Before the Kings took the floor and crushed the Washington Wizards to end their eight game losing streak, I had an opportunity to sit down again with Coach Paul Westphal and have a substantive conversation. As is customary with all of my interviews, you get the full Q&A so you get a good feel for the interviewee. During a time of frustration, the Coach always seems calm, composed and willing to talk. Here is Coach Paul Westphal with The Purple Panjandrum:
TPP: The last couple of games we’ve seen something different from this team. I’m not sure if it’s a different brand of basketball, but we’re starting to get a feeling that maybe this team can win, where the few games before that, maybe a little bit of despair had sunk in. Are you feeling like it might just be getting some experience now?
PW: It’s such a fine line. We have a lead against Dallas, a good lead late in the fourth quarter, and can’t hold it. We have a good lead against the Clippers in the last two minutes and it goes 11-0. I’m not saying those things are an epidemic, but they happen at a bad time. I was looking at our stats for how we do each quarter. Our best two quarters are the first and the fourth. I bet you a lot of people wouldn’t have predicted that. And by far, our worst quarter is the second. We get outscored in the second quarter worse than all the other quarters combined.
TPP: We are seeing a different Tyreke Evans in the first half than we are in the second half. Is it the injury?
PW: I’m a little worried about Tyreke lately in the second half. I think his foot stiffens up a little bit and he is a warrior and he wants to play, but we have to find a way for him to be effective in the second half and I think if we are fortunate enough to have leads late in the fourth quarter, we’ll close out our fair share with him being himself.
TPP: Do you think it has to do with his injury or do you think he is just settling for too many jumpers?
PW: I think he gets a little stiffer and he’s a competitor. He wants to play, but I think you can see a little bit of a difference in the results, if not with the naked eye.
TPP: You have to feel like the confidence is building, even if you haven’t seen the difference as far as wins go.
PW: This team is made up of good guys who are competitive. I think the confidence is building along with the frustration because there’s a feeling that we can win these games, but when are we going to start? It’s really the only attitude we want right now from them because they’re pulling in the right direction together. They’re just not getting the job done in a way that results in W’s.
TPP: Tell me about the development of DeMarcus Cousins so far.
PW: I think Cousins has made remarkable improvement already and I think that he still has tons of room to keep improving before he reaches his ceiling. He’s showing a lot more patience and poise in the low post and some of his decision making from the high post shows that he can be a real weapon in either place. He still has a long way to go in his defensive recognition. He’s doing better than he was, but you can’t ever let down in getting back on defense and rotating or knowing who your man is in transition. Sometimes those are the mistakes that you are liable to see from him that as he becomes more experienced, we will see less and less.
TPP: You have two players that are kind of like that. Both Cousins and Jason Thompson have talent, but they have mental lapses defensively that cause them to get into foul trouble. Thompson is in his third year and still making these mistakes so how do you get these past this bump in the road?
PW: We just try to show them the good things and show them the things that aren’t working for them. We work on it in practice. We call fouls on them in practice. We praise them when they don’t fall into those habits and look for change. Jason has had several games where he has not been in foul trouble and the question I get after that is, “Has Jason figured it out?” and I say, “tonight he did and we hope tomorrow he will too.”
TPP: It seems like every week or week and a half we see Omri Casspi rise up and fade and then Donté Green rise up and fade. They kind of take turns, but we haven’t really had both of them firing together.
PW: That’s not that unusual based on where they are in their career. I think they are both much more reliable at both ends of the floor than last year at this time. I told Omri last game against the Clippers that it wasn’t just his offense, it was the best defense he’s played since he’s been here. He was not only playing his man, but he was rotating and being a presence on the weak side better than he’s ever been. That was really good. With Donté, the shots didn’t really fall for him, but he’s turning into one of our most reliable players at both ends of the floor. If we have any hesitation offensively, he’s very seldom the cause of it. He’s where he’s supposed to be and he’s improved a lot. I’m pleased with both those guys and I think it’s a good one-two punch at that spot. Last year, I didn’t think we could feel that confident with those guys, defensively particularly, and sometimes offensively as well, so we had to try other things. They are doing a good job of holding down that position now.
TPP: I was watching the film back from the Clippers game and not only was Pooh Jeter so fast on the offensive end, but his ability to close on defensive rotations was something this team has been missing.
PW: I thought his defense more than his offense turned that game around because he was a real pest. That’s how all little point guards need to be if they are going to make an impact. They tried to post him up a couple of times and they couldn’t so they stopped. He was sniffing out plays, coming up on people’s blind side, batting balls away and then starting the fast break. That was his best contribution- defensively.
TPP: How important do you think game pace is going to be for this team going forward because it seems like you guys play so much better at a faster pace?
PW: Getting the ball up the floor quickly is always something we want to do. It’s a lot easier to do that when you are creating turnovers and getting rebounds off misses. That’s what we did in the fourth quarter against the Clippers. We were able to get in the open floor because we were able to get steals and rebounds. If you are always taking the ball out of the net, you can say all you want about playing a fast pace, it’s usually not going to happen, especially if you want to go inside. If you want to go inside, DeMarcus is showing that he can be a real force for us in a half court offense, so we want that and we want a fast pace. We have to get stops to get a fast pace and certainly when Pooh is in there, we are going to get a faster pace than when anyone else is in there.
TPP: I know that you went to a line-up with Luther Head starting in an attempt to get off to a better defensive start. Do you think that the fans would enjoy a more high octane, uptempo style even if you are losing? Do you think that an uptempo style would help with the energy level in the building and possibly help the team by feeding off that energy?
PW: First of all, you can’t win without a solid defense, but you can’t win without an offense that can score either. We never want to de-emphasize defense, but there are different ways to defend effectively. One of the reasons Pooh wasn’t getting into the game is because he was having problems defending certain situations, so we looked at other people. Pooh has shown, at least in the last game that he can have an impact defensively. It’s both. We can’t play games in the 80′s and get wins, but at the same time we can’t let teams have 40 point quarters and expect to out score them either. That’s not a formula for success with the way this team is built.
TPP: I know a lot of fans are confused with how a guy is in the starting rotation and then he loses that spot and falls out of the rotation all together. You and I have had this discussion and I understand your reasoning, but can you kind of sum it up in a nutshell for my readers?
PW: I started learning the NBA from the Boston Celtics. The Celtics always valued the sixth and seventh men. Quite often, the player who was the defacto starter would come off the bench. It’s a very important role. So if I’m happy with our rotation as far as who is coming off the bench, I don’t necessarily start the best five players. Sometimes some of our best players don’t start. If you happen to be one of those players who are maybe the eighth or ninth guy, but happen to be in the game at the start and someone else gets the chance to start instead of you, then you might not play because in the pecking order you just went from first to third. People who focus on systems where the best five players start are always going to be mystified by the question you asked, but to me the answer is pretty simple. Luther is a proven NBA player so I’m not trying to denigrate him at all, but Luther was signed as a spot player and a defensive stopper and there are situations where we will use him. We were trying to use him at the start of the game for defensive purposes, but he was playing so well that his minutes grew. That doesn’t mean that he is one of our top five players just because he started the game.
That last question and answer may or may not quench the thirst of the angry mob of naysayers who don’t buy what the Coach is selling, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Throughout the interview, Westphal speaks of progress and development which is very good to hear. The win that occurred the night of this interview against the Wizard was much needed and showed some of the progress the team is making on the court. Tonight, the Kings take on the Miami Heat and it will be interesting to see how they respond to a big challenge in front of a packed house.