On Thursday, the Sacramento Kings fired Paul Westphal. While it was a necessary move, the canning shouldn't distract from the fact that the team's failings go much, much deeper than the coach.
On Sunday, Paul Westphal told the world that DeMarcus Cousins was the problem with the Sacramento Kings. The coach's official reason for sending Cousins home before the Kings' game against the New Orleans Hornets was that the second-year center had demanded a trade, a claim the player and his agent immediately denied and one that all teammates quoted on the record were stunned by. Perhaps feeling some heat from a stunned press corps, Westphal bolstered his position by claiming that the alleged trade demand was, for Cousins' immaturity, the "tip of the iceberg."
Four days later, the Kings fired Westphal. There were plenty of basketball reasons to drop the ax. The Kings, who are the league's youngest club by roster age, looked like a bridge club in back-to-back blowout losses on the road, and Westphal's point guard Tyreke Evans openly stated that the team had no clue what it was supposed to be doing in its new offense on Saturday. Westphal was adding nothing to the table. That he openly feuded with one of the team's top two assets was just the sugary bait the ant trap needed. Joe Maloof, the brother who isn't hamming it up for the cameras to make it appear he cares about Sacramento -- that'd be Gavin -- told SI.com's Sam Amick that the Cousins spat did play a role in Westphal's demise.
But something just doesn't add up.
Hours after the guillotine fell on Westphal, word spread that his replacement Keith Smart had been given a two-year contract. The Kings hired Smart before the lockout ended, with team president Geoff Petrie's No. 2 man Wayne Cooper convincing the former Golden State Warriors head coach to take the Sacramento job instead of waiting for the stoppage to end, when the Dallas Mavericks would bring him in to serve on Rick Carlisle's bench. We'll never know what was promised Smart other than a job no matter whether games were played in 2011-12; maybe that was enough. But to see Smart ascend and get a contract for the 2012-13 season just 10 days into this season? That's some heavy smoke.
If Petrie planned to replace Westphal all along, why not do it in April, May or June? If the plan all along was to hire the promising Smart, why not make the switch out in the open with training camp, the shortened preseason and the start of the season still on the calendar? Westphal wasted weeks trying to teach the Kings' young core a new offense that never looked anything but mutilated on the court. Now Smart's in the position of imparting his playbook in the middle of a season with few off-days, fewer practices and too much travel. Smart or any new coach would have had a tough task this season. The Kings added a few more traps for good measure.
Now consider Westphal's blistering statement on Cousins. By that point, Westphal was already a dead man walking; getting embarrassed at home by the short-handed New York Knicks on Saturday, combined with Evans' comments and the funerary tone in the locker room, very well could have done the coach in. Why on Earth would Petrie allow Westphal to release a written statement dumping sewage on Cousins' already smelly reputation at that point? What's the gain? You allow a bad coach to distract everyone from the fact he's flailing? The most sympathetic view is that Petrie was unwilling to can Westphal on Sunday, just four games in, but didn't have the spine to tell the coach he couldn't light a second-year player on fire with a public statement. He refused to stand up for the player he drafted just 18 months ago knowing full-well the baggage he carried.
And they call Cousins unprofessional.
A consistent criticism of Petrie in recent years has been that he's asleep at the wheel, unwilling to advance the franchise into the new data-driven era, too proud to allow other voices that don't mimic his own and completely clueless at to what ails his club. It's hard to deny any of those points right now. Petrie has now hired three coaches since Rick Adelman left in 2006. The knock on Adelman was that he couldn't coach defense, so the Kings hired Eric Musselman. That didn't work out. The Maloofs took the reins next time and looked for someone who could connect with players and the community. They picked Reggie Theus, whose greatest accomplishment was managing to piss off all corners. Finally, Petrie wrested control back by hiring Paul Westphal, choosing him over Brian Shaw and Tom Thibodeau because he had head coaching experience. Whoops.
Petrie allowed Westphal to alienate and shove out Kevin Martin. Petrie allowed Westphal to quarrel with Spencer Hawes; eventually, Petrie traded Hawes to the Philadelphia 76ers with Andres Nocioni for Samuel Dalembert. Just after that trade, I asked Petrie if he was disappointed that the No. 10 pick in the 2007 draft didn't work out. He was affronted anyone would question his prowess. Moments later, a reporter brought up a timely John Hollinger critique that Petrie and the Kings front office were snoozing on the job. Petrie's response: "Consider the source."
He's right. We need to consider the source. As the Kings franchise continues to burn, reaching the depths this city knew before Petrie arrived in 1994. Three bad coach hires, a run of mostly unimpressive trades, mixed results in the draft, a front office stuck in the quantitative stone age, no impact free agents (even as the Maloofs have opened the checkbook this year). Consider the source of all of this. Westphal couldn't pin his failures on Cousins, and Petrie shouldn't be allowed to pin his failures on Westphal.
The Kings need accountability more than ever. That applies to Cousins and Evans. That applies to the coaching staff. And that should damn well apply to Petrie.
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