In what might be the most instinctive and impressive move of his short reign as the Kings’ general manager, Vlade Divac hit the brakes and prevented his franchise from spinning out of control. To the surprise of many, he spoke with his coach in Philadelphia, discussed the issues about defense, energy and erratic performances, and reacted with an abundance of common sense.
He didn’t fire George Karl.
He fixated on personnel flaws.
He took the car keys from DeMarcus Cousins.
That latter topic of discussion? That was huge. The 6-foot-11 Cousins, who devours Kings coaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, isn’t bigger than the building and certainly not bigger than the team. Yet for the first time in a very long time, the Kings’ ownership/front office demonstrated a modicum of maturity, an approach that is thoughtful and measured, not the familiar knee-jerk reaction.
In the midst of a bruising 1-8 slump, accompanied by the typical grumbling and grousing in the locker room, much of it by Cousins, Divac realized that firing his future Hall of Fame coach – after less than one year – would be another futile attempt to appease a few disgruntled players and confused, conflicted fans.
After the Michael Malone debacle led to Tyrone Corbin’s dismissal during last year’s All-Star break – after Cousins already had chased off Paul Westphal and Keith Smart – Karl was the people’s choice. An analyst with ESPN at the time, he was stubborn, high profile, experienced and successful at every previous stop. With the Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, his teams reached the playoffs in 20 of 21 seasons. The Kings haven’t been to the postseason since 2006.
While the prospects of ending the playoff drought are diminishing by the day, Karl, who led the injury-riddled Nuggets to 57 victories in his final season in Denver, didn’t suddenly become stupid. He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach the fundamentals of offense, defense, ball movement and body movement, or how to design creative plays during timeouts and late-game situations. He didn’t beat cancer twice, only to lose his will to win basketball games.
So what is happening? Better yet, what needs to happen, particularly with the Feb. 18 trade deadline approaching?
Divac, only months into the job, must fully empower Karl, and Karl needs to rear back and kick some butts. There should be no sacred Kings. Except, of course, there is. Cousins has wielded a ridiculous amount of influence for a player whose primary accomplishment is being named to two All-Star teams. In his first five seasons, the Kings never won more than 29 games. In his NBA career, he has ranked not only among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, but in technical fouls and suspensions, open defiance of coaches and disrespect toward opponents and teammates.
Do the Kings have issues? Oh, yes. The sluggish starts have become chronic, opponents convert three-pointers like layups, and, with Cousins’ ongoing stamina and injury concerns becoming increasingly problematic, the once fast-paced offense has sputtered into a one-dimensional two-man game.
This sight is alarmingly familiar: While teammates sprint downcourt, awaiting the ball, point guard Rajon Rondo waits for the trailing, out-of-shape Cousins and too often initiates the offense late in the shot clock. This leaves too little time for screening and cutting, for moving and creating spacing, for the extra pass that leads to open shots. (See Golden State Warriors, see San Antonio Spurs, see Basketball 101.)
You don’t need a shrink to explain the obvious. When players are disengaged offensively, they rebel on the other end. They become indifferent, lethargic defenders and rebounders. They play without energy or effort. While disliking their selfish teammates, at times openly, they resent their coach, their presumed leader.
So back to the Kings, which gets back to Divac, and Karl, and Cousins/Rondo, and a dynamic that must change. Karl was given an extension, with many within the organization – in operations and in ownership – privately encouraging Crazy George to react aggressively and wrestle Big Cuz to the ground.
Suspensions are not four-letter words. Cousins should have been suspended when he cursed out Karl in the locker room in November. But the next time he cusses out his coaches? Suspend him. The next time he erupts in the huddle? Suspend him. The next time he erupts during a video session? Suspend him. The next time he behaves like a boor at practice? Kick him out of the gym.
“We have some issues, but it’s not that we can’t win,” Divac said Tuesday. “We have to sit down, work together and figure out how to turn this around. The coach’s job is to figure out who is going to play, and how many minutes. Make a statement.”
Divac made his statement Tuesday. Karl is the next man up. He has two years and $10 million left on his contract. Why go down without a fight? Kicking, screaming, suspending. And then who knows? Trades happen. Slumps end. Agents get fired. Personal trainers get hired.
But whatever happens next, Divac deserves credit for keeping his cool.
Now it’s on him to stand his ground. Once upon a time, he stood up to Shaquille O’Neal. Now is the time to be firm with Cousins. The enabling, the placating, the nonsense, the histrionics have to end. And the coach must be empowered to coach.