The Kings can call a million player meetings, team meetings, coach meetings. They can go on retreat to share the peace pipe and clear the air. They can dissect the offense, the defense, the effort levels, maybe even glance in the mirror once in a while.
But this season will be salvaged only if George Karl is George Karl.
Or resembles George Karl. The one who transforms franchises, who commands locker rooms, who teaches beautiful basketball, who loves the game so much he finds it almost impossible to stay away.
And is that even possible?
This is the overriding concern within the Kings’ front office and ownership. What does the future Hall of Fame coach have left? At 64, he has overcome two bouts of cancer and speaks in a near whisper because of radiation damage to his vocal cords. Though he arrived at training camp invigorated by the roster changes and encouraged by stability in the front office, team officials and even several of Karl’s close friends have noticed a decline in his energy level, particularly during games.
The old George Karl – the one known as “Crazy George” – would have raced onto the court and received a handful of technicals during a six-game losing streak. He would have stormed into the locker room and torn into his players after their recent performances. And he certainly would have escorted Drake out of his locker room after Monday’s fourth-quarter collapse against the San Antonio Spurs; that was the wrong time for principal owner Vivek Ranadive and his musical artist friend to drop in for a visit.
But can Karl withstand the grind of the 82-game season? Can he muster the emotional fire to challenge and contain DeMarcus Cousins? Does he have the passion to coax Rudy Gay out of his extended funk? Can he convince point guard Rajon Rondo, another strong-willed veteran who has clashed with previous coaches, to play along?
“I have great energy and I’m feeling very good,” Karl insisted in a recent text.
Yet more revealing was this: He declined to meet with reporters after practice Tuesday, relying instead on general manager Vlade Divac to discuss the fragile, frustrated state of the team and offer his thoughts on the team meeting earlier in the day.
The old George Karl loved a good fight, loved to spin a good story. He would have been there.
His presence alongside Divac also would have offered some insight into what is and what isn’t going on inside the kingdom. All this chatter about internal issues, the star players refusing to embrace a faster tempo, gripes about frequent lineup changes and uncertainty about roles – the vintage whine of losing teams – is a misdirection play.
Divac and Karl are as tight as siblings when it comes to basketball philosophy. Space the floor, share the ball, take good shots, play with pace, create offense with defense. Divac likes Karl’s free-flowing style even more than he dislikes isolation, the habit that bores teammates and results in too much standing around. So that’s not changing as long as the one-time Kings center oversees the front office and hires and fires the coaches.
But what needs to change is this: Karl coaching harder and delegating and tolerating less. When NBA players catch a whiff of a weakness, of a slippage of coaching control, they become predators. Or they simply pout and refuse to put forth effort.
“I think the effort is good, (but) I don’t think we are playing smart,” Divac said. “We are trying to force things because we know how good we are and things are not happening our way. But again, it’s a combination of things. Some players are injured. Tough schedule. But tomorrow is a new day.”
Karl, who wanted the Kings’ job in the worst way after a brief stint as an ESPN analyst, has said his cancer screenings have been clean for five years. More recently, he reminded reporters that winning cures everything else.
“You get one win, you get confidence,” veteran swingman Omri Casspi said. “We played the Clippers early in the year and we were right there with them. We beat the Lakers, went to L.A. and competed at the highest level. Mistakes were made, but there is a lot to learn from, a lot to build from. I feel like we are right there, right about to turn the corner.”
Would that be enough? Would a few victories give Karl an adequate boost, provide an adrenaline rush that enables him to regain his physical and emotional equilibrium, to take the best from the Crazy George years and adapt it to his current set of circumstances? And is that even possible?
Karl has never ducked the tough questions. Only he has the answer.