Give the Sacramento Kings braintrust this, at least – they are, genuinely, doing it their own way.
Nearly every NBA observer, from advanced stats-obsessed know-alls to ex-coaches to TV types and message board denizens, all thought former coach Michael Malone was doing a bang-up job with the team. The Kings, undeterred, let him go after an 11-13 start to the season. A season that started on a 9-5 tip prior to DeMarcus Cousins’ nine-game absence while dealing with a nasty bout of viral meningitis. Owner Vivek Ranadive, in a purported attempt to try to encourage up-tempo play, fired Malone despite the coach’s sound work and clear connection with Cousins – the team’s franchise player.
Interim head coach Tyrone Corbin was moved into the full time role with the clear understanding that he was only there to serve as his title suggested. That move would serve as a death knell for a team’s chemistry and drive regardless of the person tagged with that position. Corbin, while a great guy and basketball lifer, has proven to not be all that great at this particular position, which added to the overall consternation. Following a 7-21 run worked with a healthy Cousins, Corbin will be let go in favor of George Karl following the NBA’s All-Star break.
Current Detroit Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy, speaking from afar and on-record as is his welcome custom, is no fan of this maddening process. From a talk with Vince Ellis at the Detroit Free Press:
"I think it's an unfortunate situation the way it's been handled. I think Tyrone Corbin has been treated very, very poorly by their organization. I think the way they've treated him is unfortunate and inexcusable for one of the real class acts in our business.
"To have a very public coaching, not search, courting going on and while you're asking him to coach games I think he's handled it with a great deal of class."
"I didn't like that obviously with Brendan on the staff, but coaches get fired all the time," Van Gundy said. "But then you give Tyrone the job and if you want to make a change, even if people don't like it, obviously as an owner you have a right to make a change and that's up to you.
"But you don't need to do it the way they're doing it now. That thing's been in the news for two weeks now and Tyrone's coaching and they obviously don't have any problem treating him like that. I have a hard time understanding that one, I really do. Tyrone Corbin is a class act. He was a class act as a player. He's a class act as a coach and he's being treated very, very poorly."
There is no getting around this. The Kings truly whiffed on every element of this. The team should not have fired Michael Malone in the first place. If they had an insurmountable personnel, playmaking, or professional difference of opinion with Malone, then the franchise should have had a full-time replacement in the bullpen waiting to take over almost immediately.
NBA orthodoxy isn’t always to be followed. It’s just fine to change the rules, to evolve, or to go against the grain as one sees fit. With that in place, NBA orthodoxy usually for teams in the Kings’ particular situation allows for them to have George Karl just about ready to be hired soon after a firing like Malone’s – it’s just fine to put someone like Corbin at the interim slot for three or four games while contracts and arrangements both personal and professional are worked out.
Hiring Corbin for 28 games and almost immediately confirming that he wouldn’t be the head coach of the Sacramento Kings beyond 2014-15 absolutely rocked that team. Gregg Popovich, working with a full training camp in mid-December and with five championship to show off, could not have gotten through to the Kings under Corbin’s set of circumstances.
Again, all agreed that firing Malone was a blown move …
"A good friend of mine got fired in Sacramento. (The Kings) didn't know what they were doing with Mike Malone," - LeBron James said.
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) February 13, 2015
… but it was a move that the Kings’ ownership and front office was completely justified in making, because they own and run the damn team. If they didn’t like Malone’s approach, regardless of his relative success with the team, then the team is well within its rights to let the man go.
The killer here is not only what the Kings did to Corbin. Not just for these two fitful months, but for his NBA coaching future.
Corbin will not be retained when Karl takes over, not even as an assistant or consultant. Those who had the dourest take on his stint coaching the Utah Jazz for three and a half seasons will likely remark that Corbin was lucky just to get another head coaching gig despite his underwhelming turn with the Jazz. The NBA, however, for all its advancements is still a league that trusts experience first, and its teams have no issue relying on retreads. Terry Stotts was thought to be an unimaginative glorified top assistant, one that failed at two previous stops, prior to his hiring in Portland. Now he’s rightfully credited as an innovative gem of a head coach with the Trail Blazers. Coaches grow, NBA teams continually give out new chances, and sometimes the former “retreads” work out.
Has Corbin’s 7-21 turn with the Kings killed any chance at a second chance? His run with the Kings shouldn’t count as a second chance, because the Kings gave every indication that Corbin would not be retained in that position even if he finished the season on a 40-18 tear. Tyrone was possibly lucky to have the job in the wake of his time with Utah, sure, but this waste of two months may have done irreparable harm to both the Kings’ season, Cousins’ attitude toward the franchise, and Corbin’s head coaching prospects moving forward.
George Karl has his faults, and he will be stubborn in his approach, but he also does think on his feet and he will coach the roster he has, as opposed to the roster he wants.
That doesn’t mean that Karl, who worked with Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro in Denver, won’t look to make changes. At age 63, he’s not keen on a rebuilding project. From Sean Deveney at the Sporting News:
“They have been as active as anyone,” one general manager told Sporting News. “Obviously they want to make a lot of changes, and they’re pushing hard to get something done.”
Karl was both an early adapter when it came to encouraging three-pointers, in Seattle and in his CBA and overseas work, and he fully embraced position-less basketball in Denver. The Kings, despite the increase in pace under Corbin, rank last in the NBA in three-pointers made and they team is 26th in three-point percentage. Not all Karl teams have to come with the prerequisite group of 6-7 shooters from outside, filling up four of the five positions, but Karl and the front office likely wouldn’t mind seeing what they can grab.
The issue is assets. Cousins will not be available, Rudy Gay (a hoped-for stretch-four candidate who is back at small forward and shooting 34 percent from deep) is likely untradeable due to his contract and play. Teams looking to gear up for a playoff run in previous years may have wanted to take a chance on a vet in Carl Landry or a former lottery pick in Derrick Williams, but their lacking work in 2014-15 has put the kibosh on any sort of needle-shifting deal for Sacramento. Jason Thompson, ostensibly in his peak at age 28, is having his worst season as a pro.
The entire rotation is a mess. Ben McLemore has come around in his second season, but he’s still shooting just below the league average from behind the arc. The lottery pick chosen in 2014, Nik Stauskas, has made less than one-third of his shot attempts from the field this season. Things were so bad in Corbin’s last game as coach that he replaced Thompson with Omri Casspi in the starting lineup as an ostensible stretch-four.
Casspi’s presence likely unnerves Kings fans. He’s a good dude and helpful teammate, but he also probably reminds the team’s followers of a deal that could come back to haunt Karl’s Kings as they attempt to turn the season around. Sacramento dealt Casspi and a conditional first-round draft pick to Cleveland prior to the 2011 NBA lockout for J.J. Hickson, who played all of 35 out of shape and completely terrible games for the Kings before being waived (not traded, nothing in return … waived) by the Kings.
Cleveland then turned that pick into a half a season for Luol Deng, and it currently rests in the conditional hands of the Chicago Bulls. If Karl puts this team, which has won just twice in its last 15 attempts, back in a winning mode? It could lose its 2015 first-rounder to the Bulls if Sacramento falls out of the top ten in the lottery.
Current odds put them on the road toward the eighth overall pick (the Kings have had either the seventh or eighth pick in three of the last four NBA drafts), but the team is just a few wins behind the tanking Celtics and reeling Nuggets. Then there is the lottery bad luck to consider. If the Kings fall out of the top ten in 2016 or 2017, as Karl no doubt hopes, the pick goes to Chicago. If the team stays terrible until 2018, the Chicago would only receive a second-rounder that is very unlikely (unless the Kings into a top-five team) to be sent over.
Establishing a winning culture is important, and failing to secure a lower-rung lottery pick would not be a crushing blow to a franchise, but with so many lacking lottery picks in Sacto’s history (the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006) this could be another depressing turn of luck.
The team has gotten nothing out of recent drafts, save for Cousins, despite what could turn into a decade-long streak of postseason absences. Spencer Hawes was dealt for a bit of Samuel Dalembert. Thomas Robinson was swapped essentially for Patrick Patterson who was part of the package that landed Rudy Gay, and we’re not sure if that’s a good thing. McLemore ascendance has been fun to watch, but Stauskas has been terrible, and Tyreke Evans was eased out in a sign and trade that gave the Kings assets needed to acquire Gay. In 2011 the team traded down to become a poorer basketball team in order to acquire Jimmer Fredette (let go for nothing, eventually) and John Salmons.
The Kings, after dragging their players and Tyrone Corbin through something that was perched in between hell and purgatory, could improve this season. They won’t peel off the sort of 27-3 needed to make the playoffs in the West, but they will get better under Karl. And as a result, they might miss out on a draft pick because the former GM and duplicitous ownership group liked J.J. Hickson.
This is probably why Charles Barkley, in something that was very much not safe for work, cursed when discussing the Kings last night:
As the legendary David Aldridge pointed out time and time again during that clip, the Kings are not giving Cousins veto power. What they are doing is allowing their All-Star and franchise center to lend his voice to the discussion as the group decides what’s best for all involved. After Cousins learned of both Michael Malone’s firing and Tyrone Corbin’s supposed permanence on Twitter, this is the sound and intelligent move. They’re not letting Cousins run the show, but Charles has never really concerned himself with facts before bleating out regarding something he knows absolutely nothing about.
The Kings’ ownership and front office were saddled with the salted earth of the ownership group and front office that preceded them, so they have some legitimate excuses to make and some time on their side. This, even with Karl coaching his tail off, is going to be a tough turnaround.
This doesn’t mean a package featuring George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins can’t eventually do some damage in the postseason. Even with that owner horning in on things.
It just means the waiting isn’t over.
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