With his franchise in a prolonged funk and Golden 1 Center only months from a grand opening, Kings general manager Vlade Divac made the first crucial decision of his fledging front office career.
He fired George Karl. So, OK, we saw that coming. The future Hall of Fame coach, who had 21 consecutive seasons of .500 or better before stepping into the cow dung that surrounds Sleep Train Arena, joins a club that includes Paul Westphal, Keith Smart, Michael Malone and Tyrone Corbin.
And what do the past five Kings coaches have in common?
None lasted two full seasons with DeMarcus Cousins. Since Westphal was released early in the 2011-12 season, the organization has changed ownership, restructured the front office three times and hasn’t caught a whiff of the NBA playoffs.
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This was supposed to be the year of the comeback. In a series of aggressive offseason moves, Divac drafted Willie Cauley-Stein and signed veterans Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos, Omri Casspi and Marco Belinelli, convinced he had surrounded his All-Star center with a quality supporting cast and enough talent to sneak into the Western Conference playoffs.
To say these Kings underachieved is an understatement. The injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies, revamped Portland Trail Blazers and incongruous Houston Rockets slid into the postseason, while the Kings went 33-49 – their best record since a 38-44 pre-Cousins campaign under Reggie Theus in 2007-08 – and morphed into a toxic mess, left clinging to their 2016 first-round draft choice.
33-49 Kings’ record this season, their best since a 38-44 pre-DeMarcus Cousins campaign under Reggie Theus in 2007-08
“I wasn’t happy we didn’t make the playoffs,” Divac said during a brief media gathering Thursday. “We had to do something. I felt we had to go in a different direction … a different voice.”
That voice? That next coach? How about hiring the best candidate?
The worst mistake Divac could make would be to hire someone based on whether he thinks that person would relate to Cousins, coax the poorly conditioned center into better shape, and overcome the six-year veteran’s volatile mood swings and bullying personality.
Just hire the best man for the job. That’s it. This can’t be about Cousins. These six seasons have been brutal.
Though the list of NBA coaching vacancies grows by the day, plenty of former head coaches, current assistants and established college coaches are available. Divac, who sought advice from former Kings coach Rick Adelman during the Sleep Train finale, also plans to seek recommendations from mentors Gregg Popovich and Jerry West.
“Definitely a long process,” Divac predicted. “It’s a very important decision for us. We have to take the time and talk to as many people we can.”
Several names already have been tossed into the speculation hopper, including Scotty Brooks, Tom Thibodeau, Kevin McHale, David Blatt, Nate McMillan, Luke Walton, Jeff Hornacek, Vinny Del Negro, Mark Jackson and San Antonio Spurs assistant Ettore Messina.
One of Divac’s most difficult tasks will be overcoming the wide perception that the Kings are one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises. Asked his main selling points, he suggested: “Good team, lot of talent on our team. We have the best fans, beautiful arena, one of the best in the world.”
The most interesting takeaway from the media session might be what the Kings’ top basketball executive failed to say. When asked if Karl’s termination meant he is committed to Cousins, who clashed repeatedly and angrily with Karl, Divac was uncharacteristically evasive.
“Anything about the players and how we are going to do in the summer,” he said, “I don’t want to talk about right now because our focus is to find a new coach.”
A year ago, Cousins was untouchable. A year later, the sense within the organization is Divac is tempted by the prospect of pairing his center with his personally selected coach but that he has become increasingly frustrated by his center’s ongoing issues and, for the first time, is willing to test the market for the two-time All-Star.
When asked if George Karl’s termination meant he was committed to DeMarcus Cousins, who clashed repeatedly and angrily with Karl, Kings general manager Vlade Divac was uncharacteristically evasive.
Karl has plenty of company. The disconnect between Karl and Divac, and Karl and Cousins, is rivaled closely by the discord within the fragmented locker room. Apart from Rondo, Cousins has few friends among his teammates. Several players privately have complained to management about his mood swings and disrespect for those around him, including his coaches and in particular Karl.
A younger, healthier Karl – one who felt fully empowered by his organization – would have reacted to Cousins’ profane tirades by throwing punches or tossing him out of practice. But this is not the same feisty, in-your-face coach who transformed losing franchises into perennial playoff participants. He has a bad knee that will be surgically replaced next week. He has survived two bouts of cancer, and his vocal chords have been severely damaged by the treatment, reducing his voice to a whisper at times.
His refusal or inability to more forcefully confront Cousins disappointed several players, and his frequent cancellation of practices led some to question his energy level and ability to physically withstand the 82-game regular season.
“There is no reason to blame George for our failure this year,” Divac said. “But this year we should have been in the playoffs. I fired the coach and I’m going to hire the new one, so we should be on the same page.”
The best man for the job? Not Cousins’ choice, Cousins’ agents choice, Vivek Ranadive’s choice. This one is on Vlade.