ARE THE KEYSTONE COPS RUNNING THE SACRAMENTO KINGS?
As a long-time Sacramento Kings season ticket holder who has suffered through too many years of futility, I welcomed the team’s recent change in ownership which not only kept the team in Sacramento, but promised a new direction dedicated to putting a winning team on the court. Good riddance to the much-despised Maloofs. I anticipated the beginning of a new era that would bring back—or even surpass—the glories of the Divac-Webber years. With a deep-pocketed owner like Vivek Ranadive and a front office that featured GM Pete D’Allessandro and Chris Mullin, the future looked bright, or so I thought.
The new management team hit the road running. They acquired Darren Collison to run the offense, gave DeMarcus Cousins a long-term contract, and re-signed Rudy Gay. I was saddened to see Isaiah Thomas and his 20+ points per game leave, but understood the logic of his departure. The new regime claimed to value team players who would share the ball and play good defense. The Maloof regime said the same thing, but lacked the foresight and patience to build a team around this vision. I hoped this time things would be different.
And it appeared they were. The Kings came out of the gate with a rarely seen flourish. After losing their opening game to the talented Warriors, they won five straight. After 14-games, most of them on the road, they were 9 and 5 (which could easily have been 11-3 if not for two heart-breaking last second losses, including, unbelievably, one with just .3 second left).
They played uncharacteristic solid defense that wore teams down. Their sharing of the ball brought back memories of the glory years. Cousins displayed the leadership role expected of him. In check were his customary scowls, barking at referees, and the technicals we’d become so accustomed to seeing. He partnered well with a rejuvenated Rudy Gay. Both seemed to have benefitted greatly from their participation on the USA team over the summer. Ben McLemore’s star was rising. They were finding ways to win rather than lose, like in the past. The team had become fun rather than a dread to watch. Things were definitely looking up.
When the Kings slipped back into old habits, with selfish play and lackadaisical defense, and began a losing streak, I dismissed this as a fluke because Cousins was out with viral meningitis. Their poor play, and losses–seven of the nine games he missed—showed how valuable he was to the team. I anxiously awaited his return.
A few games before Cousins returned it happened: The Kings fired Coach Mike Malone, citing a difference of philosophy with the new management. After only 24 games, Malone was gone. The defensive-minded Malone had been hired to tighten up the team’s porous defense, which by all accounts he did. It appeared Kings players also had bought into his emphasis on sharing the ball. Early season games revealed improvement on both ends of the court. Even in the games they lost, they were competitive.
Apparently, however, it was not enough for the front office. They wanted a faster offensive pace and more points. Malone’s system, designed around the talent he had, didn’t square with their philosophy. He had to go.
The Kings new owners are successful businessman led by software mogul Ranadive. They have minimal knowledge of the game of basketball. One hopes people with such backgrounds use their talent to employ quality, experienced people and get the hell out-of-the-way. Apparently this is not Ranadive’s style. In his software business he was known as an irritant and micromanager. He seems to be applying these qualities to his basketball team.
Owners of course have a right to fire coaches and managers, but the timing of the popular Malone’s firing was inexplicable. Rash decisions by impetuous owners in professional sports are not unusual, but usually they make some kind of sense. The Ranadive move is mystifying. To fire Malone after only 24 games, with most of the losses occurring when Cousins was out, is mind-boggling. What were they thinking?
The quick hook of the popular Malone after the team’s early success was certain to raise fan anger, especially if the Kings sputtered after the change, which seemed likely given that Malone’s replacement, assistant coach Ty Corbin, was mandated to implement, on the fly, a new offensive scheme. Corbin was in an untenable situation. He was mandated to shift the team’s focus away from defense and push the pace with players unaccustomed to such a style, players who had bought into the Malone system and had been playing well together. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Immediately the Kings were a different team. It lacked focus and intensity on defense, giving up tons of points—nearly a league high 105 per game—in losing seven of the 10 games since the firing. On their recent four-game road trip the Kings lost three games to below .500 teams, including lopsided losses to Boston and Detroit. Their only win was over Minnesota in overtime, the team with the poorest record in the Western Conference. On the road trip, the Kings allowed season highs in points in regulation (128) and overall (129). Since the emphasis on playing quicker began, opponent field goal and three-point percentages have increased. Under Corbin’s stewardship, several opponent players enjoyed season high nights against Sacramento. This list includes Andrew Wiggins (27), Brandon Jennings (35), and non-renowned scorers Festus Ezeli, Justin Holiday, and Cole Aldrich.
The offense has been inconsistent. The quicker pace has produced a few more points, but a lower shooting percentage and an astonishing number of turnovers, which is putting greater pressure on the defense. In a number of games they’ve had more turnovers than assists. The ball movement displayed early in the season has vanished.
Kings players are visibly unhappy with the change. Players who understood and accepted their roles under Malone, and were notable for the efforts they expended, are playing without passion and purpose. Cousins has reverted back to his old fouling, whining, scowling ways. Body language reveals a confused, disgruntled and distrustful bunch. Gone is the great chemistry put on display early in the season. The lame-duck Corbin enjoys little player respect. (There are rumors he is even resented because he’s not the popular Malone.) There’s little joy on the court or in the stands. Is it possible the Ranadive-D’Allesandro-Mullin cabal didn’t anticipate negative player and fan reaction to the canning of Malone? Could they be that clueless? Hard to believe, but maybe they are the bumbling idiots they appear to be—keystone cops.
The Kings may eventually become more comfortable with the new fast-paced offense, but I can’t see them restoring the defensive intensity they showed early in the season, not as long as most of their attention is devoted to playing at a higher speed. A quicker offense may produce more shots, and even more points, but without an accomplished defense they won’t be able to outscore many opponents. In all likelihood we’ll witness a season of futility along with endless excuses and finger-pointing, and, in the end, yet another lottery pick.
The Kings will surely have a new coach next year. Names like George Karl, Kurt Rambis and Alvin Gentry have already surfaced. Good luck to anyone who takes the job. Unless management is willing to give a new coach full authority over players and on-court strategies, and have the patience to let him construct the team around a clear vision, we are destined for more years of futility. Patience and a willingness to delegate authority, however, are not virtues among private business czars, and Ranadive appears no exception. When wealthy businessmen take over a professional sports enterprise in which they lack experience and expertise, and then meddle into on-field matters, the result is likely to be, well, the Sacramento Kings.
I know it’s only 10 games into the post-Malone era, far too early to draw definitive conclusions, and I may be proven wrong in my pessimistic projections, but the signs are not good. They portend more of the same-old-same-old Maloofian impatience and instability, a virtual musical chair rotation of players, coaches and schemes, all in search of a quick fix. This is a recipe for, at best, mediocrity, and more likely, failure. With a new arena in the team’s future, mostly paid for by the public, Kings fans deserve better.
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