With 22 games remaining in what can only be described as a disappointing debut for an ownership group headed by Vivek Ranadive, the Kings’ 2013-14 narrative at least offers the potential for intriguing, perhaps even fascinating, closing scenes.
Can DeMarcus Cousins regain his emotional equilibrium and avoid another technical and automatic suspension? Will Rudy Gay feel enough love offensively to pursue a multiyear extension? Will rookie Ray McCallum develop into a facilitating point guard who consistently defends the perimeter, and if so, what does this mean for Isaiah Thomas? Is Ben McLemore a bust or merely a slumping rookie?
And then there’s coach Michael Malone. He preaches defense; his owners crave offense. Can this marriage be saved?
This Malone-Ranadive union doesn’t appear to be splitting anytime soon. While Ranadive wants to win even more than he wants to be proven right – and hiring his coach before his general manager raised some eyebrows around the league – he has a soft spot for a young coach who was thrust into dysfunctional circumstances and a time crunch between the May 31 purchase of the team and the June 27 NBA draft.
During those four weeks, Malone, an assistant for the Golden State Warriors when Ranadive was a minority owner, ran a one-man shop. He conducted drills, dined with prospects, conducted background investigations, and in his spare time put together a coaching staff that initially included his father, Brendan, as lead assistant. But he arrived in Sacramento with serious assistant coaching bona fides and a reputation as an astute defensive thinker and teacher.
“I’ve been unwavering in who we need to be,” Malone reiterated Tuesday after practice. “Defense, rebounding, the discipline and valuing the basketball.”
Ranadive also hired general manager Pete D’Alessandro, assistant general manager Mike Bratz and consultant Chris Mullin, longtime NBA execs who subscribe to the theory that good offense generates good defense.
How will this all shake out? Leno or Letterman? Fallon or Kimmel? Is this relationship doomed or destined to become one of those rare collaborations (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami) that builds stability and transforms franchises?
It will take another offseason and several more personnel moves before we know. But Ranadive keeps dropping hints. While acknowledging the diverging philosophies within his organization, he thinks creative tension begets success.
“It’s no secret the game has become an offensive game,” Ranadive said two weeks ago. “We all see it. So we have to reconcile that. If I had everyone who agreed, why would I want them? … Do we have a culture? Do we have a system? Are we developing players? I believe we’re moving in the right direction.”
Well, yes. Well, no. There’s enough fodder in that last comment to incite days of healthy conversation. While Cousins, Thomas and Gay are having career seasons, the Kings are in the Pacific Division cellar again and rank near the bottom in opponents’ field-goal percentage (25th) and points allowed (27th). The recent offensive woes have drawn even more bows and arrows, with the Kings 29th in assists and 26th in three-point shooting proficiency.
“We don’t have much of an offense,” Gay said, “and that’s not coach’s fault. That’s a function of the makeup of our team. A lot of guys want the ball.”
The roster has undergone a massive overhaul, with only Cousins, Thomas, Jason Thompson and Travis Outlaw remaining from last year. Newcomers Greivis Vasquez and Luc Mbah a Moute were obtained and quickly dispatched for Gay and Derrick Williams. Carl Landry, the major offseason acquisition, has been limited to 18 games because of injury.
Malone, refreshingly candid and respected in his locker room, is caught in his own little tug of war. He wants to continue developing and auditioning his younger players while remaining competitive – seemingly competing interests. The mention of the word “tanking” – the notion of deliberately losing games to gain favorable draft positioning – elicits a forceful, negative reaction.
“No, never,” he said Tuesday. “Anyone who knows me knows that would never happen.”
Admittedly stubborn and detail-oriented to a fault – Malone even packs his own clothes for trips – he also seems willing to read between the lines, and willing to bend. He says defense, his bosses say offense, and somewhere in the middle he believes a balance will emerge.
“I don’t want to be a guy that says, ‘Let’s defend and walk the ball up the court and score in the 80s,’ ” continued Malone, who signed a four-year contract worth up to $9 million. “What we did last year at Golden State was a great example. We defended at a high level, rebounded at a high level, moved the ball, and played a very exciting style. For us, now we’re on a downward trend. Now we get caught in dribble, dribble, dribble, and we don’t share the ball enough. The reality is, we have to do a better job.”
Instead of stressing defense 80 percent of the time, he is implementing a balanced approach that emphasizes timing, execution, spacing, ball movement and advancing the ball with the pass. And he’s all ears when the bosses call. All ears, and no fear.
“By no means am I coaching out of fear,” he said. “Even if the word on the street was that I’m getting fired tomorrow, I would still coach the way I know how. I will be true to myself.”