Now that Vlade Divac has taken a massive swing and shocked the world, refusing to fire coach George Karl and restoring a sense of sanity to the basketball circus otherwise known as the Kings, his next move is critical.
He needs help in the front office. He needs to hire a general manager, primarily because his personnel department is painfully thin and the offseason presents a series of weighty issues.
Do the Kings re-sign veteran point guard Rajon Rondo, the masterful passer who turns 30 next week and earns $9 million, and whose defensive deficiencies are a nightmare for the analytics folks and his coach?
Is this the offseason to entertain trade offers for All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, the six-year veteran whose prodigious talents are equaled only by his volatile mood swings, bullying and, at times, debilitating presence? If Cousins stays, does Karl go? If Cousins goes, does Karl get an opportunity with players willing to be coached?
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In the midst of another slide, the playoffs far in the distance, the team dynamic is fractured. If the locker room were a chemistry lab, the place would have imploded months ago.
Rondo and Marco Belinelli are embarrassments defensively. Ben McLemore is young, athletic and hard-working, but his performances are maddeningly inconsistent. Rudy Gay resents being the third wheel behind Cousins and Rondo, and, particularly on defense, responds like a rebel with a cause: Get me out of here. Cousins’ poor conditioning prevents him from protecting the rim and running the floor, often providing opponents with power-play advantages at both ends.
“There is nothing wrong with our schemes,” rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein said recently. “It’s the same thing we ran at Kentucky. It’s all about guys wanting to defend.”
Cauley-Stein is staying put. The lanky 7-footer is the Kings’ most promising lottery pick since Cousins. Kudos to Divac for his first draft. But after the Feb. 18 trade deadline, with the Kings anticipating a relatively minor move – perhaps swapping Belinelli or McLemore for draft picks or a wing defender who doesn’t run and hide on those lethal pick and rolls – Divac should turn his attention to bolstering a front office that was assembled last spring in chaotic fashion, with verbal grenades tossed between the arrivals and departures.
Eleven months ago, after principal owner Vivek Ranadive had lost faith in the front office combination of general manager Pete D’Alessandro and special adviser Chris Mullin, Divac was hired as vice president of basketball and franchise operations. With Mullin on the way out in a messy departure, Divac became the preeminent voice, with D’Alessandro retaining his general manager title and Mike Bratz remaining as an assistant general manager.
When D’Alessandro left for the Denver Nuggets shortly before the NBA draft – the same D’Alessandro who astonishingly and repeatedly polled Kings fans about whether they sided with Karl or Cousins, exacerbating the tensions between coach and star player – Divac inherited the Mullin-D’Alessandro duties. And continued kissing babies. And assisting with marketing. And representing the Kings at important political functions. And mediating the Cold War that Cousins’ agent, Dan Fegan, declared even before Karl was introduced as the team’s third coach of 2014-15 and the fifth in Cousins’ six seasons.
The Kings desperately need a big fix. Bandages, stitches, antibiotics are not nearly enough.
Divac, who added the title of general manager before the season, fortunately is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. His plan has been to hire a general manager, someone to fill in the massive front office gaps.
Nearly every elite organization has a deal maker, a front office executive with extensive experience in salary cap management and contract negotiations and a grasp of the details and nuances of an increasingly complicated collective bargaining agreement. They know their opponent’s cap situations as well as their own, do their homework, work the phones and develop relationships with colleagues throughout the league, major college basketball and the international game.
Divac, who added the title of general manager before the season, fortunately is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know.
Some of the league’s most influential general managers and assistant general managers are attorneys – Golden State’s Bob Myers, former Indiana GM Donnie Walsh and Boston’s Mike Zarren, for example – but one career path does not fit all. The highly regarded R.C. Buford (San Antonio) and Donnie Nelson (Dallas) swept floors, toiled in the hinterlands and worked their way into their positions.
Divac should move swiftly and aggressively. Just flash his abundance of charm, talk up that new arena, swear the organization is intent on curbing its worst tendencies, make it clear he’s in charge and steal from the best. Washington’s Tommy Sheppard is available. Former Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry, undoubtedly humbled by his racially insensitive remarks and hungry for another chance, is worth a look. Zarren ranks high on everyone’s list. Golden State assistant general manager Travis Schlenk learned from Don Nelson and Myers, and Ranadive is known to think highly of Schlenk.
And San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich – who mentors Divac and tutored Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, who has put together arguably the league’s most promising young roster – has a few future personnel gems hidden somewhere in his tree.
Divac can fiddle with titles later. He has a proven analytics guru (Roland Beech), an experienced assistant general manager (Bratz), a rookie player personnel director (Peja Stojakovic), a handful of scouts, and it’s not enough. In today’s NBA, the Kings are simply outflanked.