Forget for a moment that the Kings have a losing record, that All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins was suspended one game for exceeding 16 technical fouls and that injuries are piling up faster than soiled jerseys in the locker room.
Dave Joerger has his team in a chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Hard as that is to believe, it’s not fake news. The Kings, who haven’t reached the postseason since 2006, trail the Denver Nuggets by 1 1/2 games and are squeezed in a scrum with Portland, New Orleans, Dallas and Minnesota.
The reward for finishing eighth, of course, is a matchup with the mighty Golden State Warriors. But with management unwilling to tank to retain the club’s first-round draft pick – and principal owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac continue to dismiss the possibility – all attention turns to the ultimate prize.
For the Warriors, that means another championship. For the Kings, that means a few extra games at Golden 1 Center. And regardless of what transpires during these final weeks, the franchise already has made significant progress in this regard: The drama has left the locker room, and for that not-so-minor development, the credit belongs to Joerger.
The Kings first-year coach, who turns 43 Tuesday, is a soothing influence on an organization long regarded as a hot mess. Chaos, dysfunction, incompetence, instability, stress. Sound out the word, and if it has a negative connotation, it probably applied to the Kings. Before the circus came to town and left for good, the coaching carousel post-Rick Adelman churned out and chewed up Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin and George Karl.
Ten years. Eight coaches. No postseasons.
But as in life, timing (and good health) in the NBA is almost everything. Joerger was available when Divac went coach-surfing last summer, and after three years working with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, he was eager for a turn with another of the league’s elite big men. That would be Cousins. Could he coax Boogie into behaving and maximizing his immense abilities? Could he command the huddle and the locker room? Could he impose his will and a sense of order?
Except for the technicals – Cousins will be suspended after every two technicals for the duration of the season – the answers so far are yes, yes, yes. The seven-year veteran is in the midst of a career-best season. He leads the Kings in points (28.7 per game), rebounds (10.6) and assists (4.8 to 3.8 turnovers), and been particularly impressive lately. In the 10 games before the All-Star break, he averaged 7.0 assists, reacted to double teams with quick, smart decisions, and genuinely appears to have washed the glue off his hands; the ball seldom sticks these days.
“We have been stressing ball movement and body movement since we got here,” said assistant Duane Ticknor, “and it’s finally clicking. Share the ball, stick to the plan, and it will come back to you eventually. You are starting to see the results. The fact the players are trusting Dave is part of it, too. He has been pretty calm and patient, and hasn’t lost his cool despite some frustrating moments.”
There have been frustrating moments. Only weeks ago, the Kings were ready to start booking vacation plans. Early this season, players grumbled about rotations and struggled to execute Joerger’s defensive schemes and adapt to his halfcourt offense. While the Kings continue to rank poorly in most of the significant statistics, they increasingly are performing with more force and as a more cohesive, committed unit.
“We know what’s at stake,” said center Kosta Koufos, “but at the same time, we’re just getting more comfortable with (Joerger’s) style.”
Joerger – who is clearly benefiting from the offseason addition of defense-oriented veterans Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson, when healthy – has made a career of assembling spare parts into a recognizable product. Before joining the Grizzlies, the Staples, Minn., native toiled at the minor-league level in places like Sioux Falls, Bismarck and Fargo. He changed out of sweat pants and into suits on the fly. He sold tickets, spoke to Lions Clubs, met with sponsors and, most notably, adjusted to the frequent roster changes inherent at the developmental level.
Though he is far from a schmoozer and, during his news conferences, often responds to questions with short, snippy answers, his consistency and sense of humor – what guard Ben McLemore refers to as “his corny jokes” – have been well-received.
“Dave has done a good job of keeping guys together,” said guard Darren Collison. “His personality kind of clicks with our team. We have a lot of emotional players, and as a coach, you have to know what to say and when to say things. He seems to have a feel for that.”
Whether the Kings have the talent to sneak into the eighth spot remains to be seen. Along with the injuries, Cousins’ technical-foul situation is a major concern. But for now, in a weaker than usual conference, the chase is on.
“I think guys are fitting into their roles,” Joerger said Wednesday. “They know where their shots are coming from. They know when we can do this or that defensively. They are giving it everything they’ve got, playing to their potential, and the ball’s been going in a little bit, which is good.”
Twenty-five games to go, 11 years since the playoffs. Game on.