On April 15th, 2019, Vlade Divac introduced Luke Walton as the new head coach of the Sacramento Kings. It was a somewhat controversial hiring process — Dave Joerger had just led the Kings to their best season in over a decade (39-43) where he was at least on the outskirts of the Coach of the Year conversation. We spent so much time during the year talking about a potential contract extension that firing Joerger after what the Kings had just accomplished seemed Kangzy in a way we thought the organization was beginning to separate itself from.
To Vlade Divac and the Kings’ credit, they did an OK job selling us, both directly and indirectly through leaks and reports, on why Dave Joerger needed to go and why Luke Walton was the right coach moving forward.
You’ve heard the talking points already, but to recap — Luke Walton and Vlade Divac have a great relationship. Dave Joerger and the also-fired former assistant general manager Brandon Williams famously fought all year. Williams was the (likely) source of a wild report by Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that made the feud public, and Divac wanted to remove all the drama, regardless of who was at fault.
And to be fair, Joerger wasn’t perfect. The Kings had a miniature collapse down the stretch and fell way out of playoff contention after competing for the 8th seed for months. I’d blame the success of the Clippers more than the failure of the Kings, personally, but Divac genuinely thought the Kings could be better than they were. We can argue over how realistic those expectations are, but it was Vlade’s decision to make, and he made it.
Regardless of how we got here, when you fire a reasonably successful head coach that already has your team trending in the right direction, the guy you replace him with has to be better. Will Luke Walton be a better head coach for this team than Dave Joerger was? That is really the question here.
That’s what Vlade Divac is expecting, and he made it very clear. In Luke Walton’s introductory press conference, Divac said on multiple occasions that the move from Joerger to Walton was to take this team to the next level.
“We are so excited, knowing Luke for a long time. It’s a same soul about basketball. We understand each other very well and I’m excited that we’re going to build this team together, and go to the next level.”
”It starts from the numbers [record] we always want to be better. So we try to create here a winning culture that is going to take us to the next level.”
What is the next level when the previous level was 39-43, 9th in the Western Conference playoff race? That sounds like playoffs to me, but the Western Conference is tough. The Clippers were 7 games over .500 (48-34) and only landed the 8-seed.
I’m not even sure what level of success the Kings need to have this season in order for me to view Divac’s decision to fire Joerger and hire Walton as the correct maneuver. That line of success will likely shift as the season progresses. If they win 45 games and miss the playoffs, is that good enough? Is that next level enough? Do they have to make the playoffs?
I don’t know the answer to those questions yet. What I do know is that the pressure is on for everyone involved. Luke Walton needs to prove that he’s better than his tenure with the Lakers would have you believe, and Vlade Divac needs to prove that he made the right decision when he fired Dave Joerger and hired his good friend Luke Walton.