The Kings have a need for speed, money to spend and a new coach who shares general manager Vlade Divac’s vision of a perennial playoff team with championship aspirations.
Luke Walton said during his introductory news conference Monday the Kings had the most desirable job opening in the league. Walton likes the talent Divac has assembled, the up-tempo style the team implemented and the possibility of adding pieces with up to $38 million to spend this summer in free agency.
“You see what this team has done and the group of players Vlade has brought in here, and you see the way they play,” Walton said. “They play fast. They have 3-point shooting. They’re young. They’re versatile. That’s how I want to play. That’s how I think the game should be played.
“All of that is right here with this group. There’s still room — a need — for improvement, like almost every team in the league, but what this team could be and what this team will be is very, very exciting from a coaching standpoint.”
The Kings and Walton worked quickly to reach an agreement over the weekend. Terms of the deal were not released, but league sources told The Sacramento Bee that Walton received a four-year contract matching the length of the extension Divac signed Thursday.
Divac promptly fired assistant general manager Brandon Williams and coach Dave Joerger, who had one year remaining on a four-year, $16 million deal. The next day, Divac reached out to Walton immediately after the Los Angeles Lakers announced they had parted ways with him. Twenty-four hours later, Divac and Walton reached an agreement following a face-to-face meeting in Sacramento.
Walton said his first priority is to get acquainted with his players.
“Right now, to me,” Walton said, “it’s all about getting to know these guys, start building relationships with these guys and then, when they’re not around, watching as much film as I can on them to really start to understand what strengths or weaknesses we have as a group.”
Divac said he wanted to bring in a new coach quickly so they can be side-by-side going into one of the most important summers in the franchise’s history. The Kings believe they are constructing something special, but they have big decisions to make.
Small forward Harrison Barnes could opt in to the final year of his contract for $25 million, opt out to become an unrestricted free agent or renegotiate a long-term deal. The Kings also have to decide what to do with center Willie Cauley-Stein, who could become a restricted free agent. Kosta Koufos, Corey Brewer and Alec Burks will be unrestricted free agents.
The Kings could be on the market for another backup at point guard and a big man to replace Cauley-Stein. Nikola Vucevic, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez, Dewayne Dedmon and Nerlens Noel are potential free-agent targets.
The Kings are looking to build around a talented young core consisting of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III. They won 39 games in their best season since 2005-06, but they extended the NBA’s longest postseason drought to 13 years.
The Kings were third in the NBA in pace and ninth in scoring after unleashing a new brand of basketball in Sacramento. They were fourth in 3-point shooting but finished 20th in 3-point attempts. That likely will change under Walton, who preaches pace, space and 3-point shooting in his offenses.
“We’re going to shoot a lot of 3s,” he said.
Walton indicated he will emphasize defensive development in Sacramento. The Kings finished 21st in defensive rating. Walton’s teams in Los Angeles showed tremendous improvement in that area.
“We’ll put a huge emphasis on our defense, challenge our guys daily, start practices with defense at the front of the practice plan to prioritize how important it is to us,” Walton said. “... You have to want to be a good defensive team, and from what I’ve been told, we have a group that loves that kind of challenge.”
Walton called Fox “one of the fastest point guards in the league” and seems intrigued by the emerging talents of Bagley and Giles. Bagley averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in a backup role under Joerger, who clashed with Williams over his handling of the rookie big man early in the season.
“I told him I think he’s going to be a big part of what we do,” Walton said of Bagley. “We need him to continue to improve, and the versatility of him defending multiple positions will ultimately be a big factor in how much success and how many different defensive schemes we can use — players like him and Harry and some of those bigger, versatile guys we have.
“I’ll have a clearer picture of all those things the more I get to start working with these guys and see what their strengths and weaknesses are.”