In the midst of this craziest of postseasons, when bigs and smalls are dueling in the conference finals, and with NBA trends forever in play, new Kings assistant general manager Ken Catanella is in town, digging in for the big fix.
Vlade Divac’s No. 2 man is young and ambitious and uniquely qualified. If Catanella were a star player instead of a rising front office executive, he would be a triple-double threat.
Salary cap expert. Analytics junkie. And the contact person for trade conversations and personnel moves. That last part of the job description? That’s the promotion. Catanella left a secure position as one of three assistant general mangers with the Detroit Pistons to assume a more influential role with a franchise still striving to establish stability and a defined structure.
“Ken is the perfect addition to what I was missing,” Divac said. “I know what I don’t know. I wanted someone who had a relationship with the league office, who was connected around the NBA, and who was very organized and detailed.”
By both appearance and background, Catanella, 42, is all of that. Almost bookish with his black-rimmed glasses and brushed-back dark hair, the latest addition to the Kings’ basketball operations department arrives with an old-soul résumé.
We want team basketball, ball movement, unselfish play, and individuals who fit our idea of our family. When I interviewed, Vlade (Divac) and I just saw the game the same way.
Kings assistant general manager Ken Catanella
The Carmel, Ind., native grew up in South Jersey and speaks with a distinct regional accent. He is a fan of all Philadelphia sports – which translates into hard-core – but after high school took his talents elsewhere.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1997, he played and worked in the front office with the Cologne 99ers of the German Bundesliga; interned with the Philadelphia 76ers while valuing publicly traded companies on Wall Street and providing analytics on stadium/arena financing proposals for professional teams; earned a master’s degree at Duke and served as a graduate assistant (2004-05) for Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski and expanded the team’s statistical models; joined the Pistons as director of basketball operations and, at ownership’s urging, was the sole front office survivor two offseasons ago when Stan Van Gundy took over as coach and basketball president.
Somewhere in there, Catanella spent three years as a leading salary cap expert at the NBA’s office in New York and a valuable resource during the collective bargaining negotiations in 2010-11.
“That wasn’t planned,” he said with a soft smile. “They just pulled me in.”
During a conversation at a restaurant near Sleep Train Arena, Catanella was thoughtful and engaging and, consistent with those close to the Pistons, came across as detail oriented, methodical and consumed by his profession.
His hobbies are basketball and business. Go figure. Other than working and spending time with his wife, Shannon, and three young children, he squeezes in an occasional game of pickup basketball. But now it’s about an opportunity that arose when Divac hired him based partly on strong recommendations from Van Gundy and his contacts in the league office. Coincidentally, Kings president Chris Granger also is an Indiana native and was among former Commissioner David Stern’s closest advisers during Catanella’s tenure with the league.
Thrust into a dysfunctional, tumultuous situation a year ago, Divac wanted someone who embraced a similar philosophy and whose skills and personality complemented those of director of scouting Mike Bratz, vice president of basketball strategy Roland Beech, director of player personnel Peja Stojakovic and new coach Dave Joerger.
Catanella, not surprisingly, gives nothing away in terms of the Kings’ roster. During an early lunch, he refused to discuss the future of center DeMarcus Cousins, point guard Rajon Rondo, forward Rudy Gay or any of the other players, saying, “We want team basketball, ball movement, unselfish play, and individuals who fit our idea of our family. When I interviewed, Vlade and I just saw the game the same way.”
Though Catanella’s responsibilities include putting together trade scenarios, managing payroll flexibility with the salary cap expected to increase from $63 million to $100 million as early as 2017-18, and maintaining relationships with his colleagues, he’s smart enough to know Divac runs the show.
Amherst coach David Hixon, in fact, cited intelligence among his former player’s major attributes. When illness sidelined Catanella during his senior season, Hixon made the 6-foot-2 shooting guard one of his assistants.
“Ken had a terrific jump shot, but he was slow and couldn’t jump,” Hixon said, laughing. “But here’s a story that tells a lot: We had lost to Williams seven straight times. We end up winning by 29 points. On the last play, the ball was thrown ahead to Ken, and instead of taking the last shot, he saw a big freshman kid trailing behind him. He passed, and the kid dunked it.”
Sounds like Divac’s kind of guy.