Keith Smart’s Message Starting To Sink In
The Sacramento Kings began the year unlike any other team in the NBA. After an opening night win against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Kings lost five out of their next six games. The atmosphere in the locker room became combustible, with players pointing fingers at each other and head coach Paul Westphal issuing a statement saying DeMarcus Cousins demanded a trade.
With the locker room divided and the Kings continuing to lose, often badly, Westphal was fired and the Kings promoted assistant coach Keith Smart in hopes he could mend the relationship between the Kings, Cousins and his teammates.
“We were just frustrated with the team, with how it was going. We were just trying to find out where each other was at,” Tyreke Evans explained to HOOPSWORLD. “We wanted to start off better than we did, but it didn’t happen. Coach (Smart) came in and now we are just working with him. We haven’t gotten a chance to work with him through training camp so we are just learning as we go.”
“Different coaches have a different style of play, different way to travel and practice and all these different things,” added Jimmer Fredette. “There are a lot of different things with a new coach, but everybody is taking it really well. We’ve all tried to lock arms and stay together through this whole thing and it feels like we’ve been playing pretty good basketball as of late, so it’s been a good thing.”
Smart took the reins on Januray 6th, and despite an immediate impact in the locker room, the Kings continued to struggle, winning only four games in the month of January under their new coach.
“I came in with the idea that we’re going to have a team-first mentality,” Smart explained. “We don’t have an All-Star on this team, we don’t have an All-NBA player on this team. Everyone follows under the same rules and guidelines, so I don’t have to cater to one guy right now. This is the way we’re going to go, this is how we’re going to do things and this is how we’re going to practice. This is what is expected of you and from there the team started coming together.”
Smart’s team message began to sink in almost immediately. Despite the heavy losses in January, the Kings beat the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers, two of the top teams in the league. When the calendar turned to February, the Kings put together arguably their best run of basketball in the last several years. They won four of their first five, including wins over the Western Conference contending Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers.
“They started buying into what we were doing,” said Smart. “I knew there was going to be a little time before we could eventually get thinking the way I want them thinking, but so far they have done a great job with trying to adjust on the fly. Some days when we have shootaround for 30 minutes we’re going to practice live. They probably thought the first time we did it ‘why are we doing this,’ but now they know that’s what we do and we just keep moving from there.”
“He’s brought a new energy to the team, some positive energy,” said Chuck Hayes. “He’s a motivator, he’s a thinker and he really brings that in the game to a T. It was something that this team needed.”
Evans echoed Hayes’ sentiment, saying: “He just wants us to win, play hard and is trying to run the team the right way and make everybody better.”
Smart’s tenure as head coach hasn’t been all roses; there have been some speed bumps. The Kings are a young team, and often times young teams will get up for the big games against teams like the Thunder and Spurs, but will lack energy and focus against some of the non-playoff caliber teams. In the last 30 days, the Kings have losses to non-playoff teams the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and the Minnesota Timberwolves (twice).
“Being around teams where all the sudden there’s a great team coming in or a really good marquee player, they’re going to be up to play those,” Smart explained. “As we develop and keep developing our team, they’ll start to understand that every game on the NBA schedule is very important. The good teams understand that. The young up and coming teams are still trying to figure those things out.”
Fredette agreed with his coach.
“We just have to be more consistent every single night and that’s something that will come, just by continuing to play with each other and getting better playing as a team. We will continue to work hard, but it definitely has to be a consistent effort every night and that’s what the great teams do.”
Hayes takes the thought a step further, believing that if the Kings can show up night in and night out, they could be talking about the playoffs as soon as this year.
“We’re going to have to learn how to win the games we’re suppose to or win the games against the teams that are trying to find themselves like we are,” Hayes said. “There are a lot of games like that and if we win our fair share against sub .500 teams then we give ourselves a chance to make a run for the playoffs.”
Young teams often struggle on the road as well, and the Kings are no exception. Through February 14th they are 7-5 at home but only 3-13 on the road.
“Being a young team, we just haven’t gotten it together fully,” Fredette explained. “We had a great win in San Antonio on the road, which is a tough place to win. We can do it, it’s just being more consistent on the road, coming together and playing like we do at home in front of our home fans when we are on the road. That’s tough to do, but it’s something that the great teams do.”
“That’s just about being a pro. We have to learn how to take this as a business trip and win on the road,” Hayes said. “When you’re on the road every team is going to make their run. Their going to get their fans involved. We just need to learn how to handle adversity.”
The early season road trips may not have resulted in many wins, but Coach Smart believes their time away from Sacramento has helped bring the team closer together and get everybody on the same page.
“What it has done is forced us to grow together as a team. Our players have started to do some things, like going out with each other for lunch or after shoot around or out to dinner. So it’s forcing the bonding issues more than anything else, which is a positive thing. As we grow and get stronger as a team moving forward, these things that we’ve faced on the road can only help us.”
The Kings believe they have turned a corner on their season, but there is no question there is still work to be done.
“We’ve turned a corner as far as learning and knowing what’s expected of each other,” Smart explained. “We still haven’t turned the corner yet with our team to develop and be a winning basketball team all the time. That’s a process, but the process is actually working and has been a little bit smoother because we have a way that we want to do things and the guys understand that right now.”
“We started off kind of shaky when you talk about internal problems, but we were able to weather some of the storm and now we’re competitive. We give ourselves a chance every game. A lot of that has to do with coach and some of it is our maturation. We still have a long journey to go,” Hayes concluded.
While the playoffs are likely a year or two away for Sacramento, with Smart at the helm there is no denying the Kings’ future looks bright.