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BOSTON – He shuffled down a dimly lit hallway, tie loosened, head bowed, an all too familiar frustrated expression painted on his face. Sacramento Kings coach George Karl is getting fired, an inevitability that grew closer following a 128-119 shellacking by the Boston Celtics on Sunday. The front office’s confidence in Karl has almost completely eroded, league sources told The Vertical. The end could come Monday in Cleveland, Wednesday in Philadelphia, or some time over the All-Star break. Sacramento is reeling, losers of seven of its last eight and has surrendered a stunning 256 points in its last two games.
Players have tuned out Karl, privately seething over inefficient practices and shootarounds, and ineffective in-game adjustments from the bench, league sources told The Vertical. The dysfunction may have originated with Karl and DeMarcus Cousins, but it has spread through the locker room like an infection. Indeed, barring a surprising turn of events, it’s more likely assistant coach Corliss Williamson finishes the season as the Kings head coach than Karl.
The NBA is a results-driven business, and Sacramento’s recent woes, along with its stunning indifference to defense – the Kings surrendered 46 points to Boston in the first quarter, the most any team has given up in a quarter this season – will provide ownership with enough cover to justify paying the remaining $10 million-plus Karl is owed through 2018. Yet firing Karl won’t trigger a turnaround, won’t morph the Kings into a Western Conference contender overnight. For that, changes, philosophical or otherwise, must happen higher on the masthead.
Vivek Ranadive was hailed as a savior when he bought the Kings from the Maloof family in 2013, yet three years into his regime fans have to wonder: Would they take the Maloofs back? Karl will be the fourth coach Ranadive has drop-kicked out the door, following Keith Smart, Michael Malone and Ty Corbin. Malone’s firing remains particularly painful. After establishing a positive culture and becoming the first coach to reach Cousins, well, ever, Malone was forced out because he didn’t play fast enough, because he favored results over aesthetics. Ranadive was quick to dump Malone’s firing on former general manager Pete D’Alessandro’s lap, but make no mistake: Ranadive was the driving force behind it.
Ranadive wanted to play fast, wanted a big name to lead his team into its new building, and you know what? He got it. Karl has given the Kings a well-known public face and his teams have done what ownership has asked. Sacramento has a top-10 offense and ranks first in the NBA in pace. He has done it while Ranadive has played “NBA2K” with the roster, signing and acquiring names that look good on a press release but are brought in with little regard to fit. He seems genuinely surprised that his veteran coach, Karl, has clashed with his rookie vice president and general manager, Vlade Divac, and that his team doesn’t play with passion when many of the players have been informed by their agents that the front office is actively shopping them.
Divac is a Kings legend, a reminder of better days, but he is in way over his head. A general manager's job is for basketball lifers, for tunnel-visioned workaholics hell-bent on mining the globe for talent. There’s a reason San Antonio (RC Buford), Oklahoma City (Sam Presti) and Golden State (Bob Myers) have enjoyed sustained success. By all accounts, Divac is a good guy who wants to grow in the job, but his limited résumé is already littered with failures. Last summer’s cap-clearing deal with Philadelphia remains a head scratcher, and Divac’s decision to discuss Karl’s future with select players, including Cousins, was a mind-blowing undermining of a coach with a Hall of Fame résumé.
Indeed, the Divac hiring was classic Ranadive: Install a familiar name at the top while failing to support him with an experienced No. 2 and assembling one of the NBA’s smallest scouting staffs around him. Who needs structure and stability when you can put together a pretty game program anyway?
Kings minority owners have quietly explored ways to seize controlling interest from Ranadive, sources told The Vertical, but on this there is little recourse. Owning an NBA team has become almost bulletproof, with an owner-friendly CBA redirecting the money and billions in television revenue set to flow into the league’s coffers in the coming year. Ranadive’s mismanagement has set the rebuilding Kings back years, but that alone won’t be enough for anyone to remove him.
Ranadive will soon be on the hunt for a new coach, though don’t be surprised if interest in the Kings’ gig is lukewarm. “One of 30 jobs in the world” is a popular cliché spouted by recently hired coaches, yet Ranadive has made it 29 and a “Well, if I have to” proposition. Established coaches won’t touch the Kings’ job while rising assistants like Atlanta’s Kenny Atkinson or Boston’s Jay Larranaga won’t run toward it either. Coaches with options don’t fight to work for management that refuses to support the people it hires, and they don’t sign on with an owner who seems more interested in the cache that comes with owning an NBA team than the business of operating one.
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