Michael Malone had been pining for a backup point guard, but Sacramento Kings management had a different idea for their coach a year ago: Royce White. Here was the beginning of the end for this doomed partnership, a disagreement that widened the gulf between them.
White was out of shape, had no interest in playing basketball – which had been clear when the Houston Rockets released him. He had been awful in the Development League, a malingerer, and done nothing to deserve a call-up to the Kings.
"Pretty soon, they're telling [Malone]: Why aren't you putting him in the games?" one organizational source told Yahoo Sports. "That's when it really started to get bad between him and the guys upstairs."
General manager Pete D'Alessandro had to be the messenger to Malone on several unpopular directives, but there was long a sense he was often carrying out the will of his owner, Vivek Ranadive. Management goes beyond the owner and GM too, including influential consultant Chris Mullin. Too many voices, too little common ground.
D'Alessandro didn't hire Malone, the owner did. The GM hiring came two weeks later in 2013, and that was a rookie mistake for the owner. D'Alessandro and Malone had no history together, no trust and, ultimately, no chance together.
The Kings fired Malone on Sunday night, a move that inspired disbelief within the Kings locker room and across the NBA.
After Malone's first season, there were discussions about letting him go. Those died down, but it was clear Malone would start this season on notice, and he did. Management didn't believe in Chris Jent as his top assistant, and went out on its own and interviewed two ex-head coaches, Alvin Gentry and Kurt Rambis, for the staff.
Malone suspected they were trying to hire his eventual successor, and pushed to get ex-Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin hired in the job. Corbin's the interim coach now, and had been loyal to the end for Malone.
The front office-coach relationship became increasingly strained through the Las Vegas summer league in July, especially once Ranadive and D'Alessandro made a play to trade for Detroit forward Josh Smith, sources said. The owner told people outside the franchise that, no, his coach didn't want Smith, but Ranadive didn't care. He wanted Smith's talent, and it was on Malone to make it work.
Most of the coaching staff struggled to believe Smith could fit with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, and management differed. Talks with the Pistons shut down quickly, because Stan Van Gundy didn't want to make the proposed deals, sources said.
"The Smith situation caused everyone to take sides: Management against coaches, coaches against management," a source told Yahoo Sports. "Things only got worse."
The hard feelings lingered. Malone traveled to the World Cup of Basketball in Spain for a week in August, spending time with Cousins and Gay on Team USA. He had been building closer relationships with them, and part of that translated into a strong training camp and a solid start to the season. Once Cousins went down, the Kings lost seven of nine games to drop to 11-13, and the organization had its chance.
All around the organization, everyone agrees: The Kings were waiting for this opportunity, and pounced with the losing streak. "They should've done this in the summer, and brought in the coach and style that they wanted," one league official close to D'Alessandro and Malone told Yahoo Sports.
Before the Kings hired him as head coach, Malone had a reputation for a volatile temper and personality. In recent years, that cost Malone opportunities to be considered for head-coaching jobs elsewhere. As his two seasons as a Golden State assistant pressed on, some GMs refused to even interview Malone for head-coaching openings. Malone knew it, and worked to change his disposition and perception.
He had grown in the Kings job, worked to curb those shortcomings and built a strong bond and trust within his locker room. Malone was a major reason Gay signed a contract extension to stay in Sacramento, and played a significant role in Cousins' development on and off the court. Malone leaves Sacramento with an increased respect around the league, a chance to recycle as a head coach again.
As one rival general manager said late Sunday night, "How is Cousins having viral meningitis Malone's fault? With [Malone] gone, that's one less well-prepared team to worry about now."
In the end, this was a doomed partnership – whatever the franchise's record this season, whatever happened. Management expects to let Corbin coach the term of the season, but who knows if the Kings will get uneasy and hire George Karl sooner.
Karl is D'Alessandro's old coach with the Nuggets, and the clear frontrunner to become the Kings next head coach. Karl has tried to get himself involved in almost every possible vacancy in the league – where there are openings, and where there were simply vulnerable coaches. Karl wants to break Don Nelson's record for career victories, and needs to be back on a bench soon to have a chance.
How Karl would deal with Ranadive will be fascinating, too. The owner played the part of a fantasy league owner, treating the Kings like a science experiment. He shared tactical experiences with Malone about coaching his child's youth team, and pressed him to consider playing four-on-five defense, leaking out a defender for cherry-picking baskets. Some semblance of that strategy is expected to be employed with Corbin now, a source told Yahoo Sports.
The Kings are constructed around a powerhouse post player, Cousins. They aren't built to play fast, but this is ownership's mantra. The Kings are playing a version of the fast-break game with their Reno affiliate in the D-League, and it's a window into the owner's futuristic vision for the Kings.
For now, the Kings owe Michael Malone $4 million-plus on the way out, and an explanation to a confounded fan base on who they are now, and what they're trying to become. Ranadive had been celebrated as the owner responsible for saving the Kings in Sacramento, and disposing of the dysfunctional culture of the Maloof ownership group.
Well, the Kings are still in Sacramento, but so is the dysfunction. Michael Malone isn't a perfect coach, but he never stood a chance in this climate. That's on the owner, and how he operates this franchise. Eventually, he'll learn. Most do. For now, the biggest changes Vivek Ranadive needs to make aren't with the coach's style, but his own.
More NBA coverage: