As the Kings continue their five game road trip in Indiana, I had a chance to catch up with Coach Paul Westphal for another installment of our interview series with the Kings front man. So far, so good as the Kings are off to 2-1 on the trip, with wins against the T-Wolves on Sunday and Bucks on Wednesday. The only blemish on the trip came at the hands of the mighty Chicago Bulls who now own the best record in the Eastern Conference. Last season’s rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans, will make his return from a 19-game absence due to a mid-February flare up of plantar fasciitis tonight against the Pacers, which seemed like as good a place as any to start the interview.
James Ham: You are on the eve of Tyreke’s return, how is he feeling?
Coach Westphal: I think he feels good. He had a work-out today and his foot didn’t hurt at all. His timing is way off. It’s hard to say how long it’s going to be before he is himself, but the good news is his foot is good.
James Ham: Do you think his foot is good for right now or is this going to continue to be a reoccurring problem?
Coach Westphal: Every indication is that the plantar fasciitis has been taken care of. I don’t expect any problems with it in the future, I think that it’s just a matter of conditioning and timing now.
James Ham: How excited is your team to get Tyreke back?
Coach Westphal: I think everybody is anticipating his return and like I said, I can’t emphasize this enough, that just because he’s going to be in the game tomorrow, it’s not really Tyreke yet, it’s just a training camp, few minutes here, few minutes there kind of situation for a while.
James Ham: Since this is going to take a little while to work itself out, can you look into your crystal ball and tell me what Tyreke’s return is going to mean for Pooh Jeter, Jermaine Taylor and possibly even the Donté Greene/Omri Casspi combo?
Coach Westphal: I’m sure all those guys that you mentioned are going to play a little bit less than they would have otherwise. I think that’s an inevitable consequence.
James Ham: How did Omri Casspi take the DNP-CD in last night’s game?
Coach Westphal: We didn’t talk about it really. I think he can understand how that can happen, but knowing Omri, I’m sure he’s not crazy about it. The team got the win and he understands that was the way it developed for him yesterday.
James Ham: Was the Casspi situation a match-up issue with Granger and few other long small forwards coming up on the schedule or is it just the way the season has gone for both Casspi and Greene, and you are looking to ride the hot hand?
Coach Westphal: I will say that at this time, I think that when you look at the season in total, both Donté and Omri have had considerable stretches of having a chance to establish themselves at that position and they both bring something a little different to the table. I think that neither one of them have really grabbed the spot and so it’s more of a situational thing now than we have to play this guy or we have to play that guy. It’s the reality of the situation that they both have a different skill set and there’s not really room to play both of them the kind of minutes that I’m sure they want to play and I have to make that choice each night.
James Ham: Where are you at with Greene as the season has progressed? It’s almost like he disappeared for the last month and then you throw him in against Minnesota and he blows up with 13 points in limited minutes. He’s kind of hit and miss. Do you have an idea of what kind of player he is going to develop into or is he still just a long term potential type player?
Coach Westphal: It all depends on him really. With any player, it’s about production and it’s not about points with Donté so much, it’s about consistency and picking his spots. We certainly don’t mind points from that position, but he’s got to shoot a high percentage and he’s got to take the right shots. He’s got to understand how he can be effective and I think defensively is where his calling card can be for his career and as he improves his shot, he can add scoring. He certainly has had some games where his scoring has been outstanding, but the percentages don’t lie either. In order to be a consistent contributor, he is going to have to have a more reliable shot and more reliable decision making offensively. There are games where he has been phenomenal offensively and then there are games where it just doesn’t seem to happen so we’re looking for his ability to guard people and a consistent offensive production other than a wild fluctuation.
James Ham: Coming into this season, I think the team thought they had a clear view of what kind of player Donté was going to be – not so much how his production would go, but you thought he would be competing for the small forward spot, then he came in way out of shape. With 12 games left in the season, have you formulated a clear plan for Donté for the summer and do you think that plan will resonate with him better this summer than what happened this previous off-season?
Paul Westphal: Well, we had a specific plan last year, but there are constraints that we have in the off-season. We can outline a program and we can monitor it if a player asks us to. We can’t demand the players presence or work in the off-season, we can only suggest and if they ask for supervision, we can provide it. We don’t know what hurdles will be presented this off-season – I can’t even talk about what might happen this summer, and that even presents more problems. So much of a player’s development in the summer is dependent on how dedicated a player is willing to be and it really is a time when you can’t demand the dedication, they have to provide the dedication. It’s pretty clear to the coaching staff what Donté needs to work on and what the results can be if he wants to do that, but this summer is kind of an unknown right now.
James Ham: How hard is it to develop a player in season? Not just the natural process of improvement, but the development of specific issues.
Coach Westphal: There’s a lot of development of players that doesn’t appear right away. The opportunity to play in the game is not a right, it is a privilege. You can develop your game even when you are not given the chance to exhibit the results of your development. That’s the whole thing about improvement in this league, when you get your opportunities, you have to show that you have improved. You don’t just get unlimited opportunities to go out there and play in the game. That’s a whole different thing. You can’t look at a player every day and say, he’s better than he was yesterday. You have to be able to look at a player and say he is better than he was three months ago and this is where he is. Each day, it is up to the player to do what he can, everything he can do, to improve his game so the next time he gets his chance, he is ready to do better than the last time he got his chance. It’s a hard thing for young players to understand.
James Ham: Switching gears, there is something that DeMarcus Cousins said in an interview session a little while back that has stuck in my mind and I want to run it by you. I asked him if he thought he had matured both on and off the court this season and I was surprised with his response. He said that he has certainly grown up on the court, but off the court, he didn’t really have any issues. He continued on, saying that by off the court issues he meant things like legal trouble which of course he has not had at all. Is there a possibility that DeMarcus doesn’t understand that a lot of his issues this season have been off the court issues that just so happen to occur on the court? Am I off base in thinking that altercations with opposing players and teammates, the choke sign issue, getting tossed from practice – that those are off the court issues that he is bringing on the court?
Coach Westphal: DeMarcus is a very unique individual and I think that every day that passes, we learn more about what makes him tick and he learns more about what the NBA is all about and how to navigate through it. The way you framed the question, I don’t differentiate that much. I think he’s learned a lot and to divide it – on the court, off the court, seems a little bit arbitrary because it is all connected.
James Ham: He’s kind of running out of these on the court things to learn from – is that a good thing? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Coach Westphal: I see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel, but I also have never believed that his progress is going to go two steps forward, one step back. He hadn’t been traveling for a while and now he is traveling again so he’s kind of learned how to avoid that, but sometimes he forgets, although he forgets less than he used to. I see a lot of progress and I see a lot of hope, but he is far from a finished product at this stage.
James Ham: Is DeMarcus one of the more unique personalities you have dealt with as a coach?
Coach Westphal: Oh sure, he’s right up there.
James Ham: Are we talking right up there with the Charles Barkley’s of the world or a different type?
Coach Westphal: I wouldn’t put any names with DeMarcus, I think he is very unique in his own right.
James Ham: We are down to 12 games left in the season. Have you guys set goals for how you want to finish this season?
Coach Westphal: We want to win every game, but I think our goal is to solidify the fact that we are going to keep improving. We don’t know what is ahead as far as Tyreke’s time table, as far as what the health of each individual guy might be, so every day is truly a new day in the league. We want to finish strong and I think we have a really good understanding as far as an organization as to what we have and what we need and we want to get an even better understanding of that these last 12 games. We want to win every game, but it is more important to learn those things and to know what direction we need to go based in part on the knowledge we gain in the last 12 games.
This was a pretty candid conversation because a lot of this season’s mysteries have played themselves out. Coach Westphal is obviously looking forward to getting Tyreke Evans in the fold, but he is going to take an extremely cautious approach with one of the franchise’s building blocks. Coach was also a lot more open discussing the Donté Greene/Omri Casspi situation, which helps to clarify not only how this season has transpired but also where these players need to be for next season. A for DeMarcus Cousins, Westphal has had plenty of experience dealing with players that for a lack of a better term are “unique.”
The Kings have 12 games remaining in a what has turned out to be a very disappointing season. I agree with Westphal that the team has a much better idea going forward about what the team needs are going forward and that these last games are important, especially for determining how Marcus Thornton, Beno Udrih and Tyreke Evans fit together in the backcourt. Look for this threesome to get major minutes together once Evans is back to full speed.