Kings' dysfunction hits tipping point; Mailbag: Whiteside, Celtics and more
A few thoughts on a rapidly deteriorating situation in Sacramento before we get to your tweets...
Cousins admitted as much, telling Yahoo! in a statement that his outburst was about the team’s dreadful 1-7 start and not about any issues with Karl or anyone on the team. Cousins, a King since 2010-2011, has experienced brutal losing since being drafted by Sacramento. The Kings are 133-270 in that time, never cracking 30 wins in a season and, obviously, never coming close to making the playoffs. Cousins had high expectations for the Kings this season, according to sources close to him, and has been extremely frustrated by how poorly the team has played. People who know Cousins will readily admit that Cousins is a bad loser, and his altercation with Karl was largely caused by that.
It’s also true, as the Sacramento Bee reported, that Karl wanted to suspend Cousins following the outburst, only to be overruled by GM Vlade Divac. The tense relationship between Karl and Cousins has been well chronicled. Karl did little to publicly hide his disinterest in building a team around Cousins, telling reporters in April that every player on the team, Cousins included, was tradable. Never mind that, technically, Karl didn’t have the authority to trade anybody. And it’s not the first time Karl wanted Cousins suspended, either; last season Karl wanted to ban Cousins for a game for bad body language during timeouts, according to two sources familiar with the situation. Karl actively pushed for Kings management to move Cousins this off-season and his attempts to repair the relationship over the summer were viewed as halfhearted, at best.
Still, sources on both sides believe the relationship is salvageable, at least for the rest of this season. Cousins wants to win and he knows playing for a fourth coach in the last two years isn’t going to get him any closer to it. He has made it clear to Kings executives that he doesn’t want Karl fired, according to sources. And Karl understands he can’t meet ownership's expectations without him.
The Kings problems begin at the top. The very top.
Let’s begin with Divac, a beloved ex-King who is around six months into a job he was completely unprepared for. Internally, Divac is described as a nice guy and a willing learner. But he lacks experience, and there is a reason the best executives in the NBA today are the ones with years of it. San Antonio’s RC Buford. Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti. Toronto’s Masai Ujiri. Divac is not only the GM, but he’s a new GM with very few experienced hands around to help him learn on the job. Larry Bird, who served an apprenticeship under Donnie Walsh before taking control in Indiana, was assisted by David Morway and Kevin Pritchard; Pritchard, the former Trail Blazers GM still serves as Bird’s GM today. Divac’s top lieutenant is Mike Bratz, a longtime assistant coach and scout who has no experience running a team.
It was on Divac’s watch that the Kings traded Nik Stauskas (the eighth overall pick in 2014), Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, a 2018 first-round pick and the right to swap picks in ’16 and ’17 essentially for cap space. The Kings wanted Wesley Matthews, Monta Ellis (no matter what Divac says to the contrary) and Rajon Rondo. They got Rondo, bidding against no one to sign him to a one-year, $10 million deal. And it was Divac that thought it was a good idea to be involved in a bizarre clear-the-air meeting with players this week.
Now, some of this isn’t Divac’s fault. Owner Vivek Ranadive (more on him later) has been very hands on in his two years as Kings owner and has been the driving force behind some of the team’s moves, including his relentless pursuit of Rondo. And Divac was put in an impossible situation last summer when Karl—who he didn’t hire—attempted to orchestrate a coup in a power struggle he eventually lost. Still, a more experienced GM would have never made the deal with Philadelphia, a trade that threatens to hamstring the Kings' ability to rebuild the roster over the next few years. But refusing to allow Karl to suspend Cousins undercuts him in the locker room and Divac never should have involved himself in a meeting with players this early in the season. Players answer to the coach; when they think they can go around him, it cripples the coach’s credibility.
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Now, Ranadive, the man who thought it was a good idea to roll through the locker room with rapper Drake shortly after a shellacking from the Spurs. Kings fans won’t forget that Ranadive was the owner who took the Kings from the Maloof family and kept the team in Sacramento. But his brief tenure has been a disaster. His decisions appear to be less about basketball and more about business, with the Kings headed into a new arena next season. He fired Mike Malone, a good, young head coach who had developed a strong relationship with Cousins, tried to push the job on Chris Mullin and ultimately filled the post with Karl, who immediately began battling with Cousins. He pushed out Pete D'Alessandro by empowering Divac, handing the reins to a man who had been working overseas for most of the last decade.
Make no mistake: The Kings problems begin with Ranadive, who treats NBA ownership like a fantasy camp. From offering input to the team’s playing style—which Malone told me recently—to demanding the Kings pursue Rondo, who wasn’t being pursued by anybody else, Ranadive has become Exhibit A for what an owner should not be. There have been rumblings for months that the Kings minority owners desperately want to take controlling interest of the franchise away from him, though truthfully there is little they can do. For now, the Kings are stuck with an owner who loves to be known as one but has no understanding of the job.
So what’s next?
If Karl wasn’t owed the balance of the $15 million deal he signed last year—a deal that runs through 2018—there is a good chance that he would be gone already. But that’s a lot of money to swallow for a coach that, in theory, coaches a style that Ranadive wants the Kings to play. Besides, who would Sacramento replace Karl with? One of Karl’s assistants? An outsider? Divac? The truth is, the Kings are not as bad as the 2-7 record suggests. Cousins missed four games at the start of November but posted 33 points and nine rebounds in a win over Detroit on Wednesday night. This may not be a playoff team, but it’s not a bottom three team in the conference, either.
Long term, that’s a different story. Right now the Kings are a rudderless mess. A smart move for Ranadive would be to clean house at the end of the season—maybe move Divac into a lesser role—and bring in a sharp young executive (Troy Weaver in Oklahoma City; Gersson Rosas in Houston) and promise to get out of their way. Build an organization the right way, from the ground up. What's more likely? Ranadive looks for another big splash. Like John Calipari. You laugh, but there was truth to the Kings' interest in the Kentucky coach last year and regardless of what Calipari tweets people that talk to him say he is interested in a return to the NBA.
Cousins, Calipari and Ranadive. What could go wrong?
And now, on to your tweets...
I asked several team executives this exact question this week. Assuming Whiteside continues to build on last season’s surprising success—and his averages of 15.3 points, 11.4 rebounds and a league-leading 3.9 blocks is early evidence that he will—the market for him should be robust. He’s 26 and a dominating center in a league where those type of players are dwindling. Consider Greg Monroe will make $16 million next season. And consider that once Kevin Durant signs, there will be dozens of snubbed teams with the cap space to make Whiteside a significant offer.
Two executives though raised questions about Whiteside’s maturity. His issues date back to college and his actions last season—an altercation with Phoenix’s Alex Len; a cheap shot to the back of the head of Boston’s Kelly Olynyk—are evidence that those issues are still there. One exec said that he wouldn’t pay Whiteside more than $10 million per year, a lot of money, sure, but significantly less than what a player with his skills would get without the issues dogging him.
Bottom line: A smart, under control year could put a lot of money in Whiteside’s pocket.
I don’t know about a jumbled mess. The frontcourt rotation has not gone the way Brad Stevens probably expected, but Jared Sullinger has played very well starting ahead of a struggling David Lee and Kelly Olynyk was a big spark off the bench in Tuesday’s win at Milwaukee.
The Celtics need to get healthy. They got Marcus Smart back on Wednesday but are now without Avery Bradley, who bruised his leg against the Bucks and sat out Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers. Boston has an excellent young backcourt; the Smart-Bradley duo is one of the best defensive pairings in the league and Isaiah Thomas is instant offense off the bench. It’s been something of a sluggish start in Boston but expect the Celtics to get it together and start putting together some wins over the next few weeks.
No. Ridiculous. Doc Rivers is one of the best coaches in the NBA. What he needs to do is figure out who is the fifth player he trusts on the floor in crunch time to play alongside Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick.
Ah, Ricky. My favorite player. If only you could shoot. Interesting scenario brought up to me by an NBA executive in a conversation about Minnesota’s future. The Wolves trade Rubio in the off-season...and sign Rajon Rondo. Crazy? Remember, Kevin Garnett is under contract for next year and he has a lot of influence in the organization. A lot of influence. And KG and Rondo have a terrific relationship. Something to think about.
I don’t understand this question, but it gives me a chance to talk about Steph Curry, so I'm in! I was in Memphis on Wednesday and watched Curry, after not shooting the ball particularly well in the first half, score 14 points in the final 3:08 of the third quarter, including a back-breaking, buzzer-beating 40-footer at the end of the period, and turn a one-point lead into an 11-point edge that broke the Grizzlies spirit. Curry is a special player who is putting up MVP numbers on a team that has looked unbeatable in the early part of the season. He’s also a heck of a nice guy. Minutes after the game, Curry stopped in the tunnel for three minutes to sign autographs for Warriors fans sequestered behind a rope. The NBA could not ask for a better ambassador.