Yesterday we took at look at what should be the top priority for the new ownership group this offseason: overhauling the front office.
One step lower on the rung is making a decision regarding the Coaching Staff. Sacramento's Head Coaching job has been almost like a long drawn-out game of musical chairs since Rick Adelman left. In the last seven seasons the Kings have had five head coaches (Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, and Keith Smart). Only Theus achieved some semblance of success in the 2007-08 season that saw the Kings win 38 games, but that was with a roster that featured a budding star in Kevin Martin, Ron Artest in his prime, and an aging but still good Brad Miller.
In 2011, the Kings brought Keith Smart on board as an assistant to Paul Westphal. At the time it felt as if this decision put Westphal on the hot seat because Smart had shown some promise as Head Coach of the Warriors during the 2010-11 season. As it turns out, Westphal did end up getting fired after a 2-5 start and a public dust-up with DeMarcus Cousins. Smart took over in the midst of a lockout shortened season and despite having not much preparation or practice time, he did well enough to earn a chance as the Head Coach for a full, regular season. He seemed to develop a bond with his players, particularly DeMarcus Cousins. He recognized the potential of Isaiah Thomas and took a chance on him as the starting PG.
Last season we got to see what Keith Smart could do given a full season to prepare and a seemingly better roster. The Kings added veteran Aaron Brooks to the backcourt as well as intriguing young forward prospects James Johnson and Thomas Robinson. Smart spent the offseason developing a new offense and building team camaraderie. Nobody was expecting the team to make the playoffs, but there was some hope that the team would finally be able to make a significant leap.
They didn't, unless you count a winning percentage increase from .333 to .341 as significant.
Smart's new offense crashed and burned almost immediately as he a) wasn't able to get his players to buy into it and b) it wasn't suited for the roster he had in the first place.
The chemistry Smart had developed with DeMarcus Cousins, which was one of the biggest points in the decision to bring him back as Head Coach, disappeared almost as quickly. I don't blame Smart for this however. DeMarcus Cousins would be a handful for any coach in the league and I think Smart handled that situation as best he could. More surprising however was the fact that by the end of the season, he had seemingly lost the respect of many of his other players, as we heard frustration expressed from guys like Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans and Jason Thompson.
The main source of everyone's frustration, from players to fans, were the rotations. Smart justified his rotations by saying that the Kings didn't have All-Stars that should be guaranteed playing time, and that he expected everyone on the bench to be ready when their number was called. But it's really hard for a player and team to grow together when things change constantly game to game and week to week. There was a significant stretch of games where Aaron Brooks took over the starting spot from Isaiah Thomas and Thomas even got a few DNP-CDs during this stretch. This decision was made all the more laughable when Brooks was later released by the Kings in March. Jimmer Fredette improved noticeably from his rookie year, yet he saw fewer minutes in more games. There was also little sense in how the players on the court paired with each other, as we saw nonsensical lineups that featured no outside shooters, or four guards, or Travis Outlaw.
No Kings player averaged more than 31 minutes a game and only three averaged more than 27.9. Every single other NBA team featured at least one player (most of the time two or more) that averaged more minutes per game than Sacramento's top player (Tyreke Evans). For significant periods of time, the Kings did not put their best players on the floor and that is solely on Smart and that adds up over time.
I like Keith Smart as a person and appreciate the fact that he tried to do the best with what he had. But just like with the ownership and front office, it's time for a fresh start. Smart is still under contract for next season thanks to a ridiculously early extension by the Maloofs, but that shouldn't stop the new ownership group from installing their own Coach. The only way I could see justifying Smart's return is if there is a true belief that he IS the coach we've been looking for. Unfortunately for Smart, the evidence suggests otherwise.
There are also plenty of choices out there for the new Ownership Group to sift through. I'll separate some of my favorites/notables into three categories. I am not listing them by any order of preference and am also not listing all the possible coaches out there.
Former Head Coaches
- Jerry Sloan - One of the greatest Coaches in NBA History, Sloan has been "retired" for a couple years now but with heavy indications that he wouldn't mind coming back. However, he is 71 years old, which would make him the oldest Head Coach in history. I'm also not sure he'd be ideal for a young roster that needs developing like the Kings.
- Stan Van Gundy - Van Gundy did a great job developing a young Magic team and their young star Dwight Howard. Things fell apart near the end of his tenure, but he's got a great mind for the game and could really help a team like the Kings. Plus, he owes Sacramento for stiffing us at Kinko's in 2007. Never forget.
- Lionel Hollins - Hollins is my personal favorite option as Head Coach. He also might be extremely unrealistic, as even though his contract is up, he's very likely to get an extension thanks to Memphis' success in this year's playoffs. The reason I like Hollins so much is he took a roster of misfits and turned them into one of the best basketball teams in the NBA. Marc Gasol went from trade fodder in the infamous Pau Gasol trade to Defensive Player of the Year. Zach Randolph went from the butt of jokes to a premiere big man. Mike Conley went from bust to one of the better young point guards in the league. So yeah, Hollins would be my first choice, but it's probably not going to happen.
- Mike Malone - Malone is the top assistant to Mark Jackson in Golden State and supposedly is the X's and O's guy, which doesn't surprise me considering I've heard Mark Jackson analyze games. Malone has been a long time assistant coach with stops in Cleveland and New Orleans and in particular has a reputation for teaching defense. Considering Vivek Ranadivé already knows Malone, I'd definitely expect him to be in the running.
- Brian Shaw - Shaw has seemingly been the next big thing in the Assistant world for the last few years now but has not gotten offered the right opportunity yet. He turned down the Charlotte job last season because he rightly saw it as a career killer. Currently he's a top assistant for the Pacers. He has experience with the triangle, which Smart tried to implement features of this year with disastrous results, so I don't know how flexible he'd be.
- Mike Budenholzer - I was required to put Budenholzer on this list because otherwise Ziller would fire me. Seriously though, Budenholzer has been Popovich's lead assistant for years and is also very young. San Antonio is still really good but they will definitely be on the downswing in a few years when Duncan and Ginobili retire. Perhaps it'd be a good time for him to stretch his legs and see if he has what it takes to be a Head Coach.
Never Head Coached in NBA/Former NBA Assistants
- Ettore Messina - Messina has been one of the top coaches in Europe for years now, and he actually made the leap into the NBA as an assistant with the Lakers a couple years back. Now he's back in Europe but the intrigue is still there. He's got great knowledge of the game and is well respected for his ability to develop players. There are rumors that the Atlanta Hawks are heavily considering him. I think he'll end up coaching an NBA team one day. I wouldn't mind if it was the Kings.
- David Blatt - Blatt is an American but he's another top European Coach. He was the Head Coach of Russia's National Team. He led Russia to the 2007 EuroBasket Gold Medal and to the Bronze in the 2012 Summer Olympics. He's currently coaching in Israel. David Aldridge wrote a good article on him back in August of 2012, check it out.
- Fred Hoiberg - Many of you will remember Hoiberg from the Kings-Timberwolves series back in the day. Hoiberg is currently coaching at Iowa State and has helped transform them into a tourney team. Could he transform the Kings into a Playoff Team?
Coming Tomorrow: The Draft