Four years and many, many losses later, the Kings are breaking with tradition and approaching the offseason in a stable, professional, structured manner.
The coach is firmly in place. The owner who saved the team in May 2013 is reserving his scouting remarks for dinner table conversations. The roster is thin on talent, but young and hungry and evolving, with free agent vacancies allowing for flexibility. The franchise is no longer held hostage by the demands and moods of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
But at the moment, the most timely nugget for the 24/7 news cycle is this: General manager Vlade Divac is sticking it to social media these days. He isn’t laughing last, but he’s smiling. Contrary to persistent rumors, speculation, water cooler musings and NBA gossip rumblings to the contrary, the Kings’ center-turned-executive is fully empowered and overseeing operations.
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The much-debated Cousins deal was his trade. The directive to audition the younger players for the final weeks of the season came from his lips. The draft selections and/or draft day swaps – same as they were in 2015 and 2016 – will be his decisions. The hiring last week of Luke Bornn as vice-president of analytics and Scott Perry as executive vice president of basketball operations were his calls.
“I knew the staff I wanted to put together,” Divac said the other day. “There was always so much (drama) going on ever since I got here, it took up a lot of my time. Finally I have been able to find people who believe in what we are trying to do and who I am very comfortable with. I like our staff very much now, with Scott (Perry), Luke (Bornn), Ken (Catanella), Mike (Bratz), Peja (Stojakovic). We filled some holes.”
The basketball operations hierarchy is clear, and with the recent additions, there is a symmetry to the structure of the front office. Bornn, who was lured away from his position as vice president of A.S. Roma of the Italian Serie A soccer league, has his foot in multiple sports and disciplines. The British Columbia native has taught statistics at Harvard, co-authored six papers on defensive metrics, ball movement and real-time decision-making, and written extensively for the Boston Globe, ESPN the Magazine, Bleacher Report and Grantland.com.
But what most attracted Divac to Bornn was his ability to synthesize data and succinctly present information. Though Divac and head coach Dave Joerger value analytics as a tool in acquiring talent and coaching teams, neither perceives players as widgets nor believes players can be pieced together on assembly lines.
“Basketball is not science,” Divac said. “You have talent, you develop your players, you play hard. But you want to get players who complement each other, and analytics helps in that regard. Marc Gasol the other day said stats are killing the game because a lot of stuff that’s important can’t be quantified. Luke is able to identify what’s important and explain things in language we can understand.”
The addition of Perry, 53, is even more significant given his prominent role as Divac’s right-hand man, coupled with his experience in both the NBA and college ranks. Described as diligent, engaging and extremely intelligent, the new vice president thus fills that gaping hole in the front office. That he can schmooze with the best of them is no small attribute. The most successful NBA teams have someone – or sometimes more than one individual – whose relationships with college coaches, international and NBA executives and scouts afford access to practices, counselors, tutors, and, ultimately, to invaluable inside information.
Divac envisions Perry as a “boots on the ground” sort, an executive who cuts through the red tape and goes directly to the source. Before holding a similar position with the Orlando Magic for the past five years, Perry spent 12 years with the Detroit Pistons as a college scout (2000-02), director of player personnel (2002-07) and vice president of basketball operations (2008-12). During his tenure in Detroit, he worked closely with Joe Dumars putting together the teams that reached the NBA Finals in 2004 and 2005, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004.
Additionally, he was the Seattle SuperSonics assistant GM when the franchise drafted Kevin Durant, a head coach at Eastern Kentucky (1997-2000), and an assistant at Michigan, Berkeley and Detroit-Mercy.
One former Sonics coach described Perry as a “legitimate, capable basketball guy, and a great hire for the Kings, actually.” Sources in Orlando also praised Perry and suggested he was caught up in the Magic’s desire to make a clean sweep of Rob Hennigan’s front office.
With another draft nearing, the Kings likely possessing two lottery picks and his front office strengthened, Divac is enjoying something of an offseason winning streak. His two drafts (Willie Cauley-Stein in 2015) and (Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson) are looking better with age. His midseason swap of Cousins yielded rookie Buddy Hield, who finished strong, and a protected first-round pick. Additionally, the Kings hold the rights to Serbian star Bogdan Bogdanovic and will attempt to buy the versatile shooting guard out of his current contract this summer.
“I like the direction we’re going,” Divac said. “I keep hearing that we have a weak front office, and I’ll take all the criticism. But I don’t think that’s true. Our young guys got better, the chemistry improved, you could see progress. Now we are in position, because of good cap space, our picks and possible trades, to do some things. And we will be active. We don’t just want to build a team to get the eighth seed. We want to be more than that. We want to be the Kings that we were before – contenders for a title. We are working for that.”