The Sacramento Kings were off to an impressive 9-6 start to the season until their star center and best player — DeMarcus Cousins — came down with a life threatening illness (viral meningitis). They had gone 2-7 after that but done so while playing the second toughest schedule in the league to this point and are half a game out of a playoff spot. This team had taken a quality step forward from last season, both the offense and defense were playing better. You could feel a positive culture change around the team. Plus the Kings and their system had gotten more efficiency and quality play out of Rudy Gay than any previous stop in his career.
So Sunday night the Kings fired their coach, Mike Malone.
That always works well in the NBA, firing a coach doing a good job. Just go ask the Nuggets about it.
(To be fair, it seems to be working in Golden State this season. But that’s more the exception that proves the rule.)
This is on owner Vivek Ranadivé, who had hired Malone personally before even hiring GM Pete D’Alessandro when he bought the team. It was a rookie ownership move because he hired a star assistant but not one with the same basketball philosophy as himself or the GM — remember Malone (an assistant to Mike Brown at the time) was part of the group that kept a young LeBron James in a slowed down, walk-it-up offense (and won a lot of games that way). Ranadivé and his man Chris Mullin (an official advisor) wanted more showtime, which reportedly led to tension between Malone and ownership.
Ranadivé tolerated some losing last season but as CSNBayarea.com’s Bill Herenda notes Ranadivé said this season he wanted wins and lots of them.
What he really wanted was more offense. The Kings are currently right at the league average, 15th in offensive efficiency at 103.6 points per 100 possessions, playing at what is a middle of the road pace of 95.7 possessions a game (16th in the league). Again, that’s without Cousins the past nine games and after D’Alessandro traded away Isaiah Thomas in the off-season. What bothered Malone more was the Kings’ defense, which at 104.2 points allowed per 100 possessions was 18th in the league.
And Malone is right — if the Kings envisioned themselves a playoff team defense was what mattered. Well, that and getting Cousins healthy.
That said, the owner has the right to set the tone and style he wants to see from his team. If Ranadivé wants it more up-tempo, he should be able to push the team that direction. But three things need to be mentioned. First, again, why hire Malone in the first place if that’s the style you want (Ranadivé knew Malone from Golden State, where Malone had coached and Ranadivé was a minority owner)? Second, why bring Malone back this summer? There had been rumblings his job could be in jeopardy, why not make a clean break then, why in the middle of the season?
Third, and finally, this roster is not really built to run. Cousins works best in the half court, Gay isn’t young anymore, they don’t have enough ball handlers, and while I could go on you get the point. If they want to play fast it’s going to take more than a coaching change, some roster changes are needed.
Sacramento will ride out the season with former Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin in the big chair. He has a clear mandate and will play faster, but short of him getting the Kings the playoffs — something highly unlikely in the deep West, especially with Cousins still out a while — you have to think they will go coach shopping next summer. The biggest name being floated is George Karl (the quality coach fired by the Nuggets after a 57-win season), who has a big supporter in D’Alessandro from when both were in Denver. He certainly likes to pay up tempo. Two other names being mentioned as guys to watch are Mark Jackson and Vinny Del Negro. Neither of those last two are upgrades over Malone.
At least this time around Ranadivé should hire someone who is on his page philosophically.
As for whether that person is a better coach than Malone, I wouldn’t be so sure.