The Sacramento Kings are going through something right now that a lot of young NBA teams go through- a prolonged losing streak. Losers of 11 of their last 12, the team has stuck together like glue…that is until the last few days. It began with a subtle comment by last years rookie of the year Tyreke Evans following Saturday’s loss to Chicago:
“I don’t know. We were down, and it looked like I was supposed to make a play every time. So I just tried my best to help the team get open and try and find an open shot.”
I was able to chat with Tyreke Evans the following day at practice and he clarified this post game response a little further:
TPP: Are you feeling pressure that a lot of the offense is going through you?
Tyreke: A little bit because at the end of the day, that’s what they expect me to do, to be the leader and take over the game, so I just have to stay focused and play hard.
On Monday, the storm cloud grew over the Kings practice facility when reports hit Twitter that rookie center DeMarcus Cousins was asked to leave practice by Coach Paul Westphal. The story was confirmed by former Sacramento Bee beat writer and current Fanhouse senior NBA writer Sam Amick in this post. Here is what Sam’s sources had to say:
“They always fight,” the source said, “They can’t get along.”
Although Coach Paul Westphal was not interested in chatting to the media on the subject, he did speak with Kings sideline reporter Jim Gray before the game. Here is what Jim Gray had to say on that conversation as well as his conversation with DeMarcus Cousins:
“Yesterday, a tumultuous day in the Kings land, well, Paul Westphal threw DeMarcus Cousins out of because he was talking back to the coach. I spoke to Coach Westphal about it and he said it was an act of teaching and an act that, he felt, of discipline. He said the reason that he did it was because he hopes he gets the message and he hopes he will be able to move forward. He said it will not effect his minutes. How he plays will effect his playing time.”
“As for DeMarcus, I asked him what did he learn about this circumstance. He said, I cannot talk back to the coach, I have to humble myself, I will get better and I have gotten the message.”
Jim Gray was also able to grab DeMarcus Cousins at half time of the Kings loss to Indiana and here is that exchange:
Gray: How much did you learn from what happened yesterday?
DMC: I learned a lot. I mean, I just have to humble myself. I let my frustration get to me with the loses and I acted out of character and I have to correct that. He (Coach Westphal) did the right thing and we are going to try and bounce back tonight and get a win.
After the game tonight, I was able to get a little more from not only DeMarcus but some of his teammates. DeMarcus repeated much of what he said to Jim Gray in his post game interview with the large group of reporters. Here are some of the quotes from that session:
Cousins on keeping the frustrations under wraps: “It’s been very hard, just the frustration of losing. You get all the negativity and then we come into practice and it’s kind of like a black cloud that’s over us. It’s tough, we just have to keep moving.”
On whether he sees progress: “I really am and that’s the positive thing. I see where we are improving. I mean, we keep down that pass and try to turn this season around.”
On the last 24 hours: “It was a good lesson for me. I was being selfish. I’m mad and frustrated about losing and in my own opinion, I believe that different strategies should be in the game and I was being selfish and that was a good lesson for me and I learned from it.”
On his play of late: “I’m a big part of this team and Coach Westphal said, I’ve been terrible and that’s the truth, I’ve been terrible and it has a big effect on the team. I have to pick up my game and so does the rest of the team and we have to turn this thing around.”
On what is frustrating him: “Losing, I hate to lose. Over and over, the same thing in the locker room. It’s a terrible feeling and I hate it. And then you come in the next day and it’s kind of hard to look forward to another day of playing. And then you just keep losing and it’s tough but you have to just keep pushing.”
Here is the quick Q&A that I had with DeMarcus this evening in the locker room:
TPP: I’m at practice everyday and I haven’t seen any meltdowns. What was it that set you off yesterday?
DMC: I’m frustrated. It’s the frustration of losing.
TPP: Is this something that you think might happen periodically or do you think it’s something you are growing through?
DMC: Periodically? No, hopefully it never happens again but it’s hard. It’s just a tough situation.
Here is what veteran center Samuel Dalembert had to say about his young understudy in my post game Q&A with him:
TPP: Not just as a player, but as a teammate, can you put your arm around DeMarcus Cousins and help him get through these tough time?
Dalembert: Definitely. I’m trying to help. We want him to get better, that’s the goal. We don’t want him to struggle, we want him to get better. If he gets better, if there is a day, like today where I wasn’t there in the second half, he stepped it up and that’s what we needed him to do. We need him to do that consistently and good things will happen.
I was able to get a few group questions in with Kings starting power forward Jason Thompson as well after the game, followed by a one on one. Here are the questions from the group setting:
Jason Thompson on being a “young team”: “That’s why there is film and play books. You can have that excuse for a while but we can’t be a young team every year because those young guys are going to get older. You can’t have excuses for a good amount of time. Time is going to take those excuses away.”
On the booing from the fans: “I’m a fan, obviously of this team but of other sports and other teams and my team was struggling the way that we are, there is no way of saying “come on fans”. It’s understandable. So many games we’ve been in but the games we haven’t, we’ve played too laxed and you can hear in my voice how frustrated I am but you know, you just can’t win games like that.”
The following Q&A was between Jason Thompson and I but another reporter was close by and stepped in to take notes. I mention this because Jason makes a statement, that if taken out of context, can seem much worse than it was intended. Here is that exchange:
TPP: With you coming back into the starting line-up and knowing that you and DeMarcus are under contract next season while neither Landry or Dalembert are, how do you help DeMarcus take these steps forward that he needs to take?
JT: He just has to keep his head on. He has to think about basketball later. Sometimes off the court issues can effect certain guys and he just needs to not think. He needs to know that people are trying help him and not hurt. He’s got to be able to take constructive criticism and I think I struggled with that a little bit my rookie year. You just can’t do that much as a rookie. It’s your first go-around. You haven’t experienced every city on the road. You haven’t experienced a 35 point come back. There are just certain things you have to experience or you have no credibility. Until you’ve played enough games and you’ve done something, then you shouldn’t be able to say something and that should be respectful and not coming at anybody.
Thompson is honest and he is very respectful and you should be able to see where this quote could be cut into sound bites and made into something that it is not. You can see the headline forming, “Thompson says Cousins has no credibility”.
Veteran guard Luther Head added his two cents on the overall mood of the team:
“It’s too easy for us to leave focus. You have to find a way to stay focus and stay as a team. Quit getting so down on each other. When bad things happen, it’s like everybody’s head goes down. We have to stop that. We have to learn to move on from mistakes and start knowing that it’s not going to be like that all the time. You make a mistake, ok, you just made one. This time we are going to go down and do it right.”
This reaction by Luther Head was a complete break from the norm for the typically reserved player out of Illinois.
The Kings are struggling right now and with back to back games on Friday and Saturday against the Lakers and the Mavericks, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Although the magnitude of the Cousins situation was pretty isolated, it seems to have let the ugly out of the bag. Cousins isn’t the only one frustrated and that is understandable. I also don’t believe that the Kings are frustrated with one specific thing but this is one of those boil over situation where the levee broke and out flooded a whole lot of pent up emotions.
Winning cures all. Unfortunately, the Kings have missed plenty of chances to get in the win column at home, against sub-playoff level teams. That means that things are going to get tougher from here, just based off of scheduling alone.
Although there is a growing sentiment among certain groups of fans for the Kings to fire Paul Westphal, that is a mistake. Even if this team performs well from here on out, a realist can look at the ten game stretch surrounding the all-star break and see that there are much tougher roads ahead for this team even if they put everything together. By excusing a coach, you create another Kenny Natt situation where someone will be forced to take on a team with little to no chance of recovery.
Expectations need to be re-evaluated. Winning 25 games last season was supposed to be a building point and although the season has gotten off to a sour start, that should still be the goal. What this team doesn’t need is another direction. Not this season.
If you read the comments carefully, you will not find a single player looking to heap blame on Coach Westphal. When teams lose, players become frustrated. No one is asking for these players to get used to losing but they need to understand that there is no quick fix. Westphal has tried every combination of players possible and if the last two games are any indication, he seems to have stumbled onto something. That something now needs time to grow into a cohesive unit of 12 players working towards a single goal, with a single voice leading the charge.