SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Sacramento Kings have given new coach Keith Smart and young center DeMarcus Cousins a fresh start to their careers. And if both Smart and Cousins are going to have any type of long-term success with the franchise, they'll need to rely on each other.
Paul Westphal's poor relationship with Cousins contributed to the Kings firing him as coach Thursday. In Smart, the Kings hope to have found someone capable of developing a stronger bond with Cousins and the rest of their young players. Smart isn't daunted by the challenge, even though several Kings coaches and staffers have clashed with Cousins during his short time in the NBA.
"You can tell what they’re about when you look a guy in the face and in the eyes, and they kind of give you a look without communicating it," said Smart, who hadn't met Cousins until joining Westphal's staff as an assistant this season. "I have to grow that and move it forward. Now I get to deal with him from a different level. I dealt with him as an uncle the short time I was here. Now I got to step in and be the other guy."
The Kings needed a new voice after opening the season 2-5 under Westphal. The 61-year-old coach had lost the players this season over complaints about his limited offense and constant lineup changes, sources close to the team said. That the firing came just four days after Westphal had another in a string of blowups with Cousins – and banished Cousins from the team for a game – showed just how strained the pair's relationship had become.
Westphal and Cousins argued in the coach’s office after a loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday, and at least one player heard Cousins say, "Trade me," sources said. Westphal had the Kings send out a release the following day saying Cousins was told to stay away from the team after he had demanded a trade. Cousins denied he ever formally demanded to be dealt and has since continued to say he wants to remain in Sacramento. What isn't debatable: Cousins and Westphal have often feuded since last season.
"It’s been an emotional roller coaster for me and for my teammates," Cousins said. "I never meant to be a distraction toward my teammates but, through it all, they stuck with me and I stuck with them. I’m just letting the record be known right now: Sacramento is the place I want to be. Just for everybody to know, I don’t want to be anywhere else but Sacramento."
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After Westphal refused to start Cousins for the first two games after his return, Smart put him back in the lineup for his coaching debut Thursday against the Milwaukee Bucks. Cousins totaled 19 points and 15 rebounds before fouling out in the Kings' thrilling 21-point comeback victory.
And, at least for now, Cousins has only good things to say about his new coach, wrapping him in a hug after the victory. As an assistant on Westphal's staff, Smart worked out Cousins before games and after practices. While Smart was head coach of the Golden State Warriors last season, Cousins averaged a modest 14.5 points on 42 percent shooting against them. Smart would tell the Warriors players to try to frustrate Cousins because he'd often lose his composure and get into foul trouble.
After Smart joined the Kings' staff, he told Cousins of his old game plan.
"As a [former] head coach who comes in, it probably has a little more credibility, so you can come at him a different way,” Smart said. “I'd tell him, ‘Hey, you got talent but can you play 40 minutes right now?’ He said, ‘I can play 40 minutes.’ I said, ‘You can be in the game 40 minutes, but you can’t play it.’ ”
Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof said Smart's ability to bond with players was a big reason why the team gave him a contract through the end of next season.
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"He wants to have a relationship with all of the players, not only in the locker room and on the floor in the gymnasium but outside of that," Maloof said. "That’s real important."
As an assistant in Golden State and head coach of the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association, Smart built a good relationship with another famously temperamental player: current Milwaukee Bucks forward Stephen Jackson. Smart also remains close with Warriors guard Monta Ellis, who is slow to extend his trust.
"He’s easy to communicate with," Jackson said of Smart. “He’s a player’s coach. He played the game. He knows how to communicate with guys and he lets you play your game, which is what a lot of guys love about him.
"There were times I had to talk to him about personal stuff and he was there. Me, personally, I confided in him a lot off the court."
Said Smart: "If they have a good heart, you can reach them."
Smart believes Cousins also has a good heart, in spite of the many run-ins Cousins has had since the Kings made him the fifth overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft. No one questions Cousins' talent, but the 21-year-old still has a lot of maturing to do. The Kings remain heavily invested in developing him as one of their core players, and it will be tasked to Smart to get the most out of him.
Smart told Sacramento's players that he will deal with them all the same – no preferential treatment. If you don't follow the rules, you'll be punished.
"What I took from it is that everyone is going to be held accountable the same way,” Cousins said. “No matter if you’re a star player, to if you’re a rookie, to a role player, to a player that doesn’t play at all. We are all going to be held accountable, and that’s the way it needs to be."
Already in his short time with the Kings, Smart has seen some of the drama Cousins can cause. He doesn't plan on holding it against him.
"You have to start over from where you are now, and he can prove everyone else right or wrong," Smart said. “I have to come in and not look at what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard and focus on, ‘OK, where do you go with me now?’ And then I make my assessment. There is a clean slate right now. I’m not going to bring something into the relationship that happened before."
Smart also had a short tenure as the Cleveland Cavaliers' head coach during the 2002-03 season. He knows this might be his third and final opportunity to prove himself. And Cousins knows he can't afford to further damage his own reputation if he hopes to fulfill his potential.
"I know I make mistakes, but I’m human – everybody makes mistakes," Cousins said. "It just seems like my mistakes are bigger than what they should be. But at the same time, I never said I was perfect and I’ve got a lot of improving to do. I know that."
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