CHICAGO Keith Smart isn't new to coaching, but the journey he embarks on starting today is new.
Never in his NBA coaching career had Smart had a team for an entire offseason with the chance to implement his vision entering a regular-season opener.
Smart's vision of how to mold the Kings began Jan. 5, when he replaced the fired Paul Westphal. The first look at Smart's Kings is tonight against the Chicago Bulls.
He began preparing for tonight last season. Whether it was something behind the scenes like a conversation with DeMarcus Cousins or moving Tyreke Evans to small forward to expand his game, Smart had a plan.
"I knew exactly what I was doing because everywhere I've coached, regardless of the circumstances of how I was put in the situation, I knew what I was trying to do and what I was trying to accomplish," Smart said. "So I never got frustrated."
The Kings were 20-39 under Smart, but the organization thought enough of what he started to not only retain him for this season but extend his contract through 2013-14.
Smart worked on giving the Kings direction. Rather than send his players off for the summer and wait to see how they looked when they reported to training camp, Smart gave them detailed instructions on what they needed to do in the offseason to improve physically and mentally. He also visited them to check on their progress.
Throughout the process, Smart worked to build personal relationships with players while emphasizing that teamwork was the only way they could climb from the bottom of the standings.
Suddenly, a team that was the worst defensively in the NBA last season believes it can become a good defensive squad.
"He's brought confidence to all of us, and the belief we can turn this thing around," Cousins said. "When it's negative from every angle, including the people that lead you into battle are negative, it's hard. That right there changed a lot of things. He understands us, he relates to us. Everything's been good since he got here."
Smart spent hours going over every Kings game from last season. He also studied other teams across different eras looking for ways he could improve his squad.
"I knew the team had certain flaws," Smart said. "Certain players that we had needed to get better at doing certain things. I knew the No. 1 thing was this team had to get in better shape. And I knew if they followed that, other things would fall into place."
Smart said the players began to buy in to his program and returned in the best shape of their careers, showing they were dedicated to improvement.
Young players like Cousins and Evans credit Smart with guiding them.
"He pushed us to come back better," Evans said. "I think he did that, and guys were working on their games. We showed that in the preseason, but we want to carry it over to the regular season."
Before Smart took over, the Kings played for themselves. Smart wants them to play for each other. The Kings are learning to do that while doing what they can for their coach.
"Absolutely," Cousins said. "He has your back, and if you're a player, you want to have his back."
In his only full season as an NBA coach, 2010-11, Smart took over the Warriors in training camp. They went 36-46, a mark that impressed most around the league. But new ownership hired former All-Star and TV analyst Mark Jackson to replace Smart.
Smart said that experience hasn't left him looking to prove he is a good coach.
"You just focus on coaching," Smart said. "And if your players are playing well, focus on trying to get them better and get them to see the big picture and don't try to prove anything. I wouldn't be in this position if I was trying to prove myself because I thought I proved I could coach in the NBA two years ago."