One, measly point separated Tyreke Evans from making Kings history. One point would have made him the franchise's first rookie to register eight consecutive 20-point games. Yet, with 3:11 left against the Knicks, PaulWestphal motioned Evans to the bench, a request greeted with a look of mild surprise from the 20-year-old.
"We had put the game away and he was playing on a bad ankle," Westphal said after the King's 111-97 victory. "So I said, 'Tyreke, I'd be crazy to leave you out there and have you twist an ankle out there trying to get a record.' ... Everybody likes records but he wasn't going to chase a record at the expense of the team. 'And he said, 'You're right.' That was really impressive; it's a total buy-in to doing the right thing rather than setting himself apart."
The Kings have followed suit, melding into the type of cohesive unit that has overcome a string of obstacles -- last year's 17-win debacle, rumors a franchise shift, the loss of leading scorer Kevin Martin for all but five games -- to put together a 9-12 mark through Wednesday. Seven players are averaging double figures in scoring, and five are pulling down more than 4.9 boards a night.
"We have a lot of players who, offensively, can blend into any style," Westphal said. "But you have to be at least decent at rebounding and defensively in order to have your offense mean anything in terms of success. We looked at what [the Kings] did last year; they were near the bottom of the league in rebounding and dead last in field-goal defense. Well, you can't have any success in this league being at the bottom in both those areas, so we made it a priority to improve them."
That isn't an easy task with a roster that includes seven players 23 years old or younger. Though it has become more manageable with the arrival of Evans, who is in a dead heat for the Rookie of the Year award, and the growth of second-year forward Jason Thompson, who's averaging 14.5 points and nine rebounds.
"The No. 1 thing we've tried to do in the draft and in any personnel moves we've made is to add players who are competitive," Westphal said. "That's a skill as much as shooting or shot-blocking, to have that fire that translates into better performance."
The plan has helped the Kings improve to 26th in field-goal defense (from dead last in 2008-09) while giving up almost four fewer points per game this year. Of course, that still means Sacramento is surrendering 105.8 points per game and the Kings have only beaten three teams with records better than .500. But Westphal isn't evaluating his club on wins and losses, a luxury afforded to coaches handed a hard hat and shovel on their way in the door.
"There are a lot of two-by-fours waiting to knock us upside the head, but as long as they're focused on doing the best they can what else can you do," Westphal said. "We're looking at the long-term, big picture here with everything we do. We want to win every single game we play, but we do have a vision for this team to keep improving, and we don't know what that pace will be."
In the meantime, a record or two will just have to wait.
• The Bulls'/Joakim Noah's ire.LeBron James' Riverdance and the Cavs 101-87 win prompted Noah to reportedly liken the MVP to a female dog. Toronto point guard Jarrett Jack offended the Bulls by stopping to tie his shoe while cradling the ball in the second half of a Raptors blowout win. And Noah earned a $15,000 fine for kicking a ball into the stands and hitting a photographer moments before Jack's affront. Clearly, it's not easy losing nine of your last 10 games.
• Carl Landry. With Yao Ming out, the Rockets have called upon every inch of their undersized frontcourt this season, and few have stood taller than the 6-foot-9 power forward. Over his last five games, Landry has tallied 18 points and 7.8 rebounds in 28.2 minutes a game. Equally impressive are the nine 20-point games he's recorded without a single start. "My confidence is at a high right now," Landry told the Houston Chronicle. "Hopefully, it can stay [that way] through the rest of the season."
• The Lakers luck. Whether it's been Kobe hitting playground shot after playground shot, or the defending champs being allowed to fatten their record with 16 home dates in their first 20 games, things have been going the Lakers' way. Of course, having the league's best field-goal defense doesn't hurt, but do they really need the basketball gods on their side, too?
• The Sixers. The warm-fuzzies surrounding Allen Iverson's return hid what has now become an 11-game losing streak for coach Eddie Jordan & Co. A litany of injuries (Marreese Speights, Lou Williams) has played its share in Philly's woes, but of greater concern is a defense as cracked as that famous bell downtown. Jordan is an offensive strategist few can match, but his teams in Washington and his current crew in Philadelphia have always been a bit too porous on the defensive end. And for a team as rangy, long and athletic as the Sixers, there's no excuse to let opponents shoot 47.7 percent, 27th in the NBA.
• Chris Kaman's milk intake. After a November in which he averaged 18.8 points and shot 47.1 percent, the Clippers center has slumped in December, connecting on only 36.7 percent while averaging 14 points a game. After complaining of feeling listless over the last few weeks, Kaman was diagnosed with a Vitamin D deficiency. "I was tired and the fourth quarter came and I didn't have the energy," he told the Los Angeles Times. A combination of herbal supplements and antibiotics have been prescribed to help Kaman regain his pep. That, and a lot of milk. I wonder if cookies are included?
• Online candor. Nets rookie Terrence Williams and Wizards center Brendan Haywood both drew some measures of rebuke with their online commentaries this week. Williams took his frustration about not playing much to Twitter, where he wondered what life would be like had he been drafted by the Raptors or Bobcats, a musing that displeased New Jersey's front office. Haywood ran afoul of a larger populace in his blog by blaming Tiger Woods' wife for contributing to the circus atmosphere surrounding the golfer by reportedly renegotiating a prenuptial agreement. "I know I put something out there that might not be popular, but ... I'm not the only one," wrote Haywood.
With a healthy Gilbert Arenas and the offensive stylings of new coach Flip Saunders, the Wizards were expected by many to bolt into the thick of playoff contention. Yet, Washington is off to a 7-12 start as Arenas and Saunders have struggled to find common ground. A scout analyzes the Wizards' troubles.
"They have so many different personalities it's hard for anyone to manage. Flip has never been a firm hand, so his response to managing those guys has been to figure out ways to get them more shots and try to make them happy. And still all of the complaints you read about from the players is about how they need to get more shots or how they need to change the offense. It's never about defense or having a commitment to stopping people.
"Their best defender is Deshawn Stevenson, but they took him out of the lineup for Nick Young's offense. But now with Young, Arenas and Antawn Jamison, three of their five for a majority of the time on the floor aren't good defenders. In the process, they've also hurt Stevenson's confidence by benching him.
"It is Gilbert's contract and personality, though, that looms over this team. It seems like every time Arenas goes out on the floor he has an agenda, whether it's a perceived slight or something else. He just doesn't seem to be comfortable with what Flip wants from him. But I don't know if Flip really knows what to ask of him. He still has a burst, but in years past, he'd beat you off the dribble and then dunk. Now he beats you off the dribble, but he might miss a layup.
"A trade would get things going in the right direction. It may not have to be Gilbert, but their most consistent player on the offensive end is Jamison, their most consistent player on both ends is Butler and Gilbert may be, in reality, their most talented player, but in terms of winning and losing he's probably their third-most important player."
• "Bynum continues to improve I believe due to my previous and continued mentoring"-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn't stretch far on Twitter to pat himself on the back for Lakers center Andrew Bynum's work this season.
• "Anthony Johnson has played with some of the best centers ever like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Lanier. He goes way back. Just to see him flourish throughout all these decades of basketball is amazing. He's probably the only guy in the league who has played in every decade of the NBA"-- Dwight Howard tweaks his teammate, 35-year-old guard Anthony Johnson.
• "You gotta stop falling for the flop! You guys are terrible!"-- Rockets broadcaster Matt Bullard takes a foul call on Rockets guard Kyle Lowry a bit personally.
• "You're not a cry-baby. I know that from the child-abuse I gave you (at Georgetown)."-- John Thompson (sort of) jokes with his former player Allen Iverson in a recent interview.
• "Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods! It's not like he looks like Seal. It's not like he's not going to have a whole bunch of women. He's Tiger Woods! I'm surprised 400 girls didn't come out."-- Gilbert Arenas offers an athlete's view of Woods' developing situation.
•SLAM:Zaza Pachulia, rap star?
•3 Shades of Blue: It isn't often an NBA owner gives lengthy interviews to bloggers, but Michael Heisley of the Grizzlies did, and no topic was off limits.
•Hoopsworld: What is life like for an NBA ballboy?
•Hoopshype: And the NBA's best Tweeter is ... Jared Dudley?
1. As former referee Tim Donaghy makes his media tour promoting his book about gambling on NBA games (including a podcast stop at SI.com), it strikes me that much of the doubt his story has generated stems in part from the victim act he is playing. Yes, it's sad he lost his family over this, and, of course, it's unfortunate his addiction to gambling landed him in prison. But all of this could have been prevented by ... Donaghy. The sympathy he and/or his handlers have been trying to extract through tales of mob threats and prison attacks hides a legitimate message he could be delivering about the fidelity of NBA officiating: that it is far from objective and has made the game a form of entertainment to some referees, not a test of sporting skill.
2. The Spurs may be the model organization in the NBA, but the Pistons aren't far, according to Forbes. Without any marquee superstars and in the throes of renovation, the Pistons still managed to rank fourth among the league's most valuable franchises at $479 million. That's ahead of the riches LeBron James has heaped upon the Cavaliers franchise and in spite of playing in an area devastated by the economy. Joe Dumars & Co. may not always get every move on the court right, but they've created an organization that doesn't get much wrong elsewhere.
3. How Hawks coach Mike Woodson hasn't earned a contract extension is beyond us. All he's done is overcome near-constant speculation about his job and a series of run-ins with Josh Smith to guide a 13-win mess through five straight years of improvement into a legitimate threat for the Eastern Conference crown. That Woodson has been able to mold an athletically talented but often unfocused roster into a disciplined group is a testament to Woodson's skill as a coach. Even Smith recently said, "Anybody who's bettered their record every year that he's been a coach deserves a contract." If the Hawks ownership could finally get past their courtroom fight for control of the team, Woodson might get the contract he deserves, instead of the lame-duck status with which he is saddled. Until then, Atlanta is toying with a man who deserves better.