Kings introduce Luke Walton as new head coach
Luke Walton is the new Kings coach because General Manager Vlade Divac doesn’t care what sports pundits think.
He doesn’t care if they slam him or make fun of his accent or if they view his decision to fire former Kings coach Dave Joerger as proof that the Kings are still dysfunctional after 13 years of losing seasons in the NBA wilderness.
Last week, Divac swiftly dumped Joerger despite the Kings finishing with their best franchise record since 2005-06. In no time, Divac was pursuing Walton, who was also fired last week by the Los Angeles Lakers.
And Walton joined Divac Monday at Golden 1 Center, where they were smiling, happy, ready to work together as “teammates.”
The key words from Divac on his new hire, new look, new pairing and new culture were these:
“We understood each other very well,” Divac said.
That, my friends, has been the compass in the life of Vlade Divac: Understanding.
We Americans undoubtedly underestimate how this Serbian man of peace has been informed by his war-torn country.
We forget how he played basketball with blood brothers who became blood enemies because their country splintered with Serbian players and Croatian players suddenly on opposite sides. Love was replaced by hate. Understanding gave way to discord. Close friends died and reconciliation never happened.
So now, if you really pay attention to what Divac says and what he does, he clearly has no time for discord.
Divac isn’t searching for Utopia. He knows the NBA is a cut-throat business. He knows that harsh words are part of the business. He gives as well as he takes.
But what Divac has no time for are people who cannot find a way to work within a structure where winning is achieved through understanding.
If you really watched the Kings bumble and stumble to the finish line, you wouldn’t be asking why Divac fired Joerger and replaced him with Walton. If you really listened to Divac when he talked about what is important to him, you wouldn’t be asking why Joerger was gone and why Walton is here.
That question has been asked and answered negatively by sports pundits who don’t regularly watch the Kings or listen to Divac.
Some people around Sacramento have wondered because a certain segment of Kings nation is starved emotionally and psychologically.
Fans have watched a team so central to Sacramento’s identity be so bad for so long that any kind of success seems like a gourmet meal to them. These poor souls are so starved for winning that they looked past the crumbs that Joerger was serving as the Kings went 9-16 after winning their 30th game on Feb. 10.
Which brings us back to critical questions, ones you would ask just by watching the games. Why did the Kings blow big lead after big lead? Why did they play down their competition? Why did they fail to show up in too many games?
Why did Joerger argue with guard Buddy Hield in a close game against the Golden State Warriors that the Kings lost when Hield hesitated when he should have been shooting? Why did Hield fade down the stretch?
Did you watch the pathetic final home game of the season when a raucous crowd was treated to one of the worst losses of the season in a defeat to an undermanned New Orleans Pelicans? Did you watch the Kings blow a 28-point lead in the last game of the season at Portland when the Trail Blazers weren’t even trying to win?
None of that was good or positive, collaborative, smart or strategic. What did a young group of players learn from these experiences? Well, they learned how blow big leads in games. They seemed to learn how to tune out their coach.
In January, when I sat down with Divac to write a profile about him, it marked the first time it crossed my mind that the Kings might be making a coaching change.
It happened innocently enough. I asked Divac about how Hield seemed to be responding well to Joerger getting on him constantly. I was surprised by the answer: “From a player’s perspective I’m sure (Hield) doesn’t appreciate it,” Divac said. Whoa.
Divac gave the impression that he was watching the situation closely. He talked about how he had told Kings owners to wait on giving Joerger an extension until the season was over. He wanted to see how the team would perform when the stakes were high.
It didn’t go well. Joerger never stopped being a prickly control freak. The players didn’t seem to be playing hard for him on too many nights.
Someone Divac truly wanted as coach would have solved this puzzle. Someone Divac wanted would have found a way to be bigger than himself and find a level of understanding that made winning possible.
For whatever reason. Joerger was not that guy.
The day after that Portland loss, Divac got a four-year contract extension and Joerger was gone.
Is Walton the answer? He is going to have to prove that he is. But Divac moved for him instantly because he saw a partner that he understood. They were teammates in Divac’s last NBA season, with the Lakers. They are both friends, communicators. They both clearly like people. They are not mercurial or tightly wound.
They understand each other. Understanding people and building a life of achievement are Divac’s legacy. Through these accomplishments he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Now, Divac hopes, understanding will be the glue that holds the Kings together all the way to a championship.