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Last Cigarette: Vlade Divac Steps Down as Kings GM

Sacramento may not have Luka, but at least it doesn’t have Vlade anymore, either

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kings fans know well what general manager and vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac said in February 2017. Just days after trading All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, Divac promised he had a plan. And if his plan didn’t work, he’d take responsibility.

“I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years,” Divac told Sacramento Bee columnist Ailene Voisin. “I want to hear again from these same people in two years. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”

Though it’s been three and a half years, not two, Divac is essentially keeping his word. The Kings general manager, who first joined the team’s front office in March 2015 and earned the GM role that August, stepped down Friday. Special adviser Joe Dumars will take over on an interim basis.

This move was not expected. In April 2019, the team appeared married to Divac for the long term. That month, the franchise fired head coach Dave Joerger, hired Luke Walton, and awarded Divac a four-year extension. Walton’s deal was also for four years, matching GM and head coach to contractual timelines in a move to create a new, coherent era of Kings basketball. Curiously, Walton will not be following Divac out the door. The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported that the head coach’s job is safe. Though NBC Sports’ James Ham reported the next GM could change that.

Divac was an off-the-wall hire back in 2015. Owner Vivek Ranadivé brought the former Kings legend back to Sacramento as the team’s vice president of basketball operations, in what looked like a move to connect the current administration to the franchise’s glory years (around the same time, Peja Stojakovic also earned a front office role). Speculation grew that Divac was supplanting then-GM Pete D’Alessandro, something that was all but confirmed when D’Alessandro left the team in June 2015, just weeks before that year’s NBA draft. Divac was officially promoted to the GM role just a couple of months later.

Out of that chaos came an administration that appeared unpolished. In June 2018, Divac said the Kings were “a superteam, just young.” Also in 2018, the Kings’ Twitter account posted a photo of Divac that showed the team’s draft board in the background. In December of that year, Divac admitted that he “didn’t know” how the salary cap worked when he came to the Kings’ front office.

Predictably, the results were mixed—at best. His first big move as GM, a 2015 salary cap dump that cost the Kings Nik Stauskas and a future first-round pick, is one of the most chaotically aggressive moves in recent NBA history. The team used that money they saved from the trade on an uninspiring core of Rajon Rondo, Kosta Koufos, and Marco Belinelli, and Sacramento improved its win total by a whopping four wins. Divac drafted Georgios Papagiannis, an obscure overseas player who was virtually unheard of before the selection, with the 13th pick in the 2016 draft. He played 38 games with the franchise over a season and a half, and was out of the NBA shortly thereafter. Divac handed big contracts to players like George Hill, Zach Randolph, Dewayne Dedmon, and Harrison Barnes. And he fired Joerger after the coach put together a 39-43 record in 2018-19, the best season the team has had since 2005-06.

All of this surely contributed to Divac wearing out his welcome with the franchise. But his real legacy as Sacramento’s GM will be, of course, the selection of Marvin Bagley III in the 2018 draft. Kings fans were desperate for Luka Doncic, and draft experts had Doncic pegged as a surefire star. It remains inexplicable that three teams passed on him, but at least the Suns and Hawks have solid young cornerstones in Deandre Ayton and Trae Young, respectively. Bagley has played just 75 games with the team in two seasons, and hasn’t been terribly effective when he has been on the floor. Doncic is an All-Star who will soon be competing for MVP trophies, if not Finals trophies. The Kings could have had the bright future the Mavericks now possess, but they passed. It’s the modern-day Sam Bowie selection, a decision so disastrous that it will haunt the franchise for decades. Divac is beloved in Sacramento from his playing days, but there was no escaping that mistake.

Divac does deserve some credit over his tenure. Technically, the team is better now than it was when Divac traded Cousins. When the Kings made that deal, the team was 24-33, a win percentage of .421. They finished the 2019-20 season with a win percentage of .431. If you squint, it almost looks like progress. Trading Cousins away worked out for the franchise, as Buddy Hield—the main player the team got in exchange—developed into a solid player in Sacramento (though it’s looking less likely that Hield wants to stick with the franchise long term). In 2017, Divac drafted De’Aaron Fox, who is easily the best player the Kings have had since Cousins—and has potential to be even better. Divac also brought Bogdan Bogdanovic to town in a shrewd 2016 trade with the Suns.

But the blunders have outweighed the brief moments of competence. Divac promised that he would do things his way, and if they didn’t work, he’d go down. The timeline wasn’t exactly right, but in the end that’s what happened.