The first thing you notice as you enter the inner sanctum of the Kings basketball operations at Golden 1 Center is that Luke Walton is on the job.
He is organizing workouts for prospective talent ahead of the NBA draft on June 20. The coach and Kings basketball boss Vlade Divac are full partners in all aspects of the operation – from assembling a coaching staff the team expects to unveil fully in the next week or so to watching film endlessly and rating free agents the Kings can begin to target on July 1.
This is the busiest time of the year for a Kings franchise aching to get it right after 13 dreadfully dismal losing seasons, the longest stretch of futility in the NBA.
All of this is happening at full speed and in real time, despite the allegation of sexual assault levied against Walton six weeks ago by Kelli Tennant, a former Los Angeles broadcaster who claims that Walton attacked her in his Los Angeles hotel room in late 2014.
That accusation was made public just one week after Walton was introduced by Divac to the Sacramento community at an ebullient press conference at the Kings practice facility on April 15. We haven’t heard a word from Walton since, save for the aggressive comments made by his lawyer to discredit Tennant.
So now, as an independent investigation into Tennant’s allegation is conducted by a local attorney with experience in sex crimes, Walton toils away from the microphones and at a safe distance from the cameras.
Meanwhile, Divac is making his first public comments since his hand-picked man, the cornerstone for his vision to raise the Kings to relevance again, remains silent during the process of vetting an unspeakable allegation.
Divac, who is the father of a daughter, said: “We’re taking the investigation seriously.”
“We’re trying to find out the truth,” he said. “The (investigator) was contacted by the Kings and the NBA. It’s independent. So until they finish, there is nothing to say there.”
Sue Ann Van Dermyden, a founding partner of law firm Van Dermyden Maddux, is leading the investigation. As Sam Stanton of The Bee reported in April: “Her firm has previously investigated controversial incidents, including an internal affairs review of Lt. John Pike, the UC Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed students demonstrating peacefully on the Quad in November 2011.”
Van Dermyden is a graduate of McGeorge School of Law and has a reputation for being tough and thorough.
League sources told The Bee this: That Divac was blindsided by the allegations against Walton. That the team did a background check on Walton that gave no indication of the looming public relations catastrophe that quickly followed his hiring. And that the team doesn’t currently know when Van Dermyden Maddux will finish its work.
That last bit of detail is quite something considering all that is in store for the Kings in the next three weeks. Now that the initial shock has passed, Divac is operating on parallel tracks.
He knows that the Kings as an organization must respect the findings of Van Dermyden Maddux no matter what they are. So the basketball work has continued and he hopes his plan for Walton as coach will be realized.
But right now, he has no way of knowing for sure. So he is projecting an air of determination. He will handle whatever happens.
When asked if he is confident if Walton will be his coach at the start of the next NBA season in the fall, he said: “I am. I’ve known Luke for a long time. On the other issue, we are serious. That’s why we (brought someone in). They are going to let us know and then we will make a decision.”
Just as Divac can’t call any of the free agents he is interested in until July 1 – or even get specific on which players he likes because the NBA would fine him and the Kings for tampering – he must let the Walton investigation play out while remaining silent about it.
But when asked about whether this summer has been the hardest since he took over the Kings, his answer was interesting.
“It’s easier,” Divac said. “Luke’s staff and my staff. We are not two divisions anymore. We are a team. We recognize the core that we have and the pieces we need to add but we’re on the same page. We are working together. I have a so much confidence he is going to make us better.”
Speculating between the lines, the “two divisions” comment seems like a description of the tension within the team last season under coach Dave Joerger. Though the Kings’ 39 wins were the most since 2006, he was known to be a prickly personality. The team blew several big leads down the stretch that crushed the Kings playoff hopes and raised questions of whether the young Kings had quit on Joerger.
Walton is supposed to be the antidote to the divisions between player and coach, and management and coach. Joerger picked a very public fight with one of Divac’s staff last season and it clearly did not sit well with the boss.
Enter Walton, who has been working with current Kings players since he was introduced as the new coach and is already a hit with Kings players who matter most.
“He’s been great,” Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said last week of Walton on “Undisputed,” a Fox Sports talk show. “(Walton) communicates extremely well. That’s one thing he definitely does. He’s not gonna yell at people or anything like that. He’s already let me know what he wants me doing on offense. Kind of where my shots are gonna come from, and just kind of already getting me ahead of the curve of what to expect next year.”
Said Divac of Walton: “We had a relationship before and now we’re going to build on that relationship going forward. We all have to be comfortable going forward. The ideas that we have, we share. “
There is so much that needs to happen for the Kings to make the next leap. For example, what do they do about Willie-Cauley Stein, the talented but inconsistent big man?
“It’s a tough question,” Divac said. “We would like to keep Willie in terms of his talent potential but he still needs to show us the consistency that we are looking for. We are talking.”
Will forward Harrison Barnes return? “We really don’t know,” said Divac of Barnes, who can become a free agent. The Kings want to keep him. And Barnes recently traveled to India to promote exhibition games they will play there in October. But there are no guarantees.
Though he won’t discuss the investigation against Walton, Divac said he doesn’t think the publicity surrounding the allegation will hurt the Kings in pursuing free agent in a few weeks.
“Clearly, we are in a better situation than we were a year ago or three years ago,” Divac said. “I don’t think free agents will think twice about coming to Sacramento. They realize the way we play, uptempo.”
Whether Divac will be proved right remains to be seen. As is whether the Kings can pull off a deal to draft a player or players who can make them better, or whether they can lure veteran players to Sacramento.
“This summer is huge,” Divac said. “We have a good thing going and we want to continue to add more players. We want to go up.”
Whether Walton will be along for the ride is a question that neither Divac nor Walton can answer at this time. But it does still loom over both.