Kings general manager Vlade Divac wasn’t going anywhere. Sacramento is his adopted hometown and, having demolished the roster within the past several months, he has every intention of sticking around and overseeing his rebuilding process.
Besides. The owner loves him.
No, the wild card here is coach Dave Joerger, who last May signed a three-year contract, with the team option for a fourth. The owner loves him too, but more importantly, Vivek Ranadive apparently realizes that the most difficult personnel decision every franchise confronts is identifying the best coach available and then locking him up for as many years as possible.
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Picking up the option on Joerger’s contract – and pairing him with Divac at least through 2019-20 – was a shrewd business move, but it was also the right thing to do. Just wondering: Do the Kings get points for good karma?
Unlike Divac, Joerger isn’t an icon. He wasn’t handed the keys to the Kingdom, empowered to assemble a front office and make controversial personnel moves, say, like trading All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. Joerger was hired because of his reputation as one of the league’s most impressive young coaches, widely praised for leading a veteran Memphis Grizzlies squad to playoff berths in each of his three seasons.
He left on bad terms with the Grizzlies? True. His relationship with their front office and ownership frayed? Also true. That’s life in the NBA. But so is this: This deal in Sacramento threw him a nasty curve. He signed on for one job and essentially found himself working in another department when Divac scrapped the initial plan – to cobble together an unbalanced-but-veteran club and take a run at the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference – and took a chisel to the roster.
Cousins and Omri Casspi were dispatched at the trade deadline. Matt Barnes was waived. Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, Anthony Tolliver, Ben McLemore, Aaron Afflalo were not retained in the offseason. Rudy Gay wasn’t wined and dined by the Kings and declined to exercise his $13 million option.
The 2017-18 Kings are a kiddie corps, diaper dandies with a few graybeards. Ten of the players projected as current or future contributors are 25 years old or younger, with De’Aaron Fox and Harry Giles still in their teens and Georgios Papagiannis just past his 20th birthday.
Joerger says he was forewarned about the possibility of a total renovation, but the developments nonetheless were jarring. As his duties changed, from overseeing a playoff run to developing young players while trying to prevent the remaining veterans from jumping overboard, he appeared even more intense than usual. He also had to look in the mirror and ask one very critical question – was he all in? – and then convince Kings officials that he could commit to their long-range blueprint.
Human nature suggests this was not an easy answer, for a number of reasons. Start with the fact Joerger was a stranger to losing until the Kings went 32-50 last season. Prior to going 147-99 in Memphis, he led five teams to championships in three different minor leagues, twice earning Coach of the Year honors.
Then there is his age. He is only 43 and extremely ambitious and, like his colleagues, acutely aware that coaches get fired long before politicians are booted because of term limits. Additionally, if he had any desire to pursue a position with another franchise, his declining win-loss record certainly doesn’t enhance his prospects.
So the Kings did exactly what needed to done. They assured their talented head coach of a salary for three more years, providing a semblance of security for his wife and two daughters, while further stabilizing the organization and sending a powerful message to the players.
During Wednesday’s media gathering, Joerger recalled conversations when Divac expressed reservations about Cousins’ future and asked how he would feel if the decision was made to rebuild with draft picks and young players.
“We hit it off,” Joerger said, “and that was shared. ‘What do you think? How would you go about your business if we did that?’ That’s when I felt, ‘I’ve got his back, he has my back, because this may change.’ I appreciate how he has sorted this out. He has done the heavy lifting.”
Asked how much Wednesday’s developments eased his anxiety, he added, “We have to develop guys; we have to be patient. But this is kind of a relief, just that added stress on you. You can relax a little bit. You think, ‘OK, what is De’Aaron Fox’s shot going to look like in two years?’ It does feel good.”