SACRAMENTO — After three stints as an interim coach, this season was supposed to be Keith Smart’s first real chance to show what he could do on the NBA sidelines with a full summer and training camp to prepare.
Instead, the pending sale and relocation of the Sacramento Kings to a Seattle group became a daily distraction for Smart’s squad. The Kings finished 28-54, missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year and head into another offseason with the roster the same as the franchise’s future off the court — uncertain.
“Sometimes you don’t reach that goal the first time. Sometimes there’s pain and frustration,” Smart said. “And that’s what we had this year — pain and frustration. Now you’ve got to try and do it all again.”
The Maloof family has had a signed agreement since January to sell the Kings to a group that wants to move them to Seattle and rebrand them the SuperSonics — who left the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma City in 2008. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has streamlined a new arena financing plan and put together a competing investor group to buy the team and keep it California’s capital city.
NBA Commissioner David Stern has said expansion is not an option right now and a decision between the two bids is unlikely until at least May.
Since players first learned of the pending purchase agreement on their smartphones three months ago, they’ve been peppered with questions before every game — at home and on the road — and from family and friends wondering what will happen. Sometimes even players would ask reporters in the locker room about developments.
With that disruptive backdrop, they still had to play and practice like pros. Most kept quiet about how much the possible relocation really affected the team’s focus until after a 112-108 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in the regular-season finale Wednesday night.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been the same thing, every year the same thing,” said center DeMarcus Cousins, drafted fifth overall by Sacramento in 2010. “I’m tired of it and I know the fans are tired of it.”
The Kings have some big roster decisions to make this summer — but can’t until an ownership group is stabilized.
Cousins is eligible for a contract extension. Tyreke Evans, the 2009-10 NBA Rookie of the Year, will be a restricted free agent. Even the man charged with making those decisions, general manager Geoff Petrie, has a contract about to expire.
Smart’s status also is uncertain. In August, he signed a contract extension through the 2013-14 season. As of now, he’s heading into an all-too familiar — and for him, unfortunate — situation as a lame duck coach.
Smart took over for the fired Paul Westphal in January 2012 after the Kings started 2-5. Before that, the Golden State Warriors decided not to extend Smart’s contract after the 2010-11 season, when the long-time assistant hastily replaced Don Nelson. He also had a stint as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ interim coach for the final 40 games in 2003 after taking over for John Lucas.
Smart still planned to hold exit interviews with players, assistants and front-office staff this week. He also hopes to stay in touch with players in the offseason and develop a new strategy for training camp, sticking with that live-for-today mentality that kept him balanced through a season that was anything but steady.
“I’ve always understood the dynamics of life, and that’s why I can focus on every day as a new beginning and not focus on where things will be in the future,” Smart said. “And I think that’s why I was able to come every single day and focus on that day and not so much on what’s going to happen, to keep the players’ minds from wandering, to keep everybody’s minds from wandering.”
What tomorrow could hold is still impossible to ignore.
Everywhere players and coaches go they are asked about the team’s future. Even on the court, the Kings can’t truly start preparing for next season until NBA owners vote on the franchise’s fate.
Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas, a Tacoma, Wash., native who starred at the University of Washington, has been in an awkward spot all season — torn between the fans he has grown to love in Sacramento and his roots back home as a Sonics fan. He said he planned to stick around Sacramento until a decision had been made, but the vote keeps getting pushed back.
“It’s very weird because you just don’t know,” Thomas said. “I might have shot my last basketball at Sleep Train Pavilion. So you just never know, that’s the scary thing about it. You might not see these fans. I might not be in this community anymore, you never know. A lot of things are up in the air and that’s what stinks right now.”