The very idea that general manager Vlade Divac would convene a team meeting and attempt to mediate the Kings’ combustible situation sounded a little nutty. But then it sort of made sense.
Croatia and Serbia.
Somehow, during his final years with his national team, with the relationship between the two Balkan nations still strained, Divac encouraged and re-established friendships among teammates – Croats and Serbs – that he has known since his teens. Within international basketball circles, the native Serb is regarded as a master of détente, a person who brings people to the table.
So this latest attempt to mediate for his head coach and his All-Star center? Does it have a chance?
Check back in a few weeks. The circumstances are delicate, incited by the usual assortment of conflicting media reports about DeMarcus Cousins’ locker room outburst, the tenor of the team meeting, the effectiveness of the gathering, as well as the futures of both George Karl and Cousins.
Karl is not getting fired, at least not now. Cousins is not getting traded, at least not now. The game plan remains the same: strive for peace and a return to the days when the team was winning and the Kings were fun. Remember fun? Players smiling and celebrating and seeming to appreciate their healthy salaries and enviable working conditions. Coaches and front office executives signing long-term deals and providing stability. The fans packing the building and being rewarded with victories.
While Divac often says not all conflict is bad, and that he prefers passionate players and coaches, he nonetheless spent much of his time Wednesday dispelling rumors and engaging in damage control. At one point he admitted being both surprised and amazed at how quickly the Kings controversy went viral; he is only beginning to grasp the reach of social media.
“You guys make my job hard,” he said, with a quick grin. “There is partial truth to a lot of what has been reported, but much of it was off. First of all, I never asked the players if I should fire Coach or said I was thinking of doing that. I walked into the locker room after (Monday’s Spurs) game and said, ‘OK, you guys don’t want to play with Coach? What’s the problem?’ I wanted to catch them by surprise a little bit and get them to talk openly about what was going on. Then the coaches came in, and we talked some more. I think it was very positive for everyone.”
As for Karl’s status, Divac said: “George’s job is not in jeopardy. Absolutely not. Nothing has changed. I believe in him. I believe he is good for us. Yes, we struggle, but you can see the way we played tonight, we have the talent, and we will turn this around.”
There are a few things worth noting here. While much has been made of the fact Divac inherited his head coach, what has not been reported is that the one-time King strongly recommended Karl when majority owner Vivek Ranadive decided to fill the position with a permanent hire. Divac believed the franchise needed an experienced presence and a proven winner after repeated experiments with promising, but unproven, younger coaches. He also anticipated some rocky moments between the two strong-willed individuals, though the extent of his patience is yet to be determined.
And it’s not as if he signed a lifetime contract himself when Ranadive lost confidence in Pete D’Alessandro and Chris Mullin and asked Divac, who remains on the executive board of basketball’s international governing body (FIBA), to take over the front office.
“Hey, we all have a lot at stake,” he said. “This (Wednesday’s game against Detroit) felt like a playoff game. We want to turn this around.”
Convincing the Kings’ coaches and players to get along isn’t as daunting as, say, getting his former Yugoslavia national team teammate Toni Kukoc and other Croatians to attend his retirement ceremonies in Serbia. And there is plenty of incentive for all the parties to find some resolution.
Ranadive is being pressured by the minority owners to improve the product before the new arena opens in October. Divac has little more than a one-year deal with the owner; if Ranadive likes his work, at the end of the season, Divac hopes to sign a long-term deal. Karl is a future Hall of Fame coach who transformed the Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets into winners, and when he has had a team for a full year, hasn’t missed the playoffs in almost two decades. That he is owed almost $11 million is hugely significant, particularly with the Kings’ revenue sharing limited until they transition to the new building. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo agreed to one-year, $9.5 million contract but is playing for a long-term agreement, somewhere.
But Cousins, at 25, and in his sixth season, arguably has the most at stake. For all his prodigious stats and dominating performances, his Kings teams have never won more than 29 games. On the court, he still reacts to calls, both good and bad. Off the court, he has berated four of his head coaches – Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Tyrone Corbin and now Karl – though team and league sources confirm that Monday night’s outburst was only indirectly aimed at the coaches and that the All-Star center was fined. His on-court behavior has resulted in technicals and suspensions that are seemingly in decline, but not quickly enough to fully overcome his reputation. In a preseason general managers poll, for instance, Marc Gasol was listed as a better center.
Additionally, USA Basketball executives have scrapped a pre-Olympic tryout camp and are evaluating players during the 2015-16 season. Cousins, who gained favor with Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski with his persistence and performance in the 2014 World Cup, damages his prospects every time he goes at a coach or a referee, which might be one reason he issued an apology, clarifying that, “For the record, my frustration is not about any one person or player or coach. My frustration is that we are 1-7, simple as that.”
Wednesday’s victory over the Pistons for the most part lightened the mood. Wins against Brooklyn and Toronto to close out the homestand undoubtedly would allow for more breathing room all around the old arena.
So can Divac pull this off? Can he mediate the Kings out of this? Out of the darkness?
Leave it at this: If the Kings and their coach can string together a few victories, start to have a little fun, hit the road for a welcome break, all things are possible. If not, there will be plenty of losers and no need to pour champagne for the arena finale.