The growth of the Sacramento Kings isn’t limited to just its players. Keith Smart knows he can get better, too.
“Oh, everything,” said the Kings head coach when asked how he could improve going into next season before last week’s final home game at Power Balance Pavilion.
When Paul Westphal knew his tenure as Kings’ head coach was coming to an end, he gave Smart his blessing. After parting ways with the Golden State Warriors following a better than projected 2010-11 season, Smart’s second-wind as an NBA head coach came sooner than he had expected.
“I knew he was prepared to be a head coach then,” said soon-to-be free agent guard Jamal Crawford, who spent one season in Golden State while Smart served as an assistant. “It was like preparation. Every situation, he had a lot of patience.
“He knew how to challenge guys,” Crawford added. “Sometimes you need to get in a guy’s face to challenge them (and) sometimes you need to back off and do it a different way. He had that back then.”
As a player and a coach, Smart has amassed more than 20 years of basketball experience. But at 47 (going on 48 this September), Smart is older than only 10 other coaches in the league. And in terms of NBA coaching experience, Smart has just 181 games under his belt.
To put that in perspective, Tyreke Evans has played in 11 more games (192) than Smart has coached.
“Everything (I did),” said Smart. “From my first year of coaching in the minor leagues to my first year of getting a chance to coach in the NBA in Cleveland, to coaching games as an understudy with Coach (Don) Nelson and eventually becoming a head coach there, I learned every (year).”
Smart called this year a feeling-out process. Coaching under an abbreviated time-frame, he used this season to learn the Kings’ talent just as much as he tried to win.
“You keep learning,” said Smart of himself. “Maybe thinking about a coverage I should’ve used or could’ve used little bit more. Maybe a player I could’ve used a little bit more. But all that (is) information I have now about each guy on our team… so I can be a better coach next year (and) help these guys succeed next year.”
On the surface, it appears Smart has a lot more to learn. The Kings didn’t improve much in the victory column, posting a 20-39 record under Smart’s guidance. And after the Maloofs picked up Smart’s second-year option, the Kings won just 10 games while losing 21.
However, he has a good foundation to start. Look beyond the win-loss record and you’ll find that the Kings did make strides under Smart, particularly on offense. They shared the ball more, their field-goal percentage rose and they showed flashes of being the running team Smart believes they can become.
“I have a bunch of buddies of mine and friends around the country that do critique me,” said Smart, who says he openly seeks out the advice of other basketball minds. “And they do a good job of critiquing me and giving me very, very good deals of feedback.”
Count soon-to-be Hall of Fame head coach Don Nelson among Smart’s confidants. The Kings coach still maintains a good relationship with the man he succeeded in Golden State and Smart says Nelson likes the talent the Kings have.
“I picked up a handful of people…that watch all our games,” said Smart. “They give me information, email (me), can tell me exactly what time to go to a particular clip and (say) ‘Look at this. You should’ve had this guy in the game – why didn’t you?’, and that’s valuable information.”
Smart also says he’ll embrace individual assessments from his players, which isn’t surprising considering his open-minded personality. But there’s a limit to how much feedback he’s receptive to, and for good reason.
“Now you can’t take everything the players say because players are always going to want to benefit themselves,” said Smart with a grin. “I’m trying to focus more on the team more than anything else.”
Isaiah Thomas shares the same belief in his head coach’s future that Smart has in him. The Kings rookie says Smart is incredibly detail-oriented, often times looking beyond the basic box score to help the Kings get better. Thomas believes Smart’s approach to his job will have them ready for next year.
“I think with this summer and him having a full season to really prepare and get us better as a group,” said the 23-year-old guard of his head coach. “I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Just like the bevy of talent the Kings’ possess, Smart hopes next year he unlocks his own potential, too.