Kings coach Keith Smart will return next season, according to Sacramento co-owner Joe Maloof.
In a wide-ranging interview with SI.com on Thursday night, Maloof -- whose family appears to be on the verge of remaining in Sacramento after reaching a tentative arena agreement with city officials on Monday -- said it's a formality that the Kings will exercise Smart's team option for 2012-13. The former Golden State coach was promoted from Kings assistant in early January when Paul Westphal was fired after a 2-5 start. Sources had said previously that the team was leaving its options open to possibly land a bigger-name coach this summer.
"Yes," Maloof said emphatically when asked if Smart's option would be picked up. "With no disrespect to our past coaches, we really have someone who everybody likes now. The players like him, the basketball staff likes him, we trust him, and he knows the game. Keith Smart is a wonderful coach, and we're lucky to have him. ... Yes, we'll pick it up. We want him to be our coach forever."
Smart is the Kings' fifth coach since Rick Adelman's departure in 2006, the last time they made the playoffs. Asked if Smart might be given a new, long-term deal, Maloof said, "We really like him. I think our objective is to keep him as long as we can."
While the Kings are just 10-18 under Smart, his approval rating has been directly tied to his ability to connect with the fiery player who is now considered the team's centerpiece, DeMarcus Cousins. The second-year center consistently battled with Westphal but appears to have clicked with Smart, and the production of their pairing has ownership elated.
In Cousins' six games under Westphal, he averaged 13.7 points (on 38.6 percent shooting), 9.3 rebounds and 26 minutes. In the 28 games since the coaching change, Cousins is averaging 17.4 points (on 44.9 percent shooting), 12 rebounds and 30 minutes. Beyond the numbers, Cousins' play has been reflection of the ways in which Smart is changing the team's culture. It started with Cousins, whom he visits with often outside of the team's facility, and has since extended to his teammates.
"There was one game where we won, and DeMarcus didn't have a real good fourth quarter, so the next day [Smart] took DeMarcus to breakfast, sat down with him and it was fantastic," Maloof said. "DeMarcus really respects him, trusts him, believes in him. You've got to have trust, and that's the most important thing that I think he's been able to develop with the team. They have a trust and they stick together, these guys."
While high-profile rookie Jimmer Fredette has struggled to perform or get consistent time in the rotation, Smart's use of second-round pick Isaiah Thomas has helped the new coach's case, too. Thomas, a 5-foot-9 point guard who was taken with the final pick (No. 60) and signed to a three-year deal, averaged 18.3 points and 6.3 assists in his last six games of February. What's more, Maloof said it's led to the official end of the Tyreke Evans point-guard project. Evans played the point in his first two-plus seasons, but he has been moved to small forward for the last six games. All of which makes for an interesting time for the 2009 Rookie of the Year, as he is eligible for an extension this summer but is hardly assured of being offered one.
"He'll be the point-forward, not the point guard anymore," Maloof said. "The point guard is Isaiah and Jimmer and those guys. It's an incredible surprise [how Thomas is playing]. Nobody gave the guy a chance and I'm so proud of our basketball operations to pick him at No. 60, and then to have the success that he's having says a lot for the scouts. They really picked a winner there."
Meanwhile, the team's fans look to have landed a victory of their own.
When Sacramento Mayor and former NBA point guard Kevin Johnson announced the "framework of an agreement" for an arena on Monday, it was quite the turnaround from a year ago. The Maloof family, which bought the team in 1998, filed for relocation last March, but was steered back to Sacramento when its proposal fell apart and faced serious opposition from the NBA Board of Governors.
A year later, Joe Maloof's brother Gavin was shedding tears of joy while discussing the news that the team would likely stay (the plan must first be approved by City Council on Tuesday). The unfiltered emotion, Joe said, continued when the family returned to Sacramento.
"It's everywhere I go," he said with a laugh. "I went and got Tasty Freeze, had an ice cream cone, and the guy was yelling, 'Thank you!' People are just appreciative. They love this team. It's the life and soul of this community."
The Maloof family has had financial struggles in recent years, as evidenced by the selling of their lucrative beer distributorship in New Mexico and losing controlling interest of the Palms Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas. But Joe Maloof reiterated that the family finances are in order, and added that the league's new, post-lockout revenue-sharing plan is "a game-changer for every small market."
"Shoot, it's five times greater than it was before," Maloof said. "Things are different now because with revenue sharing, you have an opportunity with a small-market team to compete with the large market. So our position now [compared to] a couple years ago is completely different. We've got cap space. We're going to have revenue sharing.
"It's great for all the small markets, for the Utahs of the world, and the Portlands, the San Antonios. The league did a really good job with that. We can do very well with it."
Though the team's payroll is near the league minimum, Maloof said he didn't anticipate any roster shake-up before the March 15 trade deadline. The family is willing and able to make moves, he said, but would prefer to add pieces via free agency this summer.
"Of course" they'll pay to compete, he said. "We wouldn't be in the league if we couldn't. We did that when we had the opportunity to win the titles back in the glory days [in the early 2000s]. Our payroll was the second- and third-highest in the league for many years. We paid the luxury tax. This year, we went after free agents. We went after [Andrei] Kirilenko, Jamal [Crawford].
"But why spend all your cap space if you don't have a player who's worth it? We did that in the past. We brought in all these mid-level [exception] guys through the years, the five- and six-million-dollar players. We learned our lesson. When there's a player who really can come around and help us win, we're going to sign him."
Maloof also refuted a late-January report that Kings basketball president Geoff Petrie was in danger of being fired.
"No, no, no, no," he said. "He's part of this. We've been together so long. We're in this, and we're going to get our way back to the playoffs together."