Keith Smart finally feels like a head coach. Not an interim head coach auditioning for one of the NBA's 30 jobs, or worse, a lame-duck head coach waiting for the new owners to cut him loose.
For the first time in his career, Smart arrives at training camp as the man in charge, bolstered by a one-year contract extension and empowered to transform his team into his image or someone else's image.
These are his Kings. Their identity is his to choose.
Will the model be the Lakers of the 1980s? Celtics of the 1980s? Jazz of the 1990s? Spurs of the past decade? Nellie's Golden State Warriors of the Run TMC years?
"I watched a lot of tape this summer, and when I looked at our team, first of all, I saw that there was too much dribbling," Smart said in something of an understatement. "The floor started to shrink. I can't change the fact that we have creative one-on-one players, but I believe I can train them to play differently. You move, you cut, you shoot, and you're going to have success. But there has to be a system. I think I got into too much pick-and-roll action last year with our guys forcing jumpers or catch and dribble."
Smart spent much of the offseason hunkered down either at the Kings' practice facility or on the living room couch at his family's home in Danville. He half-jokingly says he wore out his laptop and the big-screen TV in both places. Perusing the Internet, he found footage of games dating back more than 60 years, and with little hesitation, pulled out a credit card.
When large boxes of old DVDs and videotapes started arriving at the house, his puzzled wife, Carol, shot him a look.
"What are you doing with that stuff?" she asked.
"You won't believe what I found," he replied.
Recalling the scene Monday, Smart laughed and shook his head.
"She thought I was crazy. But I studied college games, college coaches, NBA coaches, went and talked to everybody," Smart said. "I looked at systems from way back to 1949, and one thing that struck me was that we (NBA teams) all want to run. But when guys get jammed up, there is no spacing. Draw and kick and then the guy can't make a shot. This goes back to what they teach kids in AAU. I have two boys. I know what they're learning. But we have to be more creative."
Smart refuses to reveal details from his summerlong brainstorming sessions and barnstorming travels, except to say improving the defense what he calls "paint control" is the top priority after the Kings finished at or near the bottom in all pertinent defensive categories last season.
Smart suggests the Kings can utilize their youth, depth and athleticism to disrupt opponents, thereby creating transition opportunities and overcoming the lack of frontcourt length.
It sounds great. In October, new theories always sound great.
But Smart's bosses and team owners (Geoff Petrie, the Maloofs) and his players are listening for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that he never stops campaigning. He is in their face and in their ears, texting on their cell phones constantly.
Smart, who intended to visit his players and supervise their workouts for a week or so throughout the offseason, instead found them traveling to Sacramento to visit with him.
The Kings' state-of-the-art practice facility was used extensively, and at all hours. One late night, Smart looked out his office and saw Tyreke Evans shooting around, oblivious to the signs urging players to stay off the damp, newly polished floor.
"What was I going to do?" Smart laughed. "He was working hard."
DeMarcus Cousins, who appears in tremendous shape and at least 15 pounds lighter, was another nightly fixture, with his workout sessions extending to four hours. Isaiah Thomas, with thicker upper arms, often joined Cousins for pickup games at the Kings' facility or with the locals at a 24 Hour Fitness Center. Most other Kings were frequent visitors to the practice site, either to train with the coaches or chat with the conditioning staff.
After six consecutive non-playoff seasons, this is what Smart is looking at as camp begins today in Colorado Springs, Colo.: a trimmer Cousins, a determined Evans, an intriguing rookie in Thomas Robinson, an enigmatic second-year guard in Jimmer Fredette, three veterans (Chuck Hayes, Jason Thompson, John Salmons) who need to produce consistently and two speedy guards (Thomas and Aaron Brooks) who Smart is counting on to change the tempo, the on-court culture, and accelerate his tinkering.
Smart hinted at principles of the triangle. Elements of Pete Carill's Princeton offense might reappear. Smart sees imaginary dents in the floor from all that dribbling in recent years, and, no, he didn't think it worked, either.
"We all believe he is the right coach at the right time for our team," Petrie said. "He has the support and approach to relationship building with his players that was exemplified this summer by the commitment of many of our players. The best we have ever had in that regard. It all cannot be done in one full year and, hence, the additional year (on his contract)."