It’s been over a decade since the Sacramento Kings were called the Sacramento Queens. Then, everyone laughed at the Shaquille O’Neal joke, repeating it, finding humor as Shaq obviously did in the fact that Sacramento hung up a division banner. Talk about a low bar to wrap around your neck. To add insult to injury, the Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference Finals, in Game 7, in Sacramento of all places which was considered the toughest arena in the league in 2002. On a grand stage, the Kings tossed up air balls, missed free throws and were generally overwhelmed by the fear of the moment which proved Shaq’s point: not ready for prime time.
It was the last relevant Sacramento Kings moment. Including this year, the Kings will have sunk low enough to have been in the lottery for ten years in a row, a full decade of misery that has netted them a mixed bag of junk and a great player in DeMarcus Cousins and some okay players that will move around the league like bees searching for honey. Willie Cauley-Stein. Nik Stauskas. Ben McLemore. Thomas Robinson. Bismack Biyombo. DeMarcus Cousins. Tyreke Evans. Jason Thompson. Spencer Hawes.
Tyreke Evans was Rookie of the Year and has underachieved ever since. DeMarcus Cousins has lived up to his potential but has yet to embrace full maturity on the court and can be a headache when things don’t go his way; like a cranky two year old, he sulks and pouts and never embraces his own failures. Bismack Biyombo is in Toronto. Spencer Hawes couldn’t crack Doc Rivers rotation and is now having fun in Charlotte. Nik Stauskas was traded to eastern hell, otherwise known as the 76ers. The rest of the group are forgettable.
When the Kings hired George Karl, it appeared to be a very not Sacramento Kings moment. Karl was a proven coach who knew the game and how to win. But beneath the surface, the fissures were hiding fault lines ready to erupt into a massive earthquake. What do earthquakes do? They ruin things.
Before Karl was hired, the previous coach, Mike Malone, was fired for no other reason than he didn’t get along with the Kings owner Vivek Ranadive who hired him. Ranadive is a neophyte to the culture of professional basketball and his mistakes could fill a 300 page book on things not to do when you buy a NBA team. Ranadive hired Mike Malone who was well respected as a coach but at times- like most of us- could be difficult and volatile. Then Ranadive hired a general manager. It was like walking backwards up the stairs. He expected the two, Pete D’Alessandro and Malone, to be able to make peace when there was no incentive to. Malone wasn’t D’Alessandro’s hire.
Firing Malone was particularly stupid. The Kings were 11-13 during a stretch when Cousins was out with viral meningitis. The Kings were competing, losing games close, but being competitive and improving. They played hard for Malone but he was fired anyway and it stunned the team.
The hiring of George Karl was a sudden burst of energy and yet it kept the Kings on the same track, the train leading to disaster. Karl had his eye on passing Don Nelson in career victories. So, in effect, he needed to win but you can’t win with young players. Karl came into a volatile situation with parts that didn’t particular fit what Karl wanted to do and Karl himself isn’t the easiest person to get along with. As coach of Milwaukee, Karl and Ray Allen fought to the bitter end. Karl and Gary Payton also rubbed each other the wrong way initially.
DeMarcus Cousins is an entirely different player altogether. He is as talented as Allen and Payton but whereas they entered the NBA with maturation, Cousins entered the NBA spoiled. Add to that Molotov cocktail, George Karl likes to control things and people.
But what was Karl thinking when he made the comment about Seth Curry, that he’d only be in the league for a couple of years? Karl is an old school dude but in this social media climate the old school ways get funneled through a sieve and Karl is the bad guy.
What was supposed to be a tough coach to bring Cousins up to speed and join the rest of us in adulthood was another Cousins moment to roll his eyes, and no, he has not matured. He hasn’t regressed either so I suppose that is a Karl victory. The fact that Cousins has never been to the playoffs and this is the first year he won more than 30 games isn’t on Karl but on Cousins and that hapless wreck of an organization that tried to fire Karl twice but then changed their mind. And then changed it again. Yesterday.
“I have a great deal of respect for George and his accomplishments throughout his nearly 30 years in the NBA. On behalf of everyone in the Kings organization, I thank him for the contributions he made during his time in Sacramento.” (Vlade Divac)
It sounded more like a form letter than a firing and it surprised no one since it had been brewing from the time the opening game tipped off in November.
Sacramento is moving into a new arena and Cousins is the best thing they have going. But the facts don’t change in the light of day. Cousins is the only top-10 scorer not in the playoffs. The Sacramento brain surgeons will say the defense cost George Karl his job and yes, in theory, blame Karl for Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins and Darren Collison, all of whom have been horrible defenders their entire careers. Defense is about principles and it is about desire. It is also about teamwork and chemistry and everyone buying in.
February seems like a long time ago and in the NBA it is like dog years but a little over two months ago when Karl was supposed to be fired, Corliss Williamson was supposed to be the interim coach and pull into his hot little hands his first NBA coaching gig. Williamson, a small town college coach with a NBA resume, had survived the past Kings coaching disasters. He managed to hold on. But wishy-washy GM Vlade Divac ripped the opportunity out of his hands and changed his mind about firing Karl. So Karl returned only to be fired two months later. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.
The players get the easy ride here. They have been selfish and disinterested but are not punished other than by another catastrophic season. This isn’t a Lakers team with D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young. This is the best big man in the game DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo. The front office will do what front offices do when they have to cover the players asses and skewer the coach but this has always been about maintaining a cliche: Karl lost the locker room. But when an organization has had 8 coaches in 9 seasons, at some point the looking in the mirror exercise is required.
Karl has been fired before so he took the high road in a statement probably crafted by an agent:
I am very proud of our work and I want to thank Kings management for this opportunity to have coached this exciting team with such a bright future. It’s my heartfelt feeling that the magnificent new arena will be hosting many playoff runs and an eventual championship.”
Uh…not with this roster.
Defensive Real Plus-Minus, a measurement of on court impact on the defensive end, ranks Cousins 10th among all centers, lower than Ian Mahinmi of the Pacers. Rondo ranks 34th among all point guards, lower than Jeremy Lin. Ben McLemore ranks 40th among shooting guards, lower than Tyreke Evans. Omri Casspi ranks 20th among small forwards.
Who were the last Kings to make the playoffs?
Mike Bibby. Kevin Martin. Ron Artest. Peja Stojakovic. Brad Miller. Bonzi Wells.
In a matchup test is Rajon Rondo as good as Mike Bibby? No. Is Ben McLemore as good as Kevin Martin? No. Is Omri Casspi as good as Peja Stojakovic? No. Is Boogie Cousins better than Brad Miller? Yes. The Kings have a draft problem and a free agency problem and a coaching problem. Treat one but not the other prolongs the disease.
Still, you have to give George Karl a little bit of attaboy credit. Once upon a time he beat cancer. He slayed it. He pushed back until the disease was in remission and out of his body so he is a tough motherfu*%^r. But, on the basketball court, those same principles alienated the exact people he was trying to influence.
Karl took the Kings job knowing DeMarcus Cousins was on the roster, knowing how the owner Ranadive felt about Cousins. He took the job knowing that Ranadive thought himself part genius for what he did for a high school girl’s team. He took the job in the presence of unrealistic expectations by Ranadive, that the Kings roster was a contending team roster. He took the job knowing that Ranadive wanted uptempo and wanted Cousins too, as if you can have snow and rain. Ranadive doesn’t understand the basic fundamentals of basketball. You run when you play small. With a big man like Cousins the tempo is slower.
In a perfect world, Cousins the scorer and Rondo the passer would have a lot of offensive moments until they both went nuclear leaving George Karl exasperated. But it was their defense that pulled the skin off the scab. George Karl did this to himself. Because he was not granted the power like Stan Van Gundy or Doc Rivers where he was able to choose personnel, Karl was forced to live with someone else’s decisions. Karl was run out of Denver because he wouldn’t play the young guys. He was run out of Sacramento because he hates the star.
Karl added: “With a profound humility, moving forward, I wish nothing but the best for the franchise and its players.”
As for the franchise, Vlade Divac is the Kings President of Basketball Operations. The side of Divac most NBA players know is the happy go lucky, great passer, great flopper, cigarette smoking Divac. But Divac has another side. Divac is the child of a country that was at war. Divac is the tough and gritty competitor who survived bombing hell. Vlade Divac is as stubborn as they come and he made a choice.
From the get-go this was a terrible triangle of three men. Karl, Divac and Ranadive lacked the ability to sit down and communicate. All three men are powerful in their own way, all three men have achieved success in prior lives, all three man want what they want and won’t admit when they are wrong.
Except recently Randive admitted he should have listened when he was told not to hire George Karl. It was his mistake. News flash: it’s not his first grotesque error. And because this is the Sacramento Kings, it won’t be his last.