When Kings coach George Karl missed Saturday’s introductory news conference for draft pick Willie Cauley-Stein, it could have been viewed as sign of tension between Karl and the front office over the coach’s relationship with All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
Cauley-Stein sat between Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball and franchise operations, and principal owner Vivek Ranadive. Karl was nowhere in sight, fueling speculation that reports Ranadive was considering firing Karl were more fact than fiction.
But Karl already had planned to spend time with his family in Colorado after Thursday’s draft, and he plans another visit home before the Kings hold a three-day minicamp and head to Las Vegas next week for the summer league.
“Summer is exciting because you don’t have rumors hanging over your head,” Karl said from Denver. “It’s all about getting in the gym, creating habits and developing talent, and hopefully, it will bring some confidence and commitment and steer that back to your team. It was a tough year for everyone, and I only had one-third of it.”
The Kings’ selection of Cauley-Stein was overshadowed by the rift between Karl and Cousins that began even before Karl was hired in February and worsened during the season, according to multiple league sources.
Though the minicamp and summer league will draw some attention to the basketball court, it won’t quiet the chatter that Karl tried to broker trades for Cousins without Divac’s knowledge, especially with free agency opening at 9 p.m. PDT Tuesday.
Those reports led Divac to express publicly his disappointment with Karl.
“I respect my coach and I think he’s great, but he has to trust me to do my job,” Divac said after the draft.
Divac made it clear his voice would be the only one to speak with reporters, agents and others about possible deals. He also emphasized he has no intention of trading Cousins, and he drafted Cauley-Stein to help Cousins in the paint.
Karl talked Monday as if he expected Cousins to be with the team, too, saying he wants to see how the 6-foot-11 Cousins and the 7-1 Cauley-Stein play together. That pairing would give the Kings one of the league’s biggest front lines.
“They both have assets in different ways,” Karl said. “Both guys who can cover the pick-and-roll. Cuz is pretty good at what we call dropping in the pick-and-roll, and I think Willie is going to be a bit more aggressive (than Cousins in the pick-and-roll).”
But because of clashing personalities, an aversion to the coach’s up-tempo strategy and a lack of trust, Cousins is reluctant to play for Karl, according to the sources.
In December, the front office upset Cousins and other players by firing coach Michael Malone. After Cousins was told by former general manager Pete D’Alessandro that Karl wouldn’t be a good fit for him, according to the sources, reports surfaced that the center and his agents opposed the hiring.
Cousins’ agents favored the front office’s plan to finish the season with interim coach Tyrone Corbin instead of hiring Karl, who many league sources believed would not be suitable for the team. But ultimately, Ranadive wanted Karl.
After learning Karl had tried to negotiate deals involving him, the sources said, Cousins became comfortable with the idea of a trade. In the days leading up to the draft, reports surfaced that talks between the Kings and Los Angeles Lakers were intensifying.
Sources said Cousins’ frustration isn’t just with Karl but the organization after he was blamed for Karl not being hired sooner. Karl then reportedly tried to trade Cousins, something several league sources said the center feared Karl would do.
But the Kings drafted Cauley-Stein to complement Cousins, and Karl said he agreed with the pick.
“Vlade’s great,” Karl said. “Vlade’s got a great ability to lead, and we had a great opportunity to feel comfortable with one another, and I think he realizes it’s a great challenge.”
Karl will be in Sacramento next week to supervise the minicamp, with assistant coaches Chad Iske and John Welch running the team. That shouldn’t be taken as a sign Karl is disengaged. It’s just how he likes to operate in the summer.
KINGS KEY DATES
- Tuesday, 9 p.m.: Free agency opens
- July 7-9: Three-day summer league minicamp, Sacramento
- July 10: Free-agent contracts can be signed
- July 10-20: NBA Summer League, Las Vegas