Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Kings owner Vivek Ranadive learning from mistakes

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive sits at half court as the Kings keep the game close against the Lakers before before winning 102-92 on April 13 at Sleep Train Arena.
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive sits at half court as the Kings keep the game close against the Lakers before before winning 102-92 on April 13 at Sleep Train Arena. hamezcua@sacbee.com

If he were a basketball player, Vivek Ranadive would be a point guard. He functions in the backcourt, not in the background. He is intuitive, demanding and brilliant, a forceful presence in boardrooms and in locker rooms. But two years into his majority ownership of the Kings, the former Silicon Valley software executive has been humbled, invigorated, encouraged, distressed. The reviews of his stewardship within the league are similarly mixed. He receives props for securing a franchise and a soon-to-be constructed downtown arena, but he is criticized for a product that has been underwhelming and fraught with instability.

Three coaches last season. An imprudent firing before Christmas, followed by an agonizingly slow, almost amateurish reaction. The special adviser’s diminished influence and defection to become the coach at St. John’s. Another appearance in the NBA lottery ahead.

None of this followed Ranadive’s script, he admits. Yet before delving deeper into basketball issues during an exclusive interview last week with The Bee, he insisted on clarifying Vlade Divac’s status in the reshuffled front office.

“Vlade makes the decisions,” said Ranadive, noting that Divac’s title as vice president of basketball and franchise operations positions him above general manager Pete D’Alessandro. “Two people report directly to me. Chris Granger, who runs the business side, and Vlade from the basketball side. I want to make that clear as we move forward. We have a lot of work to do, and we are all in this together.”

While the Golden State Warriors, his former team, streaks toward a possible NBA championship, his Kings are inching toward respectability. They won one more game this season than last. The last two drafts yielded unspectacular results. Injuries and illnesses contributed to a tumultuous 2014-15 season.

How do you spell relief? Ranadive is devouring heavy doses of Divac and coach George Karl.

“I made mistakes,” Ranadive said, “and I’m sure I’ll make more mistakes. Hopefully, I’ll make different ones. But I am successful at everything I do, and that’s not going to change. We are trying to build something special here, not just for one year, but for many years. And I’m learning that the journey is not going to be easy.”

NBA owners routinely come in wedded to the mistaken belief that operating professional franchises compares with running billion-dollar companies. They confuse widgets with human beings. In his early years with the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban intruded into team huddles until future Hall of Famers Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki complained. Warriors owner Joe Lacob traded popular guard Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut – a terrific move, as it turns out – but he was tone deaf to the public reaction. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer behaves like a clown while seated courtside during games. The Knicks’ James Dolan plays a mean guitar but is reviled inside and outside Madison Square Garden.

The league’s elite owners clean up their messes and avoid repeating mistakes, and in that sense, Ranadive is becoming a quicker study. His hirings of the popular Divac and the dynamic Karl suggests he is grasping the delicate balance between committed, effective ownership and meddling, dysfunctional leadership.

His first gaffe, he said, was hiring coach Michael Malone before assembling a front office and selecting a general manager.

“Absolutely,” Ranadive said. “People told me not to do that. But I knew Malone from when he was an assistant with the Warriors, and again, with the draft only weeks away, I had to make very quick decisions. I didn’t know any GMs. At some level, this isn’t rocket science. You hire a guy who is proven and successful, you hire a promising assistant, or you hire a college coach. We saw what happens when … ”

Ranadive’s voice trailed off. He declined to detail the circumstances regarding Malone, who guided the Kings to 28 victories during his first season and a 9-6 record to begin 2014-15 before DeMarcus Cousins’ viral meningitis coincided with a 2-8 swoon.

When pressed about whether his decision to fire Malone was an overreaction on his part or prompted by the constant criticism from then-adviser Chris Mullin and D’Alessandro, whose relationship with the former coach was strained for months, he shook his head, demurred.

Left unsaid was that Tyrone Corbin’s brief tenure was a predictable non-starter, the players revolted with a prolonged work stoppage, and Mullin felt minimized enough to leave for a college coaching job. D’Alessandro’s fate remains most intriguing. With his close friend and colleague, Mullin, now back east and a year left on his contract, D’Alessandro was assured by Divac that his negotiating skills and salary cap acumen are appreciated.

“All of us have different skills,” Ranadive said, “and everyone has their roles. Vlade is a unifier, a conductor, and he is very smart. People probably don’t realize that when he was back in Serbia (as head of the Olympic committee), he was dealing with political leaders at the highest level. He can interact with the person who carries your bag and interact with the president of a country. And he has a strong stomach. He wears big-boy pants. George, he is a future Hall of Fame coach. I have always respected him as a coach, and now I am getting to know him as a human being. And, yes, I ask dumb questions, and I am still an irritant. But I am counting on Vlade to pull this all together.”

One of the most interesting parts of the conversation, which Divac and D’Alessandro joined briefly, was Ranadive’s thought process behind the recent hirings. For someone who normally approaches problems in a methodical, analytical manner, his two most important and impressive changes seem more instinctive than calculating.

“That is true,” Ranadive said, “but like I said, some of this is not rocket science. We just want to hire the best people. When I bought the team, I didn’t know anybody, and what I have discovered is that the NBA culture tends to be more of a ‘crony’ culture than Silicon Valley. ‘This is my guy. Hire this guy.’ I want loyal people, and Vlade is loyal.”

As the interview progressed, Ranadive, dressed casually in sneakers, black slacks and a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, relaxed and became more confident. After reciting his oft-stated ingredients for success, he became witty and engaging, his slight frame and graceful hand gestures projecting an almost impish quality. He listed his three children, his Kings and his former company as the “three loves of my life.”

“And I only have my kids and the Kings now,” he said with a grin.

And he still has huge plans: Fix the Kings, which will expand the global brand; put the finishing touches on the downtown arena; implement a “Kings Academy,” a two-pronged program designed to provide players with life skills and financial tutorials; and add a grassroots component to attract and further develop youth basketball throughout the region.

The man’s mind never stops, though as Divac cautioned before his boss walked out the door: first things first. The predraft camp is this week in Chicago. The lottery is May 19. The workouts of college players, the draft and the free-agent offseason await.

“(It’s the) last time (in the lottery),” said Divac, who will represent the Kings at the proceedings. “We’re going to move fast, and like Vivek said, we are all in this together. Me, coach, Pete, Mike (Bratz). No separate agendas. Our only agenda now is to win.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

KEY DATES FOR THE KINGS

Tuesday - May 17: NBA draft combine (on court portion Thursday-Friday)

May 19: NBA draft lottery

June 15: NBA draft early entry withdrawal deadline

June 25: NBA draft

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