The Sacramento Kings stunned the basketball world by firing coach Michael Malone late Sunday. Malone went 39-67 at the helm of the Kings, but had Sacramento off to a surprising 9-6 start against tough competition this season before the team's superstar center caught viral meningitis. The Kings are now 11-13 and a playoff run is looking bleak.
Malone wasn't on anyone's Coach of the Year shortlist, but this firing still comes off as erratic and unreasonable. Here are five reasons why.
1. Malone had DeMarcus Cousins playing at an All-Star level
Cousins is the superstar mentioned above -- he's missed nine straight games due to his illness, though he should be back soon. In 15 games this season, Cousins has averaged 23.5 points on 51 percent shooting with 12.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Last season, Cousins averaged 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and shot 49 percent. In neither season has Cousins had a single locker room incident or on-court run-in. Cousins has been a completely different player under Malone than he was with Paul Westphal or Keith Smart. Given Cousins' importance to the Kings' hopes of not being hopeless for another decade, shouldn't that matter?
Of course, Cousins himself deserves most of the credit for his rise. Owner Vivek Randive and general manager Pete D'Alessandro would probably consider their arrival and the royal jelly (and huge contract) heaped on Cousins in 2013 to be as important as Malone's coaching. But dumping Malone is still a huge risk. Cousins has had three pro coaches and clashed with two. Why be hasty in canning the exception?
2. The Kings' problems are mostly because of roster issues
Sacramento's woes during Cousins' absence make this point obvious: the overall roster is uneven. Cousins is the only star. Rudy Gay has been much better in Sacramento than in Toronto or Memphis, but he's still a high-volume, mid-range shooter whose defense isn't usually great. Darren Collison has overachieved this season and Ben McLemore is showing signs of a breakout. But right now the Kings roster has one superstar, one obvious eight-figure starter and about 13 role players. (Cousins also happens to be the only obvious plus defender on the roster, too. Reggie Evans' rebounding and energy are awesome, but he's not really a stopper in any sense.)
Malone didn't put together this roster. D'Alessandro and Vivek's adviser Chris Mullin did. (Mullin is basically D'Alessandro's mentor.) So if the roster is the problem, why is the coach getting fired? Because that's how it works in the NBA. The chefs blame the line cooks.
3. Management's stylistic desires are completely unrealistic
A big reason unnamed sources are giving for the decision to fire Malone is his style doesn't mesh with what Vivek and D'Alessandro envisioned. Vivek wants a Spursian system of ball movement and shooting with Jason Thompson, Collison, Gay and Nik Stauskas in the roles of Boris Diaw, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili, apparently.
Yet, this roster, starting with Boogie, isn't built for that type of play. You can only build a house with the bricks you're given. Cousins is perhaps the only player on the roster who is a plus passer at his position. McLemore and maybe Collison are good shooters for their positions. That. Is. It. There's just nothing Spursian about the roster. How is Malone realistically supposed to mold this into that?
Malone has been trying to win with what he has, which means a ton of post play, slashing and not so much in the way of passing. Malone's rep is as a defensive coach. In fact, that was Vivek's biggest endorsement back when he hired Malone in June 2013, that he'd bring a defensive identity to the Kings. He hasn't -- and that's the biggest indictment of him as a coach, to be honest -- but this feels like the goalposts are being moved.
4. The West is an impossible puzzle without another star
The idea that Malone is holding the Kings back from playoff contention is ludicrous. The West itself is holding the Kings back. Frankly, it was stunning that Malone had the Kings at 5-1 and 9-6 against such a tough, West-heavy schedule. The Kings were in the conversation one month, which is a month longer than usual. The only reason they dropped out of the conversation is Boogie's illness.
But even if the coaching this season had been perfect -- which it hasn't -- the Kings would be an unlikely playoff team simply because of math. Seven teams in the West have a record of 17-8 or better. The Thunder have gone 6-1 since Kevin Durant's return and now seem like a playoff lock. Does management really think Malone should have this team --even if fully healthy -- at .700? What flavor of crazy is that? The idea that this roster should be in the playoff conversation more than it already has been is delusional.
5. Ty Corbin is not the answer
The Kings elevated Corbin from associate head coach to interim head coach, and reports suggest they'll give him a legitimate shot at keeping the job. Never mind that Corbin was in charge of the offense that Vivek and D'Alessandro didn't like and Corbin was completely uninspiring last season at the helm of the Jazz.
The Kings tried to hire Alvin Gentry as Malone's lead assistant in the offseason, but he joined the Warriors' All-Star staff. (Gentry, for what it's worth, is exactly the coach Vivek and D'Alessandro want: an up-tempo people person who is gold wherever he works.) Eventually Malone hired Corbin, though there seems to have been some bristling by Malone at management's insistence he hire a top-flight assistant and by management that Malone wasn't copacetic with D'Alessandro picking a coach for him.
Regardless, the Kings now have Corbin in the lead chair. Does anyone out there think this is an upgrade in the short or long term? Is there any chance that if this were the offseason, Corbin would even make Sacramento's short list? No offense to a smart man with good character, but if you're going to make a coaching change, why now?
George Karl is available:
The well-traveled coach has history with D'Alessandro from their time together in Denver and Karl's teams are known for their up-tempo offenses, which would seem to fit management's requirements.
Still, if the plan is to nab Karl before someone else can -- and there are no indications any other coach is on an immediate hot seat with the exception of Monty Williams -- what rationale is there to pull the trigger in December? Why not wait until Boogie returns (likely this week) and see how Malone carries the Kings through the rest of an easy December schedule? What's the upside?
In the end, this move puts pressure on D'Alessandro to upgrade the roster heavily by the trade deadline and on Vivek to hire the right coach, whether now or in the spring. He's 0-1. The honeymoon in Sacramento will last longer than most, but nothing is forever.