destined to be overlooked, a team which has deserved all the criticisms of the past decade. Now, however, a more permanent philosophy has been represented by a starting point guard willing to do what the previous would not, what many players avoid in order to keep personal statistics, allocades, and standing among the league.