Coming into training camp, the Kings had a handful of player position battles/questions that needed to be answered. By far, the hottest topic was who would be the starting small forward when the season kicked off. I didn’t always phrase the question the same way, but I got the rep around camp as the guy who was always asking the coach about who the starter would be. I even had a member of the Kings media relations team, ask me one day why I was so interested in who was going to start, even though training camp was only a couple of weeks in. I had a very simple answer for him. It’s what sells.
The battle for the starting small forward spot took on a Twilight-esque – Team Donté versus Team Omri debate amongst the Sacramento faithful. Kings fans begged for news on two things- the small forward competition and video of Tyreke Evans shooting jump shot. So everyday I would ask, in one of a million different ways, who was going to start, and everyday, Coach Westphal refused to outright answer, but he would feed us crumbs of information to keep the interest alive.
Little by little, Coach Westphal used me and the other members of the media to filter a message out to the public and quite possibly back to his players. If one of these players didn’t receive the internal memo, Coach made sure to repeat the message to a face full of voice recorders and digital video cameras:
“The small forward battle is wide open- I talked to the team about it today. We need the small forward to defend the best athletes in the world. It might be LeBron James one night, Kevin Durant the next night, Kobe the next night, Genobili the next night. They’ve got to be up for that challenge. That’s the number one thing, and the co-number one thing is that they need to be able to hit an open shot. We are looking for somebody that can answer that call in those areas. We don’t need somebody who is a #1 primary offensive option whether in reality or in their own mind. We need somebody who’s going to get the ball inside, knock down open shots and be a good catalyst for the team. We’ll see who emerges.”
The message was clear: shoot + defend = starting position. We need not speculate on who the Coach was speaking of with the, “We don’t need somebody who is a #1 primary offensive option whether in reality or in their own mind” comment. That’s not what we do here at The Purple Panjandrum.
When the Kings came out for their Open Practice, the starters were Marcus Landry and Donté Greene. Really? Omri can’t even get a sniff when there are two starting spots available? Needless to say, the media, Team Omri fans and probably even Casspi himself were left confused, possibly even dumbfounded.
Marcus Landry received a couple more starts in pre-season games one and two and then veteran Antoine Wright took a turn. In game four of the pre-season, Donté Greene got the call and logic would seem to dictate that with three games left, Casspi would at least get one chance to start since he was one of the players in the competition. After the Kings and Warriors pre-season game in Sacramento on October 13, I asked the coach about whether or not Omri Casspi would get a shot to start one of the remaining three pre-season games and this is what he had to say:
“I like Casspi off the bench, I’ve said that a lot. I think he gives us a really nice lift that way. I’m not ready to answer your question completely but I do like him off the bench.”
This quote made the rounds amongst local and national media outlets, but there was a misconception about this statement. While it was rightfully believed that Donté Greene had won the starting small forward position for the first game of the season, more importantly, Omri Casspi had quietly won a more significant role in Coach Westphal’s book, the role of primary scoring option off the bench. On October 14th, Westphal confirmed the starters for opening night:
“If we’re healthy, we’ll start with Beno, and Cisco and Donté and Carl and DeMarcus the first game. And then when Tyreke comes back, he’ll start in place of Cisco.”
Team Donté fans cheered and Team Omri fans were faced with the feeling that not only had their guy lost, but he never really got his chance to shine.
The Unanswered Questions
Team Casspi fans had other gripes as well. Donté Greene came into training camp weighing 260-pounds which is approximately 25 to 30 pounds heavier than his previous playing weight. Greene admitted that some of the weight gain was the unhealthy kind, but he refused to acknowledge that this was an issue or that he was wrong to gain the weight:
Yeah, you can kind of be confused, especially when, you know, the weight, it wasn’t really a bad thing. But the Coach is the head coach and I’m a worker, so if the weight had to come off, it had to come off and I’m ready now.
Greene stands between 6′-10″ and 6′-11″ tall, so his frame could easily handle the weight if he were to play in the post, but as a wing defender who is supposed to guard elite athletes night in and night out, there was no reason for Greene to add the bulk. Greene spent the better part of the first three weeks of training camp doing massive amounts of cardio work to get back in shape, while Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia and Luther Head were working on skills like improving their three point accuracy. At last check, Donté was down to an estimated 240-pounds, still 5 to 10 pounds heavier than his previous playing weight. When asked about the weight gain, Greene told us here at The Purple Panjandrum:
“I wasn’t in the greatest shape. I wasn’t in as good a shape as I was in last year. I know last season, I came into camp in great shape.”
Obviously, the weight issue was not the end all for Coach Westphal. Greene beat out two other quality players in Antoine Wright and Marcus Landry (who ended up not making the team) to earn the starting position.
The Donté Greene experiment lasted one game.
It’s not that Greene did anything that should be considered wrong in that one start, but he didn’t do anything to distinguish himself either. One game is too small of a sample for anyone so there must be something more at play here.
In the second game of the season, Omri Casspi was named the starter for the Sacramento Kings and has continued as the starter since. In a perplexing turn of events, Donté Greene has found himself not only out of the starting line-up but by game number three, out of the rotation completely, playing a total of 5.9 seconds in the last four games.
In the dog eat dog world of the NBA, this is about as tough as it gets. As confused and befuddled as the Team Omri folks were a week earlier, Team Donté fans must be equally confused now, but only because they weren’t paying attention.
Let me break down the events that have led to where we are today.
Donté Greene has tremendous size and loads of potential. Unfortunately, he came into camp completely out of shape when he was given the biggest opportunity of his young career. Add to this that Greene missed extremely valuable time working himself back into shape while Omri Casspi and others were busy fine tuning their game and you begin to realize just how big of a mistake this was.
So why after just one game? There is an easy answer and a few more complex ones as well.
First, Tyreke Evans was suspended for the first game of the season and Samuel Dalembert, the Kings starting center, missed the game due to injury. This meant that there was more than 60 minutes of play available for someone to take.
Garcia started at the shooting guard position in place of Beno Udrih, who was starting at the point guard position for Tyreke Evans. Francisco would normally play both the shooting guard and the small forward position, so his addition to the starting line-up removed a valuable bench contributor.
The guy who filled Francisco Garcia’s minutes off the bench was veteran Luther Head. Luther used his 20 minutes of play to score 14 points, grab three rebounds and dish out three assists.
Garcia and Head combined for 36 points, six rebounds and seven assists, giving Coach Westphal a sneak peak of the fire power he just might be able to get off the bench. With this type of potential, the decision to move Omri Casspi into the starting role became a lot easier.
Here are Westphal’s post-game comments after the second game of the year against New Jersey, in which Casspi started:
“I like his energy off the bench and his ability to shoot the ball for us off the bench, but with Luther playing better and with Cisco, with us learning Luther’s game and thinking he can give us some punch off the bench, I don’t think that it’s as important to bring Omri off. He’s been doing a good job defensively and trying to do what we want him to do so I thought it was a better fit now that we have our whole team back to go that way.”
Although Casspi missed all five of his three point shots in his first game as a starter, the mere fact that he took five helped stretch the defense. In start number two, Casspi showed why Coach Westphal penned him into the starting line-up. The second year forward scored twenty points on 5 of 6 three point shooting. Defensively, Casspi has been all over the court. Rudy Gay got the best of him, but he also spent the summer playing for the national team and looks like he is worth every dime of the huge contract extension he signed this summer.
I think all of these factors help to explain why Donté Greene is no longer the starter, but it falls short of explaining why he is no longer in the rotation. So we must continue.
Samuel Dalembert missed game one coming back from an injured adductor, but it took him until game six to be completely healthy and ready to take over the starting center position. Kings rookie DeMarcus Cousins held down the fort the best he could in Dalembert’s absence, but unfortunately, he was constantly in foul trouble.
With Cousins in foul trouble, seldom used forward/center Darnell Jackson stepped on the floor for the Kings and made an immediate impact. His ability to defend, rebound, set picks and hit an occasional jumper has earned him a spot in the rotation.
With both Dalembert and Cousins playing the center position and Carl Landry and Darnell Jackson playing the minutes at the power forward position, Kings third year 6′-11″ power forward/center Jason Thompson has been forced to get his minutes elsewhere. Coach Westphal is trying out Thompson at the small forward behind Casspi in lieu of Greene.
Following practice on November 5th, Coach Westphal spoke to Greene’s role on the team:
“Right now, to give a short answer, he is probably the 11 or 12 man on a 9 or 10 man rotation. That doesn’t mean that is a death sentence and it doesn’t mean that it will be that way forever, but he is a young player and he’s a versatile young player and he has a lot of ability and a lot of potential, but he’s got a few guys ahead of him right now- that’s all.”
Although Donté Greene’s career in Sacramento isn’t over, he alone opened a door that had no business being opened. By coming into camp out of shape, he fell behind. While he was struggling to get in better physical and mental shape, Casspi earned his minutes while Garcia, Head and Jackson filled some gaping holes in the team’s bench rotation.
Being around the team for the entire training camp, I can make these assertions: Darnell Jackson was amazing from the first to the last day of camp. Francisco Garcia is the best shooter on the team. Jason Thompson not only came into camp in great shape, but gave Carl Landry everything he could handle in the battle for the starting power forward spot. Luther Head, once he got his legs back, has done an amazing job defending multiple positions and giving the team that spark they need off the bench.
Lastly, I will make this statement of opinion which is typically something I avoid here at TPP– Omri Casspi beat Donté Greene out during camp for the starting small forward spot. The reason Casspi did not start game one was because Coach Westphal thought he needed his scoring off the bench which the Coach has said repeatedly. That proved not to be the case and everything else has fallen into place.
I believe Coach Westphal when he says that Donté Greene is the 11th or 12th man on the Kings roster. Further, I agree with Coach Westphal that Evans, Udrih, Casspi, Landry, Dalembert, Head, Garcia, Thompson, Jackson and Cousins are all better fits and better players at this point in the season. I would even go so far as to say that with Antoine Wright’s experience as a defender, he would be called on before Greene in most situations. All of this can change, certainly, but it will be up to Donté Greene to earn his way back into the rotation.