Within a few moments of the announcement that Vlade Divac was firing Dave Joerger on Wednesday morning, several highly respected members of the national media released the names of three potential candidates to replace Joerger. Luke Walton, Ettore Messina, and Monty Williams were all mentioned as legitimate options, with Sam Amick going as far as designating Walton as the clear front runner in the race.
Each member of Vlade Divac’s short-list features different strengths and weaknesses, and Sacramento’s Front Office must determine which coach most closely matches their philosophy of ball movement, pace, clear defensive identity, and solid relationship building with the young core.
Professional Experience: Head Coach Virtus Bologna (1989 – 1993, 1997 - 2002) Head Coach Italian Men’s National Team (1993 – 1997, 2015 - 2017), Head Coach Benetton Treviso (2002 – 2005), Head Coach CSKA Moscow (2005 – 2009, 2012 - 2014), Head Coach Real Madrid (2009 – 2011), Coaching Consultant Los Angeles Lakers (2011 – 2012), Assistant Coach San Antonio Spurs (2014 – present)
If Vlade Divac chooses to prioritize vast levels of experience and success across multiple basketball platforms, Ettore Messina may very well be the next leader of the Sacramento Kings. He coached for 17 years in the Euroleague, winning four titles during that span, and posted a career record of 279-98. Messina was also trusted with the performance of the Italian Men’s National team from 1993 to 1997 and again from 2015 to 2017, and he was elected to the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Ettore’s NBA career hasn’t been as nearly as long, but it has been productive. He first dipped his toes into the league in 2011 when Mitch Kupchak hired the veteran strategist as a coaching assistant for Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Mike Brown. Messina was rumored as a strong candidate for multiple open coaching positions the following summer, but he elected to return to the Euroleague and joined CSKA Moscow for his second stint. In 2014, Greg Popovich recruited the Italian legend to join him as an assistant coach, and he’s remained in that role over the last five years.
Messina’s coaching philosophy is a bit hard to interpret. During his head coaching days in Europe, his teams featured a slow, post-heavy offense that relied on excellent half-court execution, but that strategy may not reflect his current stance in the free flowing world of the modern NBA. Ettore’s own words may shed some light on how he would operate at the helm of the Kings, and why teams can change their identity if necessary: “Our players must be able to read the defensive behavior of their opponents. Any offense can be original, but if the player on offense is not able to understand what the defense does, he loses effectiveness and our offense slows down.”
Ettore also transformed most of his teams into defensive menaces; however, zone defense is the primary tool used across the pond, while American teams must rely almost exclusively on man-to-man coverage. Messina’s lack of tenure as an NBA Head Coach creates a bit of mystery in how he would actually handle a roster like Sacramento’s.
One definite advantage for the season coach is his willingness to question any status quo. In an 2018 interview with Morning Future, Ettore discussed his early impact on the Spurs organization. “I tried to bring my doubts with me. This is a huge club, it struggles to question itself. So I tried going, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we try that?’ Of 10 suggestions, nine would be brushed aside. But one in every 10 they would take.” That attitude would mesh extremely well with the philosophy and passions of Kings controlling owner Vivek Ranadive.
Ettore Messina represents an experienced international head coach who has been molded under the Greg Popovich coaching tree for the last half-decade. Convincing Vlade Divac and the rest of the front office that his antiquated offensive game plans were exclusive to the European game would go a long way toward his hiring as the upgrade from Dave Joerger.
Professional Experience: Assistant Coach Portland Trail Blazers (2005 – 2010), Head Coach New Orleans Pelicans (2010 – 2015), Associate Head Coach Oklahoma City Thunder (2015 – 2016), Vice President of Basketball Operations San Antonio Spurs (2016 – 2018), Lead Assistant Coach Philadelphia 76ers (2018 – present)
Similar to Ettore Messina, Monty Williams has established deep connections with the gold standard San Antonio Spurs. He began his coaching career under Greg Popvich as a coaching staff intern in 2005, the same year in which the Spurs defeated the Detroit Pistons for the NBA Title. After just one season down south, Williams was brought onto the staff of the Portland Trail Blazers as an assistant coach under the newly hired Nat McMillan. The Blazers made the playoffs in two of the five years during Monty’s stint as an assistant, and he was hired as the Head Coach of the New Orleans Hornets following the 2009-2010 campaign.
New Orleans managed to reach the playoffs in Monty’s first season as the man holding the clipboard, but the next three years were miserable for the Hornets, as they won just 82 of their next 264 games. Williams did return to the postseason in 2015, but the Pelicans were swept by the Warriors, and he was replaced by Alvin Gentry. He joined the Oklahoma City Thunder as an Associate Head Coach the following summer, but tragically lost his wife in a car accident in February of 2016, and he stepped away from the Thunder for the rest of the season.
Monty pivoted slightly in September of 2016, returning to the Spurs as their Vice President of Basketball Operations, making him the only named candidate to have both front office and coaching experience. He remained in that role until this past summer, in which he moved to the Philadelphia 76ers as the Lead Assistant Coach under Brett Brown.
Monty Williams is a man of strong faith who is known as a player’s coach, but his skills as a strategist were subpar in his time as the Head Coach of the Hornets. His team never finished higher than 20th in pace, and New Orleans finished in the bottom-two in possessions per game in three of his five seasons in the Big Easy. With De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley leading the charge, it’s imperative that the Kings focus on transition buckets, while also establishing a sensible half-court offense.
Williams represents the antithesis of Dave Joerger’s grating personality, and he’s been loved by personnel wherever he’s landed, but his abilities as an in-game commander remain questionable. Vlade Divac would be betting on Monty’s development as an X’s and O’s leader, as well as Peja Stojakovic’s endorsement as his former player, if he were to bring him in as the next Head Coach of the Kings.
Professional Experience: Player Development Coach Los Angeles D-Fenders (2013 -2014), Assistant Coach Golden State Warriors (2014 – 2016) Head Coach Los Angeles Lakers (2016 – 2019)
Luke Walton represents both the youngest and the least experienced member of Vlade Divac’s list of sought after candidates, retiring from the league just six years ago. Walton’s was a well-respected role-player in Los Angeles for the majority of his career, winning two championships while donning the purple and gold, and he was immediately recruited to join the ranks of the Lakers NBA Development staff following his final game as an on-court contributor.
Walton’s head coaching career has played out in three parts with three divergent results. His first opportunity came in the summer of 2015, when Steve Kerr announced his indefinite departure due to lingering back issues. The 35-year old Walton was entrusted with the championship caliber Warriors squad, a team that included Harrison Barnes, and he led them to the best start in league history at 24 wins and 0 losses, and finished with an astounding record of 39-4. At the end of the season, Steve Kerr was awarded the honor of NBA Coach of the Year, despite Walton actually coaching a higher number of regular season games.
Luke’s second era began when he was charged with the turnaround of his former team in 2016. In the year prior to Walton’s hiring, the floundering Lakers sported a record of just 17-65, and the former player was able to increase Los Angeles’ win total to 26 games in the 2016-2017 season and again during the 2017-2018 season to 35 wins. That kind of jump without the addition of any star players is almost unprecedented, as the Lakers more than doubled their winning percentage in only two years.
One concern has persisted throughout Walton’s tenure, despite the increase in overall wins, as several of the Lakers former lottery picks have thrived outside of the City of Angels. D’Angelo has found his rhythm with the Brooklyn Nets and was named an All-Star this past year, while Julius Randle, who was miscast and misused under Luke’s tutelage, has performed extremely well in New Orleans. Of the players still remaining in Los Angeles, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have both stalled a bit in their development. It is impossible to decipher if those contributors have been underdeveloped by Walton, or if the instability and insanity that has been the Lakers stunted their maturation.
Walton’s third act was one of disappointment, as even the addition of LeBron James couldn’t push the Lakers into the postseason. The roster was poorly assembled and several key players suffered significant injuries during the season, and Walton’s impact on the roster appeared to be minimal at best. Similar to his half-season in Golden State, the talent level and organizational stability around Walton were likely a far greater impact on the team’s performance than Luke’s coaching skillset or leadership abilities.
From a strategic standpoint, Walton’s on-court philosophies align more closely with Vlade Divac’s broadcasted desires than either of the two more experienced contenders. In 2017, the Lakers finished with the fifth-fastest pace, in 2018 they finished with the third-fastest pace, and they ended 2019 at the fourth-fastest clip. Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles has also finished in the top-four in transition frequency over the last two seasons. Walton places an extremely high emphasis on his squad getting up and down the floor as quickly and as often as possible.
Luke has also enhances his team’s defensive reputation over the last couple of seasons, an area of focus the young Kings desperately need. Walton’s first year in charge was downright ugly, as the Lakers finished with the worst defensive rating in the league, the same spot they landed in the year prior to his hiring, but the last two years have featured a significant turnaround. He led a young roster to the 13th best defensive rating in 2017-2018 and continued that trend this past season, also ranking 13th. He’s demonstrated the ability to build a sound defensive game plan through several adverse circumstances.
Luke Walton’s coaching journey has been incredibly unique. Golden State’s historical success under his leadership cannot be ignored, but also cannot be entirely credited to his ingenuity: a winning system and roster was already in place. Conversely, the Lakers collapse in 2019 had more to do with LeBron James’ injury and Rob Pelinka’s laughable offseason than any major failings from Luke. The most accurate evaluation of Walton’s coaching prowess likely stems from his two non-LeBron year in Los Angeles, and he showed a knack for increasing winning percentages and playing faster than the collapse of a pyramid scheme from an old high-school acquaintance, while also focusing on the defensive end of the court. His biggest detractor is the lack of demonstrable growth from several young players under his guidance, and the young coach will have to convince Vlade Divac that he possesses the finesse to excel in that role.
Looking beyond personal opinions on any individual candidate, Kings fans should take heart in the quality of names currently connected in Vlade Divac’s coaching search. Ettore Messina serves as the pedigreed, world-wise choice, Monty Williams represents a well-liked player’s coach who has learned under some of the best in the game, and Luke Walton portrays the youthful, up-and-coming option who can connect and grow alongside this young core. Vlade Divac’s decision to terminate Dave Joerger was met with justifiable skepticism, but landing any one of these accomplished candidates would help to instill another level of trust in Sacramento’s newly extended General Manager.