When Michael Malone was hired as the Kings’ coach, he said his first season wouldn’t just be about wins and losses.
He was a first-time head coach, with a first-time general manager and a first-time principal owner, inheriting a team that had been dreadful. And the players’ morale had been sapped over the years by reports of relocation and frugal owners who made deals to save money rather than to improve the team.
In his first season, the Kings were 28-54, the same as the previous season, but Malone said he is encouraged by the team’s direction as he prepares for the NBA draft June 26 and the rest of the offseason, including the summer league in July.
With the NBA draft lottery just two days away, we pressed Malone for some answers.
Question: With some time away from the season, what do you see as the successes and things you need to work on going into Year Two?
Answer: I’ve been pounding the same drum all year, but I definitely saw an improvement in our defense as I look back at our stats, our month-by-month numbers and stuff like that. Obviously, we went from 30th in points allowed to 24th; that’s an improvement. We went from 28th in field-goal percentage defense to 20th. From around Jan. 1, look at where we ranked in terms of our field-goal percentage defense; we were 12th in the NBA, holding teams to right around 45 percent from the field.
When I look back at all the changes we had, all the players we had coming and going and not having training camp, we continued to improve and get better and really buckled down on the defensive end. That was a huge positive for me because one of my things coming in was to change the culture and get this team to buy in to the defensive end of the floor. And the fact that we were able to defend at a fairly competitive level after Jan. 1 ... gives us hope for next season.
What’s concerning with the defense? Our three-point defense was very poor; our transition defense was very poor. They go hand in hand a little bit, but we cannot be a team that gives up as many open threes as we did this year. That means we have to contain the basketball. We have to have a lot more discipline and focus on the defensive end. And a lot of that comes off of our turnovers, poor shot selection and poor execution that lead to transition opportunities, and we have to do a much better job of getting back. When we did get back and get set, I thought our defense by the end of the year was pretty good.
Q: The players seemed to understand where their defensive breakdowns were happening more as the season progressed. What has to happen to limit the mental breakdowns and lapses in focus?
A: One thing I talked about – and I used the word a lot – was consistency. We were not a very consistent team. We would show flashes throughout a 48-minute game. We would show flashes over a three- or four-game period, but we weren’t able to sustain it as often as we needed.
When you think about it, we have guys like Isaiah (Thomas), Jason (Thompson) and DeMarcus (Cousins), who have been here (their entire ✔careers), but this team has never been known for its defense. They were one of the worst defensive teams in the league; we’ve improved on that, but we still have a ways to go. Guys like Ben (McLemore) and Ray (McCallum) have never played in the NBA and are still learning the rules, what my philosophies are, the team rules. Ben had to guard some of the best two guards in the NBA and he struggled at times. This was kind of new for everybody in terms of defense every day, that this is what we’re doing. I’m going to continue to pound that ... until we get it.
(We need to be) a lot more disciplined and focused and not have the costly breakdowns, allowing guys like Klay✔ Thompson to keep beating us from the three-point line or allowing guys to have a great night from the three against us. We have to do a much better job of recognizing the flow of the game – who’s hot –and how to take those guys away and make them do something different. We didn’t do that often enough.
But I am excited with the defense we finished up with. We still have a lot of room for improvement, but we’re headed in the right direction.
Q: On offense, the shooting percentages and the lack of assists really stand out. It’s hard to get assists when you can’t make shots.
A: That’s a valid point. We finished 30th✔ in assists per game and, yes, we have to move the ball more and, yes, we have to demand the ball move from side- to -side, with less dribbling, and make a play for your teammate. But if you are 27th✔ in three-point field-goal percentage, that is going to make it hard for you to get more assists.
The fact is, no excuses, we are not a catch-and-shoot team. We are not a team that runs guys off screens to get shots, and that’s how you get a lot of assists. We were a heavy post-up team with DeMarcus (Cousins). The ball would go in to him, he’d go to work and he’d get fouled or he’d score, so you weren’t getting assists out of his post-ups, even though that was probably our best offense, posting him up on that left block.
But getting back to your point, we need shooting. If we have more shooters, and we don’t finish 27th in three-point shooting, and we can move up to the middle;, that’s going to be probably three or four more assists per game. Now instead of averaging about 19 assists, you’re up to 23, 24, and you’re very respectable in assists per game. But on the flip side, I look at it ... (as) what can we do better next year offensively? Demand more ball movement, less dribbling, and stop trying to make plays for yourself., Mmake a play for your teammate.
Q: When it comes to the offense, is it a matter of implementing a system that moves the ball more or do the players have to really buy in and commit to playing that style?
A: If you go back to early in the year, our assists were really pretty good in November and December. We had a great assist-to-turnover ratio and then the personnel changed and you saw those numbers take a dip. We went into the season stressing (passing) because that was one of the things I harped on. (The previous✔ season), we were a selfish team., Wwe were 25th ✔in assists per game, and we regressed in that area.
But I knew going into the year we were not a bad team in terms of assists per game,. Wwe were middle of the pack roughly, maybe in the high teens, and our assist-to-turnover ration was great. Once we moved into January, you started to see a difference,. Wwe went from the middle of the pack to the end of the pack. The reason I bring that up is that it’s not necessarily the system, because early in the (season) the ball moved, and guys were making plays for each other. Maybe we had a few more facilitators, and as the roster changed, we had more turnovers,. Tthen we had three✔ 20-point ✔scorers, more one-on-one players. Then it was DeMarcus go to work,; Rudy (Gay) get your isolation, your post-up;, Isaiah come down and make a play. And there was less ball movement and fewer plays for your teammates – and passing up good shots to get great shots.
We’ll do a better job of that next season. When I met with our players for our exit interviews, that came across very strong and prevalent among all the players. We can no longer be a selfish team, a team that does not look to take care of each other and cover for each other and make plays for each other on the offensive end. Obviously, the roster who we have now and who we have in training camp will change. We need guys at every position who are willing playmakers and can make plays for teammates, and that will definitely help.
But that doesn’t let me off the hook. I have to do a better job making sure we don’t become so stagnant and we get guys in who are willing to make plays and move the ball – putting in different offenses, putting guys in different areas of the floor, utilizing DeMarcus as a passer on the elbows in the high post. It’s really tough on Ben McLemore or Jason Thompson when you have 20-point scorers at small forward, 20 points at center and 20 points at point guard; that doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities for your shooting guard and your power forward. We have great scoring at the one, the three and the five, but I have to make sure I keep Ben engaged, Jason Thompson engaged, whoever is playing those positions,. Llet them get a feel, let them be involved, so when we need to make a play, they can step up and be in rhythm and do so.
Q: You mentioned that later in the season there was such an emphasis on defense that you might not have put enough time into the offense. Have you figured what the balance needs to be?
A: I’m a defensive guy first and foremost. For me, the reason it was like that was if you looked at our team before I got here, offensively they were pretty good. They were 13th in offensive efficiency;, they were 10th ✔in points per game. They shot the ball well,; they were 12th✔ in three-point percentage, they were fourth in fast-break points per game. The offense wasn’t a problem; the last couple of years, they’ve always been able to score, put the ball in the hole. The one glaring weakness was defense. My whole thing going in was the only way we’re going to turn this around is defense, defense, defense. For us to get them to buy in, you just can’t talk about defending, how important it is, and not work on it.
Now, with a year under my belt, the players know me and (that we’re) trying to create a culture and identity. We need more work on the offense, working on our plays and our execution – ball movement, our screening, our spacing – all the the things that prevented us from being an effective offensive team at times. We were able to put the ball in the hole., Wwe shot a decent percentage from the field, but we did not shoot the ball well from the three-point line. We did a great job on offensive rebounding and scoring off the glass – we were a top-10 team in scoring in the paint – (but we were) middle of the pack in fast-break points per game.
We lost a lot of close games because late in games our ability to execute under pressure and execute with discipline was not there often enough. That’s one area we have to do a better job of because we’re going to be in a lot of close games next year and we’ve got to find a way to close those games out. And that means discipline on both ends of the floor – getting big stops and not having any breakdowns, executing, valuing the ball and getting the best shot we can.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a coach?
A: I’ll start my answer like this. I knew when Vivek (Ranadive) hired me, this was going to be one heck of a challenge, taking over a team that’s been in the lottery for (now eight straight) years and one of the worst defensive teams in the league. This was going to be a very tough job that required patience and hard work, but I’m ready for that. Knowing that going in and then experiencing it every day ... is two totally different things. There were some good days and some bad days. I just try to constantly remind myself that I knew what I was getting into, believe in what I believe in, find a way to stay positive.
One of the great things was I learned a lot about myself – not just as a coach but as a person and as a man. As a first-year head coach, how do you handle the losing streaks? How do you handle the negativity that may be around our team? How do I come in every day and stay positive? And one thing I feel good about is not once did I ever waver. ... I never was distressed and said, “Let’s try that or let’s try this.” I know what I believe in, I’ve been around the league 13 years, and I know it works. There were times where it worked this year and we beat some very good teams. But the biggest thing is I coach these guys, I’m hard on them, I’m honest, I’m direct with them, but they also know that I care about them. That’s why everyone continued to buy in and work hard. Isaiah Thomas came to me late in the year and said, “Coach, it’s amazing that we’re working so hard and we’re still competitive. Last year we got blown out all the time.”
I don’t look at the record. Are we close? Are we getting better? Are we headed in the right direction? I think that we are. I have to come back as a better coach. ... Every game you coach is a challenge, and I had 82 challenges and opportunities to grow as a coach, and I did, and I’ll continue to do so. The most important thing I learned as a coach is about me, who I am and how much I can handle. Looking back on the year, going through the changes and everything, I think it was a positive year and a great year to build off of.
Q: Losing your father, Brendan, as the lead assistant coach was tough right before the season. Have you thought about adding another veteran coach to the staff after not filling his spot?
A: That was an unexpected loss right before the regular season began. In my father, I had a veteran NBA coach, assistant coach and head coach who was a part of world championship teams when he was in Detroit ... head coach of Toronto, an expansion team. ... He would have been my veteran ace in the hole, a sounding board. Dad had been around and seen every scenario, and I could take from all his experiences. When he left, I toyed with the idea of bringing someone in right away, but it was so last minute I didn’t want to upset the chemistry we had as a team and as a coaching staff.
But I’m going to bring somebody in and fill that void my father created. That is not a slight or any disrespect to my coaching staff; they all did a tremendous job this year. But the reality is Chris Jent, Corliss Williamson, Micah Nori, Dee Brown and Ryan Bowen, none of those guys had the experience my father had. ... I’m not looking to hire a guy who is going to say yes to everything I say. I want a guy who is going to argue with me, challenge me, and make me the best coach Michael Malone can be, and that’s what I’m looking to do. I have not brought anybody in and started any interviews, but I have some guys in mind and we’ll start doing that probably in the next couple of weeks.
Q: After last season, what kind of advantage do you have going into the draft and free agency?
A: Last year, the biggest thing was (that) I get the job and I was the coach/interim GM until Pete (D’Alessandro) got the job two weeks before the draft, and we were scrambling through that. Then we were into free agency and you felt so rushed. You felt like everything was just nonstop. The good thing about this offseason is we’ve had a year together – and that’s me, that’s Pete, that’s Vivek – so now we’ve had a year together and there’s not that rushed feeling.
We’re calm, cool, collected, organized. We communicate. We’ll attack the draft and try to get the best player we can get and we’ll go into free agency and try to do the same thing. How can we be a better team? How can we be a team that’s a lot more competitive in a difficult Western Conference?
And the other avenue you have to get better is trades. I think we’ll be better off because we’ve known each other and worked with each other for a year, and we’ve talked about what we think our needs are, the type of players we think would be helpful.
Q: What’s your impression of Cousins and his improvement as a player and teammate?
A: He is a better player than I ever envisioned. ... Look at the numbers – 23 points, close to 12 rebounds, three assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 steals – I think he’s the most talented big man in the NBA. There were games this year where he’d make a move or do something and I’d say to myself, “Holy moly, thank goodness he’s on our team.” He’s only going to get better. We addressed after the season certain things he needs to work on to come back as a better player. That was my challenge to every player, come back a better player and here are three or four things you need to work on, and I know he’ll do that.
We’ve talked about DeMarcus Cousins the player, but let’s talk about DeMarcus Cousins the person, the leader on and off the court. People have to remember he’s still a young kid. He’s 23 years old. He’s growing into his leadership role. It’s not something where he’s “Boom, I’ve arrived, I’m your leader” and know he’ll be able to excel in that role right away. What I saw was a young man making a very concerted effort to become a better leader, a better teammate, bring positive energy. After he got thrown out of the Houston game (in February) and served that one-game suspension, that’s when I really noticed it – leaving the referees alone, being supportive and patting his teammates on the backside, leading this team to wins.
Is he a finished product? By no means. Is he headed in the right direction? Without a doubt. And I’m just trying to do my job to help him get to that level. We’ve created a very special bond and I appreciate what he’s done for me, this staff and the organization. I look forward to him getting the respect and the recognition that he deserves. And the only way he’s going to get what he wants is for this team to win and to win consistently. When we can become a team that can win and be a playoff contender, then he’ll be an All-Star, because he has that type of talent. But he has to show people that he’s maturing, he’s improving, he’s getting better and he’s evolving into the role of a team leader.
Q: Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas have different styles. Rudy was reserved early and picked his spots to speak up. Isaiah is a guy who’s always been a vocal leader. What did that mean to you?
A: Isaiah has a tremendous passion for the game. He loves the game; he hates to lose. ... He’s got a great belief in himself, and he’s got that chip on his shoulder that he’s going to prove anybody wrong who says he can’t do something, and I believe in him. ... He’s very comfortable in a leadership position and not a lot of guys feel comfortable in that role. ... I learned a long time ago to be a leader you have to be willing to do the right thing every day. Isaiah is about doing the right thing every day. He’s one of the first guys on the court and one of the last ones to leave. What I admire about Isaiah is when he was out those 10 games with the (quadriceps) injury, it was killing him not to play. I’d get questions from the media about why don’t you just shut him down, but shutting him down would have been doing him an injustice. He was working so hard to get back. How many guys on a 28-win team are dying to get back and play?
Rudy came in here feeling pretty good about what he’d heard about me. We established a pretty quick, close relationship. ... Rudy was a little hesitant at first to be vocal and it takes time for a guy to get comfortable; he didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. But as the season went on ... he would take guys like Ben or Ray, pull them to the side and give them an encouraging word, a tip or teach them a certain situation. My challenge to Rudy: “Don’t be hesitant to offer something if it can help us; I need you; you have the players’ respect on the team. Next year, you should feel comfortable being a leader, being vocal, and demanding guys work hard and to work the right way.” Hopefully we’ll be able to see that.
Q: You took the losses hard. What will success be in Year Two?
A: You’re not going to hear me say it’s not about wins and losses. We have to show improvement. We have to get better. We have to start taking steps in the right direction; 28 wins, that’s our baseline. We have to improve. What is that number? I think I’ll be able to answer that when we’re in training camp and I know what our roster is.