The best thing that can be said about the George Karl reign in Sacramento is that it was relatively short. The Sacramento Kings were 44-68 during Karl’s tenure, and though his winning percentage of .393 wasn’t demonstrably worse than that of say, Dave Joerger (.398 over three seasons), the vibes around the team when Karl was head coach were unpleasant.
According to Karl, who spoke with Jason Jones of The Athletic this week, the problem was that he and the Kings organization were never aligned on a coaching philosophy. While Karl preferred to play small and fast and run the offense through a playmaking point guard, Sacramento was committed to DeMarcus Cousins. In Karl’s lone offseason as head coach, the team doubled down on bigs by drafting Willie Cauley-Stein and signing Kosta Koufos.
“The thing DeMarcus taught me — I’m not anti-center because I think there’s a need for a big guy in basketball,” Karl said. “But what I found is when your center is the best player on the court, it’s hard to get your team elevated. …
“I remember there were games our first year where DeMarcus was the best player on the court but we couldn’t win. When you have the best guy on the court, I’ve always felt you have a chance and you should win. I’ve said that about LaMarcus Aldridge, I’ve said that about the kid in Minnesota (Karl-Anthony Towns), I’ve said it about Anthony Davis, with big guys and the power of controlling the outcome of a game. There’s still a need to have the big guy play well. At the same time, the guards, the pace of play and the 3-point shooting, elevates the other parts of the game more.”
It seems like Karl would have been fine with Cousins having a large role so long as the team had his preferred type of point guard. That wasn’t the case.
Ray McCallum was the Kings’ point guard for Karl’s first 30 games and lasted only half a season in the NBA after leaving Sacramento. The following year, Rajon Rondo assumed the role, and despite Rondo’s gaudy statistics (he led the league in assists per game), Rondo hasn’t meaningfully contributed to winning since his Boston days.
As Karl saw it, it didn’t really matter how much Cousins improved — the team had a ceiling so long as Cousins was the No. 1 option, and not a perimeter player.
“I liked DeMarcus because he’s a good passer, a good decision-maker. He doesn’t want to be selfish … In Denver we have (Nikola) Jokic and Jokic is a great passer, but I don’t know if that’s the way you win big in the NBA.”
Karl, a point guard in his playing days at North Carolina and his pro career with San Antonio, from 1973-78, believes the point guard is still the most vital position on the court.
“I think it’s still the flow of the game, the instincts of the point guard play,” Karl said. “I said it when I was out there (in Sacramento). The quarterback of the team is the point guard and in the NFL you don’t win without a good quarterback and I think it’s kind of the same way in the NBA. If you don’t have a really good point guard, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
The Kings and Karl may have parted ways, but the team actually closely adheres to the former coach’s theories. Their best player, De’Aaron Fox, is a dynamic point guard who plays with pace, and they have other perimeter scoring threats in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Buddy Hield. Sacramento also values passing ability at the big positions, as seen with Nemanja Bjelica and Harry Giles.
Sacramento also has significantly more talent now than in Karl’s time with the team, which has enabled Joerger and now Luke Walton to have more success. But Karl wasn’t exactly wrong about generating offense through the backcourt rather than a big man, and the Kings have benefited from giving the control of the offense to Fox. If anything, Fox should have more control than he currently does.
If Sacramento manages to end its postseason drought in Orlando, it will likely be because of a strong run of play from Fox. That’s a luxury Karl’s Kings teams never had.