Michael Malone had a hint of what to expect, though not much of a chance. Rookie NBA head coaches routinely are hired by organizations with losing records, flawed rosters, internal issues galore.
In the case of last season’s Kings, that very real dream sequence and miracle finish – the purchase of the franchise by the Vivek Ranadive group – occurred several months before opening night.
This year? Well, it actually rained Thursday. Start with that. Now we can look at Malone with a fresh set of eyes and begin to gain a clearer sense of who he is as a coach, what he learned during his inaugural 28-win season, and project whether the partnership among the owners, front-office executives and coaches is an enduring, effective union or a short-term deal.
With training camp beginning Friday, two of the most important elements to keep in mind are: (1) Only five of the current players were on the Kings’ camp roster a year ago, which means the team was broken and that an aggressive attempt is being made to fix it; and (2) while Malone and his bosses at times seemed to espouse conflicting philosophies – with the coach emphasizing defense while presiding over a sluggish, halfcourt offense, and the owners and front office consumed by visions of a free-flowing, entertaining uptempo style – the parties were all in agreement on the offseason maneuvers.
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The theme for 2014-15 already sounds more like a symphony. Darren Collison is a quicker, superior defender than the departed Isaiah Thomas. Rookie shooting guard Nik Stauskas oozes potential. Center DeMarcus Cousins and forward Rudy Gay are confident and conditioned, riding high with their FIBA World Cup gold medals. The hope is that the additions of Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins, Omri Casspi and rookie Eric Moreland will help satisfy both urges – enabling the Kings to run and defend.
“When I look back on last year, as I analyzed it, we probably spent 70 percent of the time on defense,” Malone said this week. “Because we didn’t spend the requisite amount of time on offense, the offense took a hit. It was holding. It was dribbling. It was one-on-one. Coming into this season, we can’t be 30th in assists. We can’t be 23rd in turnovers. Just have more ball movement, player movement. Rebounding, better defense, leads to offense. The phrase we are using is, ‘Trust the pass.’ ”
This is about the time Malone and his coaching peers should genuflect at the feet of Gregg Popovich, given the San Antonio Spurs’ dazzling dismantling of the Miami Heat. Nothing against the Heat per se, but the most respected coach in the league gave his peers some cover by reminding the world that overdribbling is a four-letter word and that it’s not OK. The indulge-the-individual AAU system stinks. Basketball is a game of movement, grace, skill, unselfishness. Simple plays. The extra pass. Quick decisions.
“We all looked at how they played and said, ‘That’s the right way to play,’ ” said Malone, long an admirer of Popovich. “Watching the international games this summer, that was beautiful basketball, too. It was constant passing and moving. There is no holding, no one-on-one, no isolations. We were missing that last year.”
Only half-jokingly, Malone characterized his busy offseason as a nonstop basketball tutorial/adventure. Besides prepping for the NBA draft, working out players, watching Team USA practices in Las Vegas and spending time with Cousins and Gay in Spain, he took long solo bike rides, occasionally round-trippers from his home in Granite Bay to Davis, often reflecting on last season.
There were sleepless nights, distracted moments and one troubling occasion midseason when his youngest daughter, 8-year-old Bridget, asked why he always seemed so mad.
“I took it to heart,” said Malone. “I knew this was going to be a tough job, but knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. That’s where my wife (Jocelyn) and daughters (Caitlin, 9, and Bridget) really help me. Both the girls are really good athletes – swimming, soccer, basketball – and I love ’em. But we’re wired differently. If they lose a game, it’s like, ‘OK, can we have a play date?’ If I lost a game when I was a kid, I cried. It was the end of the world! I’m trying to keep a sense of humor. Otherwise I’d go crazy.”
So back to the issue of trust in the extended family. Players won’t trust the pass unless they trust the coach, and despite the Kings’ trials last season, Malone was universally respected in the locker room. Cousins describes him as “real.” Gay portrays his coach as “a straight shooter” who refuses to play favorites.
When Malone was in Bilbao, Spain, he would meet with Cousins and Gay for dinner and discuss the upcoming season. Team USA succeeded, Malone noted, because star players sacrificed, accepted roles and played to their strengths. He wants Gay to move the ball quicker and is asking Cousins to average five assists per game.
“I told them, ‘You’re my leaders. You want to win; I want to win. Let’s do it,’ ” Malone said. “Everything that we’ve done this summer, the draft, the moves, Rudy and DeMarcus winning the gold medals, I feel really good about.”