Kings (15-54) vs. Philadelphia (34-33)
Scoring: Kings 13th (99.97), Sixers 23rd (97.1)
Shooting: Kings 24th (44.8 percent), Sixers 14th (45.7)
Scoring defense: Kings 29th (108.3), Sixers 11th (96.7)
Shooting defense: Kings 28th (48.0 percent), Sixers 18th (46.1)
Rebound differential: Kings 29th (minus-5.11), Sixers sixth (plus-2.40)
The link: Sixers coverage in the the Philadelphia Daily News,. Kings coverage in The Bee (Kings plus story on Kenny Natt; Marty Mac's World; Preview of today's game, Week ahead.)
The almanac: On this date in 1960, the Philadelphia Warriors defeated the Celtics in Boston 128-107 in Game 5 of the Eastern Division Finals, a game which featured an NBA Playoff record 169 rebounds by both teams. On this date in 1991, Phoenix guard and future Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson was honored by President George Bush as the 411th "Daily Point of Light" in recognition of Johnson's work in helping the youth of his hometown of Sacramento, CA. On this date in 2000, the Phoenix Suns Jason Kidd is lost for the remainder of the regular season after breaking his ankle in a 114-93 triumph over Sacramento at America West Arena. The following day the Suns announced that Kevin Johnson was coming out of retirement to help his former team in its time of need. Johnson, 34, whose career average of 9.2 assists per game ranks fourth in NBA history, had not played since the 1997-98 season.
At this point, Kenny Natt would love to be Paul Silas.
That's what he said in a round-a-bout way on Friday, when the Kings coach talked at length about his job and his future in an interview that led to my piece on the matter in today's paper. Like always, there was more material that went unused, and that included Natt answering my question about whether he had talked to other coaches who had been through a similar experience to his, that of the first-time head coach who inherits a less-than-flattering roster and runs the risk of being run out before he has even started.
"Paul Silas," Natt said inside Madison Square Garden. "I just saw him in Charlotte, and he said (how) he won 16, 17 games one year (Silas' 1981-82 Clippers went 17-65 in his second season as a coach after going 36-46 in his first season with the Clippers). He knows what I'm going through. He just said hang in there, learn from the experience, just keep working hard and things will work out for you. They always do."
Silas, of course, wound up working his way toward better times. His Hornets teams (in Charlotte and one season in New Orleans) were perennial playoff contenders during his five seasons with that organization, and his hiring in Cleveland in 2003 meant he would usher in the LeBron James era before he was fired near the end of the 2004-05 season. Silas added Natt to his coaching staff with the Cavs in 2003, pulling him away from Utah after nine seasons under Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
Having spent ample time under coaches with bigger names than his own, Natt said even the most experienced of head coaches would have had a hard time with the Kings' situation this season.
"I think this situation would've been a very tough situation for any coach, not imagining a rookie coach to be in this situation," he said. "Your talent is limited, your team is really diminished to young guys and you're just playing young guys. I don't think there's any veteran coach in this league who would play young guys this many minutes.
"And (I'm) realizing I've been on the other side too, knowing that you don't win with young guys in this league. I'm understanding of that. I'm enduring it, and it's part of the whole process of this team getting back on track again. I happen to be the coach that's in charge of getting it back."
Through that charge, Natt said, he has gained confidence in his own abilities.
"Now I realize that I can coach in this league," he said. "I know that I'm a coach in this league, (and that it's) just a case of being in the right situation with the right personnel..to make it happen."
After speaking with Natt before tipoff against the Knicks, I sought out a small group of players to discuss this topic with. In picking Kevin Martin, Francisco Garcia, Beno Udrih and Spencer Hawes, it was a mix of guys with qualifications to speak on the topic because a) they've been around through some of the recent coaching changes, b) have significant long-term financial commitments from the team and c) are considered significant parts of the future (for better or worse, in Udrih's case) and d) weren't rookies. And while players will certainly never be truly candid in this sort of situation when they are on the record, there is insight to be gleaned from their observations.
Only Udrih hemmed and hawed a bit, although he offered numerous positive observations as well. Martin, Garcia and Hawes all said they would like to see Natt return next season.
"I like what he has done, and the approach he has taken since he took over," Hawes said. "It's just the discipline, and what he brings from that aspect. The experience. He has been around a lot, he's seen it all and he can pass it on to us."
Garcia was an interesting one because of his love affair with Reggie Theus. The two were tight from their Louisville days. And while Theus was certainly hard on Garcia, he also gave him a larger role than he'd ever had before. After Theus was fired, one post-practice moment captured the perception in-house in regards to Theus and Garcia. Garcia was arguing with his veteran teammates - no one moreso than Bobby Jackson - about a controversial finish to a scrimmage, when forward Kenny Thomas grew tired of the scene and walked off the floor yelling, "Reggie Theus has created a (expletive) monster!" All that being said, Garcia spoke very favorably of the job Natt has done.
"After Reggie left, I didn't know where I was going to be," Garcia said. "But with me and (Natt), he has treated me as a leader of the team. We have a great relationship. I like him. I hope he sticks around."
I asked Garcia about Natt's learning curve, and how players often said while Theus was around that they had to remain patient as the rookie coach learned on the fly.
"You can tell he's still learning stuff, but it's different, a different style, a different mentality," he said. "I like him. It's very disciplined."
Is discipline as important as one would think when it comes to an NBA team?
"Of course, especially with a young team like us," Garcia continued. "It's just preparing. He doesn't let a lot of things just go by. He takes care of it right there and there's no BS. Of course, yeah. (It's important) especially with how we get along. We get along very well, and I think it's good."
As a disclaimer when it comes to Udrih, he typically stays a mile away from anything controversial. He always yields to the coaches or the management when asked his opinion on different matters. He did, however, chronicle some of the on-floor improvements when it comes to offensive proficiency.
"When he took over, we were all out of it a little bit," Udrih said. "(But) he's learning what certain players can do, where I feel comfortable, where Kevin feels comfortable, and we're just playing. Today (against the Knicks), we played a lot of pick and rolls (which is) what I like, played a lot of movement (offense) like Kevin likes.
"Jason (Thompson) and Spencer, we dropped them under the basket because (the Knicks) were playing with a small lineup, so I was telling Kenny, 'They can't guard us under there, so we'll look for (them). They did a good job."
Natt's NBA experience, Udrih said, is a relevant part of his resume'.
"His positive thing is he has been in the league for a long time, and he has been on winning teams too," Udrih continued. "That's a good thing. He has a lot of things that he can teach us from what he saw in the league, so we just have to stick together and listen and keep learning, learning and getting better. That's our goal, for next year especially."
There are a few things that could help Natt return. Closing out a few close games down the stretch would be key, as the Kings are 3-13 in games decided by six points or less since he took over on Dec. 15. There have been some puzzling decisions just before the buzzer that created rumblings from in-house that he needs to be more creative.
The February trades combined with Natt asking more of Thompson and Hawes by going through them often on offense has led to their crucial progression. And while I'm not sure whether Andres Nocioni is coming back tonight, the rotation between the veteran small forward and rookie Donte' Greene is something to watch as well.
While one could assume there is pressure to get Greene consistent time down the stretch of this season, the differences in styles of those two players means it can be a tricky thing. If Natt could find a way to get his bosses excited about Greene's play at the end of this season, that couldn't hurt his cause. Wins or losses aside, the goal is this: a competitive game in which the young players get significant floor time while the veterans feel as if they aren't handcuffed when it comes to keeping the Kings close or even pulling off the win. It's not easy, but it's a head coaching job. One Natt hopes to hold onto. - Sam Amick