The Kings crossed off the first item on their offseason to-do list Thursday, firing coach George Karl.
Now the front office must convince candidates the Kings aren’t dysfunctional while trying to add another top executive to work with general manager Vlade Divac.
Divac said the Kings need a new voice after the team underachieved and missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. He said replacing Karl will be a “long process” but that with only 30 NBA head-coaching jobs, there will be attractive candidates.
“It’s a good team,” Divac said. “We have a lot of talent on our team. We have the best fans in the league. We have a beautiful new arena, probably the best in the world. Things are going to be different here.”
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But if the culture doesn’t change in Sacramento, it will be difficult to land an A-list coach. The Kings are seen around the league as a team with poor communication between the coaches and front office, and one in which players’ opinions carry too much weight under principal owner Vivek Ranadive.
The situation can be toxic for a coach, leaving him feeling undermined if his decisions aren’t supported by ownership and the front office, which Karl encountered this season.
Divac hopes to find a coach who can work well with him and communicate well with the players.
“We need open-ness,” Divac said. “We need a coach who can be on the same page with the front office and the players and make sure we are doing the same thing.”
Exactly what the “same thing” is remains to be seen. There are currently no plans to trade All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Much of the philosophy will depend on the coach and how he would use Cousins and other returning players.
Karl, the fifth-winningest coach in NBA history, was let go after going 44-68 in nearly 1 1/2 seasons in Sacramento. Divac said he wants a coach who will be around for more than a season. Under Ranadive, all three coaches have failed to last two full seasons.
According to league sources, Vinny Del Negro (a former Kings guard), Jeff Hornacek, Kevin McHale and Patrick Ewing are candidates to replace Karl. Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson and ex-Cleveland coach David Blatt also are expected to be considered.
Two of the top available coaches, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks, are considered long shots for the Kings, who will begin playing at Golden 1 Center next season, because Thibodeau and Brooks are expected to have multiple and more desirable options. Golden State Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton currently also is not expected to be a candidate.
When Karl was hired on Feb. 17, 2015, he was hailed as a coach who could lead the Kings out of their nine-year playoff drought and provide offensive excitement. Ownership and the front office had grown displeased with former coach Michael Malone’s defensive-driven style and replaced him with interim coach Ty Corbin on Dec. 15, 2014.
While the Kings became potent offensively under Karl, they didn’t establish a defensive identity, contributing to their 33-49 record this season.
Under Karl, the Kings won more games in 2015-16 than in any of the previous seven campaigns. But there were more valleys than peaks during the season – Karl was nearly fired in February.
“I can’t really pinpoint any one thing,” Kings forward Rudy Gay said. “When things happened, they happened, and then it all kind of fell apart at once. There’s a couple of things I can think of that could of happened or would have happened, but of course I’m not going to put that out there.”
Whether it was friction between assistant Nancy Lieberman and other coaches (one reason Vance Walberg was fired), between Karl and the front office or between Karl and the players, the 2015-16 season featured seemingly continuous drama.
Cousins’ verbal clashes with Karl escalated when Cousins lashed out at the coach during a game in March and Divac suspended him for a game. But sources say Cousins’ relationship with Karl was not a deciding factor in the decision to fire the coach.
“There were many, many more good days than bad days, but there’s no question this season had a lot of negative energy to it,” Karl said. “But I’m proud of how we persevered through it and actually became a stronger team.”
The last Kings coach to keep the job more than two seasons was Paul Westphal, who was fired seven games into his third season on Jan. 6, 2012. The Kings have had four head coaches since then. Since Rick Adelman was fired after a first-round playoff loss in 2006, the team’s last postseason, seven coaches have been hired and fired.
“It’s been so much turmoil,” Gay said. “There’s a lot of things you can think of, but at the end of the day, everybody’s got to look in the mirror and ask what can they do better and who needs to do more and whatever. We all need to figure out what we can do. It’s not just the obvious – coaching, stuff like that.”
Sacramento will know where it is slotted for next month’s NBA draft lottery Friday after the NBA’s coin flip to break a three-way tie for the eighth-worst record among the Kings, Denver and Milwaukee.
If the Kings aren’t in the top 10 after the lottery, their first-round pick will go to Chicago via Cleveland as part of the 2011 trade for forward J.J. Hickson.