These are bright, accomplished men. A few of them are millionaires. One of them is an international icon. Two of them eventually will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But enough about titles. Before the Kings can fix their roster, deciding which players to trade, sign and draft, executives must complete the internal repairs. Clean their own house, tidy up their own mess, stop pointing fingers and start providing stability and a sense of direction.
Well, guess what? On the surface, at least, the dust is disappearing.
After a turbulent season that featured more fluid developments than a six-pack of soda, the final weeks hint at an uptick. The uncertainty that enveloped the front office and coaching staff is easing, starting to resemble the framework of a deal.
Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball and franchise operations, has been handed the microphone and the keys to the palace. His voice rings loudest. General manager Pete D’Alessandro is being retained and encouraged and empowered to do his job. Same for assistant general manager Mike Bratz. Coach George Karl, signed at the All-Star break to a four-year contract, is rooting out the weeds and digging in.
Additionally, in what might be the most significant change, principal owner Vivek Ranadive in recent weeks has moved quietly into the background, entrusting his basketball operations to Divac and the on-court developments to Karl.
“When I first came here,” said Divac, who rejoined the Kings in February, “I just observed everything and listened. I wasn’t sure (the front office) was going to work. But Vivek trusted me, trusted coach. I called everyone into a meeting and said, ‘If you want to be here, forget the past. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future. We need everyone’s help.’ Pete can be a big part of this. And these last two weeks, I see tremendous progress. We are getting along, functioning. Slowly we are fitting in together.”
The irony is that Chris Mullin’s decision to take the St. John’s coaching job both shrinks the front office and enhances D’Alessandro’s stature. Mullin was listed as Ranadive’s special adviser, but he was perceived as the organization’s de facto general manager, a powerful, at times overpowering, influence on Ranadive and D’Alessandro.
The more immediate changes, Divac said, will involve Karl’s coaching staff, a restructuring of the team’s affiliation with the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League, followed by what is expected to be an aggressive offseason.
“I wanted to come back because I saw an opportunity to make something happen,” Divac said. “Same thing when I signed here as a free agent in 1998. A lot of people asked me, ‘Why are you signing with Sacramento?’ I wanted the challenge then; I wanted the challenge now. And we’re not waiting around. We want to bring back that same excitement, and we are not that far away. We have pieces. Basketball is about chemistry. When guys start winning, that changes everything.”
For all his quick grins and amiable asides, Divac always held strong opinions. Not much has changed. He passionately endorsed Ranadive’s decision to hire Karl with 30 games remaining in the season rather than wait and conduct a lengthy search at season’s end because he believes Karl is a superb coach and will benefit from the chance to get into the gym with his current players.
The two men also see the game through a similar prism, envisioning an aggressive defense that creates transition baskets and half-court sets that emphasize passing, spacing and movement and engages all five players while taking advantage of the talents of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins and small forward Rudy Gay.
“Basketball for me has always been played inside/outside,” Divac said. “I always believe 30 percent of your points have to come on the fast break, and that starts with defense and rebounding.”
Divac and D’Alessandro delivered their message and elaborated on their philosophy during exit interviews with players earlier in the week. And while Cousins has been mentioned in several trade rumors the past several days, and privately and publicly has complained about playing in an up-tempo system, the Kings have no plans to move their fifth-year center. Divac is embracing his star and determined to facilitate an enduring, successful union.
“DeMarcus is here,” Divac said forcefully. “It’s a process of growing up. And I really believe that, behind that shield of his, he is a really good guy. I want to create a healthy environment where we trust each other, and I want to see him in a situation when he’s winning games. What, five losing seasons? Winning changes everything. Like I told DeMarcus, he played so great for coach George. It will only get better when we get him more help.”
Divac’s offseason wish list starts with acquiring a lanky frontcourt defender, then adding shooters, playmakers and depth at all positions.
“Offensively we are OK,” he said, “but the defense is not good. Think back to when we were good. We had Doug Christie. When Doug came to Sacramento, he was our leader on defense. And you need players like that.”
Divac, who flew to Belgrade, Serbia, for two days as he completes his relocation back to his adopted hometown, didn’t promise a return to the playoffs in 2015-16, but he vowed that next year’s team will be dramatically improved, entertaining and, at the very least, in the mix for a playoff berth.
“That’s where we start,” he said, “but one day soon, we are going to be much better that. That’s what I believe. We have some good pieces, and our front office is becoming a team. Next week, coach is here, I am here, Pete is here, and we get back to work. This is a very important summer for this franchise.”
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.