Q&A: Keith Smart on the Art of Coaching Boogie Cousins and the Kings’ Defensive Struggles

Keith Smart is in the stretch run of another disappointing Sacramento season, his first full year in charge after taking over for Paul Westphal seven games into last season. (Hey, remember Paul Westphal? Or did you kind of forget he ever coached the Kings? You did, right?) Smart is a defense-first guy presiding over the league’s worst defensive team and perhaps its most volatile player — DeMarcus Cousins, a promising big man who can’t control his temper or commit himself to playing hard on defense for an entire game. Smart’s a great guy with whom to talk hoops, and he sat down for a one-on-one with Grantland in Dallas before the All-Star break.

I’ve noticed lately you’ve been using DeMarcus more at the elbow area, near the foul line, instead of giving him the ball in the post. What’s the thinking there?

You noticed that, huh? It gives him a better angle to see the floor, and he shoots the ball well. He can drive the basketball from there. It also opens up the ability to pass the ball. From that area, you have a better angle of the floor to make passes to certain players. And when in doubt, you still have that opportunity to run a pick-and-roll on the side. It’s just moving him around instead of just trying to keep him in the low box. Because I don’t think he’s a real low-box player yet.

Really?

No, not yet. He’s still developing into a post-up player. There are flashes there because of his size, but when you play against equal size, your post-up game may be negated if you’re not a developed player yet. So I think his skill is to play off the elbows, a little bit higher on the floor. He shoots the ball very well for a big guy, and he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive. And so I’m trying to utilize some of the skills he has right now as he develops his post game.

How do you make a change like that? Do you sit with him and have a direct conversation, like, “Hey, we’re moving you around in our offense, OK?”

No, it’s just the plays I’ve run, and the plays I’ve seen other guys run. I’ve been very fortunate to work with one coach in particular who is great as far as understanding spacing on the floor, and how to move a player maybe just a foot or two feet, and that little bit may help that player and also hurt a defense. And that’s Don Nelson.

Because sticking a guy at the elbow, near the very center of the offense, makes it tricky for a defense right? It’s hard to double up there, and throwing the ball there can bend the defense in interesting ways.

Yeah. And same with what we call the “Michael Jordan post area,” which is lower on the floor on the wing. Right away, putting Cousins [at the elbow] is great spacing — you pull the center out on the floor, and now you have guys like Tyreke Evans or Isaiah Thomas, and you give them more lanes to drive.

My fear when I first noticed you doing this more was that it would feed his worst habits. I mean, I think he’s shooting like 35 percent on long jumpers [Note: It’s 31 percent, per Hoopdata), and while he’s a great passer, he has a tendency to try to thread those fancy highlight passes into tight spaces. But I don’t watch you guys every night. Maybe I’m missing something? Or maybe the benefits you talked about outweigh these concerns?

I get a chance to do things in practice, so I know what he can do and what he can't do. I just think sometimes when you run a play for the low box for him, he has trouble there.

I’ve also noticed when you give DeMarcus the ball out there, Evans can duck in for some quick post-up plays. We’ve talked before about giving him some ways to score where he’s not the primary ball handler. Is that part of the plan here?

All of that, all of that. Our best post-up players by the numbers right now are Tyreke Evans and then John Salmons. [Note: Evans is the league’s single most efficient post-up player so far, per Synergy Sports, though he’s taken only 17 shots — and made 12 — out of post-ups. He has drawn a ton of fouls on such plays, per Synergy.] Our smalls are our best post-up guys. Our best passers are big guys — Jason [Thompson], Chuck [Hayes], and DeMarcus. So we’re trying to take advantage of some smaller post defenders down there. And when you do that, you’re inviting a big guy to slide down and help. The big guy loves to chase that carrot.

You mean the ball, right?

Yeah. And if he chases that carrot, you’ve got a bailout guy — a shooter — just waiting at the elbow in DeMarcus Cousins. That’s something I learned watching Coach Nelson decide where to put a [center] if that guy has an ability to shoot. DeMarcus is a player you just can’t put in a box.

Well, he certainly does have a lot of different skills.

People love to say: “You’ve got to get him down on the box!” But is he productive enough down there? We’re trying to take advantage of his skills. I’ve even had him come off screens to shoot, like he’s a guard. He’s just big, but he’s not in his mind a big man. He thinks he can do things that guards can do. We have dribbling drills we do, and he does them just as well as the guards. You can’t just put him in a box — especially for me, working with a coach who didn’t put Dirk Nowitzki in a box. [Note: In retrospect, I probably should have at least jokingly chastised Smart for mentioning Cousins and Nowitzki in the same sentence. Heresy!] So for every player I come across, I think about what they can do well now, and what they can develop.

Because I’d imagine you’d ultimately want DeMarcus to have a post game.

Obviously we want to develop his post game.

So what does he need to do to get there? He doesn’t have a ton of lift or jumping ability, and that won’t change.

He leads too much with the ball. When he goes into his move, the ball is already being shown. That takes some time, because he thinks he can just overpower a guy, but sometimes he doesn’t arrive at that spot with a lot of power. We have to get him to a point where he leads with his body first, and then goes into his shot with time and repetition.

We talked at length in the offseason about how Tyreke just doesn’t — to use your favorite term for it — “map the floor” well when he has the ball on pick-and-rolls and in isolations. By that you mean, he doesn’t really see the floor in terms of creating for others. Has that changed at all? Or are you better off using him away from the ball?

It’s still developing. When he’s running a pick-and-roll, and he has to make a play — he has to take a mental map of the floor. That’s something Isiah Thomas — not this Isaiah Thomas, the real one [laughs] — shared with me at Indiana. He and Quinn Buckner shared that with me — about seeing everything on the floor, so that if this piece moves toward me, I have a pass over there. And that’s still developing. I think he’s better at mapping his floor if we do something else to start the play, and then the ball comes to him.

Like when he gets the ball coming off a pick, or making a cut, instead of way out high at the start of a pick-and-roll, when the defense is set and lined up against him?

Exactly. So he’s in attack mode, and he can make a play. I wish I would have had him his first year, because these are things I would have shared with him from day one. He’s playing catch-up.

Pretend this is possible and pick one thing for DeMarcus to magically be really good at right now on offense: posting up or rolling hard on pick-and-rolls. Because he doesn’t seem to really dive hard very much on those plays.

As of late, he’s been doing it, because he’s finally starting to see a little of the benefit. One big thing that has happened is that John Salmons has been probably our best pick-and-roll passer because of his size.

He can see over guys.

Yes, he can see Cousins rolling down that lane. I think sometimes DeMarcus thinks, Why am I rolling? I’m not getting the ball.

It stands out on film. Sometimes he just sets a pick and stands 25 feet from the basket, with his shoulders all sad and drooped. That says to me, watching the game, “I’m not even bothering to fake a hard cut.”

Right. But now he’s starting to see the benefit. What it does to the defense — it shrinks the floor, and it can allow him to get deeper position for post-ups. That’s part of his growth. He’s a shooter, and so he likes to pick-and-pop for that jump shot. But if people know you can shoot, they’re gonna rotate to you, so you won’t get that shot like you’ll think you’ll get it. So mixing it up is important.

And if he rolls, he can use his passing skills — catch the ball in the paint on the move, read the floor, hit someone in the corner.

Yes. And again — that’s just another piece in his growth.

We’ve talked mostly about offense, but you’re a defense-first guy. I swear, you once talked to me for 45 minutes just about the proper defensive stance. So why is this team so bad defensively? Why does that never seem to change? I think you’re last in points allowed per possession.

You can shave away three putbacks a game. Shave away two or three turnovers a game that lead to a transition basket, and you’ve taken 12 points off the board — and you haven’t changed one coverage, or one changed rotation. Those putbacks — we don’t have a shot-blocker, or even a multiple-effort player, so once the guy gets a rebound, he goes right back up. We really need that multiple-effort player in the paint. But shave away just four or six points …

And you’re average instead of bad. That’s how the NBA works — tiny little things over a hundred possessions add up, right?

Just gotta shave those points away …

You mentioned the rebounding, and I wanted to ask about that. You guys rank toward the bottom in defensive rebounding percentage. [Note: They’re actually last, per NBA.com.] That’s weird to me, because you’ve been an above-average offensive rebounding team, and you’ve got some size. What’s going on?

Being good at offensive rebounds — well, you’re already right at the basket. You just shot the ball. You know where it’s coming off. With defensive rebounding, you’ve got to work to go and get it. That’s the big difference. You need a guy who can maneuver in traffic and rebound in traffic. How well does a guy carry his hands in traffic? A guy might box out on defense, but maybe you can work around or over that guy’s back. The biggest thing is, you’ve got to rebound out of your area, because the ball doesn’t bounce right to you. Those are multiple-effort players, and we need one of those.

Can you play Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton, and Tyreke Evans together on the perimeter? I thought for a little bit last season that might be the future for you guys, but the numbers, especially on defense, were bad.

No. You’re just too small. You can play them if you’re really, really good at getting up and down the floor, and you’ve got a shooting [center] and a consistent shooting [power forward] offensively, but you’re just going to struggle defensively. You’re just too small in too many places. You’re going to be out-rebounded. You’re going to have to move away from your normal rotations because someone is posting up your point guard or your shooting guard.

One last one before you go coach this game: Grade DeMarcus Cousins’s pick-and-roll defense for me. Because when I watch you guys, I see a lot of standing and reaching, and not a lot of quality sliding around and defense. Maybe I’m missing something, but it looks lazy.

Yeah. There are moments where he’s really, really good, and moments where he’s just not good. What I’ve shared with him is: This is what teams are going to do to you. This is what I would do to you — put you in a pick-and-roll every time. This is what you are going to have to figure out. If you are not a shot-blocker, you’re going to have to figure out how to be a good defensive player, a good defensive pick-and-roll player. Shot-blockers can sit back and wait.

Like Andrew Bogut, barely going above the foul line and waiting in the paint.

Waiting to challenge a shot at the rim. But if you’re not like that, you’re gonna have to get yourself up. That’s his next phase, because throughout his career, that’s what teams are going to do to him.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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