On the treadmill, on the sideline, in the locker room, Keith Smart sweats profusely. He sweats the small stuff and the big stuff. He sweats about his young center's destructive behavior, the Kings' erratic performances and a collective body language that suggests his 12 players work for 12 different corporations.
The one thing he doesn't sweat is his ability to do the job.
"I know I can do this," Smart said, "and my nature is that I never get discouraged. If we lose a game, I walk in the next day, and it's like a graveyard around here. I'll ask the guys, 'Did you read the obituaries? Did you see your name in there?' If you're here, you always have the opportunity to change."
Given the chance to stick around and the Maloofs have given every indication they plan to keep Smart for the duration of a contract that runs through 2013-14 the Kings' second-year coach will stick to his program while continuing to advocate for significant personnel changes. He notes the chronic need for an elite facilitator, for a locker room craving a dynamic, established star, along with the fact that his assembled cast which is not devoid of individual talent consists of too many small guards and not enough frontcourt length.
Nonetheless, given the Kings' poor record (9-18) and an ill-defined style of play, questions about Smart's own stewardship have increased. Is he a capable head coach? Can he establish a team identity? And does he have the forcefulness and internal clout to discipline and nurture Cousins, the gifted center who has been suspended three times this season, most recently for cursing out his coach during halftime of Friday's game against the Clippers at Staples Center?
We don't know yet. The 2012-13 season will be successful only if the Kings can divorce themselves from their one-on-one obsession and overachieve as a group, and thus far, that hasn't been the reality.
By all accounts including assessments offered by several NBA coaches and executives this is an unbalanced roster and a tough bunch to coach, in essence one large dysfunctional family.
Cousins' behavior not only has been disruptive, he often appears distracted, even depressed, and he has performed far below last season's level. His reinstatement Monday after a mere one-game suspension also is more than a bit curious.
Rookie Thomas Robinson, the No. 5 overall draft pick, routinely misses layups and dunks. Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette are small guards and natural scorers, and with the possible exception of Fredette, not intuitive passers or playmakers; the Kings still desperately need a floor leader. Additionally, injuries have factored into John Salmons' uneven start and more recently halted Tyreke Evans' development as a seemingly comfortable fit at shooting guard.
But Smart has done some strange things, too. Some of his combinations have been frightful too many non-scorers on the floor at the same time, for example. He also calls a surprising number of isolation plays for someone intent on implementing a pesky defensive scheme designed to induce turnovers and generate transition opportunities. Additionally, he is more consumed with matching up against opponents than imposing his team's own style.
Increasingly, frustrated Kings fans are demanding more. More victories. More entertainment. More fast breaks. Before this latest outburst by Cousins, much of the angst was directed at the head coach.
"Fans have every right to be upset when we don't play well," Smart acknowledged, "and they have seen us play well. But I know my team, what they can do. We have to eliminate the 'me' syndrome.' I call it the 'drum major instinct.' I don't think they're selfish, but they all want to be out front. These are one-on-one players. You can't just say, 'Be a passer.' Timing, setting a guy up, the triangle. I tried that. But who's my best read (defenses) guy? Who sees the floor? Chuck (Hayes). I want to get into a motion offense just so they will move the ball."
That's his script, Smart says, and it's reinforced daily by the stats and assorted data he diligently evaluates.
His work ethic is exhaustive, truly unlike anything witnessed on the Kings' premises. His postgame routine alone consists of watching entire replays and detailing every possession, a process that takes an estimated two hours. After five hours of sleep, he wakes up and prepares for practices that are brisk, specific and often lengthy. When the schedule permits, he drives to the Bay Area to spend time with his wife and two teenage sons.
But while he sweats, his dress shirts soaked after games, Smart never hangs his head. With a few shrewd moves, he still thinks he can fix this. Can turn Cousins' head back around. Can solve the mystery of Evans and his ailing knee. Can coax ball movement and cohesiveness out of his individualists. Can convince Robinson and Jason Thompson to become more consistent rebounders. Can entice fans back into the arena with a more entertaining product.
"I knew what this job was going to be," Smart said, with a slight smile, "but this is a process. Our strength is still the pick and roll, and I have to get us on the move again, and away from post-ups. I have to make this an exciting game, pick up the pace, while we work toward the next phase."
Suspensions. Injuries. Surprising victories. Discouraging defeats. The intriguing Thomas-Fredette backcourt. And let's not forget about all that arena uncertainty. At the least, the Kings keep it interesting.