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Different isn’t always best

Unrelenting contrarianism is ruining the Sacramento Kings

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

When Vivek Ranadivé purchased the Sacramento Kings in 2013, he promised to do things differently. And in some ways, his game plan of never following the status quo has been wildly successful. First and foremost was Vivek’s acquisition of a franchise that he had no relation to, in a city in which he had never resided, not exactly the typical whale sought for in the sale of an NBA team. That decision to enter the fray against the Maloofs, Steve Ballmer, and Chris Hansen not only saved the team, it also led to a brand new, world class arena, a revived downtown Sacramento community, and hundreds of jobs being added to the economy.

However, even outside the cause-and-effect bounds of buying the team and building the Golden 1 Center, they have been highly involved and highly successful in not only their business operations, but also in assisting the local community, at a far greater and deeper level than the simple photo ops that most organizations gravitate toward. Perhaps most impressive among a string of impressive contributions was the team’s handling of the Stephon Clark tragedy, in which Vivek Ranadivé voluntarily took the mic to support the right of peaceful protesting, despite the effect it had on his business, and offered refunds to anyone impacted by the demonstrations. Shortly thereafter, Ranadivé hosted a forum with members of the community to discuss inner-city policing, economic issues, and a host of other topics. The Kings Foundation also started an educational fund for Clark’s children, donated $50,000 to local community groups, and partnered with Build. Black. Coalition to host additional forums, educational events, workshops, and leadership academies for the struggling youth in the city. These were not the actions of a typical basketball organization.

While those efforts cannot be praised highly enough, and frankly carry much more significance than a ball going through a net or a team hoisting a trophy, they also help to define Vivek’s determination to be different at all costs. He’s a Silicon Valley genius who made his billions thinking outside of the box, and he’s adapted that same belief system when it comes to the on-court operations of the Sacramento Kings. Thinking differently isn’t always bad, but when you’re as bad as the Kings, maybe it’s time to stop being so determinately different.

Ranadivé’s tenure began with a contrarian-flavored splash when he hired his first Head Coach before his first General Manager. That just isn’t done in the NBA, and the reasons as to why are perfectly understandable. Perhaps no relationship needs to be more in sync than that of a coach and manager, and when they aren’t aligned, the Mike Malone catastrophe is exactly the type of situation that becomes inevitable. t’s fair to say the Kings have never recovered from that mistake.

In and of itself, that error might be written off to a new owner getting his feet wet in a new world if concepts such as four-on-five defense, basketball 3.0, and jazz music weren’t all being tossed around at the same time. Ty Corbin was named and paid as the new Head Coach, and subsequently fired for George Karl just a few short weeks after Malone’s termination. Pete D’Alessandro, the man allowed to make all of those convoluted decisions, was stripped of his power and sent packing voluntarily left his position as an advisor the following July. In less than a year, Vivek Ranadivé would cycle through three Head Coaches in a three month period, as well as two different General Managers. Once again, the team was stuck with a coach on a long-term contract and no management in place. Enter Vlade Divac, stage left. After conducting no search for a qualified GM, or perhaps for someone who slightly understood the NBA fraternity or the basics of the collective bargaining agreement, Vivek Ranadivé named Kings Legend Vlade Divac as the man in charge for Sacramento. Of course, Divac was not allowed to fire the coach who was brought in before his hiring, even after the team essentially mutinied mid-season. A man with no experience held some of the power and all of the responsibility.

From the onset of his acquisition, Divac has eagerly adopted and continued Vivek’s habit of taking three lefts to get to the right. In the 2015 offseason, Vlade executed one of the most lopsided trades in team history, handing Nik Stauskas, multiple first round pick swaps, and an unprotected first round pick four years in the future to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for some cap space to spend on over-the-hill veterans. It’s well-known that a similar amount of salary could have been opened up by utilizing the stretch provision, a basic tool that even most casual fans are aware of today. No one in the NBA makes that move. Except the Kings. Again, that transaction may have been indicative of nothing more than a man learning a highly technical and highly complicated position on the fly; however, Divac’s tenure is chock-full of decisions that have done nothing more than to flip off the hordes of experienced NBA professionals.

The 2016 draft may have been the most shocking moment for Kings fans over the last decade or so. After executing a rather brilliant trade to secure the rights of Bogdan Bogdanovic and two first round picks, Vlade decided to roll the dice on Georgios Papagiannis with the 13th overall selection, a player who was not ranked in the top-60 prospects by either Yahoo Sports or ESPN. In an interview shortly after making the mindboggling decision, Divac named his newest project “the new Marc Gasol”. Georgios Papagiannis played 39 career games and even now is averaging just 6 points and 4 rebounds in EuroLeague.

Two drafts and multiple failed first round picks later, management was granted the opportunity of a lifetime. For the second time in two years, the Kings jumped in the lottery, and this time they were gifted the second overall pick. Deandre Ayton, the dominant center out of Arizona, and Luka Doncic, the greatest European prospect in history, were the clear favorites of scouts and one of those sat within easy reach. After the Phoenix Suns settled on Ayton as the first perfect complement to Devin Booker, Divac once again bet wildly on his own acumen, refusing to take the undisputed top-rated player, or trading back with the desperate Dallas Mavericks, and selected Duke big man Marvin Bagley III. He lost that bet, badly. At 20-years old, Doncic is an MVP candidate and All-Star starter, and while Bagley looks like a fine player when he actually finds his way to the court, he’ll likely never reach Luka’s current level at his career peak. Once again, the Kings bucked the reasonable track and once again, they got burned.

The Bagley pick also speaks to a larger trend that has emerged in Divac’s five-year tenure as the team visionary. In a league that continues to devalue traditional, non-shooting bigs and that emphasizes versatile wings and scoring guards, Vlade has established himself as an old-school thinker, perhaps greatly influenced by his own position during his playing career. Of the eight first round picks that this front office has been granted over four drafts, five have been used on big men (Cauley-Stein, Papagiannis, Labissiere, Giles, and Bagley, one has been used on a wing (Jackson), and two have been used on guards (Richardson, Fox). It’s no coincidence that the only highly successful player out of that group, De’Aaron Fox, also follows the pattern of what most franchises are seeking in the draft nowadays.

Even after the Bagley selection, management did manage to buy themselves some good favor over the months following the 2018 draft. Even though Doncic was barreling through every defender on a nightly basis down in Texas, the Kings boasted the more successful season, sprinting their way to a ninth place finish in the Western Conference, six wins ahead of the Mavericks. For the first time in a long time, ownership and the front office had earned some goodwill from the fan base heading into the offseason.

The folks in charge decided to immediately cash out on that spark of faith by once again gambling on their own hubris, rather than depending on what had worked in the past: in this case, Dave Joerger. The gruff but effective leader was fired on the same day in which Vivek Ranadivé inked Vlade Divac to a four year contract extension. In a move that defied all logic, the man most responsible for Sacramento’s most successful season in 13 years was canned, while the man responsible for firing the man most responsible for the most successful season in 13 years was rewarded generously.

After dismissing Dave Joerger, Divac immediately targeted his old friend Luke Walton as the only man for the job. Ignoring any sort of decorum, professionalism, or due diligence, Vlade brought Walton on board four days after Joerger’s termination, without conducting any sort of a coaching search or hosting any other interviews. It was eerily reminiscent of his own hiring at the hands of Vivek Ranadivé. Management convinced themselves, and remains convinced to this day, that the controversial firing and hiring was akin to the Golden State Warriors swapping Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr, when in reality it’s been little better than the exchange of Mike Malone for Ty Corbin. As history continues to repeat itself with this regime, a strategically effective coach who didn’t bother with office politics was replaced by a seemingly nice guy who can’t control the players or accomplish anything on the court.

Perhaps most terrifying of all when viewing these mistakes in a rearview mirror is the realization that this list is by no means a comprehensive assortment of all of the blunders made by this group. Management and ownership have made plenty of “normal” errors throughout the years as well. Drafting Justin Jackson over OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, and Kyle Kuzma serves as a perfect example of this sort of error. The Kings didn’t make the right pick, but Jackson was in the range of those other players and other General Managers may very well have made a similar bad call. The same can be said for other draft misses, the poor outcome in several minor trades, or the continued failure of most offseason acquisitions. The primary issue facing this organization isn’t the everyday, acceptable mistakes that occur in any franchise, it’s that those errors are massively compounded every time that Divac and Ranadivé decide to act as if they are the beholders of a secret formula to NBA success, despite their history of continued failure. It’s not just the blind leading the blind, it’s the blind scoffing at someone giving them directions.

And now the Kings sit 14 wins below a .500 record, far below their position at this point last year, and have lost most of the fan base and even some of the staunchest supporters of the franchise. The team is aimlessly losing game after game, and there’s little flexibility in sight. Not only is the roster about to lock up their third highly paid player in Bogdan Bogdanovic, but the organization also spent millions of dollars securing the long-term contracts of Divac and Walton, the two men most responsible for this mess. Tens of millions of dollars are locked up in what looks like a terrible investment. An investment that ownership, by all accounts, has no desire in tossing down the drain. These figures are here to stay this season and possibly beyond.

So how do the Kings work themselves out of this quagmire? At some point very soon, Vivek Ranadivé and Vlade Divac must put aside their insistence that they know better and realize that no discussions of culture, block-chain, or team-building is going to fix anything. Ranadivé is 203-333 in his time as the team owner and will be responsible for exactly half of the 14 year playoff drought once this season comes to a close. Unlike the Maloofs, he’s had the cash and the resources on hand to build a winner, and yet he’s managed to fail just as spectacularly as a group of bankrupt brothers trying to get every cent out of a team they could before bailing. Vlade Divac, the thirteenth-longest tenured GM in the NBA, has been the man at the helm for most of Ranadivé’s failures, compiling an almost impressively bad 146-226 record in his five years with the team. Over that same half-decade timeframe, only the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks have also found themselves outside of the playoffs each year (assuming the 36-9 Los Angeles Lakers manage to squeak their way into the postseason come April), and both franchises have employed multiple General Managers through that period. Vlade’s main man, Luke Walton, has amassed a record of 113-177 between his three years with the Lakers and his partial season with the Kings. A bad Head Coach was chosen by an unqualified General Manager who was hired by an ineffective owner. Losing begets losing begets losing.

Someone needs to start fixing things, and it can’t be any of the people already associated with this mess. Ranadivé continues to meddle in decision-making and constantly hires and fires the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Divac hasn’t mastered a single element of his current position, and his basketball and personnel judgement is even more suspect than his boss’s. This is the man who couldn’t resolve the Brandon Williams situation mid-season, who has cycled through Dean Oliver, Scott Perry, Brandon Williams, Mike Bratz, and Joe Dumars in the front office, and who has established a history of hiring his friends over qualified candidates, from Peja Stojakovic to Bobby Jackson to Luke Walton.

With all of that being said, and with the acceptance that ownership isn’t going to make any changes this year, comes the realization that the only way out of this mess is for the Kings to do something highly abnormal: follow the straight and narrow path. Vivek Ranadivé needs to bring in an experienced, respected, qualified basketball executive this summer and give him or her full control of basketball operations. Let the new member of management decide if Vlade Divac should be retained as the visionary leader. Allow an assessment of Luke Walton’s on-court performance and what percentage of this team’s regression really is due to the myriad of reasons regurgitated by the team’s shills on a nightly basis. Let someone else with a history of actually winning basketball games make the call on draft night, or whether or not Buddy Hield is a key member of this core moving forward, or if the Kings should shell out millions of dollars to retain Bogdan Bogdanovic. If the ownership of this team truly wants to succeed not only in the community and on the business end of things, but also on the hardwood, they must do something radically different; they must be normal.