Sunday Musings: Keith Smart chose this path

Keith Smart disputes a call with official Leon Wood.  (Photo: Steven Chea)

Covering the Sacramento Kings has been a major challenge for the last three seasons.  We have said it countless times, but they have been the most interesting bad team in the league.  We have seen relocation attempts, player suspensions and finally an epic battle that saved the team and found it new ownership.  The actual basketball on the court has been both abysmal and secondary.

On Thursday evening, at the exact moment my 10-year-old was stepping up to the microphone to say his lines in his fourth grade play, Yahoo! Sports Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that Mike Malone would be the next head coach of the franchise.  A fire storm was lit.  Little by little, the story was confirmed and terms of the deal were put out into the open.

Of course, there was and still has been no official announcement from the organization.  Vivek Ranadivé and his conglomerate of owners still have a bit of housekeeping to do before rolling out Malone.

That included breaking the bad news to former head coach Keith Smart.  That after a year-and-a-half on the job, he would be receiving a paycheck for his services next season without having to show up for work.

It’s the harsh reality of coaching in the NBA and Smart knows this story all too well.  This is the second time he has unceremoniously been let go by a new ownership group, the first being in Golden State following the 2010-11 season and most recently on Friday evening.

I feel for Smart.  Time and time again, we have explained that he is a very good man.  He’s a family man, who talks about his wife and children often.  He likes to talk basketball long after the recorder is shut off.  He tried his best to make a family out of a ragtag group mismatched pieces.  And in the end, his attempt to galvanize the Kings’ young roster fell on deaf ears.

I’m not sure that his message was completely ignored, although I could be wrong.  But Smart made the 2012-13 season about basketball.  He put a smile on his face, shoveled a never-ending line of positive affirmation and ignored the 1000 lbs. gorilla in the room.

So in the end, 28 wins weren’t enough to keep his job, especially when the expectations before the season were in the 30s.  If this is only about the product on the floor, then Smart deserves this final outcome.  It is exactly what he asked for.

Smart had a decision to make.  It was the same decision that Paul Westphal had two seasons before him.  With the former owners doing a hatchet job on the city of Sacramento, Westphal spoke eloquently each and every time a camera or microphone was placed in front of his face.  Westphal became part coach, part PR man and part teacher herding a group of children into a bomb shelter.

“We felt the whole area,” Westphal said of the fans following what was thought to be the last Kings’ game in Sacramento in 2011.  “It was an incredible thing to be a part of.  The only regret we have at all is that we didn’t find some way to pull it out.”

Westphal had spent months fielding questions and even giving his vote of support to the fans of Sacramento.  His reward was a 24-win season and a seven-game trial in year No. 3.  But someone had to stand there and take questions and answer them the best way possible.  Someone had to speak for the Maloofs, who at that point disappeared from the public eye.

That is not how Smart ran the show in 2013.  In fact, Smart was oblivious to what the team and fans had gone through in 2011.  He believed it was a completely different situation that happened after the season.  At least, that is what he argued to me before one of the final games this year.

In some respects, that is a good thing.  Smart was the coach of the Warriors at that time and although Sacramento and Oakland are only a car ride away, the markets are completely separate.  Maybe he was too focused on the job at hand to pick up a newspaper or surf the internet for information on a team not his own.

When Smart was let go by the Warriors following the 2011 season, he probably should have done his homework before accepting the lead assistant position in Sacramento.  But Westphal was on a short leash and Smart was probably even promised the job if the Kings didn’t get off to a fast start.  So he jumped at the chance to become an NBA head coach sooner rather than later despite the decision proving costly in the end.

Every offseason there is a hot commodity assistant, like Mike Malone who is expected to be named the new coach of the Kings.  Smart was that guy when he took a job in Sacramento.  Coming off a season where he showed a 10-game improvement with the Warriors, Smart appeared to be nothing more than a casualty of an ownership change in Golden State.  He was a commodity in the highest order and he chose to stay close to his family, who have established roots in the bay area.

But it is different this time around.  By not accepting his role in Sacramento as captain of the Titanic, he made it all about basketball.

While his players suffered through questions about relocation in the locker room and out in public, Smart put on his positive attitude and charming smile and sidestepped the issue.

While his starting point guard was faced with the harsh reality of playing for a city that embraced him as a fan favorite versus another he calls home, Smart dodged the question.

When his prized center, who craves stability in this world, was coming unglued, Smart chose to talk about how the team was leading the league in scoring after the All-Star Break.

So there is no sympathy for the former coach of the Kings.  You are what you are coach Smart.  You are the guy who couldn’t control DeMarcus Cousins, who missed more games for disciplinary reasons this year than his previous two seasons combined.  You are the guy that didn’t have a set rotation.  And you are the guy that led the Kings to a 28-win season, a four game-improvement over a talent-deprived 2010-11 roster.

Westphal used to say “there are excuses and there are reasons”.  Smart had an excuse for why he couldn’t get Kings over the hump, but he can’t go back and change history now.  If it wasn’t your job to answer the tough questions about the uncertainty surrounding the Kings, then it can’t be the reason you didn’t succeed.

Smart will land on his feet.  He will land an assistant job somewhere in the NBA and he will do a great job.  He is a tireless worker and has a positive spirit.   But he also now owns a 93-170 record as a head coach.  It’s going to be a tough sell to get another chance to run a club.

“The Kings would like to thank Keith for his hard work and dedication to the organization,” Ranadivé said in the official press release marking Smart’s termination.  “We wish him and his family nothing but the best in future endeavors.”

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment.  We wish him the best, but we also hoped for more.

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