Pete D’Alessandro just made the most important personnel decision of his professional career. The Kings’ second-year general manager wanted to hire George Karl, argued his case and found principal owner Vivek Ranadive on the same side of the table.
This was a plan, not a plot.
This is progress.
Ranadive, who hired and fired Malone, is like a lot of other neophyte NBA owners. They spin pennies into millions and millions into billions. But the smartest ones realize that running a franchise is nothing like creating software or manufacturing widgets. They hire capable basketball executives, entrust and empower them to dictate the direction of the franchise, then take a back seat.
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So Ranadive deserves some serious props here. He is making the transition. He recognized that his players were in a prolonged funk and his fan base was infuriated, and gave his general manager the tools to do the job and told him to fix the mess.
The Karl hiring immediately answers one very large question: With the Kings’ ownership group unusually large and at times unwieldy, with opinions more varied than those expressed in a political debate, who has Ranadive’s ear?
D’Alessandro. Clearly D’Alessandro. While it took two months and a protracted player protest – subconscious or otherwise – D’Alessandro finally got the girl. Karl was on and off D’Alessandro’s list for months, perhaps longer. The two enjoyed a cordial professional relationship before both departed the Denver Nuggets after the 2012-13 season. Kings assistant GM Mike Bratz and analytics expert Dean Oliver also worked for the Nuggets at the time and share similar perspectives about the incoming coach.
“I was blown away by George when I worked with him in Denver,” D’Alessandro said during lunch at a Manhattan hotel. “He is an impressive guy. I think any time there’s a coaching vacancy, if you’re a serious team, and George Karl is a free agent, he should be the first name that pops into your mind. He’s top tier, both in terms of basketball acumen and what he has accomplished.”
In many respects, Karl, 63, was an easy sell. His list of accomplishments takes up two full pages in the NBA media guide section on all-time great coaches. Known for transforming losers into winners, he guided his last three teams (Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver) to playoffs in 18 of 19 seasons. His Bucks missed the postseason with a 41-41record in 2001-02. He hasn’t tasted losing since 1987-88.
His defensive philosophy is rooted in forcing turnovers, disrupting an opponent’s rhythm and creating transition opportunities. Offensively, he moves players around the court to avoid becoming predictable and is masterful at misdirection plays. He also is engaging and charismatic, and far from the retiring type; there is no doubt who commands a room.
Though the Kings’ original plan was to allow Tyrone Corbin to coach the remainder of the season, the recent struggles prompted a pre-emptive strike. Nine-game losing streaks and a stretch of 10 defeats in 11 games doesn’t give pause, it causes ulcers. Ranadive appeared visibly embarrassed during home games before the All-Star break. D’Alessandro, an attorney and former agent, seized the momentum and made the change, the awkward circumstances notwithstanding.
There is never an ideal time to fire a coach. There is no easy time to say goodbye to the temporary replacement. Coaching bad teams in the NBA can feel like a life sentence, though for Karl, this is the life he has forever embraced. All he wants to do is coach. All he has ever wanted to do is coach. Between NBA jobs, he coached in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association and in the European leagues. His recent gig as an ESPN analyst merely kept his seat warm for his next NBA job, with Sacramento always near the top of his wish list.
His oft-stated affinity for the community is genuine. While several NBA coaches and executives monitored the relocation rumors and feared for the franchise’s existence in Northern California, none was more vocal or inquisitive than Karl. And among Kings fans, the league’s 2012-13 Coach of the Year was the people’s choice, as evidenced by formal and informal polls, by the numerous calls to Kings executives, and by the grass-roots movement and the “We Want Karl” signs in Sleep Train Arena in recent weeks.
As a relaxed, upbeat D’Alessandro poked at his lunch, he spoke about his new coach and the organization’s changing dynamic in excited, animated bursts.
“Vivek is thrilled,” he continued. “His only goal is to put a winner on the floor. To step up during the middle of the season and make this commitment is huge. When a guy like George Karl is available, you say, ‘What better person to start turning your organization around?’ He sees the game the way I do, our front office does, Vivek does. We all know we have the right person to guide the team. That’s a huge starting point.”
Asked about the possible (and inevitable) disagreements between players and Karl, and between front-office executives and Karl, D’Alessandro laughed.
“If we’re going to be a great organization, and we are,” he added, “there will be those moments. But when you trust and respect each other, you work through them. George is going to be great. The players will get this, too. He makes the game fun, and the players want to enjoy playing the game again.”
Ball and body movement. Passing and cutting. Eventually, more winning than losing before old Sleep Train Arena is abandoned. Basketball as fun again. Indeed, a novel concept.