Vlade Divac’s inaugural search for a new Kings coach started as a prolonged and conventional trip across the league, with anyone possessing an NBA clipboard seemingly encouraged to apply. No deadlines were imposed. No distance was deemed too far to travel. The process plodded along like a Pony Express, until the Memphis Grizzlies put Dave Joerger on the market.
Within hours, Divac was sold. The Kings’ general manager had been awaiting a sign – a momentum-shifting event, perhaps – in his selection process. As last weekend approached, he narrowed his list to Nate McMillan, Mike Woodson, Ettore Messina and the recently fired Frank Vogel. The plan was to meet and greet the finalists for a second time and make a decision after returning from this week’s predraft camp in Chicago.
But as Divac explained Monday afternoon, if it feels right, why wait?
“When Dave became available, I jumped in,” said Divac, who arranged for Joerger and his family to fly to Sacramento on principal owner Vivek Ranadive’s private jet. “He was someone I always was interested in, but I didn’t think I’d have a chance at him. Then Saturday happened. After we met on Sunday, I felt very strongly. I thought, ‘This is it.’ I didn’t want to waste any more time.”
Joerger, 42, signed a three-year, $12 million contract with a team option for a fourth year, and he arrives with a gaudy NBA résumé, to say the least. He compiled a 147-99 regular-season record and guided the Grizzlies to postseason appearances in each of his three seasons, with this season perhaps his most impressive. Despite the losses of center Marc Gasol to a broken right foot in February and point guard Mike Conley to left Achilles tendinitis in March and constant roster turnover, the Grizzlies finished 42-40 and claimed the seventh spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Before joining the Grizzlies as an assistant in 2007, Joerger won a combined five championships in the International Basketball Association, the Continental Basketball Association and NBA Development League. He was promoted to lead assistant under Lionel Hollins in 2011 and was named head coach in 2013, coincidentally, by former Kings executive Jason Levien, who had joined the Memphis ownership group.
While Divac accelerated the Kings’ search Saturday, Joerger was in an apparent rush out of Memphis. The parting between coach and front office was some nasty barbecue. Joerger’s frustration with Grizzlies management and some of the personnel moves reached the point where, for the second time in three years (the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014), he recently had approached and asked for permission to speak with other clubs.
In an unusually strident sendoff Saturday that ran on the team website, Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace revealed the depth of the tension and questioned Joerger’s commitment to the franchise.
“The decision (to fire Joerger) was made because I believe you need a deeply committed leadership team in order to establish the strong culture needed for sustainable long-term success,” Wallace said. “This decision has nothing to do with our roster. This had nothing to do with player development, playing time or X’s and O’s. It’s about what I believe best positions us to compete for an NBA championship based on my 30 years of NBA experience.”
So, does this mean the Kings aren’t the only dysfunctional NBA franchise?
Divac is leaving any dirty Grizzlies laundry back in Memphis. He has his man. He can sigh, even sleep a little.
“Here comes Dave,” he said, sounding relieved and excited. “Basketball is a simple game, but you have to be good on details. He has his style, which I like. I like the way he calls timeouts, has his team prepared, utilizes his personnel. We have a talented group of players, and we did some good things last year. We have to make improvements, specifically on defense. I’m sure we’ll do better.”