On the first day of training camp, head coach Keith Smart made a pact with his players. He sealed it with a handshake from each player.
ANDRIS BIEDRINS: “I was thinking, ‘Shake his hands or not?’ (laugh) He was like holding (his hand out), holding, holding. Finally I was like ‘OK.’ “
What was the pact? Basically, that they don’t take anything personal. Smart said he wanted to make it clear in advance that when he gets on them, he isn’t trying to dog them out, but trying to make them better. He wanted their approval to be hard on them at times without it becoming an issue, to challenge them without it turning into anything more.
That agreement was challenged in Friday’s win over Utah. During the timeout, at the 2:49 mark of the second quarter, Smart could be seen barking at his $80 million power forward, who then barked back.
KEITH SMART: “At times when you’re not doing what you need, I’m going to let you know. But also know that I don’t hang on to anything. It’s over. He was supposed to do something, and he didn’t do it.”
What didn’t Lee do?
DAVID LEE: “I had two plays that I should’ve to finish. He told me I needed to go up and stop being soft on the two finishes. Then I told him I got fouled on both. We exchanged a few words, but he knows the respect I have for him. He knows that was one of those heat of the moment — like we talked about with the referees, same type of deal — a heat of the moment play. At halftime, he said, ‘Look, I know you have a good heart, and know that you were just fired up.’ I wasn’t disrespectful to him in anyway. I have a lot of respect for coach and what he’s done with our team thus far. So it was just two hot heads going at it for about 10 seconds and then he patted me on the back and I patted him on the back and we were right back at it. We had a good run before the end of the quarter.”
Lee missed back-to-back gimmies inside late in the second quarter, one at the 3:21 mark and the other 20 seconds later. They came in the middle of a 6-0 Utah run. According to Lee, the exchange went like this:
I said “You’re right. I should have finished it. What was I thinking?”
He said, “Well finish it next time.”
I said (voice raising), “Well, I’m trying to finish it!”
He said, “You’ve been finishing.”
I said, “All right. Well, I’m trying.”
Lee, who spent five seasons in Drama Central while with the Knicks, said he knows that situation could’ve grown into something worse. And Smart knows how lingering feuds and poor communication can disrupt a locker room. He saw his share of player-coach beefs under Don Nelson — who had lenghthy issues with Stephen Jackson, Baron Davis, Monta Ellis and Al Harrington, to name a few. But both parties held this moment up as an example of the rapport and culture of accountability they’ve been able to build since the start of training camp.
SMART: “They know its not personal. They know it won’t linger. From the moment that happen to the time we went back on the floor, it was over. And that’s how I operate. And they know that. We’ve all agreed with each other with a handshake that I can coach you. And I recommitted that today at shootaround. ‘Do I still have permission to coach you to help us win basketball games? And they all agreed.”
Smart said he didn’t mind Lee barking back at him in the heat of the moment. He has said repeatedly that his coaching philosophy makes allowances for the fact that he is dealing with grown men. He said he recognizes they have feelings, big contracts and some bass in their voice.
SMART: “These are not my children. My children know not to say something and move on. But these are grown men. They are going to say things. I can’t treat this guy like a child. In the heat of the battle, he thought he did something the right way, I saw that it was wrong. But in the end, we came back together as a coach and a player, and that’s how we operate.
“We had a disagreement. We came back together. And now we’re going to go get ice cream.”