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The Kings Just Fired Their Coach. In Vlade We Trust?

Dave Joerger, fresh off leading Sacramento to its most successful season in a decade, has been canned. In any other year, this would be an instant indictment of the franchise. But given the way the team is trending, maybe the Kings finally have a method to their madness.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Kings general manager Vlade Divac has earned at least a little benefit of the doubt. That’s the one thing that I, a Sacramento diehard, am clinging to after the news that the team fired head coach Dave Joerger on Thursday. It’s not like the Kings fan base should hand Vlade a blank check, mind you, but not every decision by the franchise can be viewed through the same old Kangz-gonna-Kangz prism anymore. Think about some of the major moves during Divac’s tenure with the team:

  • June 2015: Selected Willie Cauley-Stein with the sixth pick of the 2015 NBA draft.
  • July 2015: Traded Nik Stauskas, two first-round pick swaps, and an unprotected 2019 first-rounder to the Sixers for essentially nothing but cap space that was used to sign Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos, and Marco Belinelli.
  • April 2016: Fired head coach George Karl.
  • May 2016: Hired Joerger.
  • June 2016: Acquired Georgios Papagiannis with the 13th pick of the 2016 NBA draft after trading back from the eighth pick.
  • February 2017: Traded DeMarcus Cousins (among others) to the Pelicans for Buddy Hield and a first-round pick that became the 10th overall selection in the upcoming draft.
  • June 2017: Selected De’Aaron Fox with the fifth pick of the 2017 NBA draft.
  • June 2018: Selected Marvin Bagley III with the second pick of the 2018 NBA draft.
  • February 2019: Traded Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph to the Mavericks for Harrison Barnes.

And finally, today:

  • April 2019: Fired Joerger.

Most of these decisions were seen as catastrophes at the time, but have yielded more good than bad. Cauley-Stein may not earn a second contract with the team, but not one player selected after him in the 2015 draft has made an All-Star team. Karl’s tenure was toxic, and it was time for a change when he was let go. Papagiannis was a bust, but the trade-back netted the team Bodgan Bogdanovic, a former EuroLeague MVP who is better than virtually any player the Kings could have gotten in the mid-to-late lottery in 2016. The Cousins trade has been nothing but a win: Hield played at a near-All-Star level this season, and Harry Giles (one of the players Sacramento selected after trading away the pick it received from the Pelicans for two first-rounders) looks like part of the team’s future frontcourt. Fox is a star in the making. And while passing on Luka Doncic still pains me, Bagley has exceeded expectations as a rookie and has sky-high potential. When you zoom out enough, it’s clear the franchise is still headed in the right direction.

All of which is to say that firing Joerger doesn’t mean the sky is falling just yet. Sure, he was great this season: He led the team to a 39-43 record, its best season since 2005-06 (just typing that made me sad). He built a breakneck offense around Fox and let Sacramento’s young core—including Hield, Bagley, and Giles—develop. The team outperformed its preseason Vegas win total to a greater degree than any other team and blew past Divac’s own expected 29-53 record. For a little while there, the Kings were in playoff contention before a post-All-Star break collapse.

But we have little idea what else was going on. For instance: Just how bad was Joerger’s relationship with the front office? This season there were reports of tension between the two parties, at times including players, and it’s worth noting that Joerger’s breakup with the Grizzlies was similarly messy. To be clear: I wouldn’t have fired Joerger, but it’s hard to gauge exactly how much coaching even matters in the NBA—just look at the list of past Coach of the Year winners and scratch your head.

This fan base still has flashbacks to when the team inexplicably fired Mike Malone after a promising 11-13 start in 2014. That was peak Kangz gonna Kangz. It’s worth remembering now, as the franchise fires another coach after a promising performance, that Divac wasn’t with the team when Malone was let go. These firings aren’t two sides of the same coin; they need to be examined separately.

The only way to view Vivek Ranadivé’s ownership of the team—which began in 2013—is by acknowledging a pre-Divac and post-Divac divide. Before Divac, sure, the Kings Kangz-ed about as hard as possible (I’d rather eat glass than go back to the Karl-D’Alessandro era). But since then, Sacramento has made counterintuitive moves—like trading Boogie, drafting Papagiannis, and taking Bagley over Doncic—to build their team of the future. The big difference is that in the Divac era these decisions have worked because the pieces have been complementary.

When Divac traded Boogie, he promised that he’d step down if the team weren’t in a better position in two years. Here we are, a little over two years later, and the team is certainly in a better place. In fact, it’s the best position for the franchise in at least a decade. Not a high bar, sure, but not bad work, either.

Divac got a four-year extension today, and he’s clearly comfortable being in the driver’s seat now. In addition to Joerger, assistant general manager Brandon Williams—who had previously feuded with the head coach—is out. So is media relations director Chris Clark, who’d been with the team since 1999. It’s a full house cleaning.

Who will come after Joerger? Early reports leave us with a few names: Luke Walton, Monty Williams, and Ettore Messina. Perhaps in two more years we’ll look at one of these guys and realize that another one of Divac’s big moves worked out. Or perhaps we’ll be back in a similar mess. Upheaval can sometimes breed more upheaval. Divac may have given the team a bright future, but he hasn’t exactly proved he can create a stable one.

Maybe I sound like the “this is fine” dog, but the house Vlade has built isn’t on fire—at least, not yet. Overall, Divac is redefining what Kangz gonna Kangz means: A franchise that once made bold and idiotic moves now makes bold and at least kinda decent ones. Kings fans no longer have to assume that Joerger’s firing will fall into the former category. No one knows what it means for the future of the team, but for the first time in a really long time, it doesn’t have to immediately be considered an indictment of the franchise.