Theus boldly demands Kings do things his way

Confidence surrounds Reggie Theus like clouds do Seattle. It’s hanging from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s on that list of seven former NBA players, the only ones in history with at least 19,000 points and 6,000 assists. It’s in his message. His delivery. His endless belief this is the best way to coach today’s multi-millionaire basketball player.

Save a good thought for Theus.

He will need every last one.

This is not the same NBA in which Theus played 13 seasons, but that isn’t deterring him from educating in the same manner he learned at the pro level. His resolve is admirable, but the road is sure to be unstable. History promises as much.

Theus, in his first season as coach of the Sacramento Kings, watched his team lose its preseason finale Friday, falling to the Lakers 101-97 in the arena where his retired No. 23 UNLV jersey dangles.

He is staring at what many regard as an impossible task, to make a playoff team out of one that doesn’t appear athletic or strong enough to avoid fifth place in the Pacific Division.

To not only keep the train from completely running off the tracks after last season’s 33-49 debacle but also to steer it back to a postseason berth once ensured to hoop fans in California’s capital.

NBA head coaches who arrive from a college sideline — as Theus did from New Mexico State — have historically failed like a mom-and-pop bookstore across from Barnes & Noble. Jerry Tarkanian. John Calipari. Mike Montgomery. Lon Kruger. Rick Pitino (post-Knicks). Coaches who are among the nation’s finest at motivating players between sociology and English classes have found success stubbornly elusive with players supported by long-term contracts.

“A first-year head coach has to adapt to that role and not think they know everything about the NBA game, even if they played it,” said Stu Lantz, the longtime Lakers color analyst who played nine NBA seasons. “A lot of times, a first-year coach isn’t equipped to deal with all the little nuisances that come from sitting in that chair.

“You have to somehow teach today’s player to be self-motivated, as strange as that sounds. At this level, motivation comes from within.”

Theus has chosen an assertive approach. It could work and create a harmonious roster or pretty much alienate the entire team. Winning and losing will decide which happens. It always does in a players’ league where stars dictate everything. It’s the only thing that matters.

His demand for discipline was immediately apparent when Theus told players he would enforce a midnight curfew on nights before road games and that no cell phone use would be allowed while riding on the team bus. Our best guess is he delivered the new rules by shielding himself behind 7-foot center Brad Miller in case Ron Artest was within swinging distance.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem with it when I was playing because we had a curfew back then. We had rules,” Theus said. “It has to be about the game, and if you fight me on it, you’re telling me you’re not concerned about the game. If you’re out at 1 a.m. instead of at the hotel with your teammates, the game isn’t a priority.

“I’m not asking them to do anything they shouldn’t want to do on their own. I’m just the guy who’s not afraid to implement these things.”

That sounds great in late October, but 35 wins for the Kings seemed improbable even before Friday, when it was learned point guard Mike Bibby will miss at least six weeks with a torn thumb ligament. Also, Artest already must sit out the season’s first seven games after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.

NBA players aren’t quick to bestow respect on any young coach, although Theus’ playing career will net him some with those who actually know of his accomplishments, a number unknown given the self-absorbed manner of many in the league. But if the losses begin to pile up (and what makes you believe they won’t?), you can bet rules restricting freedom other teams don’t employ won’t be welcomed by today’s player.

The good part is, it might take some attention away from Sacramento’s crumbling frontcourt and feeble bench and, well, Artest’s next forgettable act.

Save a good thought is right.

“I think I’ve earned the right to say this is how things are going to be without anyone saying I don’t know what I’m talking about,” Theus said. “I’ve done it.”

Easy for him to say.

Back when Theus played, there were no cell phones.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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