Yesterday was a blockbuster day for Kings fans. General Manager Vlade Divac completed his best year leading the Front Office and was quickly rewarded with a 4 year contract extension. Even before the ink was dry three moves were delivered to a now stunned fan base reveling in the best season in a decade while still processing arguably the biggest single game collapse in team history.
The first move removed Assistant GM Brandon Williams and then immediately afterwards he parted ways with Head Coach Dave Joerger. The NBA Replay center was needed to confirm the chronology of when these shots actually went off v. when they were tweeted. Wedged perhaps appropriately in between these two announcements was Vlade’s dismissal of Chris Clark, the team’s Director of Media Relations, and Kings staffer since 2011. That must have been an awkward hallway encounter between Vlade and these three men.
There was plenty of coverage yesterday. There was an early post by Sactown Royalty’s Greg Wissinger—who now can add ruining off-seasons to his already colorful resume. It was followed by Vlade’s interview with the media, then Tony Xypteras’ Emergency Podcast. Finally there was some interesting sound bites offered by Grant and Doug on KHTK in the afternoon. Culling all of these perspectives here was my summation. Williams being let go was lauded for being the right call but 2 seasons too late as it was last Fall when his rumored leaks re: Joerger went down. Chris Clark’s departure was not really talked much about which I was surprised given the coincidence that the PR team took a hit at the same time that two highly sensitive in-house communications were shared in real time with NBA Media and before the outgoing employees had been told? Either Chris was part of leakgate or Vlade does have a cell phone and Alexa’s listening was paid off by Woj/Amick/Stein et al, with Cash Considerations. Without a doubt the biggest polarizing story was Joerger’s departure.
Many credited Joerger’s ability to adapt his style of play to a faster pace, while developing the young talent on the roster as proof that he was the right coach for this roster. The team finished 5th in pace per Basketball Reference over 30th last year and saw amazing improvements to Hield, Fox, Bagley, and Giles throughout the year. There was even discussions around the all-star break that Joerger should be considered Coach of the Year and given the 12 win jump year over year it warrants at a minimum an honorable mention. The Kings now lottery bound for the 14th year (without a lottery pick mind you) seemed poised to make the playoffs despite all pundits assuming the team would be terrible and did in fact remain in the playoff picture until late March. It is completely reasonable to believe this is a catastrophic mistake by Vlade. Personally I was super happy that Joerger was hired, was supportive of the process that gave us The Scores, and believed that Dave was the perfect coach for the team.
The operative word: Was. After sleeping on it and letting my Kangz PTSD episode subside I believe Vlade has made the right albeit gutsy call to move on from the deservingly popular Dave Joerger. I am sure Vlade was conflicted but while there were reasons to keep Joerger at least for one more season, I believe there are a handful of reasons why this move makes sense.
Timing of the Contract – Joerger and staff headed into this off season with one year remaining. As is customary in the NBA, a Head Coach is either extended or terminated going into their last year as to not leave the staff in a lame duck status. Over his three seasons, Joerger compiled a record of 98 – 148 or a 39.8% winning percentage which was equally sub-par with George Karl’s abbreviated tenure of 44 – 68 record or 39.2%. And while this season it appears that his adapted style and development approach did wonders for the younger players’ success, there just was not a body of work to justify a big new contract without multiple years of progression.
Feuding with the Front Office – It was reported that in Memphis Joerger had issues with the FO and early concerns were that he might have challenges in Sacramento especially given its historical dysfunction over the last decade. The first two seasons seemed to have gone smoothly until this season. Whether it was last year’s draft where the Front Office—possibly influenced by Williams—made the still controversial decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, or the rumors that the FO was unhappy with the amount of playing time Joerger gave to the younger players as reported by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports and whom Williams was seen talking to at the arena a week earlier. This led to a public scene where Joerger demanded Williams leave a shoot around before a nationally televised game v. the Clippers.
While we will never know fully both sides of that story, I am inclined to believe that they both contributed to a demise in a working relationship. Brandon for possibly spreading rumors and Dave for how he reacted. Vlade, whom rarely discusses what is going on in-house was quoted even after already going on the record that the FO had full support and confidence in Joerger felt compelled to tell Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee,
"I have advised my front office and coaching staff to not focus on drama and rumors, but instead to focus on continuing to develop our young and exciting team," Divac said. "And that’s what we’re going to do."
Yesterday Vlade reaffirmed he did not like what happened in December—in other words what ensued after the incident before the Clippers Game. Regardless of whether you think Brandon Williams did do something wrong, it is reasonable to presume that Vlade after meeting on November 21st, 2018, with Joerger, his agent, and Vivek, did something to admonish Williams instead of firing him. Vlade wrestled with the reality he needed to keep the peace as any more public drama or turnover within the front office could backfire leading up to the trade deadline where he had cap space and a desired to acquire more talent. So whether Williams was given a written warning, had some of his pay deducted (if that was permittable) or it was shared to Joerger that it would be handled and for him to trust them, even it meant waiting until the off season to lay down the hammer, Joerger would have been out of line to only a few days later cause a scene with Williams in front of Vlade before a game at the arena.
Overall Lack of Success – Joerger came to the organization with a background in developing players at the lower levels but lacked deep playoff experience as a Head Coach. What seemed like a good fit given the team was overdue for a restart and would have to build around the draft. Of course there was some collective hope initially that under Joerger’s tutelage, they could build a playoff team around Cousins since the team had flirted with the playoffs before imploding under Karl the previous year. Most seem to agree that while he didn’t quite fare as well as Malone in vibing with Cousins, he avoided clashing with the FO and Cousins like Karl had done. Once Cousins’ own antics outweighed his value even in the eyes of the still meddling ownership, Vlade finally was able to trade Cousins out mid-season. Had Joerger had success with Cousins that would have raised his stock, but the results left many feeling Joerger still needed to prove himself. Grade Incomplete.
The next 1.5 seasons are best described as a half tank & half development period that did not look like Joerger was committed to the rebuild by fully utilizing his young assets enough to quicken their development, nor did they play an up-tempo style of basketball the NBA had already moved towards. In fact the young players didn’t really develop at all. This left many of us head-scratching as to what Joerger was trying to do and questioning if he was the right person for the job. With the team lacking a lottery pick the next year, the plan was clear that the next season was a make or break year that would be measured by wins and development. Grade C -.
The start of the 2018-2019 season was to be another bad year to most pundits in the NBA and most of us on STR, but we did not get the memo evidently handed out by the Kool Aid Kings: The Kings will make the playoffs. From the players to the Front Office there was definitely an expectation that existed. The effort and winning percentage spoke for themselves up to the All-Star Break. Unfortunately despite the Kings with one of the easier schedules after the all-star break boasting a 30 – 27, went 9 – 16 the rest of the way. That 36% winning percentage was a significant regression by any measure and 12 of those losses were by 7 points of less. Worse, per NBA Miner, the Kings were 11 – 14 on the season in close games where the margin was 5 points or less and 5th worse in the NBA on games they lost after having a lead of 10 or more points. This despite having 3 players in Hield, Fox, and Barnes that were in the top 50 Clutch players in the league. From my vantage most of those winnable games the team did little to stop the other team from scoring. The biggest problem seemed to be a defensive identity and an inability to play effectively in the half court. While players must execute, it looked to me that some of this befell Joerger’s inability to scheme in close games—something that used to be a specialty of his. Grade B+.
Disconnect With The Players – On the surface the season seemed fine because the high character players said the right things and the team was winning games in an exciting fashion for the first time in over a decade. When you take a closer look you can see some fissures in the foundation. Marvin Bagley III’s Father had some negative tweets, while Marvin lamented his lack of minutes. Skal and Frank seemed to keep a stiff upper lip despite being relegated to the end of the bench. Then Yahoo Sports quoted sources within the Kings Organization with this bombshell:
"There has been frustration from Kings players over inconsistent roles, sources said, and they have grown exasperated by the lack of communication from Joerger about their future and limited minutes."
In November the Front Office supposedly had a meeting to express to Joerger that playing time for the younger players was expected. The real issue for me surfaced in the game immediately after the all-star break against the Golden State Warriors where Buddy was reprimanded by Joerger on the side line. You could see Buddy’s reaction and that they were not on the same page. Shortly afterwards coming out of a timeout with the Warriors up by two, the ball came to Buddy who was wide open on top of the key and he passed up the potential game winning shot in what looked like a player that was scared to shoot. This was after he had just drained a long distance three previously. The optics looked awful and left us wondering what Joerger had said to him prior to that possession on the sideline. The rest of the season there just seemed to be a change in the energy with the team. Games they were expected to win they lost and games they were in it until the very end the just found ways to lose. Some have attributed the extra losses to losing Shumpert, but I believe something happened between Joerger and the team that changed the team’s mojo. Watching Skal have a career night against the Kings seemed to punctuate his frustration with not getting a chance to play earlier this year.
Finally in the aftermath of the firing, the players have been really quiet on Twitter. When the media asked Vlade about communicating with the players, he was very clear on two things: 1) He had very good communication with the players 2) he had felt he needed to consider going in a different coaching direction. Does anyone believe that if Hield, Fox, and Bagley all told Vlade they were 100% bought into Joerger’s system and to stay the course that he still pulls the trigger?
All said, in Vlade’s mind, the additions to the already talented roster that sported a winning record should have pushed the Kings over the hump and into the playoffs and it didn’t happen. Certainly some will say that a young team is going to have games that they don’t execute down the stretch but when you look at other young teams like the Hawks and Nets, you see a vastly different level of execution. The Hawks went 13 – 6 in close game wins while the Nets went 19 - 9. Simply put the last 25 games of the season was all Vlade needed to see to determine that possibly the team had peaked under Joerger and that regression was justification enough to hire another coach to take the team forward.
I am not saying I would have approached things the last three years the same way but in total the Kings organization didn’t really succeed and its completely fair that instead of signing up a Coach for 3-4 more years without an NBA Championship on the resume to trust the process and given some signs that the players, coach, and FO were not on the same page, it is completely fair to go in a different direction.
By swiftly making the move now, Vlade has a solid chance of landing any one of Walton, Williams, or Messina to become the team’s next coach. And whomever is picked, I think the team will be better and if healthy will make the playoffs. Luke Walton seemed to instill a defensive mentality that had the team jump from 30th to 15th in Defensive Efficiency per 100 possessions while still rivaling the Kings in pace. Monty Williams has both FO experience with the Spurs and was a decent players coach while in New Orleans and should help the 76ers get close to the finals this year, success and experience that I think improves the team’s chances for success. My favorite, Ettore Messina, should have the best rapport with Vlade and Peja given their European connection. He has spent 3 seasons under Popovich and when you add his Championships in Europe he has the most experience and should help us become a better team in the half court while knowing how to optimize the individual talents on the roster. Hopefully this decision follows the Warriors and Bucks path to success after changing coaches following a rebuild.