The Kings have such lofty goals for their present and future that coach Michael Malone has been deemed unfit to accomplish them. Malone was fired late Sunday night, according to Yahoo Sports, after leading Sacramento to an encouraging 11-13 start in his second season. The Kings are only a half game back of the Western Conference's eighth playoff seed despite going 2-7 in their last nine games while playing without star center DeMarcus Cousins, who has viral meningitis.
This is an odd decision for a franchise sniffing a .500 record for the first time in seven seasons. Malone, while hardly perfect with his lineup decisions or game strategy, played a considerable role in pushing the Kings toward respectability. The things Sacramento is best at -- grinding in the post, creating second-chance opportunities, racking up free throw attempts -- are all in line with the objectives of Malone's offense. Much of the team's defensive progress from last season has come from tactical adjustments, especially in positioning Cousins to be a more disruptive presence in the lane. Malone has not been an outstanding coach, but there's an ocean of difference between saying he shouldn’t have been fired under any circumstances and expressing confusion about why he was fired under these.
Early reports (from both Yahoo and USA Today) offered two central factors in Malone's dismissal, neither of them logically satisfying. The first: Owner Vivek Ranadivé has been so underwhelmed by this season's performance that he judged the team to have better prospects in different hands. This for a team with an inadequate bench, a stopgap as its starting power forward, a dearth of perimeter shooting and a legitimate MVP candidate sidelined for 38 percent of its games. When Cousins played, the Kings were 9-6. Their offense in that stretch was nearly top 10 and their defense almost league average -- both considerable improvements from last season, when Sacramento ranked 19th in points per possession and 23rd in points allowed.
Sacramento's roster remained largely unchanged from 2013-14. Darren Collison replaced Isaiah Thomas at point guard, a move that has unexpectedly paid off because the Kings have played more comfortably through Collison on offense than they did Thomas. Otherwise, Sacramento maintained the core of a team that finished 28-54 last season. Malone had the Kings on pace for a 10-win improvement even with Cousins sidelined since Nov. 28.
Malone's tenure coincided with development of Sacramento's best young prospects, most notably Cousins. Forward Rudy Gay has played the best basketball of his career under Malone and agreed to a three-year extension last month. If there was a time when firing Malone would have made reasonable sense (like, say, in the offseason), it would not be 24 games into a successful season. To classify these first seven weeks of 2014-15 as anything but productive would be a woeful misunderstanding of the Kings' talent, which does not justify the removal of a coach so rapidly.
Undue expectations don't appear to be the only factor in Malone's ouster, though. A difference in philosophy between Malone and the front office -- namely Ranadivé and general manager Pete D'Alessandro -- had reportedly caused friction. Those clashes concerned the Kings' style of play: Malone viewed a post-centric offense as the best means of exploiting Cousins and Gay, while D'Alessandro and Ranadivé pushed for a faster pace (Sacramento ranks 16th in that category). An owner and GM are entitled to see the team run as they want, but if they preferred a quicker offense, then wouldn't the talent on the roster better reflect it?
The Kings have players who could blend well into an up-tempo offense, but their best is deliberate. Cousins' dominance is derived from overpowering opponents rather than outgunning them, and the double teams he draws consistently are an avenue toward efficient offense. To lean away from that during the best stretch of Cousins' career is an odd choice, particularly when so much of Sacramento's success depends on his play. Firing the coach who empowered Cousins and demanding an approach less accommodating of his skill set is imprudent if not altogether reckless. A happy Cousins is a monster of a player in all the best ways. An unhappy Cousins is a monster of a player in many of the worst.
Regardless, the front office -- the heart of basketball operations -- wants what it wants. To execute those intentions, the Kings turn to lead assistant Tyrone Corbin, who replaces Malone on an interim basis. Corbin's head-coaching stint with the Jazz (25-57 last season, 112-146 overall) does little to inspire confidence. His teams also played at a slower pace than Malone's Kings in each of his three-plus seasons as Utah's coach, making him a fitting candidate only for his willingness to act as an instrument. There are more promising alternatives (like D'Alessandro favorite George Karl) whom the Kings might consider hiring down the line, but Yahoo's report suggests that Corbin will likely be given the rest of the season to do what he can with this roster under a stylistic mandate.
Malone was hired before D'Alessandro and lost his job based in part on their disagreement. That coach-executive dynamic plays out often in the NBA but rarely on a team exceeding the public's expectations. Those expectations matter. What matters most, though, is how a franchise sees itself, and in Malone the Kings apparently saw competence as disappointment and dissent as grounds for change.