Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Sacramento Kings are a mess, but there’s still time to fix it

Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, right, and general manager Pete D’Alessandro, left, are taking their time hiring a new coach. Concerning George Karl, the questions are whether he can coexist with star center DeMarcus Cousins and Ranadive.
Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, right, and general manager Pete D’Alessandro, left, are taking their time hiring a new coach. Concerning George Karl, the questions are whether he can coexist with star center DeMarcus Cousins and Ranadive. hamezcua@sacbee.com

DeMarcus Cousins has every reason to be angry, demoralized, confused, distrustful and thoroughly disgusted by the abrupt and premature firing of coach Michael Malone.

His bosses blew it. They messed up. They can cite unresolvable philosophical differences and a lack of communication between the coach and front office, but despite the absence of the team’s best player during the 2-8 slide, they could have justified their decision to dump their coach barely weeks into the season if two things had occurred:

One, they hired a superior coach.

Two, they outlined a plan.

Yet in the tortured days and nights since Malone was fired Dec. 14, while Cousins was recovering from a lingering bout of viral meningitis, Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and his executives did neither. The spin went round and round, circling the issues, and causing confusion in the locker room and frustration among fans. On the national NBA scene, members of the new regime are being perceived as a bunch of bumbling, stumbling rookies.

Worse, though several of the minority owners concurred and anticipated Malone’s inevitable ouster, probably at the end of the season, many are grumbling about the abrupt timing, the unwieldy process and the failure to communicate a cohesive next step.

Let’s say it again. There was – and still might be – a great escape. Despite the messy divorce, the Kings were presented a win-win exit strategy. They replace a coach who was popular with his players with a high-profile successor who is widely regarded as the most accomplished, successful and available coach on the market.

Let’s say his name again and again. George Karl. George Karl.

The Kings finally could have broken the streak of hiring mostly unproven coaching neophytes since Rick Adelman.

So what are the Kings waiting for? The kingdom to completely crumble? The players are a disoriented, disillusioned, demoralized, distrustful bunch. And while the front office signed Corbin for the rest of the season – pro forma when coaches get fired midseason – they are making their list, doing background checks and hoping the team can be revived quickly enough to avert another 28-win (or worse) season.

But this is the equivalent of basketball limbo. Corbin, a terrific person and a onetime head coach, inherited an impossible situation. The players resent him because he’s not Malone and refuse to commit because he won’t be around next season and they know the feelers are out.

And all the speculation about Karl being out of the picture? Here’s further intrigue: It’s not true. The former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst remains near the top of the list. Some of the owners, in fact, wanted to sign Karl the day Malone departed. But Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro is so intent on making the perfect hire – so fearful of making a mistake – that he is digging around like a CIA agent, thinking too hard and anticipating the worst. And by the way: He worked with Karl in Denver and is intrigued by the possibilities.

These are the two questions being mulled: Can the emotional, strong-willed Karl, one of the most innovative offensive minds in the business and yet whose defensive schemes were at the root of his success in Seattle, coexist with (a) Cousins and (b) Ranadive?

Ranadive is the key. The modern NBA owner arrives with a hefty bank account and laboring under the misconception that running a basketball franchise is similar to developing cutting-edge software. Mark Cuban. Paul Allen. James Dolan. Robert Sarver. And anyone remember Dan Gilbert’s remarks when LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami?

All rookies make mistakes. But Ranadive desperately needs his people to speak up, to show some spine, to keep him from falling over the cliff. Karl will never be a yes man at the conference table. Nor would Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson or any of the elite coaches of the modern era.

The concern about Karl coaching Cousins warrants a conversation, an introduction, but that’s all. Karl coached Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp to the 1996 NBA Finals. He coached an injury-plagued, modestly talented Denver Nuggets team to 57 wins two seasons ago. Enough said.

Cousins, 24, needs a dynamic coach, a demanding coach, a creative coach and, most importantly, someone who will teach the Kings how to win. And Karl will do that. He will devise an offense built around his emerging superstar, play his best players regardless of size, implement an identity, improve the defense, and command the respect of his players and the appreciation of the community. Season-ticket renewals will leap, and high-fives will be frequent again inside the arena.

Meantime, Cousins has to emerge from his emotional funk and rise above the recent developments. This is his season. He should be weeks from his first All-Star berth. He can hate the Malone firing and disagree with Corbin’s approach, but being a leader means playing through the pain, even emotional pain. Before his illness and all this nonsense, the 6-foot-11 center finally was being acknowledged for what he is: the most gifted big man in the NBA.

Right now, Cousins should be on a tear, demanding a seat at the table, the one featuring the folks who will hire the next coach. But he has to be a true leader, the player who pulls along a downcast Rudy Gay, encourages young Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas, urges Jason Thompson to accept his role as a backup center and pushes his teammates to give a genuine effort, to play as if they care despite the amateur hour circumstances and the lingering questions.

Was it Ranadive’s call to dump Malone despite the team’s 9-5 start? D’Alessandro’s decision? Adviser Chris Mullin’s suggestion?

Kings fans should watch closely. These next few weeks will be revealing. Corbin is the victim of collateral damage and could be easily dispatched. If the funk continues and the lack of effort persists, another shake-up is inevitable, management’s current comments notwithstanding. People change their minds. Rookies make mistakes. The smart NBA executives clean up the mess. And owners – billionaires more comfortable operating in back rooms than in front of microphones and the front pages of newspapers – hate being embarrassed.

Stay tuned.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story has been changed to say that Vivek Ranadive’s bank account is hefty.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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