Bernucca: Three interim coaches return, get a fresh start

On Monday, we looked at the three NBA coaches that will be starting fresh with their respective teams.

Each member of that trio has their hands full with rebuilding projects of varying sizes. Today, we will take an in-depth examination of another trio of coaches – those who took over during last season and will hold their first training camps with their teams.

Keith Smart in Sacramento and Randy Wittman in Washington both will have the opportunity to implement their own schemes rather than fine-tune or simplify the philosophy of their predecessors.

So will Mike Woodson in New York, who has a huge head start in talent but carries the extra weight of heightened expectations.

Let’s get right into it.

kings small logoKEITH SMART, SACRAMENTO: You have to wonder if Smart is becoming another of those guys who never gets a real chance. He had to clean up the mess in Cleveland before LeBron James arrived. Then he got a shot in Golden State, won the trust of his players, improved the team by 10 wins to 36-46 and was cleared out by new ownership, who wanted a bigger name. After replacing the soft Paul Westphal seven games into last season, Smart was retained and gets a full training camp – for a team whose ownership seems more interested in moving than winning.

Smart has shown that he will not let the inmates run the asylum; he had his differences with Stephen Curry in Golden State, played Isaiah Thomas over ballyhooed first-round pick Jimmer Fredette and moved Tyreke Evans to small forward, where his sub-par decision making would have less impact on the offense.

Keith Smart takes over as the interim coach of the Sacramento Kings

His staff includes long-time Mike Dunleavy disciple Jim Eyen and former players Alex English and Bobby Jackson.

IMMEDIATE GOAL: If the Kings are going to do anything more than lose two out of every three games – which is what they have done since Rick Adelman was shown the door in 2006 – Smart has to emphasize focus from his roster. There are some easily envisioned distractions, such as the franchise’s future in Sacramento, playing time for the unproven Fredette and Evans’ contract situation. And there is DeMarcus Cousins, a potential all-NBA talent who often is easily distracted. You might say Smart needs to install a defensive mindset, and you would be right. But you have to focus to play defense.

LONG-TERM GOAL: Find a way to get through to Cousins and develop his maturity. He is just 22 and nowhere near his ceiling as a player, but most of that growth potential is in the mental and psychological aspects of the game. His skills are good enough to build a franchise around, no matter where it plays its home games. Smart and his staff have two years to get that done, because Cousins becomes a restricted free agent in 2014.

wizards small logoRANDY WITTMAN, WASHINGTON: Wittman has an overall record of 118-238 as a head coach and never has been to the postseason. So why was he retained by the Wizards? Well, Washington was 7-4 when midseason acquisition Nene was in the lineup. And Wittman carried a much bigger stick than doormat predecessor Flip Saunders, benching established players for unproven youngsters willing to work harder and refusing to allow Andray Blatche’s cancerous attitude to poison his locker room.

In the offseason, the Wizards added longtime Spurs assistant Don Newman and former Timberwolves assistant Jerry Sichting to Wittman’s staff. Newman will be expected to improve Washington’s middling defense, and Sichting is a former point guard who can provide offensive direction. Both add experience and savvy to Washington’s staff.

IMMEDIATE GOAL: Wittman has to transform John Wall from a guy who just runs up and down the floor compiling stats and losses into a difference-maker more concerned with making the right play rather than the great play. Over the last two years, only Russell Westbrook has committed more turnovers than the 516 – nearly four per game – by Wall, who compounds his mistakes with unreliable shooting. If Wittman can get Wall to slow down, Washington’s rebuilding process will speed up.

LONG-TERM GOAL: There are many young players on the roster in Bradley Beal, Jordan Crawford, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton who either have tremendous promise or shown flashes of brilliance. The core of a solid young roster is in place; Nene is the current elder statesman at 30. Wittman and his staff have to develop consistency in a majority of these youngsters to create a deep, reliable roster that puts the Wizards back in the postseason conversation on an annual basis.

knicks small logoMIKE WOODSON, NEW YORK: Of the six coaches we have reviewed over the last two days, Woodson has the best qualifications. He has been coaching for so long that many forget how good a player he was. Much of his time as an assistant was spent under Larry Brown. He guided the Hawks from laughingstock to contender and was not afraid of confronting players. And he salvaged last season for the Knicks, reminding the roster that there are two ends of the floor.

Woodson’s staff of coaching lifer Jim Todd, hard-nosed Darrell Walker and soft-spoken Herb Williams has plenty of experience. Recently added was shooting specialist Dave Hopla. And the veteran roster will not need constant reminders to maintain focus and prepare properly.

IMMEDIATE GOAL: Woodson’s 18-6 mark after taking over for Mike D’Antoni could be partially attributed to his emphasis on defense, which should be easy to sustain with the offseason additions of Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer and Kurt Thomas. More important is finding a way for Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire to productively co-exist, which may take some time with a trio of new point guards. Finally, Woodson must remind his players that competing for a championship requires more than just talking about it.

LONG-TERM GOAL: You’re kidding, right? When’s the last time the Knicks had long-term goals?

(RELATED: Three new coaches have plenty of work to do in Portland, Charlotte and Orlando)

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Ugh says

    “LONG-TERM GOAL: You’re kidding, right? When’s the last time the Knicks had long-term goals?”
    I LOLed. I like the cut of your jib, son.

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