Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Sacramento Kings franchise shaken by Malone’s firing

The Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive talks with head coach Michael Malone before their preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena. Ranadive fired Malone a short way into the regular season, and the Kings - already slipping - have struggled ever since.
The Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive talks with head coach Michael Malone before their preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena. Ranadive fired Malone a short way into the regular season, and the Kings - already slipping - have struggled ever since. hamezcua@sacbee.com

For all the investment of regional passion and millions of public dollars to keep the Kings in Sacramento, the organization remains as fragile as a dove’s egg.

The fan base has been roiling since coach Michael Malone was fired, a move followed by a regression in team play that ruined a promising start to the season. The culprit, in the eyes of some, is the same franchise managing partner who just weeks ago was still feted locally as a savior.

Suddenly, Vivek Ranadive, architect of a new vision for the Kings, was Vivek Ranadive the meddler. He was the Silicon Valley guy who thought he was smart enough to micromanage an NBA franchise when his only hoops experience had been coaching his daughter’s youth team.

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell cited Randive’s kid-coaching experience in an essay promoting Ranadive’s brilliance as a tactical mind. It was great reading, but Gladwell knows nothing about NBA basketball.

The Kings have been getting manhandled by the dregs of the NBA since Malone was canned Dec. 14 – a sucker punch delivered late on a Sunday night.

Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter to the fan base that this same ownership group had spent more than $500 million to prevent the team from relocating to Seattle.

It didn’t seem to matter that an arena for the Kings to call home is growing every day – against once mountainous odds – in a big hole in downtown Sacramento where a dead mall used to rot.

It didn’t seem to matter that Ranadive had so recently shouted to these same fans, “This is your team!” and that they cheered with joy.

In two weeks’ time, an organization of alpha males and macho men was stripped of its mojo – just like that.

Players who had been so together – that had mugged for cameras as brothers in arms when the Kings signed forward Rudy Gay to a big contract – were now barking and scowling at one another. Team talisman DeMarcus Cousins was suddenly repeating his old habits: Yelling, complaining, lashing out at opponents, getting ejected from a game.

Taking a step back from the situation, one can’t help but marvel at the absurdity embedded in team sports.

The Kings and Sacramento are banking everything – a new ownership group, a new arena, an organization full of professional careers, bank loans, ticket sales, municipal bonds, millions upon millions of dollars – on a 24-year-old man-child in Cousins whose sense of being can be toppled like a newborn baby deer.

His play is brilliant, but he’s seething through this crisis. The whole team is seething. The whole fan base is seething.

Was Michael Malone really that great a coach to warrant a two-week slide in franchise fortunes simply because he was fired in a ham-handed way?

He wasn’t, at least not if you look at the numbers. After a fast start, the Kings had slid to 19th best in a 30-team league in defensive efficiency – billed as a Malone hallmark. When Cousins wasn’t on the floor, the Kings were the worst NBA team at defending the basket.

Even with Cousins, they had blown huge leads and lost winnable games. When Cousins went down with viral meningitis, there was no rallying – only more losing. They were losing when Malone was fired, and they’ve continued losing since.

What if the Kings had waited until now to fire Malone? Would there still be a public furor?

The answer doesn’t matter because it’s clear what the problem is: They fired the guy who represented stability at the heart of the franchise – the basketball operations.

Clearly, the Kings were a sub-average team playing over their heads in a spate of success that could not have been more fragile.

Firing Malone cracked that egg.

It’s not as if Ranadive and Pete D’Alessandro, the team general manager, ran and hid. They spoke publicly right after the move. But their timing stunk. It created the false impression that the team is faltering solely because of Malone’s dismissal – when a team this fragile would have faltered for some other reason.

The franchise’s immediate problem, whether deserved or not, is that Ranadive and D’Alessandro are getting blamed for this. And it’s almost time for Kings season ticket holders to renew for next season – the packets normally go out in the mail soon.

How is that going to go over if those tickets come with a price increase? All of the Kings owners – not just Ranadive – signed on the dotted lines of major bank loans to finance the team and new arena – based on the premise that revenue would rise or at least be stable.

It is not an exaggeration to say that some of Ranadive’s partners in the ownership group are quite unhappy with the recent turn of events – and they want answers.

It is also not an exaggeration to say the city of Sacramento – as well as Kings followers throughout the region – have too much skin in this game for the franchise to appear so unstable.

The team will begin a media blitz Monday to try to counteract all the bad publicity. On Friday, D’Alessandro pledged that he is working hard to make the Kings better.

“We’re not done,” he said. “It’s only been 18 months and lot of positive things have happened.”

He mentioned what he and Ranadive have gotten right: Committing to Cousins, signing Gay and Darren Collison. He rightly said that despite the losing, the season is still young and the Kings are still only a few games behind teams that would qualify for the playoffs – something the Kings haven’t done since 2006.

D’Alessandro said he and Ranadive have great relationships with Cousins and Gay, the key Kings players.

“I’ve spent hours talking with them. They understand,” he said. What of reports that the players were mad because they learned about Malone on Twitter? “I’m trying to protect them and not put them in a weird spot by giving them too much information that makes them complicit,” he said. “It’s not their responsibility to deal with this. It’s mine.”

He also fully backed Ranadive: “He wants to win basketball games,” D’Alessandro said. “He doesn’t care about anything else. When you have ownership that committed to winning, it doesn’t fail.”

Ranadive built a software business on the premise of being an irritant – just as a grain of sand is an irritant to a clam during the formation of a pearl.

It’s a cool analogy. But clams don’t bite back when they’ve been irritated. Kings fans and Ranadive’s partners will if this keeps up.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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