The Sacramento Kings' flapdoodle surrounding DeMarcus Cousins over the weekend brings to the surface that age-old question: what should a basketball coach be? Paul Westphal has never really had a strong, widely-known identity as a coach; there's nothing like a worldview someone who watches him coach 82 games can draw out. This is, interestingly enough, different than his playing days, when he was known as one of the more aesthetically pleasing white players on the court, a scorer who relied as much on panache as fundamental skill, which isn't to say he wasn't skilled in the fundamentals, but that he pulled it all off with style.
As a coach, he remains a mystery, all of these years later. After stints with the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics, he was hired to groom a collection of young prospects for success in Sacramento, arriving on a team that had one solid pro in Kevin Martin, two decent big man prospects in Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson, and the opportunity to pick up Tyreke Evans in the draft. The cupboards were otherwise bare; the team had won just 17 wins the season before Westphal arrived. It's understandable that a coach would hesitate to imbue such a raw, unmolded team with an identity, a quality that shines through, win or loss.
When Tom Thibodeau took over the Chicago Bulls, he had a roster that could compete, so turning the team into a defense-first unit made perfect sense. Rick Adelman took over a Minnesota Timberwolves club with the ingredients for a high-octane offense; R.A. immediately embraced the recipe he's used in Portland, Sacramento and Houston to make -- what else? -- a high-octane offense.
Westphal didn't have the luxury of knowing what he had in 2009. Evans entered as a combo guard with a giant question mark hanging over his court vision. Hawes and Thompson were still undeveloped, or at least underdeveloped. Donte Greene had come off of a head-scratching rookie season in which his one bankable college talent (scoring) didn't translate; Omri Casspi entered the league known much more by his nationality than his skills. How could Westphal determine an identity for the team at that point?
The problem is that it's two seasons later and the Kings still don't have an identity.
That's really what we look to NBA head coaches for: to be the maestro, in some fashion. To set a tone, to create priorities, to project to the players, the fans and opponents what this team is all about. Phil Jackson, who always had the luxury of coaching the league's most talented rosters, also projected a sense of superiority, of calm execution. He gave his teams offensive identities and held stars responsible on defense. When you played a Phil Jackson team, you knew what you were facing. The same can be said for Larry Brown, who fared well with less talented rosters and suffered from, perhaps, a bigger ego in the later years of his career.
With Stan Van Gundy, you know you're getting 48 minutes of screaming complaints, because execution is what matters to him. With Jeff Van Gundy, Hubie Brown or Mike Fratello, you know that every possession will be valued and that defense will always come first. With Mike D'Antoni, you know that the light is nearly always green and that making crisp, well-timed passes is a priority. With Rick Carlisle, your team is going to press every potential advantage, try to exploit every mismatch and refuse to conform to the opponent's modus operandi.
With Westphal, there still is no identity, nothing his teams stand for. He's not alone by any stretch of the imagination: Vinny Del Negro, into his fourth year as an NBA head coach, remains rudderless. Scott Brooks, bless him, appears lost at sea a few times a game, and the Thunder's identity relies on the on-court identities of the team's stars. Flip Saunders has lost his system in the mire of a rebuilding Wizards club. Even the great S.V.G. began to dissolve under the pressure of trading for Gilbert Arenas last season.
The tone that has been set in Sacramento since Westphal's 2009 arrival is that winning is all that matters, no matter how it gets done. For a young team without the experience or talent to win most nights, that doesn't get it done. Tyreke Evans has played for Westphal for two full seasons; as of Saturday night, he claimed to have no clue what the team is supposed to do in Westphal's offense. Westphal installed new offensive features in the short training camp and preseason, seeking to move away from isolation hero ball that doomed Evans and the Kings during much of the past two seasons. That move away from the formula served to screw everyone up. The team has shot better than 42.2 percent in exactly one of six games, and things aren't gradually getting better: against Memphis on Tuesday, the team looked as discombobulated as they did during a preseason in which three starters were missing.
A coach can get by without an identity, a tangible basketball philosophy that is transferred to his team if he develops player. Evans was inarguably better as a rookie than a sophomore, and he was at his best early in that rookie season, not late. Hawes left Sacramento no better than he'd been under Reggie Theus; Thompson is basically the exact same player he was in the 2008-09 season. Cousins is another issue completely, a clear-cut personality conflict with Westphal that won't be resolved until one of them is gone. It could very well be the case that Cousins would have a personality conflict with any NBA coach; he's not your average disgruntled player. He's a fiery, passionate player who hates one thing more than he hates losing, and that's personal injustice, and he feels that Westphal has unjustly singled him out for teamwide issues, which certainly looks to be accurate from these cheap sheats.
Having an issue with Cousins would be one thing ... if Westphal seemed to bring anything else to the table. NBA teams have had an abnormally strong year of hiring, with Dwane Casey in Toronto, Lawrence Frank in Detroit, Mike Brown in L.A., Adelman in Minnesota and even Kevin McHale in Houston. Monty Williams in New Orleans, Larry Drew in Atlanta and Doug Collins in Philadelphia look to be strong fits. All of these coaches stand for something, offer their teams an identity and are more than a guy blowing a whistle at practice and divvying up blame after losses. This isn't to imply that coaches like Westphal don't work hard -- he does work very hard. But unless you impart something tangible on your players, what are you doing? What's your impact? Are you no better than a 12th-man sitting at the end of the bench, offering empty verse that careens through the field of play, touching no one?
If you aren't making an impact on the team, what's the point?
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