With all of the non-basketball related matters swirling around here in Sacramento, the game itself has gotten a little lost. Before the season finally ended on Wednesday against the Lakers, I sat down with Kings head coach Paul Westphal, like I have every game this season, to pick his brain about what is next on the basketball front. As always, he was insightful and positive about the future of this young group of players.
James Ham: With the way that your team is playing right now and knowing that you have cap space and another top five pick, how excited are you to be here next year- where ever here may be- and to coach this team and see where it can go?
Coach Westphal: I’m extremely excited about it. I took this job two years ago, it was acknowledged as a rebuilding job from a team that had the worst record in basketball. On top of that, it was acknowledged as a rebuilding job where we weren’t going to spend a lot of money on free agents. The way you do that is you draft wisely, develop young players, look for a trade you can afford to make and try to build a solid foundation. I think we have done all of those things. The next step is really an exciting one. The first thing we needed to do was just learn how to compete and then you have to learn how to win after that, and I think we are pretty well through that step the way we are playing now. We know we have some pieces to add and we know we have some pieces to develop, but I think that two years ago the foundation was not in place, now it is.
James Ham: Has this job been tougher than you thought it would be?
Coach Westphal: No, not really. The way jobs like this get tough is if you don’t have people like Geoff Petrie and Wayne Cooper in the front office who understand what it takes or if you have owners that tell you one thing and then when things get tough, things change. Our owners didn’t do that. They knew what the situation was, they wanted it to happen yesterday, just like I do but they knew it was a rebuild, they knew there would be ups and downs and they’ve known what cards we’ve been dealt and they’ve been extremely patient and consistent with that message. The front office has been extremely supportive and we talk honestly about what’s happening, what should happen, what can happen. There has been a consistent message for two years from everybody in the organization. When you have that, nothing is too hard.
James Ham: Do you think that coming into this season with the Here We Rise campaign, the excitement with Tyreke and some of the other young players as well as the trade for Dalembert, do you think that expectations were a little too high initially?
Coach Westphal: It depends on who’s doing the expecting. I don’t think that any coach wants a hyped up marketing campaign (laughing) but that’s the nature of the beast in the NBA and I don’t know that anybody puts too much stock in that kind of thing when the games start. We know what obstacles we’ve had to overcome starting with Sam Dalembert’s injury in the first day of training camp, right through Tyreke’s injuries. We knew that DeMarcus is a terrific talent who would need to develop and so although we hoped that everything would come together on the first day of training camp, I think that the way things have come together, particularly with the trade and the health issues being resolved, it’s shown that we have a good plan and it’s going in the right direction.
James Ham: What is the biggest positive for you this season, whether it’s a single player or team development?
Coach Westphal: I think it’s just the fact that here we are, with not one of the top records, but one of the worst records in the West particularly, but we legitimately know that we are a better team than last year and that we are legitimately sad that this season is ending because we feel like we are moving in the right direction, together and rapidly, and we like it. I think that would be the biggest positive.
James Ham: On the reverse, what would be the biggest disappointment this season in your mind?
Coach Westphal: That it couldn’t come together sooner. We were trying to catch lightning in the bottle right out of the chute and for all the reasons we already mentioned and probably a lot more, it didn’t happen. Certainly we would have loved to find a way to inject ourselves into the playoff hunt, but that wasn’t in the cards this year.
James Ham: How much do you want the first two months of the season back?
Coach Westphal: If they were going to be without Sam and with the various issues we had then…(laughing), we might not want them back.
James Ham: With the lock-out pending, how important is it that the players take this time and do the right thing for themselves during what could be an elongated summer?
Coach Westphal: I don’t even want to comment on that (the lock-out), but in general we don’t want to take a step backward and lose any momentum that we’ve gathered with this team. It’s a young team and there is a lot of improvement that needs to be made internally and the summer is the time to do that. We will emphasize that in the largest possible degree that this is the time to improve, that we haven’t done anything yet and if we don’t get better over the summer, it’s going to be a long year. If we do get better, and we should get better, we can have something special with this group.
A special thanks goes out to Coach Westphal, who throughout this season was nothing short of amazing with the media. Whether it was in the practice facility, on the floor during pre-game or via phone on the road, Coach always took a few minutes to talk basketball and share his knowledge.
Basketball took a back seat to relocation talk the last month of the season, which is a shame. The Kings finished a solid 9-9 over their last 18 games, playing the role of spoiler all the way down the stretch. If their final home game of the season was any barometer of things to come, the Kings erased a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter, taking a three point lead in the waning moments before Kobe Bryant hit a game tying shot to force overtime. Although the Kings lost to the Lakers in overtime, their tenacity and heart was unmistakable. In a summer of uncertainty, both here in Sacramento and in the NBA as a whole, the team looks poised to make a giant leap forward next season. Hopefully it will be as the Sacramento Kings.