When Vlade Divac returned to Sacramento and the chaotic scene at Sleep Train Arena late last season, he promised to clean up the place. And, as it turns out, he wasn’t kidding. There was nothing subtle or subversive about his offseason moves.
He broke out the dustrag, the mop, the vacuum, and swept away the entire mess of the 2014-15 season. Fully empowered by majority owner Vivek Ranadive, the former center scrapped the perpetual rebuilding process and assembled a roster designed to compete today, tomorrow, next week, next month, perhaps even next April, when the postseason begins.
The philosophy he espouses is this: Why put off to tomorrow what you can do today?
“This team needs to start winning,” Divac said during a recent conversation. “It’s been how long since we made the playoffs? Ten years? That’s too long. I went into the summer determined to change the culture and give coach George (Karl) the players he needs to be successful. And I really believe in this team. We have a balance of young players and experienced players, and we have depth. People are going to be surprised.”
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Divac’s moves were not without risk. Or without controversy. To clear salary cap space to pursue veteran free agents, he flouted conventional wisdom (of not trading assets) by trading second-year guard Nik Stauskas and a first-round draft choice, and swapping future picks with the Philadelphia 76ers. He also declined to use the “stretch” provision that allows teams to extend payments over time, opting instead to contain costs and maintain cap flexibility.
But amid the full-throated roar of his many critics, he quickly and quietly signed veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, shooting guard Marco Belinelli and center/power forward Kosta Koufos, and drafted 7-foot-1 Willie Cauley-Stein. Within a matter of days, the team that for years lacked a playmaking point guard, length on the frontline, perimeter shooting and overall talent in general, was back in the game. At the very least, these Kings have enough pieces and personalities to make some noise in the final season at Sleep Train Arena.
“Just from a coaching standpoint, at the end of last season, we didn’t have enough skills, we didn’t have enough versatility, to be a good team,” Karl said. “Right now we have a substantial amount of talent to be a very good basketball team. We’re not there yet. We’re constructing, hopefully, a winning attitude. But I can’t complain at all. Where Vlade and Vivek have taken the team, I’m not sure we have any holes. Every team has weaknesses, but I’m not sure we have any holes. We have to figure out how to get the combinations in there to hide our weaknesses.”
The real issue for the Kings is as old as the peach basket: Will the skills and personalities mesh?
“It’s all about chemistry,” Divac insists. “Everything else you can fix.”
So about that Kings chemistry. For the moment, all is quiet on the battle front. The defining offseason development, in fact, might prove to be Divac’s famous abilities as a peacemaker. The same bearded, amiable 7-footer who kept the Kings of Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson and Peja Stojakovic from fragmenting in the best and worst of times, devoted much of his offseason to facilitating a treaty between Cousins and Karl, the organization’s two main assets and it’s most powerful personalities.
Cousins, who was selected for his first All-Star Game appearance last year and hopes to be named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, tips off the season in the best physical condition of his career and appears to be in a good place mentally. Throughout training camp, the immensely gifted sixth-year veteran organized most of the Kings’ team-building outings, never missed an event, never caused a scene. And while he undoubtedly will have moments when his temper flares and he succumbs to raw, unfiltered emotion, both Karl and Divac praised him repeatedly for his performance and demeanor throughout preseason.
For his part, Cousins seems to have overcome his initial skepticism and embraced Karl’s brisk-paced offense, as well the offseason acquisitions.
“We grew a lot faster as a team than I expected,” Cousins said after practice Tuesday. “This team has a lot of potential. It’s going to be on us as a team to reach that potential and play as a team. We have a lot of potential on the defensive end, which is also on us.”
Divac is counting on swift maturation. Though reluctant to project a victory total, he sees some of himself in Cousins, sees some of his old Kings in the current version. “If we move the ball and play unselfish, and everybody accepts their roles,” he said, grinning, “we can turn this around. Just watch.”
Too late. Everyone already is.