A month into his third season as head coach, Paul Westphal was fired. That applies to what happened today, when the Sacramento Kings decided to make a change, but also Westphal's last job with the Seattle SuperSonics. For those of us who were around for Westphal's tenure in Seattle, the messy end to his time with the Kings comes as little surprise.
Certainly, the two situations were different in many ways. With the Sonics, Westphal was asked to keep an aging team competitive after the departure of George Karl, who had led the team to 50-plus wins six consecutive seasons before his contract was allowed to expire. Such stability hasn't been seen in California's capital since Rick Adelman left in 2006 under circumstances similar to Karl's. By the time Westphal arrived in 2009, Sacramento had already cycled through three head coaches in the midst of a lengthy rebuilding process.
Still, the similarities between how Westphal went out are hard to ignore. Each time, Westphal's original contract ran for three seasons (the Kings picked up his 2011-12 option at the end of his first year at the helm), making him a lame duck for the last campaign. Both times, things fell apart quickly in the locker room. Coming off a playoff berth, the Sonics opened the schedule with a disappointing loss in Vancouver. By the time the team was 1-3, Westphal had already offered to resign if his players wanted him to do so. Their leader, Gary Payton, declined in part because he did not want to be blamed for Westphal's dismissal.
The most obvious parallel is between Westphal's volatile relationship with Payton and now DeMarcus Cousins. After Payton screamed at him on the bench during a game in Dallas, Westphal suspended him for a game only to rescind the suspension after Payton apologized. He suspended Cousins after a discussion in his office after last week's loss to the New York Knicks, during which Westphal claimed Cousins asked to be traded. This time, the suspension stuck, though Cousins rejoined the team in a reserve role after one game.
The timing is obvious, but to say Westphal was fired because of Cousins (or because of Payton in Seattle) would be dramatically overstating the case. Both teams were underachieving badly on the floor, probably at least as much the cause of the tension as a product of it. The 2000-01 Sonics started 6-9 before a 24-point loss to (fittingly) Sacramento was too much for Westphal to overcome. After he was replaced by Nate McMillan on an interim basis, the Sonics went 38-29 the remainder of the season. These Kings surely don't have a run like that in them, but can be more competitive than they have so far. Three of Sacramento's five losses have come by 20-plus points, and the team's effort in last night's blowout at Denver was embarrassing for players and coaches alike.
It's easy to say that Westphal was dealt a difficult hand in both spots. The Sonics were due to decline no matter who replaced Karl because so many core players were in their late 30s. Because Karl favored veteran reserves, there was virtually no young talent on hand except the players Westphal developed. Payton, used to competing for titles, was inevitably going to deal poorly with the transition.
Kings president Geoff Petrie never gave Westphal a team capable of competing for a playoff spot, and saddled him with difficult personalities like Cousins and Tyreke Evans. This year's squad, while undeniably more talented than its predecessors, might also be the most dysfunctional because of its complete lack of playmakers and reliance on individual scorers. Sacramento has assisted on just 41.7 percent of its made field goals so far, which would be the lowest mark in the three-point era. Only one team since the ABA-NBA merger (the 1978-79 San Diego Clippers, at 41.4 percent) has handed out assists on less than 46 percent of its made field goals.
Still, it's much easier to demonstrate that Westphal isn't the only problem than it is to show he's made things better. In Seattle, Westphal quickly alienated his veteran team by favoring newcomer Billy Owens over holdovers Hersey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf. That might have worked had Owens been the better player, but he was a disaster on the court. The decision presaged two-plus years of unpredictable rotations and uneven defensive efforts. Westphal also struggled to reach the two stars he inherited, Payton and Vin Baker. Both responded better when McMillan replaced Westphal.
Oddly, the one thing Westphal did best with the Sonics has proven his biggest shortcoming with the Kings. Westphal left Seattle a better future than he inherited because of the development of young forwards Rashard Lewis and Ruben Patterson. Westphal's willingness to trust his young players was crucial in helping the Sonics move forward.
Westphal still used his budding talent in Sacramento, but it's less clear that any of the Kings' first-round picks developed under his watch. Tyreke Evans is no better, and possibly worse, than he was as Rookie of the Year in 2009-10. Omri Casspi was dealt to Cleveland and Donte Greene is out of the rotation. Jason Thompson has stagnated as a player. This failure to progress is the most obvious reason Westphal had to go.
Keith Smart will coach Sacramento on an interim basis. While his one-season stint in nearby Golden State was uninspiring, Smart should offer a stronger presence in the locker room than Westphal, who has generally worked best with veteran teams capable of policing themselves. Smart's success won't be measured by wins and losses, but it will depend on young players showing progress, particularly in terms of mastering fundamentals and playing cohesively. Giving the team a more cogent offensive philosophy would certainly help--Cousins' suspension overshadowed Evans complaining last week that "nobody really knows what to do" on offense.
For the Kings to move forward in their rebuilding process, the pieces will have to fit together. Most likely, that means a trade. As loaded with talent as the upcoming NBA Draft is, it's sorely lacking in playmaking talent. Sacramento should look to move either Evans or Marcus Thornton for a true point guard of similar talent. If the Kings don't find answers soon, the pressure will understandably shift upstairs to Petrie. Sacramento has tried new coaches repeatedly and shuffled the roster without turning things around. The next change might need to be the man in charge.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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