George Karl is a great coach historically, a man who loves the game of basketball, a man who cares deeply about his family and a man who survived cancer twice. He's seen a lot and has been through a lot. When you talk to him you hear a calm and collected passion for being in the gym with his team and getting through the grind of an NBA season.
But there has been something off over Karl's time with the Sacramento Kings.
When he was hired last season with 30 games to go, many of his past issues - the reluctance to play young players, stubbornness with his rotations, clashes with star players - were ignored. Karl is going to be in the Hall of Fame some day and those type of pedigrees don't always walk through the door in Sacramento. He also had a reputation of turning teams around quickly. That hasn't been the case with the Kings.
The team's recent downward spiral to a 21-30 record and the reports of Karl's job being in jeopardy a calendar year since he was hired made me take a trip down memory lane to Karl's introductory press conference to examine his initial goals.
From this fateful day, when he was flanked by former Kings General Manager Pete D'Alessandro, who would be replaced by Vlade Divac not long after, here are the goals I gathered he set out to accomplish.
Make sure the team is connected and playing together. This has been a problem for a decade with the Kings, specifically not sharing the ball. This season has been unique in that the team is indeed sharing the ball, it is currently ranked in the top 5 in assists per game. The majority of those assists are coming from Rajon Rondo, however, and his effort hasn't seemed to inject a team-wide energy to move the ball around consistently. Karl's system of playing a quick, free-flowing, quick-decision, on-the-fly offense is ideal for Rondo and his stats, but doesn't work as well for some of the other guys on the team who maybe have less of a basketball IQ than Rondo and don't dominate the ball as much.
Win home games. The Kings are 13-13 at home this season, which .500 isn't awful but the teams they were in the hunt with for the 8th seed are taking care of their home court better. The Portland Trail Blazers are 15-11 at home and the Utah Jazz boast a 17-10 home record. It isn't just the record though, it is the losses that have come at Sleep Train Arena - the Timberwolves, 76ers, Pelicans and Hornets. The double-overtime loss to the Hornets seemed to send them into their current spiral of problems. Karl has been open about his frustration with the Kings being unable to win at home.
Win half of the remaining 30 games of the 2014-15 season. They went 11-19. It was a rough situation to enter, no doubt, but Karl admitted he was disappointed he couldn't get more out of the team by the end of the season.
Create the game from a defensive standpoint. Karl largely intends to create offense with defense. Well, the Kings are creating offense as they are ranked as the third-highest scoring team in the NBA at 107.1 points per game. You can say the Kings push the ball more in transition and some of those points are coming as a result of defense, but in large part, the defense has been a complete disaster. Missed threes from opponents would be a great opportunity for the Kings to score in transition, but the problem is their opponents are nailing their threes because the Kings do not cover them, or can't because they are spending so much energy on the offensive end trying to improvise. Plus, they are constantly switching on defense, which is easily detected and deconstructed by opponents. This is largely why the Kings are giving up 117 point per game over the last eight contests. It would appear they need to create defense with sound defense.
Re-energize the team. The team was in complete disarray when Karl came aboard, still reeling from the firing of Michael Malone. They needed a spark. They didn't really seem to get it. Part of that was admitted at the end of last season when Karl said he wished he could have got more out of them. But that was last season, surely a full training camp and a solid preseason would do the trick. Nope. Aside from a few weeks last month when the Kings looked like they were on their way after a five-game winning streak, the team has largely been an unmotivated group giving up 30-point or more first quarters as of late. When asked how to stop what is happening, many of the players don't have answers, resulting in a quick response of "I don't know."
Be fundamentally sound and stop beating themselves. The hope was that Karl's knowledge of the game and pedigree would result in this team being a smart decision-making basketball squad. That wasn't going to happen overnight, of course, but the thought was it should happen slowly. Well, late-game decision-making has continued to kill the Kings in close games. Turnovers, poor shot selections, a general sense of confusion and unnecessary fouls from the team's best players (DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay) - it's all been there.
So Karl hasn't exactly been able to meet the goals he set when he took over the Kings. He admitted he was going to be stubborn, which he has been with his rotations. He also showed his plans for Cousins early about expanding his game (even mentioning the three-point shot). Cousins has now shown he can hit the three-pointer. That challenge that Karl presented to Cousins may be frustrating to fans at times considering how dominant Boogie can be in the post, but he has been able to discover a new depth to his game thanks to his coach. So Karl should get some credit for that. The Kings are at the top of the league in pace, so Karl wanted to play quick and he got that. The problem is, it's not resulting in substantive results.
With the consistent inability of the players to get fired up for the first quarters of games with an 8th seed on the line should be a clear indication that something isn't connecting. Some of that is on the players, but the coaching staff should be able to figure a way out of it. While it looks bleak, Karl and his staff have a small window in which this can turn around, but it has to be quick and big changes to the mentality and schemes must take place before it's too late. The best situation right now would be for things to turn around with Karl.
Following the Kings latest loss to the Boston Celtics Sunday, Cousins said, "right now, whatever we're doing is not working," when asked about the slow starts to games.
After the same game Karl seemed to imply the latest skid isn't all that bad.
"We're in a losing mode, we're losing games, but our basketball has not been bad basketball, it's been not good enough to win basketball," Karl said.
The Kings are in a tailspin at the hands of some pretty bad defense. George Karl and his team have not met the goals needed to become a consistent winner and time is running out. It's time for the pathway to attain those original goals to be laid out and achieved.