Dave Joerger grew up in Staples, Minn., a town of about 3,000 with a history of exceptional high school sports and, to the best of his recollection, one stoplight to blow past.
And he just kept going. The Kings’ new coach, the latest in an almost unfathomable procession of eight in 10 years, arrived in Sacramento with a suitcase stuffed with victories.
He just wins. Staples, Sioux Falls, Bismarck, Fargo in the minor leagues. Memphis in the major leagues. When Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac went coach shopping last spring, Joerger’s success with the Grizzlies and his sudden availability abruptly halted the interview process.
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The part about his strained relationship with members of the Grizzlies’ reconfigured front office? That he was fired despite winning 42 games with a decimated club that set an NBA record for roster moves? That he would demand a decent salary, a multiyear deal and a place at the table?
After a decade of losing, the only box the Kings checked was the one next to victories and defeats. It didn’t hurt that Joerger’s Grizzlies were excellent defensively, his offense exploited the talents of big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – an unusually large frontcourt by today’s standards – and he loves to sweat.
Before driving to the practice facility from his 10-acre spread in El Dorado Hills early one morning last week, he stopped at a tennis facility and played a few sets.
“Dave’s a gym rat,” Divac said. “When I look back on it now, we were very lucky that he became available when he did.”
Except for being slowed by the usual traffic jams on Highway 50, Joerger has maintained a nonstop pace. During the past few weeks, he and his coaches have been at the practice facility, introducing themselves to Skal Labissiere, Malachi Richardson, Ben McLemore, Darren Collison and Matt Barnes. Even DeMarcus Cousins, hours after returning from Rio de Janeiro, showed up at the practice facility, flashing his Olympic gold medal, eager to get back on the court.
Joerger’s challenge is transforming an unbalanced roster into something resembling chicken soup. A team featuring Cousins, Collison and Rudy Gay pleases the analytics people but has been susceptible to injury and devoid of chemistry or defensive commitment. The playoffs are a distant memory. A joyous locker room traces back to another era.
As training camp approaches for the Kings’ first season at Golden 1 Center, Joerger is tinkering and pondering, noncommittal about a style of play and, in his mind, moving the players around a chess board.
“We have a lot of work to do, and it starts defensively,” he said during a lengthy conversation. “We are a very poor transition team. Turnovers were catastrophic last year. I think we can play fast, but I don’t think you go three or four possessions without DeMarcus touching the ball. He should be a playmaker. How do we do that? That’s a spacing issue and a shooting issue. We just have to try to build a foundation and go from there. We have to understand what it takes to grind, because we need to grind here. And we need to outwork people.”
Joerger, who has two daughters, Alli and Kiana, and whose wife, Kara, is a former barrel racer, might have raced out of central Minnesota, but he clings to his small-town, minor-league roots. His graduating class at Staples/Motley High School had 30 students. His father, Joe, is a high school girls basketball coaching legend. His basketball coach, Lynn Peterson, recalls routine bus trips of 50 to 100 miles and a spunky, analytical leader who never complained and guided the team into the 2A state tournament in two of three years.
“You could describe DJ as a point guard who did whatever you needed him to do,” Peterson said. “He is very intense, very motivated. You never had to kick him in the rear.”
Joerger quickly realized 6-foot point guards with average speed are not destined for the NBA. After graduating from Moorhead State, he embarked on an odyssey that led to jobs in three minor leagues. Starting as an intern in Fargo, N.D., he delivered tickets, ran the scoreboard and errands, and became enamored of the pro game. Then it was on to Bismarck, S.D., as an assistant coach and later general manager.
“Sell tickets, speak to the Lions Club, get your sponsors lined up,” Joerger said with a soft smile. “I was in my 20s, and I was very impressionable. I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes. But my third year, we got to hire Duane (Ticknor, now a Kings assistant coach), and we went 30-6. We were 18-0 at home.”
Before Marc Iavaroni lured him to the NBA as a Grizzlies assistant coach in 2007, Joerger won five championships in seven minor-league seasons, joining an elite class that includes Phil Jackson, George Karl, Flip Saunders, and Bill and Eric Musselman.
“As a guy who is not a former player, you ask yourself, ‘How do I get my foot in the door?’ ” said Nevada and former Kings coach Eric Musselman. “Dave did it by winning championships at the lower level, and to me, that’s really hard to do. Flights get canceled. The roster changes all the time. Sometimes the coaches have to practice because you don’t have enough players. I give him a lot of credit.”
Joerger is regarded as an excellent tactician even among those associated with his former organization. Asked his thoughts about losing his job despite a 147-99 (.598) record and playoff appearances in all three seasons in Memphis, he nodded briefly.
“Why did they want to go in a different direction?” he responded. “Good question. It was a tough year. We had nine point guards. It was exhausting, as well. Our guys fought like crazy. I don’t know. I hope that people think, ‘He’s one of the nicest people.’ Now, do I have a minor-league mindset of working your tail off and doing every single thing you can? I’m not a wild gambler, but I’m definitely not afraid to take risks.”
So on to Sacramento, where the heavy lifting begins. A poor season very likely means a total renovation, excluding the coach, of course. Ranadive and Divac are ecstatic about the latest hire, while Joerger seems similarly intrigued.
“There has been a lot of turnover in coaches here,” he added. “What is best is to have one voice and let the cement dry.”
KINGS’ KEY DATES
- Oct. 4: First preseason game, vs L.A. Lakers, Honda Center, Anaheim, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 10: First preseason game at Golden 1 Center, vs. Maccabi Haifa, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 26: First regular-season game, at Phoenix, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 27: First regular-season game at Golden 1 Center, vs. San Antonio, 7:30 p.m.