The voice is softer these days, but that can be misleading. Where Kings coach George Karl treads, loud noise follows. Even with the thump, thump, thumping of basketballs in the background, there is no mistaking the message.
The Kings will be a .500 team this season.
There, he said it. Throughout the weeklong training camp at UC San Diego, he said it again and again, more of a promise than a guarantee.
“We have enough good players,” said Karl, who took over as coach after the All-Star break in February. “Vlade (Divac) has done a great job adding talent and improving the roster. Now it’s on me to put this thing together. This is what I do.”
Even for someone with Karl’s pedigree – his last full-season sub-.500 campaign was 1987-88 – those are brave words. The Kings haven’t had a winning season since 2005-06. The last decade has been one collective, perpetual blunder, a low-budget serial drama characterized by a coaching carousel and poor personnel moves. The only victories came against Anaheim and Seattle – and the Maloofs.
But here comes Karl, overseeing his first training camp in three years, encouraged by an offseason overhaul that includes the addition of rookie Willie Cauley-Stein and veterans Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos. His bum left knee notwithstanding, the league’s sixth-winningest coach is in his element, right down to his baggy shorts, rumpled polo shirt, baseball cap and disdain for a razor.
While assistants conduct most of the drills, Karl, 64, can be heard correcting or praising players, occasionally cracking jokes to lighten the mood.
We know this because, unlike most coaches who bar the media from practices, the Kings are intent on becoming the Kings of candor. Divac, the first-year general manager, is determined to rid the franchise of its chronic paranoia – “We are going to be open and honest,” he insists – and Karl allows reporters to watch a significant portion of practices, saying he has nothing to hide.
Karl is a two-time cancer survivor, and while he was an open book long before his first diagnosis, some things never change. He wants his team to play at a fast pace, create transition opportunities with defensive intensity and share the ball.
“George is very unique,” said Koufos, who played for Karl when he coached in Denver. “Different teams, different faces, but the same system. Run with the ball, be quick, get the ball out, get back on defense. He gets the best out of players, but you have to be in shape.”
After one week of training camp, a few things are apparent, among them the intense nature of the competition, per Divac’s grand plan. The duels between Rondo and Darren Collison – who was injured when Karl was hired and is essentially auditioning for a new coach – have been particularly spirited. The understated Quincy Acy is having a terrific camp. Uber-competitive center DeMarcus Cousins is in the best shape of his career and apparently in midseason form; his familiar frowns and exchanges with the referees have been abundant.
The Kings need Cousins to embrace the system and share the ball to have any chance of escaping the Pacific Division cellar, which also means Karl and his best player have to take communion together.
“That’s my guy,” Cousins said early last week, describing the relationship with his coach as “solid.”
Karl, who angered his sixth-year veteran late last season by suggesting every player was tradeable, apologized during a Divac-facilitated meeting during the offseason that seems to have repaired the breach.
“What I said, I should not have said,” Karl reiterated Friday. “But we all make mistakes. I make mistakes with game-planning, make mistakes coaching. DeMarcus makes mistakes. I think he was a little surprised (laugh) to hear me say that I make mistakes and that I’m going to ‘bleep up’ again.”
That noise? The boom behind that soft voice? The high-maintenance personality and occasional verbal gaffe notwithstanding, that can’t change. The Kings aren’t paying Karl to swallow his whistle. They’re paying for a probable Hall of Famer who is creative, demanding and unconventional, and who happens to be an expert at transforming moribund franchises into success stories.
And how long has it been now since the Kings have caught a whiff of a winning season?
“In a perfect world, we create offense by playing great defense,” Karl said, “and our offense is easy because everybody participates and has a good time. But it doesn’t happen often.”
Still, he said it first. A winning season. Remember those?