At the end of December 2009, Omri Casspi was a 21-year-old rookie on the starting team of the Sacramento Kings. He played nearly 30 minutes and scored 12 points a game. Everything looked rosy and the team, after providing tangible proof of the “curse of the small forwards,” seemed to have solved that problem for the next few years with him.
At the end of September 2014, Casspi, now 26, is returning to the Kings a changed player. He has a better understanding of his role in an NBA team. He is no longer setting his sights too high, convinced that circumstances are holding him back, that only a playoff team can bring out his best. If he has learned something in five full seasons of league play it is that the wheel never stops turning, and for most players the best move is to stay on the wheel.
Casspi has done that, and maybe more. The average length of an NBA career is 4.8 years. Casspi is expected to reach at least 6, even if his willingness to sign a minimum contract loses him a few dollars along the way. He is a legitimate NBA player and he has stats that NBA general managers like. His skill set fits the recent trend of blurring the boundaries between forward positions. Fast-playing teams love his type, who can play power forward with smaller players on the floor and also shoot from outside to the traditional inside position.
Sacramento plans to play fast. That, even before the sentimental aspect of the reunion, makes Casspi right for the team. In contrast to his benchwarming playoff image in Houston, in fact his season there – after two bad seasons in Cleveland that nearly cost him his place in the league – provided a reminder of his best qualities. Among other things, he spent quite a bit of time on the parquet in the four position, and was pretty good at it. The problem was that a bit less than three a game for a bit under 35% is not good enough for the Rockets. But in Sacramento it would make him one of the better shooters.
Sacramento’s record is almost exactly the same as the team he left in 2011 (28-54, 13th place in the West last season), but almost everyone and everything that led Casspi to look for an out – the owners, the general manager, the coach, the professional level, the vision – has been replaced. The new faces include Chris Mullin (advisor to the chairman), Shareef Abdur-Raheem (director of player personnel), Tyrone Corbin and Corliss Williamson (assistant coaches), and George McCloud (scout). Shaquille O’Neal owns a stake in the team. Things are looking up on the staff side.
And on the players’ side. Last season Sacramento looked like Grand Central Station, with 23 players passing through, but now there’s a base to build on: DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay are brand new world champions, and playing alongside them will be Ben McLemore in his second season, rookie Nik Stauskas and Darren Collison, who arrived this summer.
As for Casspi’s positions, things look better than they did not very long ago: The team released Quincy Acy and Travis Outlaw, and Alonzo Gee, who inherited Casspi’s spot in the starting five when the two played in Cleveland, does not have a guaranteed contract. The remaining forwards may be better players than Casspi, but not necessarily ones that will fit in better in the small ball game.
Casspi is simply the right man for management’s vision for the team, Tom Ziller, who covers the Kings and is the NBA editor for SBNation.com, told Haaretz Sport. He can run, shoot from the outside and play a number of positions, he said. This time it will probably be completely different than his last time with the Kings, in which he played small forward exclusively. This time he will more likely be used as a power forward in a small ball lineup, said Ziller. It seems he will get his opportunity, he added.
The thing is, the minute Casspi gets his chance he must take it. Like last season in Houston, Casspi will not have the luxury of missing too much. With all due respect to the energy he brings and his relatively high investment in defense, his great advantage over his rivals for the position is in his outside shooting, or at least the potential for it. The minute he gets into a little crisis, like that of last December — the month in which he fell to shooting 28% of 3-pointers from 43% in the first month of the season – his new coach Michael Malone may very well lose interest in him, and Casspi’s road back to the rotation will be a long one. Certainly if the Kings sign another wing man, a very realistic possibility in light of the fact that in recent days they have checked out Josh Howard, Jamario Moon and Mickael Pietrus, all of them experienced and proven forwards.
In his present incarnation in Sacramento, which based on reports could also include part of the ownership group coming together for the MLS soccer team they are trying to field in the city, Casspi will start on a very low flame. As opposed to the beginning of his NBA career, this time he is not expected to bring a miracle or even to change games from the bench. It is enough that he gives Malone the possibility of maneuvering his players, and needs more like him – and becomes a consistent contributor from the eighth or ninth place in the rotation, as he was last season in Houston – and the Kings will already have profited on the deal, which could very well be seen as the default option for both parties. Anything beyond that will be a wonderful personal achievement for Casspi, and maybe also his ticket to a seventh season in the best basketball league in the world.