In a matter of days, Kings vice president Vlade Divac slid a spatula under the roster and turned it over like an omelet. He executed a series of sweeping moves that included a controversial trade, three significant free-agent signings, and a sweetheart deal that secured the return of one of the team’s most popular players.
These were Divac’s decisions. Whether they were prudent or ill-advised, motivated by pressure before the team moves into a new downtown arena in the fall of 2016, remains to be seen.
But it starts with the fundamentals, with emulating the San Antonio Spurs, with remembering how it felt to be among the league elite. The best organizations attract the best players for a reason – several of them actually – and adhere to the most basic of principles: The basketball executives assemble the roster, the coach is empowered to coach the players, and the owners are attentive but not intrusive.
Anyone else notice principal owner Vivek Ranadive’s silence while his rookie executive wheeled and dealed the past few weeks?
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I called Vivek and told him what we wanted to do and he said, ‘Vlade, do what’s best for the organization.’ He gave me a lot of freedom. He is impatient, like me. We have a lot of similarities even though he’s from India and I’m from Serbia. And we both really love to talk basketball.
Kings vice president Vlade Divac
Ranadive’s lower profile hints at something more than a baby step. This is serious progress toward re-establishing a sense of order and stability and shedding the organization’s reputation as the kings of chaos. While the front office is too thin – they need a salary cap expert and negotiator with collective-bargaining discussions approaching – the flurry of developments appears to have resolved the critical issue of who’s in charge.
This is Divac’s team. The Kings’ most successful run began with him in 1998. Trying to get back there begins with him again.
“I called Vivek and told him what we wanted to do,” Divac said, “and he said, ‘Vlade, do what’s best for the organization.’ He gave me a lot of freedom. He is impatient, like me. We have a lot of similarities even though he’s from India and I’m from Serbia. And we both really love to talk basketball.”
During an unusually active free-agency period, Divac’s dealings thrust the Kings back into the national conversation. His early moves were panned, and some argue the Kings gave up too many future assets for the sake of immediate improvement. We barely got to know Nik Stauskas, for instance.
But move by move, piece by piece, the talent level improved. These Kings are barely recognizable. Former Spurs swingman Marco Belinelli provides shooting. Omri Casspi, the popular forward who re-signed, adds shooting, desire and playmaking. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein brings length and rim protection, and he should complement All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. Veteran Kosta Koufos rejoins his former coach, George Karl, and a system in which he thrives. And while point guard Rajon Rondo commanded a whopping one-year, $9.5 million deal after a turbulent few months with the Dallas Mavericks, he fills a need for point guard depth and figures to be inspired as he embarks on his redemption tour.
“I’m somewhat amazed that we changed the face of the team,” Karl said. “I think Vlade has done a great job. We are definitely better than we were at the end of the year, more skilled, more versatile, with more creativity. It’s my job to figure it out.”
Next up? Solving the puzzle of Karl and Cousins. The relationship was toxic before Karl ever came to town, poisoned by the incendiary meddling of the All-Star center’s agents, Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana – the latter was on Denver’s staff when Karl was hired there and brought in his own assistants.
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And Karl is Karl. For all his brilliance, his people skills are ever evolving. Ditto for Cousins. For all his prodigious abilities, he still is learning how to be a good teammate – say his teammates – and has never guided his team to more than 29 victories.
“It’s the summer,” Karl insisted. “We’ll figure this out. Vlade and Cuz and myself will arrive at a common ground. It will be good.”
Divac, who openly acknowledges the strain, is committed to his coach and hopeful his center will embrace a faster-paced system. Divac has been consistent: Unless Cousins wants out and performs accordingly, he has no intention of trading arguably the most gifted big man in the NBA.
Yet as the boss, he has to take the lead. It is incumbent upon him to set and enforce the rules, to break bad habits and the temptation to overindulge. Coaches coach. Players play. The tenor and atmosphere are dictated by Divac, who has flourished with temperamental teammates (Vernon Maxwell), superstars on the decline (Chris Webber) and demanding coaches (Pat Riley).
“I want to put everything on my shoulders,” Divac said. “We are the Sacramento Kings. We play team basketball. George and I are fine. And I want to have an open relationship with DeMarcus. I want to see him the way he was in Spain last summer (with Team USA) – happy, having fun, like our front office now. It’s a good place to be. There is trust. I want to see that same thing in the locker room.”
Given the opportunity, Divac took the ball and ran with it. These are his moves, this is his vision. This is his team. That’s a start.