One day Kings coach Dave Joerger was flashing that familiar smile in Memphis, Tenn., telling old friends about new-found success and the culture change underway in Sacramento.
The next night, he was in Houston, nervously trying to explain how he plans to keep his team together after being blindsided by a bombshell story suggesting his job might be in jeopardy.
“Our focus is with our team, and coaching our team, and getting better every single night,” Joerger said.
The Kings quickly issued a statement in support of Joerger, but unanswered questions and palace intrigue will persist when the team returns to Sacramento to play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night at Golden 1 Center. The questions are fairly simple, but the answers, should they surface, could be complex.
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How much truth was there to the Yahoo Sports report suggesting philosophical differences could cause the Kings to part ways with Joerger? Who were the unnamed league sources cited in the story? And if one of those sources was a member of the team’s front office, why would someone within the organization undermine the coaching staff and compromise chemistry just as the Kings start to enjoy some success after 12 losing seasons?
The Kings would not say on Sunday whether they believe someone within their front office was a source for the story. They also would not say if they have identified that person or what action might be taken if they do. The only public comments the Kings have made were issued by general manager Vlade Divac shortly after the Yahoo story was published Saturday night.
“Dave has our full support and confidence,” Divac said. “We continue to work together to develop our young core and compete.”
Sacramento (8-8) was already traversing a difficult portion of its schedule with six games in 10 days – four of them on the road – against teams with a combined record of 47-30. After losing to Memphis and Houston on back-to-back nights over the weekend, the Kings host Oklahoma City (10-5) before visiting Utah (8-8) and Golden State (12-5) later this week.
Now, after losing three of their last four games, players and coaches will be under increased scrutiny. The Yahoo story asserted that the team’s front office is frustrated with Joerger over his distribution of playing time – too many minutes for veterans such as Nemanja Bjelica, not enough for youngsters such as Marvin Bagley III.
The story mentioned other young players such as Harry Giles III and Skal Labissiere, but it is “Joerger’s handling” of Bagley that “could eventually lead to the coach’s dismissal.”
Bagley, 19, was the No. 2 pick in June’s NBA Draft. He is a key part of the organization’s plan to rebuild around an athletic young nucleus, and he has repeatedly drawn praise from Joerger for his work ethic, athleticism and ability to learn quickly.
“He’s a talented guy (and) fun to coach,” said Joerger, now in his third season in Sacramento after nine seasons in Memphis. “He gets it. Whatever time (he plays), he loves being out there and I love that about him. He’s not carrying an air of this or that. He loves every minute that he gets out there and I think that’s really cool.”
Bagley has not started a game this season, but he plays a big role as a backup, averaging 11.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 22.6 minutes per game. His per-36-minute averages of 18.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks rank third, sixth and seventh, respectively, among qualified first-year players, but he is 10th among rookies in minutes.
Coincidentally or not, Bagley logged 27 minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, his third-highest total of the season. He finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, arguably his best game since posting 20 points and nine rebounds in 32 minutes against Denver on Oct. 23.
Joerger declined to say whether there are philosophical differences between him and the team’s front office. He also declined to comment when asked before the season if he is at odds with the organization over the construction of a roster featuring too many big men and not enough of the long, athletic wings coveted in today’s NBA.
“Generally those discussions are behind closed doors,” Joerger said.
Now, those discussions have gone public, and Joerger will have to hold a young team together through a portion of the schedule that will be difficult in more ways than one.
“We’ve got young guys mixed with older guys, so, you know, go in there and rally them,” Joerger said. “This is a tough five-game stretch for us, so I want to make sure that we stick together (and) grab onto each other.”