It was unclear whether Divac would have authority or if he’d be more of a figurehead. But it didn’t take long to figure out Divac was in charge of basketball operations – and that he had taken on a difficult job. The Kings were on their third coach of the season, and the offseason became dominated by talk of a feud between coach George Karl and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
Divac revamped the roster during the offseason but kept Cousins and Karl. Some of Divac’s moves were questioned, but the executive, who also now holds the title of general manager, is confident the Kings will be better this season.
With training camp opening Tuesday in San Diego, Divac answered some pressing questions about his hiring, last season and the upcoming season.
Q: When you were hired in March, how did you view what your job would be, and how has it evolved over the last six months?
A: Well, it really didn’t change anything. Like I’ve been telling the guys here, I really don’t care about titles. It’s all about being on the same page and being a team.
Why they brought me here was to help the organization slowly change the culture, think positive and make sure we start winning some games here. That comes from the culture, who you want to bring in the locker room. That’s the key.
I was the vice president, and now they’ve given me the GM title, but that really doesn’t matter.
That’s why we went after Rajon (Rondo), Marco (Belinelli) and even Caron (Butler). They’ve all won championships.
Vlade Divac, Kings vice president and general manager
Q: You accompanied the team on a trip after being hired in March. What did you hope to learn?
A: I asked to take the road trip so I could see the guys and what was going on.
Because from the outside, you don’t really know, so I took the trip with them and I had a better picture of what kind of energy is there, what’s happening, talk with the players and coaches and just observe. And that trip actually helped me out, seeing what we have to do and what we have to change to get better.
Q: Were there things as a former player that jumped out immediately?
A: The first thing I realized is we have a lot of talent on this team, but young talent, and we really needed some veteran guys to be a part of this team, guys that these guys can learn from.
And later on, when we started to be active in free agency, I knew exactly what we had to do and (who we had to) bring here in terms of helping DeMarcus and Rudy (Gay) and surround them with guys who know what it takes to get to the next level. That’s why we went after Rajon (Rondo), Marco (Belinelli) and even Caron (Butler). They’ve all won championships.
They didn’t understand each other, they didn’t trust each other, but that all comes from frustration from the previous year. Actually, years for DeMarcus (Cousins) and the last 30 games for Coach.
Divac, on the friction between Cousins and George Karl
Q: Did you see that what you were doing in the offseason was similar to when you arrived as a player in Sacramento in 1998, as far as the perception of the team?
A: I didn’t specifically look at it that way, but I knew it was possible.
Playing in L.A., the way they talked about the Kings, when I signed here as a free agent, my friends in L.A. asked me if I was crazy. And I like a challenge. I’ll go there; I’ll be part of the changes and somebody who can shift that (perception).
Same thing here. I knew I could bring some positives. I was confident that it was possible. If you ask me if I knew, I’d say I was about 50/50. But now I know we are on the right track.
Q: What was your plan to settle things when the George Karl-DeMarcus Cousins situation became national news?
A: I knew why (there was a problem). There was a lot of frustration with everybody, and (everyone) just needed time to get out of here, spend some time in the summer away from basketball, away from the pressure, the media.
I was hoping I could use the summertime to individually talk to Coach and DeMarcus and find the right moment to bring them together. And I really didn’t pay attention to what people were saying about Coach and DeMarcus. I know he’s one of the best coaches and he’s one of the best players. They didn’t understand each other, they didn’t trust each other, but that all comes from frustration from the previous year. Actually, years for DeMarcus and the last 30 games for Coach.
My job was to take them away from each other and make sure I build the trust and start fresh. And I’m so happy with the meeting we had in Las Vegas, and they realized only together we can do it and separately we’re not going to do it, no matter how much talent and experience we have.
And now we are on that page. Everybody. Not just DeMarcus and Coach but (assistant general manager) Mike (Bratz), the front office, coaches, players. And that’s what you need to hear.
I realized we had 29 wins last year, the most we’ve had the last five or six years. I was like, ‘Oh, come on. We can do more.’ And the way to do it is to bring in proven winners.
Q: What led you to wait things out instead of trying to intervene sooner, such as before the draft and free agency?
A: Experience in my years working. When I came back here, people were saying, “Vlade has no experience,” but I had 10 years working in sports management after I retired.
You don’t want to force things. When you force things, the outcome is usually negative. If you let things cling by themselves, then it’s much better to build on that foundation. So I was very confident things would come together, because they’re both winners. They both like to win. They don’t like to lose. And our problem in previous years was we tried to point fingers, and we don’t want to do that.
Q: How did you figure out how to work the salary cap and the details of the draft and free agency? Who did you lean on in those areas?
A: I leaned on Mike Bratz. He’s a guy who’s been in basketball for 30 years and a big help in the process.
My idea was: If you want to change the culture, you can’t do it overnight, and you can’t do it with the foundation we had. So many young guys, and we had to do something completely opposite.
So when we decided to go after the crazy trade that everybody thinks was stupid, I knew that down the road that was the only way. Because we don’t want to rebuild, we don’t want to take time – we want to win right now. This franchise and these fans deserve to have a winning team after suffering for 10 years.
I realized we had 29 wins last year, the most we’ve had the last five or six years. I was like, “Oh, come on. We can do more.” And the way to do it is to bring in proven winners. … I knew on paper we looked good, but when I look through the window (from his office to the practice court) I know we did a good job of changing the culture. Guys, two weeks before training camp, were here to work out on their own.
(Rondo) reminds me of the time when nobody wanted to come here, and it’s a challenge to prove them all wrong. That’s what (situation) Rajon is in … and I believe he’s going to do that.
Q: The “stupid” trade was the one that sent Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and Nik Stauskas to Philadelphia. You received no players who will be on the roster this season and could have to swap picks with the 76ers in the near future. Was the thinking that the team didn’t need more young players and you needed salary cap room?
A: I liked all three guys.
Nik, Carl and Jason all did a good job for this organization, and Nik is a guy I think can have a decent career in the NBA. But the idea was we gave up Nik, Carl and Jason and we got (Kostas) Koufos, Belinelli and Rondo (in free agency). That’s a pretty good trade, right? It’s pretty simple.
Q: It’s hard to be in the top eight in the Western Conference; what kind of expectations do you put on this roster?
A: It’s a challenge. It’s all about us – actually them in the locker room to decide what they want to do.
We are here to be at their service and help them achieve their potential, and I really believe in their potential and their talent. And if you’re asking me what we’re looking for this year, we’re looking to be a winning team. To be right there, over .500, which is probably going to put us right in the fight for the playoffs.
Are we going to be a playoff team? I don’t know. It’s tough in the Western Conference, but we’re going to aim high.
Q: What do you see in Rondo that can help the Kings?
A: I see a leader. I see a coach on the floor. I see a veteran guy who knows what it takes to win.
I didn’t take a chance with Rajon, because I know what I’m getting – somebody who’s won a championship, somebody who knows how to play and a very intelligent guy – and I’m happy that he chose to come here. He reminds me of the time when nobody wanted to come here, and it’s a challenge to prove them all wrong. That’s what (situation) Rajon is in … and I believe he’s going to do that.
In the system George runs, I think (Rudy Gay) might fit the best of anybody. ... So I think he’s going to have a wonderful season.
Q: Critics would say Cousins is not a winner because of the Kings’ record since he’s been in Sacramento. Is that fair, considering the circumstances in recent years?
A: Is it fair or not fair? I don’t know. He’s a professional. People say he’s not a winner, he’s got to prove that he is a winner.
If you ask me, I say he is, but you can’t do it by yourself. You have to have help from the front office, to surround you with players who are going to get you to the next level, and that’s exactly what we tried to do. And not just DeMarcus – Rudy, too.
Q: What do you see Gay, coming off a good season statistically, being able to do in a full season under Karl?
A: I love Rudy very much. I think he’s beautiful to watch. He’s so talented and perfectly built for a basketball player, and he can play any position.
And in the system George runs, I think he might fit the best of anybody. He can play (small forward or power forward), and George gives a lot of freedom to the players. So I think he’s going to have a wonderful season.
Q: Point guard Darren Collison was injured the last half of the season and didn’t play for Karl. How do you envision Collison working with Rondo?
A: Well, I’m not going to tell Coach what to do, but I really trust he’s going to manage that very well.
Personally, I see them playing a lot of minutes together, because Darren is a great point guard but also a two guard. He can play combo … when Darren, Rudy and DeMarcus played together, our team was pretty good. But unfortunately injuries happened, and they didn’t play together as much.
Q: Do you think the team is ready for more national attention, especially because there’s an expectation of an implosion?
A: You’re going to have people do that, but you’re going to have people who are wishing for us to succeed. It’s the NBA, and there are agendas.
I knew in the summertime a lot of the stuff they were talking about was because of free agency and agents trying to find jobs for their clients and putting pressure on me and the front office. But I don’t care about it. I know the guys we brought in are good people. They like to work hard, they want to have fun, and that’s very important to me.
Q: You were drafted by Jerry West, now with Golden State. You’ve worked with Mitch Kupchak when you were with the Lakers and you know Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in San Antonio. Is it fun to match wits with them in this job?
A: I have so much respect for those guys, and one of the things I did before I came here was talk to them to get some input. They were a big help to me. I know they’re always going to be on my side, and I’ll root for them as long as we’re not playing them.
Q: Former Kings general manager Geoff Petrie signed you as a free agent, and now you’re working in his old office. How odd is that?
A: We never talk too much, but we care about each other. My family loves his family, and I’m sure they follow what we do.
But he’s one of those guys who gave me advice. We had lunch a couple of times, and it’s a great feeling to know he’s here and I can pick up the phone anytime I want and he’ll always be ready to help.
Key dates for Kings
- Tuesday: Training camp opens at UC San Diego
- Oct. 3: Training camp concludes
- Oct. 5: First preseason game, at Portland, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 8: First preseason home game, vs. San Antonio, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 28: Season opener, vs. L.A. Clippers, Sleep Train Arena, 7 p.m.