Ailene Voisin

‘Go young, start over’: Divac’s leap of faith upends Kings. Time to stick the landing

Would Kings trade up? Vlade Divac breaks down whether team would swap NBA draft picks

Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac discusses the team's plans heading into the June 22 NBA draft, including his confidence level in the kind of players who will be available at Nos. 5 and 10 overall.
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Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac discusses the team's plans heading into the June 22 NBA draft, including his confidence level in the kind of players who will be available at Nos. 5 and 10 overall.

Before the NBA draft is put to bed Thursday night, we might be looking at record numbers in terms of trades – projected trades, desired trades, almost trades, rumored trades.

But be assured that Kings general manager Vlade Divac – no stranger to controversial draft-day moves – is deeply immersed in conversations. With the Kings possessing the fifth and 10th picks, this is the organization’s best shot at rewriting the negative narrative, with an arrow pointing upward, since Robert Horry delivered that zinger in 2002.

Divac was overseas during the subsequent traumatic years – the coaching carousel, the relocation saga, the poor personnel decisions – and returned 2 1/2 years ago to redirect an aimless franchise.

Part I, he shed salaries in 2015 but cost the Kings their 2019 first-round draft choice and enabled the 76ers to swap picks this year. Part II, he traded the No. 8 pick (Marquese Chriss) to Phoenix a year later for No. 13 (Georgios Papagiannis), No. 28 (Skal Labissiere), the rights to Serbian star Bogdan Bogdanovic and a 2020 second rounder. Last year’s maneuvers also included trading Marco Belinelli for the rights to another rookie, Malachi Richardson (No. 22), and plugging in a handful of journeymen to fill out the roster.

But the blockbuster – the move that will be debated from here to the Bahamas and back – was Divac’s decision in February to trade DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans for a package that featured Bahamian rookie Buddy Hield and the Pelicans’ 2017 first-round pick (No. 10 to the Kings).

That was the deal-maker, the Divac proclamation. The Kings were unwilling to invest an estimated $200 million in a Cousins extension and no longer content to half-step the rebuilding process. They were all in. The owners, the front office executives, the picks and the shovels.

“In some respects, I was relieved,” Divac said. “When I got here (February 2015), and then Pete (D’Alessandro) left just before the draft, I wanted to study everything and not make quick decisions I would regret. I put myself into working with George (Karl), DeMarcus. But when I realized it wasn’t going to work, I thought, ‘Go young and start over.’ 

Divac has learned valuable lessons from the neighboring Golden State Warriors: Draft picks are golden. Smart draft decisions are critical. Player development is essential, because eventually, even the super teams fall back to earth. Stars suffer career-threatening injuries. Draft picks flop. Luxury tax issues trigger cost-cutting measures. Bloated salaries and endorsement deals often lead to locker room discord.

Executing a cohesive plan, of course, is something altogether different. If Divac was slow to assemble a front office staff after D’Alessandro bolted and he was promoted, he has morphed into a bearded, 7-foot-1 blur of organized activity; the Golden 1 Center seldom sleeps these days.

Dave Joerger’s coaching staff is experienced, respected, present. The recent additions of analytics expert Luke Bornn and assistant GM Scott Perry provide a cohesiveness in the front office. And based on conversations with several scouts, general managers and former players, Perry already has restored some credibility to the organization’s reputation.

Known for forging relationships at the AAU, high school, college and NBA levels, Perry’s presence attracted several of the top draft prospects to Sacramento – a relatively new phenomenon – for workouts or visits, among them De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson.

The state-of-the-art facilities don’t hurt, either. The Kings young players are sticking around and working out under the supervision of the coaching staff – another relatively new phenomenon.

“There really isn’t one model for a development program,” Divac added. “But these kids are coming into NBA so young, either with no college or very little college, and fundamentally they are not ready. So we have to develop them. Dave has been great, and his coaches are here. Malachi, Skal, Buddy, Papa all could be on vacation. Papa has lost 20 pounds since the season ended. But you have to have players who want to improve.”

Unearthing those gems and piecing together a puzzle is an inexact science, of course. Already there are indications that this is going to be an unusually active week. Boston and Philadelphia have reportedly exchanged the first and third picks, with Markelle Fultz likely going to the 76ers.

What if the Lakers are seriously dangling the No. 2 pick? What if Lonzo Ball and Fox are both available at No. 5?

What does Divac do? Besides relying heavily on Perry’s deeply sourced scouting, the Kings’ GM and his staff are working around the clock in preparation for the annual talent grab. Additionally, he hired two sports psychologists to participate in the player interviews at the draft combine.

“We try to get every detail, talking to all the players’ coaches, even to some of their neighbors,” Divac said. “We want to know everything, things we can’t find on the computer or just by watching games. It’s exciting. It’s exciting to see the young kids working hard every day. We want to have fun, and do it right. No short cuts.”

Divac doesn’t need to change the world, but he definitely wants to stick the landing with those draft picks.

“That’s the plan,” he said, smiling.

Kentucky point guard De'Aaron Fox discusses the Kings during the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago on Friday, May 12, 2017.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

NBA draft

When: Thursday, 4 p.m.

Kings picks: Nos. 5, 10 and 34 overall

TV: ESPN

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