Posted Nov 22 2009 1:49PM
Told the Kings were the only team not getting killed for passing on Brandon Jennings, Paul Westphal just laughed. Life isn't necessarily easy for Westphal in Sacramento right now.
But it's good.
Westphal, 58, never looks frazzled. That California cool and windswept veneer is more retired surfer than NBA lifer. Forget the board, he's manning NBA sidelines again for the first time since 2000, taking the Kings gig after dropping out of the spotlight for most of this decade. For someone who's won more than 60 percent of his games all-time, the break was somewhat baffling.
"I always thought I would coach again," he said while lounging courtside after a recent shootaround. "The longer it goes, the more you have to say, 'What's happening here?' But it didn't surprise me at all, to tell you the truth."
It surprised some. Former Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis was the leading candidate to take the Sacramento job, but the playoffs and money got in the way. Westphal, though, was more than just the runner-up. He was on the Maloof's short list with Rambis and Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, and certainly has the credentials, even if they were a little dusty.
Westphal spent last year as a California-based consultant for the Mavericks, following the 2007-08 season on Dallas' bench as Avery Johnson's top assistant. Before that, Westphal did some TV analyst work in Los Angeles after his five years as Pepperdine's coach ended in 2006.
Not exactly the ideal recipe to slide back into the lead chair, but he never strayed from basketball. Westphal also never posted a losing record in his five previous full seasons as an NBA coach in Phoenix and Seattle. (In both cases, he was fired during the season after sub-.500 starts.) But this league gives second and third and fourth chances, and Westphal figured another was coming.
"I love it," he said. "It's really what I love to do, and particularly with a group of players that are so receptive and have as much potential as this group."
The Kings are 5-7, which hardly qualifies as a Cinderella story. But they've more than held their own, racking up impressive victories over the Jazz, Rockets and upstart Thunder. Sacramento just completed a brutal back-to-back at Dallas and Houston with a pair of hard-fought losses.
"This team needs to learn the will on how to win close games," second-year forward Jason Thompson said after falling Saturday at Houston. "We started to learn this at home and now we need to learn how to win close games on the road. Our guys are playing confident and they are always working hard."
Westphal concurred on several counts that night.
"I like the spirit and the effort on this team," he said. "Everyone should be pleased with the way we're playing. I like the way we compete every night. I'm sorry we couldn't cash in on the effort. This team has heart, but we haven't learned how to win."
If anything, the Kings are an impressionable bunch. Thompson is one of the nine on the roster 25 or younger, giving Sacramento the third-youngest squad in the league. The promising three-man rookie class features a future star (Tyreke Evans) and a trailblazer (Israeli-born Omri Casspi) who's coming off a career-high 17-point night.
Westphal made sure to start training camp with a clean slate, moving past the three lottery years that culminated with the franchise's worst record since moving to California's capital in 1985.
"When a team wins 17 games, the new staff has their attention," Westphal said. "There are a lot of players that are still here that don't want to be identified with doing that again and the new players are ready to buy into whatever. It's a great situation to step into as a coach, as long as the ownership understands what's ahead and they do."
The Maloof family, headed by Joe and Gavin, and team president Geoff Petrie know what it's like to build and nurture a winner. But they also hit a serious dry patch after the Kings' teams of Webber, Stojakovic, Bibby and Divac ran their course. Westphal is the franchise's fourth coach in a little more than three years.
Last season, which included the firing of Reggie Theus, was almost unbearable.
"We were probably the worst team in the NBA last year," said Andres Nocioni, who came over in a midseason trade with Chicago. "Everything is different now. We started over again. Right now we have more confidence, we play together more and the new coaches have brought everything new to the table. We're playing hard enough right now to win games."
Westphal isn't making any wild predictions. The team has already taken crippling blows. Leading scorer Kevin Martin (fractured wrist) won't return until around the new year at the earliest, and versatile swingman Francisco Garcia is likely done for the season after a freak weight-lifting accident.
"We understand this league hits you with some two-by-fours, and we've already been hit by a couple," Westphal said. "We really only talk about how we're going to get better today and the future will take care of itself. As long as we see progress, we know we'll get to the place when the Kings are a force in the league again.
"But when that will happen, nobody can say. We don't want to downplay the upside of our team and don't want to overplay it. The best we can do is just try to get better today."
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