Call it youth. Call it inexperience or poor chemistry. Something is missing in the Sacramento Kings locker room and the result is a schizophrenic team on the floor.
Fingers have been pointed. One job has already been lost and there will likely be more casualties in this frantic, shortened season, if the current losing trend continues. This is a mess of epic proportion and Keith Smart, as long as he is head coach, must figure out a way to tame the young talent that is in front of him.
Smart is doing his best. He has made a point to try and build a family both inside and outside the locker room. He takes players to dinner and promotes that they do the same with each other. When a Kings player hits the floor, teammates now rush to help him up in a show of solidarity. It’s forced, but it’s a start.
“What I would love to have is the gigantic wins right now,” Smart said following a practice earlier this season. “But I also want the team to grow because they’ve got to trust each other off the floor (and) trust each other on the floor.”
What Smart needs is a glimpse into the future; a time machine or a crystal ball that allows him to take each of his players to the end of their career and show them who they were and how they fared. Because right now, he has nothing but a group of individuals who want nothing more than to show the world that they are the next great NBA player.
“It’s a growing process with the team,” veteran John Salmons said. “The coaching staff is trying to change the culture. It’s not going to happen over night.”
It’s the trouble with youth in the NBA. All 14 guys on your roster were stars in college and high school, maybe even junior high. You don’t get to the league without being the big man on campus.
“I have a bunch of alpha males right now,” Smart said. “And all of them want to do their job and get what they need to get out of basketball right now.”
That’s the rub. How do you take a team of young, mostly first-round talent and mold it into something special? How do you get guys to move the ball, set screens, play solid defense and sacrifice portions of their individual games for the betterment of the team?
Smart isn’t the first guy to face this challenge and he knows that it’s a series of small steps. That hopefully lead to bigger things down the road.
The Kings recently beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, who came into Power Balance Pavilion with the best record in the NBA. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has faced many of these challenges himself with three, top-four picks on his roster. Many teams look to the Thunder as the model small market franchise, a team the Kings should be emulating.
“That’s the art of coaching,” Brooks said. “You have to lead a group of young men who are driven, that want success, that are determined to get it.”
Brooks manages Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, as well as the other 11 players on his roster. Things don’t always go as planned. Westbrook and Durant have allegedly had an altercation or two, but they now seem to understand that they can accomplish more together than they can apart.
It appears that Harden has bought in 100 percent to Brooks’ teaching. The former third overall pick comes off the bench for the Thunder, even while starter Thabo Sefolosha is down with injury. Harden has a lot of talent, possibly even All-Star potential, but the Thunder are a better team with him leading the second unit.
“You have to figure out what’s the best for your team,” Brooks said. “Not what’s best for each guy.”
Former All-Star David Lee is in agreement with coach Brooks.
“Any time you have a young group of guys, it’s going to be a challenge,” Lee said. “If you get guys with separate plans and their own ideas about what they want to go on, then that’s when you have the pulling away.”
That seems to be the issue in Sacramento, an issue Smart must figure how to answer. Players have their own plans for how a game is going to go and they implement their own ideas on a nightly basis. There is no “I” in team, but as the saying goes, there is an “M” and an “E”.
Lee has personal knowledge of Smart’s approach. The two spent last season together in Golden State and Lee had nothing but praise for his former coach.
“He’s a really good coach,” Lee said. “He knows his stuff. He’s a good leader. I think he’s a good guy to get guys in the locker room to play together.”
While Lee believes in Smart and his ability, he believes there is a limit to the impact a coach can have on a team.
“I think a coach can only do so much,” Lee added. “At the end of the day, it’s very important that you have a room full of guys who are pushing towards the same goal.”
So Smart needs to develop chemistry, preach sacrifice and get all 14 players on his roster moving in one direction if he wants to get that second-year on his contract picked up. No small order for a coach who took over eight games into a lockout-shortened season and has a starting lineup that averages just 23-years of age.
Video: Smart cites an example of how he’s trying to change the culture of the Kings.
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