Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings’ Divac to narrow list of coaching candidates

A Kings franchise that for years has been plagued by front office turmoil, coaching turnover, threats of relocation and more than the usual NBA funky stuff, is staring at a sudden wealth of opportunity.

The search for a new coach?

The timing rocks.

Dave Joerger? The Memphis Grizzlies are no strangers to dysfunction or instability, and their former coach’s previous flirtation with other jobs created tension within the front office, so this isn’t a total shocker. Joerger plans to meet with Kings general manager Vlade Divac on Sunday and also is thought to be interested in the Houston Rockets’ vacancy.

Frank Vogel? Larry Bird has tremendous instincts and was never afraid to take the big shot. But dumping the popular coach is a real puzzler to the Indiana Pacers’ faithful.

More? There are several more possibilities, in fact.

The pool of quality candidates to replace George Karl is deeper than that wide body of water located about two hours west of Sacramento. Even with Tom Thibodeau (Minnesota), Scott Brooks (Washington) and Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers) off the market and Kevin McHale uninterested, the only vacancies exist in Sacramento, Indiana, Memphis, Houston and New York. Divac must be salivating at the unusually impressive and expansive list.

Sources close to the situation say the Kings’ top basketball executive – who has placed a gag order on himself and everyone within his front office – is methodically inquiring about, speaking with, or formally interviewing the last of almost two dozen current assistants or former head coaches. His initial attempts to speed up the process, perhaps hire a coach before leaving midweek for the annual predraft camp in Chicago, halted abruptly with the recent firings of Joeger and Vogel, along with Divac’s ongoing attempt to squeeze in a meeting with San Antonio assistant Ettore Messina during the Spurs-Oklahoma City postseason matchup.

The current plan thus consists of identifying three or four finalists in the next few days and setting up formal presentations before a full front office that includes newly hired assistant GM Ken Catanella.

Keeping in mind that the situation is unusually fluid and, interestingly, that the candidates offer varying, often sharply contrasting perspectives on All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, here is a look at the front-runners:

▪ Vogel. Bird appeared visibly tormented – for good reason – when announcing his decision to release his coach and citing the need for a “new voice.” Since succeeding the ousted Jim O’Brien in 2010-11, the unassuming, defense-oriented Vogel led the Pacers to five postseason appearances and an overall regular-season record of 250-181. Bird – who dumped Roy Hibbert and has embraced the modern trend of spacing, stretch fours, versatility and faster pace – seems inclined toward a more innovative offensive type. That said, he thinks extremely highly of current Pacers assistant Nate McMillan. Vogel, who has been approached by the Kings, wants a few days to clear his head but also wants a job.

▪ Mike Woodson. A popular member of Sacramento’s original Kings and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, the man known as “Woody” is a no-nonsense, straightforward individual with considerable coaching chops. He ended the Hawks’ eight-year playoff drought with three consecutive postseason appearances and, in his second head-coaching opportunity, led the 2012-13 New York Knicks to a 54-28 record and conference semifinals appearance – the team’s deepest playoff run since Jeff Van Gundy led the Knicks to the 2000 conference finals. A personable, community-oriented figure, he has coaxed solid performances out of a number of “knuckleheads,” as Charles Barkley calls them, emphasizes defense and experiments with offense, so adaptability works in his favor.

▪ Ettore Messina. The Spurs assistant is still a relative unknown to the casual NBA fan, but he is an icon in European coaching circles. He coached a young Toni Kukoc in Italy, has twice overseen the Italian national team, and won titles in Spain and with perennial power CSKA Moscow. His stature as Gregg Popovich’s lead assistant these past four years and as Divac’s longtime acquaintance are additional plusses. At some point, some franchise will break ranks and make history. Will it be the Kings?

▪ McMillan. Do we sense a pattern here? The former coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers is another disciplinarian who emphasizes defense and demands professionalism inside and outside the locker room. An accommodating and popular presence within his communities, he cleaned up the mess in Portland after the forgettable “Jail Blazers” era. His preferred style of play could give Divac pause: He calls a lot of plays and favors slow-paced, structured halfcourt schemes, not exactly the rage today. Or he did in the past, anyway.

▪ But back to Joerger. He was the hot candidate over the weekend, even after Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace scorched him on the way out of Memphis.

“I believe you need a deeply committed leadership team in order to establish the strong culture needed for sustainable long-term success,” Wallace explained after firing a coach who led the injury-decimated Grizz to a 42-40 record and first-round playoff appearance.

Joerger’s hastily arranged visit to Sacramento thrusts him prominently in the Kings’ mix.

And don’t sleep on Portland. Terry Stotts has a year remaining on his contract, but after his Coach of the Year-worthy accomplishments with a depleted roster, he should be itching for a multiyear extension. If Blazers GM Neal Olshey balks, Stotts might ask permission to speak with potential suitors, and the Kings would be among them.

Divac – who began the process by insisting he was hiring the person he deemed the best available coach for his franchise, not the best available coach for Cousins – also has met with Mark Jackson, Jeff Hornacek, Patrick Ewing, Elston Turner and others, and will meet with Henry Bibby on Monday. Yet according to sources within the organization, Divac has gained a sense of who he wants, is narrowing his handful-sized list, and checking it twice.

But that was the weekend. See Trump. See Bernie. This is a crazy, crazy year.

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