Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings coach George Karl should not go out like this

The Kings didn’t fire coach George Karl, didn’t make a trade before the deadline, didn’t do anything out of the ordinary during the NBA All-Star break except for this: They parted ways with an assistant coach.

Vance Walberg.

Come again?

With the season resuming and the Kings’ postseason prospects fading amid their recent funk, the veteran assistant was escorted out of town because general manager Vlade Divac “wanted to shake things up.”

Now, there is no denying that the Kings could use some shaking up. And a certain All-Star center surely could use some shaping up. But as crazy as things can get around here, this crossed into a new frontier. Why do this now, with 29 games remaining, practice opportunities limited and no specific defensive replacement part of the conversation? It looks bad from afar, and worse from up close.

If you are George Karl?

You read the tea leaves and take your best shot. All of them. You coach as if this is your last team and your last dance – which it very likely is – and ignore all the white noise. The input from the owners, the suggestions from the front office, the complaints from the players. Bench. Suspend. Scream. Whatever. And feel free to disagree with your boss.

“I really believe we have very good talent,” Divac said Thursday after practice. “The way they play, I’m not happy about it. I would like to see our team improve defensively. It’s not all about the coaches. I think more on the players. Hopefully they can step it up and do much better in the second half.”

Karl, whose demise only days ago appeared imminent, was retained for a couple of reasons. The Kings owe him approximately $10 million. The owners are increasingly sensitive about the league-wide perception of the organization as a chaotic, poorly managed franchise that mistreats its coaches and chases them off at the first hint of trouble. There is also some thinking that, since miracles can happen in hockey, maybe the Kings can catch a break from above and chase down Portland, Houston and Utah, while fending off the approaching Denver Nuggets.

The last time that happened – the Kings’ last genuine playoff chase – Ron Artest was acquired at the (2006) trade deadline and transformed his new team with both his skills and the fierce, relentless force of his personality.

The Kings don’t have that player, and as Karl noted Thursday, don’t expect a defensive guru to walk through the door anytime soon, either. His priority is conducting practices, coaching his team and trying to extract some semblance of cohesiveness from a roster that looks good on paper but not so good on the court.

With the exception of the hookups between Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings often play like five guys who were just introduced. Rondo’s inability to stop penetration is frightening, and when he’s paired with Marco Belinelli, the defensive nightmare never ends.

Offensively, Rondo controls the ball and routinely waits for Cousins – whose conditioning is a chronic issue – to lumber downcourt. Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Darren Collison and Omri Casspi too often are disengaged, victims of too much standing around and too little ball movement.

The Kings are at their best when they defend and play with pace, when Cousins snags rebounds, Rondo throws outlets and lobs for easy baskets, Collison attacks, and, in the half court, the offense features multiple passes.

Realistically, Karl, a future Hall of Fame coach, doesn’t need another assistant. They can take his assistant, but they can’t touch his record. His teams reached the playoffs in 20 of his 21 previous seasons, most recently in Denver. But he somehow must extract more from these players, their numerous flaws notwithstanding. More effort. More energy. More commitment. More teamwork.

And if that means benching Cousins for refusing to run back or harassing the referees? Sitting Rondo for not defending or Gay for not rotating? Rewarding Quincy Acy, Willie Cauley-Stein, Casspi, Collison with more minutes?


George Karl should not go out like this.

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