Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: What’s wrong with the Kings? Start at the top

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive sits at half court as the Kings keep the game close against the Lakers before before winning 102-92 on Monday, April 13, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif.
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive sits at half court as the Kings keep the game close against the Lakers before before winning 102-92 on Monday, April 13, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif. Sacramento Bee file

Months before moving into Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento, the Kings basketball operations remain a mess.

The team is a laughingstock nationally, having lost eight of nine games with highly paid Kings players giving far less than maximum effort. Point guard Rajon Rondo told The Bee’s Jason Jones that only three or four players even bothered to show up to practice Monday. “How can you expect to win?” Rondo asked.

How indeed?

This wasn’t supposed to happen. A new Kings ownership group with financial might and a desire to win was supposed to end the years of dysfunction Sacramento experienced with the Maloof family, the previous owners.

Sports colleagues can break down the dynamics of a team as doormats on the basketball court. For a general audience, the Kings story transcends sports.

Sacramento is heavily invested in the Kings to the tune of $272.9 million, the amount the city financed in general interest bonds to pay for its share of the $507 million Golden 1 Center.

The Kings are a big piece of a downtown revival engineered by Mayor Kevin Johnson. Golden 1 Center is rising on property that was the home to a dying mall and dying neighborhoods all around it. Investors have responded by buying long-dormant properties near the old Downtown Plaza shopping center where Golden 1 Center is being constructed. The Kings’ business and marketing operations have seized on this success and do a great job of selling a bad product.

Everything related to the Kings’ revival is working except for the key piece – the basketball operations. Why? The answer can be distilled to two words: Vivek Ranadive.

The mercurial managing general partner of the Kings ownership group is the one person who has had a hand in every questionable decision fueling the losing, a carousel of coaches, team discord and muddled messages emanating from Sleep Train Arena.

Just consider the events of this week: While Kings players were being routed in Cleveland on Monday after getting dominated in Boston on Sunday, rumors were rampant that coach George Karl would be fired.

Personalities on KHTK (1140 AM), the Kings’ flagship station, were preparing listeners for Karl’s firing. So was the national press.

Who is in charge? Ranadive is. But the more relevant question is: Who is leaking this information? Who’s managing this message? Because the Kings aren’t. It is being controlled by social media burning up with news that your coach is being fired while the coach is still employed. How long does that have to persist before someone puts an end to it?

General manager Vlade Divac finally did Tuesday, saying Karl is still the coach.

But the free flow of rumors conveyed that nobody knows what is going on and nobody controls the message. If this were the first time, it would be slightly more understandable. But it’s not.

This same scenario played out a year ago, when Karl was brought in months after Ranadive fired Michael Malone – the popular Kings coach who was the first person Ranadive hired when he took control of the Kings in 2013.

Malone lasted a year before getting the ax. Pete D’Alessandro, the first general manager hired by Ranadive, lasted about a year.

Everything related to the Kings’ revival is working except for the key piece – the basketball operations. Why? The answer can be distilled to two words: Vivek Ranadive.

The Kings had three coaches last season – Malone, Karl and a poor guy named Ty Corbin, who was set up to fail in the miserable few months he ran the team.

Less than a year ago, Ranadive hired Divac, the popular former King, to run the basketball operations. Did Divac have any experience as an NBA executive? No. Had D’Alessandro ever been a GM before? No.

Most organizations hire the general manager first and let him pick the coach. Ranadive did it the opposite way – twice. Both times, the organization discovered that maybe – just maybe – the pieces of Ranadive’s puzzle didn’t fit. That’s why Malone and D’Alessandro were sent packing and Karl seemed destined to be next, even though he was only hired a year ago this week.

After days of roiling social media buzz, Divac suddenly announced that Karl was staying. Divac said the Kings’ front office would work out its problems together. Left unsaid was that most of Karl’s $14 million contract is guaranteed.

You could imagine Ranadive’s partners balking at the idea of eating Karl’s contract and then being forced to ante up to hire another coach after eating the last two years of Malone’s contract. You could imagine Ranadive’s partners being fed up with the instability of annual coaching speculation and perennial losing.

All of it can be traced back to the frantic process of preventing the Kings from relocating to Seattle. Johnson had to lead an effort to build an ownership group at lightning speed or risk losing the team. Ranadive had been in a secondary role with the ownership group of the Golden State Warriors – the NBA champions who apparently are smart in all facets of their business.

In the spring of 2013, with NBA owners soon meeting to make a decision on the Kings’ proposed move to Seattle, Ranadive’s emergence kept Sacramento’s bid moving forward and projected much-needed viability.

His NBA experience helped him become the managing general partner of the Kings. At the time, euphoria over keeping the Kings drowned out all other team-related stories.

But the most important decision of all – who would run the basketball operations –appears to have been the wrong decision, spawning even more t wrong decisions.

Removing a managing general partner from a sports franchise is very uncommon. It’s only happened a handful of times and is usually related to defaults or other financial calamities that cause owners to buy each other out.

Whether Ranadive’s partners are nearing their limit with the man mismanaging their investment isn’t known.

But this much is certain: The Kings’ basketball operations remain a joke, locally and nationally. The team was just lampooned last week on “The Daily Show” . Temperamental center DeMarcus Cousins objected to the team handing out T-shirts commemorating the Chinese new year because, you know, they had monkeys on them and that was disrespectful at the start of Black History Month.

What? The lunar calendar – and the naming of years after animals – goes back 5,000 years. Only the most misguided thinking could perceive that as a slight to African Americans.

Yet under Ranadive, the misguided becomes the reality. Karl remains as coach, even though players are not responding to him.

No one is suggesting that Ranadive be ridden out of town on a rail. His emergence as a Kings investor helped keep the team in Sacramento. He still enjoys public goodwill for that, and deservedly so. Ranadive has been a great success as a Silicon Valley businessman, and his personal story as an immigrant who made his fortune in America is inspiring.

But all of his virtues – and the entire Kings enterprise – are compromised if the basketball operations is a punchline. No one expects an NBA champion at this juncture. But the team on the court isn’t even playing hard. There is a huge disconnect between players and Karl. Divac is trying his best, but he hasn’t even completed his first year in a job that is grueling under the best of circumstances.

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Add the information leaks, the PR pratfalls and the losing, and you have a mess. If you are going to enjoy the public adulation and the support of public funding, then you must be held accountable for what’s not working, too.

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