Frayed nerves and fractured relationships led to upheaval in Sacramento when the Kings fired coach Dave Joerger and assistant general manager Brandon Williams at the end of the season. Head coaches and front-office executives come and go every year in the NBA, but they aren’t the only ones whose lives are impacted when an organization chooses to make a change.
The fallout from Joerger’s feud with Williams and strained relationships with others also affected assistant coaches Elston Turner, Bryan Gates, Jason March, Bob Thornton, Duane Ticknor and Larry Lewis, some of whom were spotted at the Las Vegas Summer League this week. Over the past two weeks, Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni hired Turner as his lead assistant and Minnesota Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders added Gates to his staff, but the others are still looking for NBA work.
“This is a life that involves transitions,” Lewis said. “It happens in this sport. I think every coach has gone through it.”
In separate interviews this week in Las Vegas, Lewis and Turner reflected on their time in Sacramento – what went right, what went wrong and what’s next for themselves and the talented young players they left behind.
Turner, who served under former Kings coach Rick Adelman in Sacramento and later in Houston, has more than two decades of NBA coaching experience. It didn’t take Turner long to find a new job, but it felt like an eternity to him.
“When you’re out of work, it seems like a long time, so I’m looking forward to this,” Turner said. “Obviously, they have a good team in Houston, and the opportunity there is outstanding. I’ve been in all types of systems with all kinds of players, so I think I can help.”
Lewis has proven he can help an NBA team, too. He played professionally all over the world for almost 20 years before starting his coaching career in the G League in 2011. The Kings hired him in 2016.
Lewis led a player development staff that contributed to the growth of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III. The Kings won 39 games last season – posting their highest win total since 2005-06 – and remained in the Western Conference playoff race until the final weeks of the season.
“It was a great experience,” Lewis said. “The players really grew. They really matured a lot. We had a great season. The team got a lot better. The players got a lot better. That’s what it’s all about.”
Lewis said the bond the young players share is “very special,” adding: “The blessing about this team is that they’re good people, and good people find a way to make things work. These are good guys.”
Turner praised Lewis and the rest of the player development staff for their work.
“You could see the improvement,” Turner said. “A lot of guys got better and Larry was head of the player development department, so he did a hell of a job.”
Joerger and the front office clashed repeatedly in their final year together. They were at odds over the organization’s decision to draft Bagley over Luka Doncic, Joerger’s allocation of minutes for Bagley and Giles, and the way Joerger berated Hield during a game against the Golden State Warriors.
Neither Turner nor Lewis claim to fully understand the factors that prompted the Kings to overhaul the coaching staff following their best season in more than a decade, but both men said they have come to accept the decision.
“It was tough and it was a bit of a surprise because we knew we had done a good job, and that was kind of reflected in the commentary you get from the company people, from fans, from coworkers across the league,” Turner said. “For that to happen was a little bit of a shock, but I’ve been around long enough to know how this business works.”
They move in, move out and move on, taking their families and friendships with them when they go to coach players and touch lives in other cities. One day you look up and Gates isn’t leading his triplets through the halls of Golden 1 Center. March and his family stop showing up at player appearances. Giles is over in the corner at Thomas & Mack Center, hugging Thornton like he hasn’t seen him in months.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac recognized an untenable situation between Joerger and Williams. He acted quickly and decisively when the season ended to create better synergy in the organization.
The fallout affected people’s lives, but it won’t undo the work the previous coaching staff did to give the Kings a brighter future.
“They have a couple All-Stars,” Lewis said. “I saw a lot of potential in that young, core group. These players have a learning curve, but they were adapting very, very quickly to what was going on. Do they have a lot to learn? Of course, but at the same time, these guys are for real. I would have loved to have been a part of that going forward, but their decision is their decision and I’m at peace with it.
“They have their reasons and they make their decisions, based not on what I think or anybody else thinks. They get together, and they’re observant of the situation, and they make decisions regarding the coach and everything else in the organization. I’m not in those meetings, but I know they are working to be the best they can be.”