Things in Sacramento have been a wacky lately. While we here at Cowbell Kingdom like to talk basketball, there has been very little if any basketball talk to speak of. Relocation – a word that I never wish to type ever again, has been the soup de jour, filling up our pages and eating all of our time. Surely that word will resurface here and there this season – whispered in bars or by the unkind, but for today we are moving past this. We are going to talk some basketball and in classic Cowbell fashion, that discussion begins with Sacramento Kings Head Coach, Paul Westphal, who was nice enough to take a call during his break time.
James Ham: First up, you were so complimentary toward the fans down the stretch, how happy are you to come back and finish what you started here in Sacramento?
Coach Westphal: I’m very happy about it. I do understand and I think the fans understand that there is a lot more work to be done. I think everyone who has watched closely knows what a challenge this has been to rebuild this team and also rebuild the franchise in Sacramento. I think there have been big steps taken in both directions and the work is not through on either front.
James Ham: You said good bye to your players a little over two weeks ago, how did the exit interviews go? Were there any big surprises or did it go pretty smooth?
Coach Westphal: I don’t think there were any big surprises. I think, as with anything, it’s going to depend on what kind of follow through there is. There were a lot of positive words and good intentions…we’ll hope for the best as far as improvement over this uncertain summer.
James Ham: I think here in Sacramento, with the fight to keep this team here, we have kind of forgotten about the pending labor unrest and how much that can effect next season and your ability to get these guys on the same page early enough to make a real impact.
Coach Westphal: Well, I’m not even addressing that (potential lock-out) because it’s not anything I know anything about and we are encouraged not to address that, but whenever a team doesn’t make the playoffs, the summer is going too long under the best of circumstances. It’s good for the players to get away and rest and that’s what they should do for a while, but at the same time, the summer is one of the best times to improve and if you’re not improving, someone is passing you up because other people are working and that’s the emphasis that we really need to impress on our young players.
James Ham: What’s next for you? When do you get back up here and get back to the business of draft prospects and things like that?
Coach Westphal: When we set up player visits, that’s a little ways away right now. There was some uncertainty as we were waiting for the smoke to clear on where the franchise was going to be. Geoff (Petrie) and Wayne (Cooper) and his staff will set up times for players to visit Sacramento and for us to watch them work out and at the same time, I am getting more familiar with the potential draft choices on video and watching the playoffs right now.
James Ham: Although you aren’t involved in the playoffs, they have been pretty great so far.
Coach Westphal: Oh yeah, it’s high caliber basketball. It’s very enjoyable, particularly as a fan. Professionally it’s enjoyable, but on the other hand, we want to be there. You just look at the way we were playing at the end of the year and how we were competing against these teams that are doing very well in the playoffs and it gets the juices flowing.
James Ham: Both Joe and Gavin Maloof have said in recent days that they are going to open up the purse strings and chase free agents this off-season – not only your own two free agents in Marcus Thornton and Samuel Dalembert, but some more complimentary pieces. How excited are you to hear that news?
Coach Westphal: It’s the next step in bringing the Kings back. Certainly there are too many unknowns to get very specific right now because there is going to be a new collective bargaining agreement at some point, but nobody knows what it’s going to look like, what the terms be – those are things that will certainly impact greatly what we are able to do.
James Ham: From a pure player perspective, without getting into specific players, what do you think is the team’s biggest need and what are you hoping to add be it through the draft, free agency or trade in this off-season?
Coach Westphal: I can only be general with that. I think that internal improvement is probably our greatest emphasis right now. I think we have young players who certainly can continue an upward path in their career. That’s our number one emphasis. I think it’s important to add a few pieces, probably veterans are a little bit more valuable for immediate improvement and I hope that there is a way we can do that. We want to continue to improve our ball handling, our three point shooting and more than anything else, we have to establish a defensive identity. I think it’s very possible to do that with the core we have.
James Ham: Certainly Samuel Dalembert helps to establish that defensive identity, so I would assume that keeping him is pretty high on your list of priorities?
Coach Westphal: I’m very much hoping that we can re-sign him, and the same goes for Marcus (Thornton). In our exit meeting, Geoff and I both expressed to them that that is going to happen.
James Ham: You talked about internal improvement, is there someone who sticks out in your mind who really finished strong and really started to show the type of improvement you have been looking for?
Coach Westphal: I don’t really look at it in a short term basis as much as that. I know that the time that I started getting a chance to know these players was when I got the job two years ago. I think that Donté Greene, for example, is a completely different player than he was at that time. I think that, as with any young player, improvement goes two steps forward, one step back, maybe three steps forward, one step back, maybe one step forward, three steps back sometimes, but hopefully it’s going on the right path. I think that Donté is radically improved from where he was two years ago and he still can continue to improve.
That is an example of how I would answer that question. Certainly Jason Thompson is, in my opinion, a better player than he was and his upside is still terrific. When he was starting on a team winning 17 games, maybe his numbers were more impressive, but I think he getting to be a better player all the time. I think that Omri (Casspi) has shown a lot of improvement, but because of his initial shockingly great shooting, you might think that he has regressed. I don’t think he has regressed. I think he is on an upward path as well.
When you look at our other prominent young players, Marcus Thornton- from being a second round draft choice to where he is now, he has improved a lot obviously and he has shown that he is willing to keep working on some parts of his game to make him even more effective. Tyreke (Evans) is really hard to access right now just because of the injuries. He’s shown what kind of player he can be and what kind of potential he has. I think this summer is very important for him and the same with DeMarcus (Cousins). He has shown flashes of what a special player he can be and now, can he take another step this summer and really get into the best shape of his life and begin to realize his potential because he certainly has it.
James Ham: You have a lot of players that are on the upswing. With so many young players, you are always going to have potential, but these guys looked like they were starting to turn that potential into actual production. Take a guy like Jason Thompson who had some nice production before, but on a team with the worst record in the NBA, it’s interesting to see his development and how he is taking his game to higher levels without having the statistical improvement that a lot of these players base, for a lack of a better term, their NBA worth on.
Coach Westphal: Statistics aren’t nothing, and we use them and there are a lot of important uses, but the way, for example that Tyreke and DeMarcus will be ultimately be judged is – are they making their team win? That’s the place that I think we have arrived and it hasn’t always been a smooth road, but I think right now it is time for us to evaluate things like that. We’ve been through a lot of growing pains, but we can take this nucleus and as it grows and as we add some important pieces, we can evaluate by – are we winning. I don’t think it was necessarily fair to evaluate on that basis through a lot of the things we have gone through, but it is getting to that time.
James Ham: The one big question I have left is, how important is it for you and your players that something gets done quickly on the arena front here in Sacramento so you don’t have to go through the stress and the questions again all through next season?
Coach Westphal: (after a long pause) Everybody seeks stability in this world I think (laughing) and I think the sooner the better, but the only thing we can do is control what we can control. That’s a cliché, but it is a cliché because it’s true. There are things we can do – we can prepare for the draft, we can encourage our players and show them how they can work and get better this summer and other than that, there is nothing we can do until we know what the collective bargaining agreement rules are going to be and then we can proceed to add to this team. If there is an agreement for a building or not when the season starts, all we can control is how well we play. We want to do it for the fans in Sacramento and we hope that the politicians and everyone that can make something happen can make it happen so this foundation we are building can hold up for a long time. We can’t let ourselves think about that too much, we can only think about basketball and let the people who control those other things do their thing and we hope they do it great.
A big thank you goes out to Coach Westphal, who again took time out of his personal time to give us some excellent food for thought. One of his more salient points in my opinion was about how it is now time, after a few years of major foundation work, for the players – and I’m pretty sure himself as well, to be judged on wins and losses. The road to building this foundation has been long and difficult, but the Kings appear to be poised to make a very strong leap forward in production this season. Armed with another top tier pick and some $28+ million in cap space, the Kings should be major players in both the free agent market and as trade partners.
It’s nice to talk a little basketball again here in Sacramento for a change.