A succession story—Kings edition

Coaching the Sacramento Kings is the least secure job in the NBA. Here's why:

Since coming to Sacramento, the Kings have employed 17 head coaches and enough assistants to artificially boost the city's employment rate.

Since coming to Sacramento, the Kings have employed 17 head coaches and enough assistants to artificially boost the city's employment rate.

Illustration by Serene Lusano

Jerry Reynolds’ affable demeanor is uncharacteristic for the bright lights, booming music and power-jam egos of the National Basketball Association. But it’s an ideal trait for longevity.

The league’s 30 teams are in a never-ending swirl of trades, trade rumors, front office turmoil, creative salary cap mathematics and the ominous phrase “future considerations.” Reynolds seems immune to it all. Head coach, interim head coach, assistant coach, director of player personnel, general manager, color commentator—Reynolds’ ability to adapt, hang around and return to the Kings in one capacity after another is both typical and abnormal at an organization whose coaching carousel never stops.

Now entering its 34th season since the franchise departed Kansas City, the Kings have employed 17 head coaches and enough assistant coaches to affect Sacramento’s employment rate.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau in New York, the keeper of all sports statistics, only the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets have had more head coaching upheaval than the Kings during their Sacramento residency. The Knicks and Nets have employed 18 head coaches each since 1985.

One day, many years ago, Reynolds told me during a one-on-one interview for a magazine article that only “a handful of players in the league really make a difference; the rest are interchangeable parts.”

He still believes that today.

“I’m one of those people who actually study the history of the league, players, coaches, the whole bit,” Reynolds told SN&R just before the start of the season. “It’s no secret it’s a players’ league.”

If that’s true, does it really matter who the sideline generals are?

Following the team’s 25th losing campaign last season, the Kings began their third season under head coach Dave Joerger this week. The team’s regular season opener was October 17 at home against the Utah Jazz. Six assistant coaches, three player development coaches and two trainers are also on staff.

According to Reynolds, now an occasional broadcast sidekick to Grant Napear, the Red Bull-mainlining play-by-play announcer, that’s a lot of people with limited control over their professional fates.

“I think coaches are very important,” Reynolds said. “I think Pat Riley is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, but there was a year in Miami when he won 17 games. He didn’t get dumb. Gregg Popovich had a 20- or 21-win season as well in San Antonio. Red Auerbach didn’t contend for a championship until Bill Russell arrived.”

The Kings, like many NBA teams, have employed several former players as head coaches. Only one succeeded. Rick Adelman, a complementary player for several NBA teams including the Kings, coached Sacramento for eight seasons, all playoff campaigns. He’s the only head coach the team has had with a winning career record.

Adelman, who retired from coaching in 2014 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, has opted to live a quiet life in Oregon. He no longer grants interviews following the death of his son, R.J., who was killed in a car accident in February.

During his interim head coach and head coaching tenure from 1987-1990, Reynolds’ record was 56-114. He’s among 16 of the Kings’ head coaches with losing records. But he fared better than others.

Russell, the Hall of Fame center for the Boston Celtics, was a disaster as the Kings’ head coach. Only Tyrone Corbin and Kenny Natt, who also had brief head coaching tenures with the Kings, had worse records. Eddie Jordan, Reggie Theus, Paul Westphal, also prominent former players, all flopped as Kings head coaches.

R.E. Graswich, a former Sacramento Bee staff writer and columnist, and Jeffrey Weidel, who reported on the team for the Associated Press, observed Kings coaches close range during games and practices. Both journalists conducted hundreds of interviews with the team’s coaching personnel.

“Even though I had a courtside seat where I could analyze coaches, I’m not certain of their exact impact,” said Weidel, who ended his 25-year Kings reporting tenure after the team’s first season at Golden 1 Center. “I do know that a good strategist certainly can make a difference because many NBA games come down to the final minutes or even seconds. How a coach handles those pressure situations can often be the difference between a victory or a defeat.”

Graswich, a Kings beat reporter for seven seasons, was less tactful.

“I covered the Kings full-time from 1987 to 1993,” said Graswich. “The coaches were Bill Russell, Jerry Reynolds, Dick Motta, Rex Hughes and Garry St. Jean. Russell and Motta were hired in the naive belief that a coaching legend can overcome a losing culture.

“Both insisted their gravitas and command over the roster would attract winners and inspire losers. The result was abject failure. The players—winners and losers alike—rebelled. Losses piled up, the legendary coaches got fired. Culture always prevails. Jerry [Reynolds] and Rex [Hughes] were placeholders. St. Jean bumbled along on the shoulders of Mitch Richmond.”

Why former role players tend to outperform ex-superstars as coaches is not an exact science. But Reynolds has a theory. Guys like Russell and Magic Johnson didn’t have the patience for players who couldn’t do what they did on the court. Coaches like Steve Kerr and Adelman, who weren’t All-Star players, tend to be more patient.

Gary Gerould, who began this season with a resume of announcing 2,611 Kings games, has observed the team’s coaching staff as intimately as anyone.

“I wholeheartedly believe coaches do have a pretty dramatic impact,” Gerould said. “Obviously in that 34 years, coaching has changed a lot. In the old days, it was ‘it’s my way or the highway.’ Now, in the last decade or so, [it’s] so much more a players’ type of league. You need a coach and a coaching staff that touch any number of bases. I think you have to be as much a psychologist as a technician.”

While Reynolds doesn’t necessarily want to see a return to the patrician days of lean coaching staffs, he also thinks there is such a thing as coach bloat, where some teams have one coach for every two players on the squad.

“I certainly don’t agree with the way we had it when I was in the league,” Reynolds said. “The Kings had one assistant coach, most teams had two. But I always remember reading a book by the great Bear Bryant (the Alabama football coach legend). A football coach is a little different, but he talked about the thing that changed for him was that near the end of his career, he said, ‘I don’t coach players anymore, I coach coaches.'”