Seven games into the NBA season, the Kings have fired Paul Westphal, and the temptation will be to look at the recent dust-up between DeMarcus Cousins and Westphal, and conclude the Kings have chosen player over coach. That was likely a factor, sure, and you can’t really argue choosing the 21-year-old big man with touch over a coach that hasn’t improved your team at all in two-plus seasons.
But step back, look at the larger picture, and you’ll see a broader organizational failing — the sort of failing that happens all the time in the NBA. The Kings haven’t really nailed a non-draft personnel move since the tear down of the Chris Webber-era team that came so close to winning a title. It’s hard to turn injured, aging pieces into anything worthwhile, and the Kings deserve credit for flipping Peja Stojakovic for a productive Ron Artest, and then flipping Artest down the line for semi-useful pieces.
But beyond that? The Kings’ front office, led by president Geoff Petrie, flailed and flailed without yielding much. Most trades amount to very little — there’s a reason guys are on the trade block in the first place. The key is to avoid doing long-term damage in the form of taking on Kenny Thomas’ unmovable contract, adding $11 million in long-term money by acquiring (again) John Salmons, and acquiring/extending so-so players on mid-level contracts (Francisco Garcia, Beno Udrih, Andres Nocioni, and on, and on.) No colossal, cap-crippling mistakes — the market wouldn’t allow for that kind of spending for a non-contender — but not much in the way of franchise-changing talent coming in the door via trade.
Even their one recent clear trade victory — Carl Landry for Marcus Thornton — is perhaps not as much of a landslide as Sacramento fans would like. Thornton is constantly out of position on defense, head turned, and his assist numbers this season have fallen off a cliff. Also, you can connect his presence here back to the deal that sent out Kevin Martin, among the league’s most efficient offensive players, in order to hand the offense to Tyreke Evans.
Which brings us to this Westphal news. Evans also called out Westphal last week, saying “nobody really knows what to do” in Westphal’s offense, which Evans characterized as “just pass, cut.” Evans still hasn’t found his game, even though he’s recovered from the plantar fasciitis that robbed him of his explosiveness last season. He’s shooting poorly, hasn’t developed his jumper and has seen his assist numbers drop as the Kings have divided ball-handling duties among him, Thornton, Salmons and Jimmer Fredette.
The Kings have been running simplistic stuff, one reason their offense ranks 26th in points per possession — one spot better than their swiss-cheese defense. Evans will bring up the ball, toss it to Thornton on the wing, cut to the corner and watch Thornton isolate or run a pick-and-roll. As that unfolds, Evans will rotate back to the top and be ready to receive the ball if the initial action fails to produce a shot. Repeat the same hum-drum stuff on the next 90 possessions, mixing up the names so that everyone gets a turn and adding a bunch of Cousins post-ups, and you’ve basically got Sacramento’s offense. Any NBA team can defend that.
There isn’t much aggressive off-ball cutting, and Sacramento’s motley crew of big guys isn’t helping consistently. Cousins, for all the bluster and drooling over his talent, is a big man shooting 42 percent over his career. He’s a wonderful rebounder (though grabbing his endless point-blank misses has inflated his offensive rebounding rate), a hard worker on the court and someone who should grow into a very productive NBA player. But he hasn’t produced at a level even approaching that of someone at whose behest you fire a coach. The issues in Sacramento are much bigger.
The Kings have assisted on just 41.7 percent of their baskets, per Hoopdata. No team since the ABA-NBA merger has finished a season with an assist rate lower than about 46.5 percent, per Hoopdata and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus. Blame whatever and whomever you’d like, but it’s a number like that represents a top-to-bottom organizational failure. The Kings don’t have an above-average distributor on their roster, so they’re running a simplistic offense without a primary distributor or even clear-cut roles.
Will new coach Keith Smart do any better? It will be interesting to watch. He’s a defense-first coach, a former guard who will push his young guards hard to be better on that end. And that’s good, because any young guard needs that kind of repetitive instruction. Thornton and Fredette are young and learning, and the team has inexcusably surrendered more fast-break points per game than anyone but the Timberwolves. The Kings’ core players are so young that some internal improvement is inevitable.
But it’s also possible the pieces just don’t quite fit on offense, or that the crucial piece that could unite everyone just isn’t here. That’s not a defense of Westphal. The team hasn’t improved since he took over, and it has regressed since showing some promise at the end of the 2009-10 season. Individual players haven’t developed much (or at all), and the team is plagued by the same stuff every night. The players have made it clear they don’t like Westphal, and it’s possible a more creative coach, with a more creative system, will get more out of them. That’ll be tough in this compressed season, but it’s worth a shot.
In the short term, what’s the ceiling here? The best way to win in the NBA is to have a franchise-level superstar, and the Kings don’t have that, unless Evans or Cousins makes a gigantic leap. They’re hard to get, and it’s not as if the Kings have passed over one in any of the last half-dozen drafts; go look back at the last five or six drafts and point to a player they obviously should have taken over the one they picked. All the trading failed to do much, which is usually what happens when you’re dealing league-average guys or broken veterans. Franchise-changing free agents haven’t been interested, despite the cap space.
And so we have a franchise in an ugly holding period. Westphal failed to make it any less ugly. Now we get to see new guy give it a try.