On the rebound: Sacramento Kings season preview
New coach, new arena, new hopes: Can the team’s new guys change the Sacramento Kings culture?
Coach Dave Joerger stands at the center of a team huddle. From his perspective the crisp natural light of a mid-October afternoon in the new practice facility of the Golden 1 Center is obscured by a steeple built of tattooed arms over his head. He congratulates the team on a hard practice and calls up a cheer, a parting reminder of the unity he expects from his men.
He will do this after every practice because he wants the cheer embedded in their brains like an out-of-bounds play. The foundational message he is sending with it is meant to be one that will bind them together as media scrutiny circulates beyond the facility doors, as trade rumors whirlwind through the K Street corridor, as the outside world tempts players with demons.
“It's family on three,” he says. “One … two … three …”
Since his hiring, Coach Joerger has pushed two simple narratives: He intends to change the culture of the Sacramento Kings, and this team will play defense. These may seem like elementary initiatives for an NBA franchise, but when it comes to the Kings, molehills become Mount Everest. With zero winning seasons since 2006 and more embarrassing scandals than wins per season, Joerger is taxed with turning the laughingstock of the league into a franchise synonymous with royalty rather than jesters.
“Dealing with each other, speaking with each other and respecting each other is part of the culture we want to create,” Joerger says later, addressing reporters. “It's never about number of wins or if we want to get this or that. It's about the process with this team.”
The culture he’s trying to change looks like Dresden 1945 and mutiny on the HMS Bounty. The Kings have looked as ramshackle as the vacant warehouses and broken-promise development of downtown. Completion of the arena was done in record time, but the Golden 1 Center looks light-years ahead of its neighborhood. A catwalk from the former downtown mall remains exposed and disconnected to any future development. “For sale” signs that read “This property is a slam dunk” surround the state-of-the-art facility. And, like its surroundings, the team’s roster is still under construction. Potentially years away from bringing that Arco thunder to G1C on a nightly basis.
Tasked with the construction, the man in the hard hat is vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac. Divac hired Joerger, in part, because of his motivational abilities—not just on the defensive end, but in getting the most out of his players. And Divac has a pretty good joke on how much the improvement was needed.
The setup goes, “Last year there were two teams that were worse than us [on defense],” and the punchline: “The All-Stars East and West.”
With 11 new players at this year’s training camp, will good influences inform the culture, or did the front office hand out contracts to the toxic and unprofessional? Is Matt Barnes, one of the Kings’ latest acquisitions, the most underrated teammate in the NBA, or a journeyman hothead with a TMZ entourage ready to capture his off-court meltdowns? Did the Kings sign the fastest backcourt in the NBA, or a backcourt on the fast track to more suspensions? Are these accomplished veterans who will restore positive team culture, or is this a collection of league pariahs making Sacramento its Island of Misfit Toys?
For the third time since obtaining new ownership, the Kings find themselves at a drawing board with a fresh sheet of paper and a floor littered with crumbled failures that missed the wastebasket.Phase One: Honeymoon
It's media day at Golden 1 Center, and Darren Collison walks into the practice facility. Unlike his teammates he forgoes the various photo stations and proceeds directly to address the press. Perhaps it speaks to his character that he shows no reticence in facing a press circle that knows about his offseason troubles. In May Collison was arrested on charges of domestic violence at his home in Granite Bay. At the time, the league had not announced his penalty. Now, facing journalists, he's apologetic. He does not dodge or hesitate to express remorse and a readiness to move on. The 29-year-old looks rejuvenated, ready to restore his reputation.
“As a man you got to take responsibility,” he says.
Meanwhile, at a station behind Collison, forward Matt Barnes is all scowls for his player photos and all smiles for his interviews. When asked by a small grade-school interviewer standing on a wood crate if Barnes will be on Santa’s naughty or nice list, he replies with “nice list.” Considering he’s yet to drive 95 miles to beat anyone’s ass in 2016—which is the backstory to Barnes’ assault of former NBA player and teammate Derek Fisher last year—the nice list is still a possibility. The incident occurred in October 2015 after Barnes received a call from his twin sons who informed the 6-foot, 7-inch forward that Fisher was at the house of his estranged wife and Basketball Wives LA star Gloria Govan. Barnes left the Memphis Grizzlies training camp to settle a score. Fisher took a few nicks in the altercation, but ultimately filed no charges against Barnes.
Barnes’ Sacramento ties run deep—the Del Campo High School graduate played for the Kings during the 2004-2005 season—and the now 36-year-old veteran player is frank about his past. When used for good he becomes a living cautionary tale in the locker adjacent to impressionable young players.
“I’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff off the court, but I’m able to maintain my focus and still play,” he says. “Hopefully that will carry over into helping some of these guys who are going through stuff off the court stay focused.”
The yin to Barnes’ TMZ yang is his unanimous praise around the league that he gets as a brotherly presence in the locker room. He played for Joerger last season in Memphis. He knows the system and can speed up the learning curve.
Adding depth and experience isn’t simple arithmetic. The offseason signings aren’t the type to generate high expectations of instant turnaround. An announcement that the team had signed Anthony Tolliver didn’t carry the same league-busting coup d’etat of Kevin Durant joining forces with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Even the team’s biggest acquisition in Barnes amounts to one less pesky defender trying to hack DeMarcus Cousins into losing his cool.
Where Divac possibly excelled in his selections is signing a professional grade supporting cast in Tolliver, Arron Afflalo and Garrett Temple. Like Barnes, these guys have journeyed the league, experienced the D-League and rode many benches. But they found their roles through patience and perseverance instead of stat lines—vital intel for the existing infrastructure of rookies and young players. Last year Tolliver and Temple won “Teammate of the Year” honors for their respective teams (Tolliver in Detroit, Temple in Washington) in the 2016 Players Voice Awards presented by the National Basketball Players Association.
In a post-practice interview, Temple said it was his father’s influence that instilled humbleness and humility, key elements to being a good glue guy. He learned to be an unselfish player and do the work at the age of 13 and never lost it through college at Louisiana State University and into his professional career.
“I was a guy who was cool with being under the radar,” says Temple, who in 2010 had a brief 10-day contract with the Kings. “I played the most minutes in LSU history, but I was always the glue type of guy. I relish in that role. I don’t need any fanfare.”
When Trump was making headlines by dismissing his proclivity to sexually assault attractive women as “locker room talk,” Temple sent a record-straightening tweet about his professional experience. “Just to be clear!!! I’ve been in more than 1,000 locker rooms throughout my sports career. What Trump said is NOT locker room talk.”
Tolliver’s perfect seven-for-seven outing in 3-pointers in a preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers is a positive sign, even if the Lakers are one of the few franchises predestined to be worse than the Kings this year. After a practice a few days prior to the Lakers game, Tolliver said he chose Sacramento because he saw his niche as a competitive piece, rather than a veteran mentor.
“Part of the reason why I’m here instead of Detroit is they felt like I had a role on that team. They wanted to bring me back as a locker room guy,” he says. “I’m not in that position yet. Maybe after a few more miles on my body, but right now I can still compete to help teams win games.”Phase Two: Negotiation
Rudy Gay is not honeymooning. In September, apropos of nothing, the 10-year veteran informed the front office he's planning to exercise the opt-out option of his contract next summer to become an unrestricted free agent. In a summer during which the front office achieved mostly favorable grades in its signings and managed to quell any rumors of player mutiny ("player” being important) over the new direction, Gay's announcement is alarming.
Players don’t do this, ever.
Gay says he announced it as a formality, not as a surprise. It echoes his July comments in an interview with Sactown Royalty that the inconsistency of the culture is wearing on the veteran. He’s yet to publicly reassess the front office. The player expressed concern over the perpetual resets as lacking sensitivity towards the players’ futures.
The aftermath has been lots and lots of underplaying the significance, both by Gay and the franchise. In a USA Today interview, Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé confirmed Gay’s unhappiness, but commended his professionalism to play through the uncertainty. Gay played for Joerger in Memphis, who was an assistant coach in the 2007-2008 season. Given his prior experience and Joerger’s ability to consistently take the Grizzlies to the playoffs, even with last year’s severely debilitated roster, there should be a vote of confidence. But an unnamed league source cited in an article in The Vertical says Gay is opting out due to his “lack of faith in ownership’s ability to create a sustainable, winning environment.”
After all the jerking around, Gay can hardly be blamed for tiring of it. When he signed his three-year, $40 million extension in 2014, the team showed promise with then-coach Michael Malone. He joined up with the Kings in November; at the time he was averaging a career-high 22.5 points and the team was 6-3. Gay took the bait, and the year and half that followed was the “switch.”
Combine that with perpetual rumors the Kings have him on the trading block, the latest looking like a swap to the Miami Heat for point guard Goran Dragic, and his early formal announcement speaks to his professionalism and levelheadedness, rather than as a frustrated ploy. Simply put: Three coaches in three years is far from ideal in establishing a winning culture.
“I’m not gonna say it’s easy,” Gay says. “It’s tough. Every year is a new system, new personality.”
Now, the heat is on. The end of the wick on Cousins’ four-year contract extension he signed in 2013 is in sight. With two years remaining until Boogie becomes an unrestricted free agent, the Kings will have to do more than give him the best parking spot beneath the Golden 1 Center. When three years of new ownership amounts to this much turmoil and a caustic environment, players will shed the polite rah-rah like a sweaty jersey into the hamper and start pressuring for a trade. Suddenly they’ve got good friends in the league sending friendly tweets to beckon them to other cities where ownership is more hands off and the playoffs aren’t wishful thinking but a promise.
For now, Cousins looks to be on board.
“We added some toughness, some grittiness, which is something we needed,” he says. “We’ve been a defensive-minded team before, and I think that was one of our better teams.”
Over the past few seasons there’s been a multitude of suspensions, in-house power struggles and firings. Rumors infiltrated the press in February that minority owners wanted to leave Ranadivé at sea in a jolly boat. He maintains it’s hearsay. Last year’s big meltdown included a star-studded locker room argument as Drake visited the tense aftermath. It resulted in a “players only” meeting, and so began the hourglass on George Karl’s tenure. Between Karl and Malone, the Kings paid nearly $20 million to fire Cousins’ favorite coach and hire his most-loathed coach. Homeostasis with the Kings has been its bright burning chaos in the kingdom.
Having your all-star big man become an Olympic gold medalist can be both a gift and a curse. Cousins achieved a goal and brings that winning spirit and pride to this franchise, but he also spent a month bonding with teammates like Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving—all of whom could try to coax him away to the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, Divac is active in his pursuit to right the ship. The hiring of a coach who could become Cousins’ new favorite captain shows promise, but plenty of question marks linger around the point guard position. When it came to placing a timeline of turning the franchise around, Coach Joerger isn’t selling wolf tickets. Which is to say, his ambition is reasonable but skews dangerously close to Cousins’ free agency.
“It’s going to take a while,” he said in the press room after a tough preseason loss to the Clippers. When asked to clarify, he said, “a year and a half.”
Only time, of course, will tell.Phase Three: Adjustment and adaptation
There was little concern of reporters vying for one-on-one aside time with guard Jordan Farmar at media day. The 6-foot, 2-inch veteran guard had kept afloat professionally with short stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers before spending the past two years playing in Turkey and Israel. He caught a break last year to return to the NBA on a 10-day contract with the battered Grizzlies, who extended his contract to finish the season. His invitation to the Kings training camp was seen as provisional. His familiarity with Joerger's system would be useful to training camp, but unless the NBA was merciless in suspending Collison or Ty Lawson screwed up, it was understood Farmar would not make the 15-man roster. These were the predetermined paths and factored into a disinterest in media day interviews.
Fast-forward a month later to a Las Vegas nightclub and a cellphone video taken by professional boxer Adrien Broner that shows Lawson, along with teammates Ben McLemore and Willie Cauley-Stein, having a good time. Viewers never see a drink in Lawson’s hand, but the next day the troubled point guard misses a team flight to an upcoming game and Farmar suddenly seems vital to the Kings’ future at least briefly; ultimately the player will be waived just days before the seasons’s start.
So it goes with the point guard woes in Sacramento. The last All-Star-caliber point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was shipped to the Phoenix Suns in July 2014. Collison was brought in to what felt like a placeholder starting role until a true starter could be signed. He maintained the position a full season until a year later when the Kings signed Rajon Rondo.
Rondo’s one-year deal of padding his stat line meant greener pastures for the point guard this summer. He joined Dwyane Wade in rebuilding the Chicago Bulls. With Collison suspended the first eight games, the Kings had to sign a point guard in the offseason. By August the Kings hadn’t drafted any point guards and then rescinded a qualifying offer to Seth Curry, who, despite uneven playing time, proved to be a compelling point guard. Curry eventually signed with the Dallas Mavericks. In late August the Kings announced a one-year deal worth $1.8 million to Lawson.
Talking to reporters, Lawson was frank about the toll of the past year, which included being charged with his third and fourth DUI, the Houston Rockets buying out his contract, and the Indiana Pacers signing but not renewing him to close the season. Lawson says he’s seeking a comeback.
“[My] confidence is gone,” he says. “I’d look back at my old tapes to see that I really did this. It’s not a fluke. I’m trying to get back to that.”
Early reports that Lawson, 28, has lost a step are silenced, however, when he takes the floor in the preseason. The narrative shifts once reporters witness a hyperactive backcourt pairing of Lawson and Collison, picking up on defense full court, quickening the offensive pace and creating opportunities for their teammates. Of course, that excitement stalls once that TMZ video and missed flight report circulate.
At practice the next Monday, there’s more media bodies and cameras than usual. For the first time Coach gets defensive towards the line of questioning regarding Lawson’s “personal reasons” for being late to a shootaround, missing a team flight and if he will be reprimanded or fined.
“Ty’s fine,” Joerger says. “Ty had a personal issue and that stuff is nonbasketball related. I think it’s been very inaccurately reported. I know what happened for real and it’s just a personal issue.”
By the fifth time of reiterating the personal nature of Lawson’s absence, the coach for a moment unintentionally invokes Allen Iverson’s famous “We talkin’ ’bout practice?” rant, saying “We’re talking about a guy being late for a shootaround? Is that what we’re talking about?”
Historically, Sacramento is where misfit players redeem themselves. Chris Webber’s jersey is in the rafters now, but before arriving here he was better known for his rap sheet. Smuggling marijuana into the United States from Puerto Rico, arrests for assault, resisting arrest and driving under the influence of marijuana. He had his demons.
Lawson and Barnes could be this era’s redemption tales. But the question becomes: Is Sacramento still a good place, a nurturing culture for a player reset?
Tolliver says the low expectations set by the media and outside world is countered by high expectations internally. The team comprises “a lot of hungry guys.”
“A lot of guys who’ve been written off. Guys who maybe weren’t as valued on other teams that are wanting to come here to make something of it.”
Over and over the coach, the players and even Divac say one phrase, “Get everybody on the same page.” It’s not as simple as a teacher instructing the class to turn to page 68 of their textbook. The same page means groupthink, gelling and a common goal. It’s expressed through unselfish play, through help defense and camaraderie in the locker room. The same page looks like zero loose cannon statements to the press and adhering to the ritual of being on time. Joerger breaks it down to aspects as simple as how to get from the locker room to the court in the new facility and knowing when, where and how to be there on time. The Monday following the Lawson news, Joerger appeared to be more interested in discussing the positives of playing in Vegas and at Rupp Arena in Kentucky.
“We had a tremendous trip,” he says. “It was the first time together. The bus rides were fun, the hotel was fun, the flights were fun. Guys caring about each other and getting along pretty good. There’s a little bit of a honeymoon always every year. Hopefully you’ll find out what that’s about when you get dinged two or three times in a row.”
The same page is breaking old habits to form new ones. Second-year player Cauley-Stein invokes the saying that it takes 77 repetitions of a good habit to shed a bad one. For McLemore, who’s in a contract year, the same page is no longer striving for “Most Improved Player” honors like last season, but rather rekindling his confidence. This summer he worked on his confidence. Not his jumper, not his defense or his ball handling, but his capability to believe in himself.
Joerger’s cultural shift suggests he’ll leave no man behind. He makes encouraging statements to the press that McLemore will be rewarded for good defense and shouldn’t worry about one mistake affecting his role. After defending Lawson and once the recorders are off, he remains by the press and levels with the reporters about his responsibility. Before long, it’s all jokes with Coach.
He seems aware that a new arena doesn’t fix anything, much like being the new coach isn’t enough to instill a winning culture. Joerger never mentions the playoffs or expectations on getting 40 wins. He knows that’s old hat in this city. His foundation remains building a family that’s on the same page.
“Deeper thinking as far as what is it going to be three years from now,” Coach says. “Those who have stood here before [us] have looked at it that way, too.”
He pauses and laughs.
“But that’s how I’m looking at it.”