Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings vs. Warriors is tale of two coaches

Michael Malone looks like someone who actually breathes once in a while. Finally. With two weeks remaining in his first season as an NBA head coach, he sees the finish line, anticipates a very active Kings offseason in terms of trades, free agency and draft choices, knowing he will be back for Year II.

In the NBA – heck, for a rookie head coach in most of pro sports – that’s known as job security.

If he peered farther into the future, Malone could pull aside his former boss when the Kings and Warriors play tonight in Oakland and quietly solicit Mark Jackson’s opinion about how best to approach a second season.

Of course, that’s not going to happen.

As local rivalries go – Kings vs. Lakers, Sacramento vs. Anaheim, Sacramento vs. Seattle, Kings owners vs. Warriors owners – this lingering strain between Malone and Jackson has all the ingredients to become downright delicious. Who knows? This might become the coaching duel of the next decade, a deserving postscript to the ferocity of Pat Riley vs. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley vs. Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Woodson vs. Larry Drew. And though neither are coaches, one should definitely keep an eye on the forced marriage between Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss and her co-owner brothers, Jimmy in particular.

But back to Jackson and Malone, both of whom are bright, stubborn, controlling, driven. Pairing twins on the sideline was trouble from the start. When Warriors managing partner Joe Lacob hired the inexperienced Jackson as his head coach almost three summers ago, he also strongly recommended that Malone, a respected and longtime NBA assistant, join the staff to provide the X’s and O’s. Jackson complied but then resented the perception that Malone was most responsible for the team’s improvement, which chilled the relationship.

When Malone left to coach the Kings, Jackson hired Brian Scalabrine, another Lacob favorite from their time together in Boston, but reassigned his new assistant last week to Golden State’s Development League team in Santa Cruz. Because of the unusual timing of the move – even for the NBA, this was bizarre – Jackson exposed himself to scrutiny. While his team jockeys for playoff position, suddenly his coaching style, his relationship with his assistants and, most importantly, the fact his contract has not been extended was reopened for daily examination.

Now all Jackson has to do is win. And now he almost has to win. Owners tolerate negative attention only when it leads to a greater good, which in Jackson’s case would mean Andrew Bogut and David Lee get healthy, Andre Iguodala becomes more aggressive, the defense stiffens, and Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shoot the Warriors deep into the Western Conference playoffs.

Malone, by contrast, has escaped the hot seat. He was owner Vivek Ranadive’s first significant hire – and owners never want to be wrong – and given a job description that had little to do with wins and losses and everything to do with the following directives:

• Convert one of the Kings’ undersize scorers into a point guard;

• Improve a defense that for years has ranked near the bottom in the major categories;

• Install an offense that consists of an occasional pass, more than an occasional fast break, stops all the dribbling that damages the wooden floor and is entertaining enough to keep fans from falling asleep in their seats;

• Maintain order in a locker room in which players have been advised to rent, not buy;

• And coax a mature, dominant, All-Star season out of center DeMarcus Cousins.

And the verdict is?

Decent start, shaky middle, encouraging final stretch. Good enough for now.

“When Michael came here, there was total chaos, no respect,” Ranadive said Wednesday. “He took a very unstable situation and provided stability. On top of that, I placed him with a massive talent (Cousins) who had issues.

“So we knew this year was going to be about evolving, establishing pride, establishing a system. It wasn’t going to be easy. And there were times … the No.1 thing I need is openness. I’m very annoying and opinionated. I’m an irritant. I call Petey (general manager Pete D’Alessandro) all the time, and Michael, too. And he listened.”

With seven games remaining, this uptick of a flourish hasn’t hurt the mood, either. Except for glaring lapses in transition, the defense is improving. Isaiah Thomas has emerged as a legitimate scorer, an almost ideal NBA backup guard. Second-round draft choice Ray McCallum has been a late-season revelation; besides harassing opposing ballhandlers, he pushes the pace and makes quick decisions – either creating for himself or others – and keeps his teammates engaged. Rudy Gay and Cousins will never be confused with Lennon and McCartney, but with McCallum on the court and improving as a playmaker, the potential for cohesiveness exists.

As for Cousins, who warranted All-Star consideration, he seems determined to finish his best season with monster statistics and without being assessed a technical that would bring an automatic suspension.

Much like Curry with Golden State, Cousins also is respectful and appreciative of his coach – his third in four years.

“I love him,” Cousins said of Malone. “That’s my man. I’m going to battle with him. He has a great basketball mind. The thing we respect most, he’s not the kind of coach who thinks he knows it all. He admits he has growing to do, just like we do as a young team. Even when our offense (went through stagnant periods), he would come to me and Rudy and ask, ‘Do you think we should do this? Do you think we should do that?’ He asked for our input.

“All that being said, that’s why he has the respect from this group of guys.”

So bring it on, this Kings-Warriors season finale, with more drama sure to come.