Dave Joerger has taken more bumpy bus rides than he cares to remember, though given his thirst for detail, he could probably sketch a credible map of the minor-league towns he passed through earlier in his career.
Bismarck, Rapid City, Fort Wayne, Black Hills, Sioux Falls – to name a few.
But while he has moved up and moved on, enjoying the NBA perks of charter flights, lavish hotels and generous per diem, don’t be surprised if the Kings’ second-year coach experiences an occasional flashback. He has been there and done that, and is acutely familiar with several elements of the upcoming journey.
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His roster is extremely young. His approach is pure textbook, which means teaching the basics of passing and cutting, setting screens, pushing the pace and defending without constant switching. His lineup also figures to be fluid and evolving, with a few of his players expected to shuttle between Sacramento and the team’s minor-league affiliate in Reno, preferably between snowstorms and road closures.
“It’s a challenge,” Joerger admitted as the final days of training camp neared, “but I don’t get frustrated. If you enjoy coaching, you enjoy whatever challenge it is. If that is to win 53 games instead of 51, or like our situation here, figuring how to get better, maybe take the degree of difficulty of a drill and back it up four or five steps, and start there. You try not to skip anything.”
This is consistent with the company line, the dramatic U-turn Kings general manager Vlade Divac executed at midseason by trading All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, essentially gutting a patchwork roster and committing instead to a youth movement and a massive rebuild.
The last time the Kings underwent personnel changes of this magnitude? That would be two decades ago, when former GM Geoff Petrie waived or traded most of his players following the 1997-98 season and replenished the talent pool with Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber, Jason Williams and coach Rick Adelman.
The stark difference between eras, of course, is reflected in the numbers. Divac and Webber were veterans entering their physical prime, while newcomers Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are in the twilight of their careers, meaning they won’t be around to savor the fruits of their labor or to complete the puzzle.
Is point guard De’Aaron Fox that special player? How good are rookies Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Frank Mason III? Can Harry Giles, another rookie, reclaim his spectacular pre-injury skills and explosiveness? Will Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis emerge as consistent contributors?
As Wednesday’s season opener against the Houston Rockets approaches, the one thing that can be said with certainty is this: Though the Kings are not projected to win a ton of games in Year 1 of their three-year plan, the dysfunction that has plagued the franchise the past several seasons is a thing of the past – for now anyway.
Principal owner Vivek Ranadive has stepped into the background and empowered Divac to run the front office, entrusting him to the make critical decision on Cousins and, more recently, to guarantee the final year of Joerger’s four-year contract.
“Vlade has put this program together,” Ranadive said, “and, at the same time, he wanted a coach who shared his vision. He recommended that we pick up the last year on Dave’s deal and I agreed. I think we’re on a path where we take a few steps back, but in the long term, take many steps forward. Vlade tried his best to make (the Cousins situation) work, but I think it’s going to prove to be a wise decision, and I’m very excited about the fact we have a long-term, stable program.”
Though Joerger is an old soul given his 20 years in the business, he is a frisky 43. During practices he can be seen scrambling around the court, enthusiastically conducting drills and offering instruction, and delegating less than many other NBA coaches. His intensity is unmistakeable, as is his sense of humor; he often lightens the mood with a stream of one-liners or a joke at his own expense.
“The thing about Dave is that besides the fact he really knows the game, he gives off a great positive vibe and is very confident,” said Kings center Kosta Koufos, who also played for Joerger in Memphis. “He is very motivational, too, which is important with all the young guys we have.”
Ranadive often uses the terms “work ethic” and “energy” when discussing Joerger and sees enormous benefits in having a youthful coach supervising a young roster. The major concern with George Karl during his brief tenure wasn’t his failure to get along with Cousins – Karl was only one of many – but his ongoing physical struggles, an issue most within the organization attributed to his two serious bouts with cancer.
“I think we’re lucky to have Dave,” Ranadive added, “not just the way he works with the front office, but the business side as well. He really embraces the ‘all for one’ mantra we keep talking about.”
Securing the final year of Joerger’s deal enabled him to relax and elicited silent sighs of relief among his assistants for obvious reasons. Owners, by nature, are not a patient bunch, and in a league where youth is served soda instead of postseason champagne, Charles Barkley might be the only man in America who expects the Kings to make the playoffs.
The coaching staff thus has been in develop mode throughout the offseason. The players have access to the state-of-the-art practice facility 24/7 and frequently took advantage of the amenities. Joerger, who inherited a deep, veteran squad in Memphis, and guided the Grizzlies to the playoffs all three years as head coach, often is found in his sparsely decorated office, watching tapes, making calls, revising his schemes to accommodate his talent.
These young and speedy Kings in no way resemble his Grizzlies, who were known for their halfcourt execution and a bruising defense anchored by Randolph, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen. So it is back to the drawing board and, in a sense, back to his roots.
“The minor leagues are a guard-driven league, a speed league,” Joerger said. “Your power forward sometimes could be a stretchable guy, so the court was always open. You didn’t have a lot of post-ups. With this group, playing four out and one in, that is the world we live in. Skilled, skilled, skilled. What we’re trying to do is open up those lanes.”
Kings assistant Duane Ticknor, who has been on the same staff as Joerger for the majority of his career, acknowledges the potential for a trying season in terms of wins and losses, but senses an excitement about the opportunity to start from scratch.
“Here you have a blueprint to do what you want, which is refreshing,” Ticknor said, “and I think Vlade and Dave have a great vision of what they want the team to look like in three years. Dave wants to play faster. I don’t want to say equal-opportunity offense, because your best players get more shots, but everyone needs to feel involved. He steals (schemes) from everybody, like most good coaches do, and I know he loves the European game. I think he watches as much video of the European teams as he does teams in the U.S. He loves the unselfishness, the way they spread the floor.”
Koufos senses a different dynamic because of all the changes, but welcomes the prospect of a more free-flowing game.
“I love to run,” Koufos said. “This brings back memories of my days in Denver. So we’ll see. It should be an interesting year.”
That might have to suffice.