What’s that saying in sports when someone gets injured? Next man up? Now it’s Dave Joerger’s turn. Of all the franchise numbers – playoff drought (10 years), defensive woes (near or at the bottom for most of the past decade), win-loss ratio – the one pertaining to head coaches is most frightening.
No, it’s downright embarrassing.
Joerger is the Kings’ ninth coach in the past 10 seasons, and he succeeds a future Hall of Famer – George Karl, the best of the bunch – who didn’t even last two full seasons. Why should his tenure be any different?
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He has a chance to succeed here, or at least stick around for more than two or three cups of coffee for one reason: Both principal owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac endorsed his hiring. Joerger will be the first Kings coach in years who isn’t caught in a power struggle between the franchise’s most powerful decision makers and exposed to ridiculous amounts of white noise (those DeMarcus Cousins agents who poisoned the atmosphere before Karl even took over after the 2015 All-Star Game) before the opening tip. He wasn’t hired before the GM (see Michael Malone) and wasn’t disliked by the GM who succeeded Geoff Petrie (Pete D’Alessandro).
Joerger, 42, also has demonstratedhe is young and restless, and isn’t afraid to look around for a new job if he becomes dissatisfied with his position.
There also is something appealing about taking over a club that opens Golden 1 Center, the $557 million palace that was more than a decade in the making and already has transformed the look and feel of downtown. Other than occasionally ambling down the wrong hallway while familiarizing himself with the building, Joerger’s issues have nothing to do with leaky roofs or a lack of hot water in the showers.
I respected the way he presented himself when we met. But he blew me away. The way he communicates with the players, the way he conducts practices. He is all professional, but he has fun, too. My communication with him is almost daily. I’m excited to work with him for a really long time.
Vlade Divac, Kings general manager, on coach Dave Joerger
His challenges will be coaxing a reasonable amount of victories out of an aging and unbalanced roster, ending the chronic locker room melodrama, overcoming instability in the backcourt, instilling a defensive mentality and taking one last crack at coexisting with DeMarcus Cousins.
How does 35 wins sound? OK, let’s go with 32. Those are a lot of challenges. Barring a trade, Joerger inherits small forward Rudy Gay, who wants to be traded; the immensely talented Cousins, who is disliked by a number of his teammates; starting point guard Darren Collison, who is suspended for the first eight games for misdemeanor domestic violence; and backup guard Ty Lawson, who arrived in August with a history of personal problems and missed a team flight to Lexington, Ky., last week after partying the previous night in Las Vegas with some of his teammates.
Factor in the offseason additions of veterans Matt Barnes, Arron Afflalo, Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver, along with rookies George Papagiannis (13th overall), Malachi Richardson (22nd), Skal Labissiere (28th) and Isaiah Cousins (59th) – the draft picks who probably all will start the season with the Kings’ NBA Development League affiliate in Reno – and Joerger takes over a roster with underwhelming talent.
He might not admit it, but he might even be having flashbacks to his final season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Injuries rendered the team almost unrecognizable during its playoff run. The fact the Grizzlies made the playoffs in each of Joerger’s three seasons at the helm was a major factor in the Kings’ rush to nab him when he suddenly became available during their prolonged, expansive search.
“I respected the way he presented himself when we met,” Divac said after a recent practice. “But he blew me away. The way he communicates with the players, the way he conducts practices. He is all professional, but he has fun, too. My communication with him is almost daily. I’m excited to work with him for a really long time.”
It starts defensively. We are a very poor transition team. Turnovers were catastrophic last year. And we need to outwork people.
Dave Joerger, Kings coach
Although Joerger’s Memphis teams were anchored by a large frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – and though the Kings are overloaded with bigs – the league is trending toward small ball, or positionless basketball, and apparently so are the Kings.
“We had 28 or 29 players coming through our locker room last year,” said Barnes, who played for the Grizzlies last season, “and they were stuck on the grit-and-grind, and realizing the NBA is transitioning out of that. I used to talk to (Joerger) all the time, ‘Put me at the four (power forward), put me at the four,’ and now he’s finally starting to do that. We’re big, but we can also go small, and that’s what the game is turning into, and that’s what we’re working on in training camp.”
Joerger, with a sly grin, noted, “I pretty much reached that conclusion three, four months ago. I’m just not sharing.”
Playing small, playing together, playing defense. Without a quality wing defender last season and a point guard (Rajon Rondo) who had little interest in stopping penetration, the Kings ranked near the bottom in most of the significant defensive categories. Addressing the dearth of defensive-oriented players was one of Divac’s top priorities. But the Kings also are counting on more consistent rotations and rim protection from 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who started slowly during training camp but showed improvement during the last few preseason games.
“It starts defensively,” Joerger often says. “We are a very poor transition team. Turnovers were catastrophic last year. And we need to outwork people.”
But can they all get along? Between the Lawson situation and persistent trade rumors involving Gay and Ben McLemore, training camp was not without some drama, though this time none involving Cousins. Can that last? And what happens the first time the veteran center blows up at Joerger or curses out Divac or one of the assistant coaches and trainers in the locker room?
The Era of Enabling has to end, and it has to end now. The coach has to be empowered – Karl was cut off at the knees by ownership and management – or Golden 1 Center becomes just another flophouse. Otherwise John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Mike Krzyzewski or Gregg Popovich wouldn’t win titles here. Otherwise, there is no chance at moving even a few victories closer to a playoff berth.
The pressure is on Joerger, but the onus is on ownership and management. They hired their coach. Now have his back. That would be a start.