Kings coach George Karl returns to the Pepsi Center on Sunday for the first time in almost two years, and without a doubt, the opening scene will be emotional. He spent more than eight years trolling the sidelines, reviving a franchise and, in his final season (2012-13), earned Coach of the Year honors for leading the Denver Nuggets to a franchise-best 57 victories.
Two weeks later, after a first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, he was out, another NBA coaching casualty. But Karl always has been a rarity – an enduring and immensely popular coach. His ouster was attributed to clashes with ownership; a difference of opinion regarding overpaid and underperforming center JaVale McGee; and ill-timed injuries to Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson.
“It’s going to be tough, weird,” Karl said from his cellphone as the Kings prepared for Sunday’s game. “I love the place. I love a lot of the people there, a lot of the players. I’ll be nervous, sad, happy, for the first five minutes. Then I’ll be aggressive and competitive and coaching my team.”
The reunion will be bittersweet, perhaps even underwhelming, primarily because these aren’t his Nuggets. Their 10-year streak of making the playoffs ended when Karl was escorted out of his office. These Nuggets are in shambles. His successor, Brian Shaw, was fired midway into his second season. Shaw’s replacement, Melvin Hunt, is working on an interim basis and hoping to interview for the position.
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And Karl? He has packed up and moved on, gratefully. Before Kings owner Vivek Ranadive dictated Karl’s hiring before the All-Star break, the self-described coaching lifer worked for ESPN. His misery was a staple of his daily diet. He hated the “new normal,” the real-life routine. He missed organizing practices, sketching out offensive and defensive schemes, dressing up for an 82-game schedule, dissecting the minds and exploiting the skills of talented young millionaires.
But with his Kings similarly limping into the final week of the season, there is no time to gloat. His new team is a mess, too. Karl, who signed a four-year contract on Feb. 17, bought into a franchise riddled with front-office discord, a season-ending injury to starting point guard Darren Collison, All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins still brooding about the Dec. 14 firing of coach Michael Malone, and a team that reacted to Malone’s ouster with a two-month work stoppage under Tyrone Corbin.
Enter Karl, and, within weeks, Vlade Divac reappeared as vice president of basketball and franchise operations. If the return of one of the franchise’s most beloved figures surprised Karl – whom Divac implored Ranadive to hire immediately after Malone was fired – it stunned and dismayed general manager Pete D’Alessandro and special adviser Chris Mullin. Mullin shortly thereafter accepted the coaching job at St. John’s, and D’Alessandro’s status remains unclear. He has a year remaining on his contract, and there is an appreciation of his skills and a hope he can overcome any issues with Divac or Karl.
The last thing the Kings need is a repeat of the Malone-D’Alessandro theatrics. Their dysfunctional, strained relationship was the worst-kept secret in the practice facility for months.
As the offseason approaches, the Kings’ hierarchy shakes out like this: Divac runs basketball operations and reports to Ranadive. Karl, D’Alessandro, Mike Bratz, Chris Gilbert and Dean Oliver report to Divac, who was known as a consensus builder during his playing career and while overseeing the Serbian national team for decades and heading his native country’s 2012 Olympic effort. And Ranadive will be in the midst of the conversation, in his usual “irritant” role, demanding to be heard.
“You want your team to be united,” said Karl, “and we as an organization have to do the same. I have a lot of confidence in Pete (D’Alessandro) and Mike (Bratz). I enjoyed working with them in Denver, which is one reason I took this job. Now with Vlade’s presence, his intelligence, his leadership, I sense that he has a similar mindset. But it’s critical that we support one another. Vlade needs Pete. I need Pete. We need Mike’s preparation. We have to forget about the blame game, about who is this, who is that, and figure out who we are and what we want to become. We have a very, very important summer ahead of us.”
Karl, who rented a house near the arena for six months and plans to buy something closer to downtown during the offseason, had higher hopes for the final 30 games, but he said he derived tremendous value from taking over amid the chaos. Besides implementing his offensive and defensive schemes, he coaxed a career-best stretch out of Cousins, saw significant improvement from Ben McLemore, Omri Casspi and Derrick Williams, experimented with lineups, evaluated the erratic two-guard spot, noted the team’s overall defensive deficiencies, and established relationships within the locker room.
“I guess we could all say, ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ won more games if everyone had been healthy and we had Darren with us,” said Karl, “but that’s for talk radio shows. It’s not for us. Yes, the losing is killing me. Just killing me. But this has been just a nightmarish season for the players. My belief is that the season needs to end, and they all need to just get away for a while.
“And the rest of us need to get together, discuss our vision and philosophy, and get ready to go. We are going to have money to sign players, we have a high draft pick that we can keep or package, and there will be opportunities for dynamic trades. We want to make a big step forward next year, and that only happens when you work as a team.”
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.