It was a Tuesday night of memories and mixed emotions, of glimpses into the past and a peek into the future. Peja Stojakovic’s No.16 jersey was retired during halftime ceremonies. Tyrone Corbin made his Kings head coaching debut. The Oklahoma City Thunder – finally healthy and surging – visited Sleep Train Arena and reminded the sellout crowd of what a winner looks like.
More details on the abrupt coaching change?
Vivek Ranadive doesn’t chuck-and-duck. He doesn’t hide under his desk. In the hours preceding tipoff, the Kings owner met with members of the local media, all of whom asked the questions of the night: Why did he fire Michael Malone, the coach he hired and trumpeted immediately after buying the Kings in May 2013, barely two months into the 2014-15 season, and why promote Corbin instead of pursuing a more experienced, accomplished successor?
“There is a never a good time to fire someone,” Ranadive explained later in the privacy of his office. “It’s a terrible thing. First of all, I want to say for the record that Michael Malone is a good man, an honorable man. He did a good job for us, and I believe that he was absolutely the right choice given the context of when we got him. I was handed the keys to the kingdom. This place was literally and figuratively falling apart. The roof was falling down. We hadn’t sold a single ticket. There was chaos in the locker room and the draft was weeks away. What we needed was order, structure, discipline, stability, a strong culture, and defense. And the experts in the league said he would bring all those things.”
Malone, in fact, brought all of those things, brought everything but the hammer and nails. But as the Kings trudged along toward a 28-win season, the team’s practice facility became a palace divided. Ranadive conceded as much. Philosophical differences, conflicting personnel assessments, and sharp divisions about style of play persisted throughout the 2014 NBA draft, the summer league and the preseason. Despite the surprising 5-1 start to the regular season, tension hovered like a hangover that never went away.
The Kings’ basketball think tankers – Pete D’Alessandro, Chris Mullin, Mike Bratz – began lobbying Ranadive for a coaching change several weeks ago. According to the owner, D’Alessandro and Mullin flew to Las Vegas eight days ago, where he was attending a software conference, and persuaded him to change coaches, partly to change the culture but mainly to start scrapping the old offense. The push was on to replace the isolation plays and sluggish tempo with a faster pace, ball and body movement, quicker decisions, smaller lineups, and in essence, a more creative, free-flowing system.
“When they both flew in on the earliest flight that morning and wanted to meet with me,” Ranadive added, “I knew they were pretty serious. This was different. I told Pete to do what he thought best.”
The next phase – what D’Alessandro refers to as Phase II of the Kings’ development – begins, of course, with the selection of Malone’s replacement. And in the course of the hour-long conversation Tuesday evening, Ranadive confirmed and revealed the following:
While Corbin will be the head coach for the remainder of the season, other more established candidates will be considered and possibly approached. Though he declined to cite names, George Karl is held in high regard by Ranadive, coached the uptempo-loving Mullin decades ago in Golden State, and is respected immensely by D’Alessandro and Bratz, among his former bosses in Denver.
Ranadive, D’Alessandro and Mullin discussed the possibility of shifting the Hall of Famer from the front office to the bench, but bagged the idea for two reasons. One, Mullin’s interest in coaching fluctuates, and, two, he has no desire to step into the role in the middle of a season, without the benefit of an offseason and the time to assemble an experienced staff.
Though internal discussions about changing coaches transpired at the end of last season, the sentiment within the organization was that Malone deserved a chance to select a lead assistant and become more sympatico with the front office.
The goal is to hit a “home run” with the next head coaching hire, “but I don’t know who that home run is yet,” Ranadive adds. “ ... We need time to research. We want to get this right.”
Indeed, since Rick Adelman guided the Kings to their last playoff appearance in 2005-06, the head coach’s office has been occupied by a procession of talented, but mostly unproven individuals.
While former Kings president Geoff Petrie refused to interview strong-willed available coaches, among them Larry Brown and Don Nelson (both of whom are too old at this point), Ranadive, D’Alessandro and Mullin say they won’t be deterred by outsized or quirky personalities.
“The NBA has increasingly become like the high-tech business,” said Ranadive. “Just because you invent the iPhone doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels, because someone is building a better phone. Just because you win 50 games doesn’t mean the status quo is OK, or that you don’t try to get Ray Allen. Good enough just isn’t. You have to get better. So, we felt it was time for us to pivot, to (play) defense and offense. And we think we can make the playoffs.”
Again, the boss didn’t duck and run. He laid it on the table.
“Absolutely, with DeMarcus (Cousins) coming back,” he said, “we have a chance to make the playoffs.”