During his playing days, Kings general manager Vlade Divac was frequently ridiculed for flopping, but he was also known as a deceptively skilled big man who had a remarkable ability to pass with magnificent vision and marvelous touch.
Now, with his team defying all expectations, it seems that same vision and touch just might come to define his work as a front office executive.
In June, after Sacramento made a highly debated decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, pundits pointed and laughed at Divac’s response when he was asked how the Kings could compete with the NBA’s super teams.
“My team is a super team — just young,” Divac said.
Some thought is was funny then, but nobody is laughing now.
The Kings (6-3) have won five in a row and six of their last seven going into Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks (7-1) at Fiserv Forum. They defeated the Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards at home before embarking on their current four-game trip, which includes victories over the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks.
The Kings, mired in a 12-year playoff drought and coming off a 27-win season, are off to their best start over the first nine games since going 6-3 in 2002-03, when they reached the Western Conference semifinals with Divac starting at center. They’ve won five in a row for the first time since 2016 and have a chance to win six in a row for the first time since 2005.
“We are having fun,” Divac said outside the team’s locker room in Miami on Monday night. “They are playing hard, they are playing well and they enjoy the game. And that’s all we ask for them — to have fun.”
Most predicted the Kings to be one of the worst teams in the league, saying Divac had assembled a poorly constructed roster with too many big men for the modern game and no firepower at the small forward position. Few could have imagined the Kings would play like this, but Divac did.
“Of course I did,” he said. “That’s why I did it. I don’t care what other people say.”
Divac spent six seasons with the Kings during their glory days from 1999 to 2004, an era in which the team’s dazzling uptempo style was known as “The Greatest Show on Court.” Divac guided the Kings to the first six of eight consecutive playoff appearances and helped them reach the Western Conference finals in 2002. He retired in 2005 after 16 seasons in the NBA. The Kings retired his jersey in 2009.
Divac returned to the organization in a front office role in 2015, flopping and floundering to find his way in his first months on the job. The early missteps included a trade that sent an unprotected 2019 first-round pick and other assets to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to clear salary cap space in a failed attempt to build a winner around All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, but Divac has made some savvy moves since then.
He fired former coach George Karl and hired Dave Joerger. He obtained the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic from the Phoenix Suns and traded Cousins to the New Orleans Hornets for a package that included Buddy Hield. He drafted De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles III, Frank Mason III and Bagley. Then he signed Nemanja Bjelica and Yogi Ferrell as free agents this past offseason.
He changed the entire culture around the team, bringing in a bunch of young, personable players who genuinely seem to enjoy each other.
And look at them now.
Joerger and his staff have quickly and seamlessly implemented an exciting run-and-gun style to suit Fox’s strengths. The Kings are second in the NBA in pace and fourth in scoring after finishing last in both categories in 2017-18.
Fox is emerging as one of the best young point guards in the league, averaging 19 points, 7.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds. In Thursday’s 146-115 victory over the Hawks, he surpassed Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan as the youngest player in NBA history to post a triple-double with at least 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds. Fox joined LeBron James as the only players to record a 30-point triple-double before their 21st birthday.
Hield is averaging 19.8 points and six rebounds per game, shooting 48.9 percent from 3-point range while showing vast improvement in other aspects of his game.
Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot center who struggled with inconsistency over his first three seasons, is averaging 16.8 points and 8.7 rebounds after a summer conversation with Divac motivated him to unlock his massive potential.
Bjelica, who signed a three-year, $20.5 million contract with the Kings in July, has proven to be the perfect addition and a critical component, creating space for teammates as a stretch big who is shooting a sizzling 55.3 percent from 3-point range.
Bogdanovic, expected to return next week after undergoing knee surgery, was arguably the team’s best player as a rookie last season and could take the team to another level.
Bagley, chosen with the second pick in June’s NBA draft, looks like a potential All-Rookie Team selection and a future star, averaging 13 points and 6.9 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game. His per-36 minute averages of 20.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks compare favorably to Doncic and No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton.
Giles, who sat out last season while recovering from a series of knee injuries, has played limited minutes after showing flashes of brilliance during summer league and preseason games, but there are high hopes for him, too.
“(Divac) has done all the things in terms of creating a portfolio of assets that I think puts us on a good path,” Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said. “And I think the front office and the coaching staff are working closely together to make sure that the players get the development so that they keep improving.”
Opposing teams — and even some of those pundits who pointed and laughed — are taking notice. A number of coaches have noted that the Kings are playing incredibly fast and putting immense pressure on opponents who can’t run with them for four quarters.
“I think last year the difference was we didn’t have an identity,” Fox said. “We didn’t know how we wanted to play. We didn’t know what we wanted to do. This year, we know we’re trying to run.”
Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce marveled at how far Sacramento has come in such a short period of time.
“They are a very good team,” Pierce said after Thursday’s loss to the Kings. “It’s inspiring to see where Sacramento has been over the past couple of years. You see the growth in De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, and what they’ve done. So, if anything, coming out of tonight’s game, you want to be discouraged, but you also have hope of a little patience, growth and development with a young group (because) that’s what you can end up being.”