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Why the Kings were so close to firing yet another coach

The Kings are pure dysfunction, but there were some legitimate reasons for Sacramento to part ways with legendary coach George Karl, though they ultimately didn't.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This piece was originally posted on Feb. 6. It has been updated to reflect the news that George Karl's firing was imminent and has now been called off.

It's been about a year since the Sacramento Kings have fired a head coach. It seemed like time.

In February 2015, the Kings dismissed Tyrone Corbin, who'd been assured he'd coach Sacramento for the remainder of the 2014-15 season as taking over for the fired Michael Malone in December. That assurance was worth roughly the same as most coaching contracts in the River City. The Kings pushed Corbin out as the team imploded around him, and brought George Karl in to fix the problems.

So much for that.

The best NBA reporters in the business unanimously acknowledged that Kings management was about to cut Karl loose amid winter swoon punctuated by an embarrassing loss in Brooklyn on Friday. Two more non-competitive losses to the Celtics and Cavaliers followed, and it looked like it was happening. However, a last-minute change of heart by GM Vlade Divac averted Karl's ending.

Given the team's propensity for firing coaches, you may be asking why the Kings even considered firing Karl. This is why.

1. The Kings are barely better this season compared to last.

Sacramento is 21-31. Last season through 50 games, split pretty evenly between Malone and Corbin, the Kings were 19-32. So the team is barely better despite huge talent additions in free agency, five more games out of DeMarcus Cousins, and without the albatross of an interim coach who didn't have the benefit of running a training camp.

Much has been made of the fact that the Kings are 19-24 when Cousins plays this season. At this point last season, the Kings were 17-22 with Cousins. In this sense, even ignoring the vast talent upgrades, Karl's Kings are performing essentially as the team did under Malone and Corbin early last season.

The smoke and mirrors come in discussing the playoff race. The Kings were totally buried by this time last season. But because the bottom of the West is much softer in 2015-16, Sacramento seems much more competitive because the team is still sort of in the playoff race. (They trail Utah by five games, a gap that was significantly smaller before this recent slide).

2. George Karl tried to run DeMarcus Cousins out of town.

We hear so much about players trying to get coaches run, and no doubt the talk will be centered on that among many observers in the aftermath of this disaster. But don't forget what sparked Cousins' displeasure with Karl in the first place: Karl tried to get Cousins traded over the summer.

You want players to stay in their lane and just play? Sure, that's a worthy ideal. How about coaches? Shouldn't we also want coaches to stay in their lanes and coach? The Kings' front office was a mess before and after Karl was hired -- no one knew Vlade Divac was in charge of basketball operations until he told them days after his introductory press conference.

But Cousins had been here for five years at that point and was the centerpiece of the team. He was the All-Star, the only superlative the franchise could count on. Karl was brand new and inserting himself into the decision-making vacuum. Once it came out that Karl wanted Cousins gone and had even contacted other teams looking for a deal, that was all she wrote for this relationship.

Boogie doesn't forget. Boogie holds grudges. Boogie is a purely emotional being: on the court, off the court, everywhere. He wears his heart on both sleeves, his lapels, his headband. It'd be healthy for Cousins and the Kings if he could better regulate his feelings (technical fouls don't lie), but can you really blame him for feeling salty toward Karl? If someone at work tried to get you relocated behind the scenes, you might hold a little grudge, too.

3. The Kings' game plan makes no sense.

Cousins is the best offensive big man in the NBA. He's huge, and while he's really quick, he's not exactly fast. The Kings don't have a bounty of shooting and lack much in the way of fleet-footed wings outside of Omri Casspi and Ben McLemore. The team's three best players are a brawny dominant post scorer, a face-up mid-post combo forward (Rudy Gay) and a shooting-averse court visionary point guard (Rajon Rondo).

So, why in the frigid hell are the Kings playing faster than any other team in the league?

It makes no sense. It neuters some of Cousins' gravitational pull and wears him out. It leads to crazy turnover numbers. (The Kings are No. 27 in turnover rate.) Sacramento doesn't have the tools (i.e. good shooters) to get open threes in transition. (The Kings are No. 20 in three-point attempt rate.)

Sacramento's roster is custom-made to play a Memphis style: be opportunistic in transition, but don't press it. Use Rondo's sublime court vision and Boogie's burly power to break the defense, and find openings. Don't act like the Warriors when you have no players that remotely resemble Golden State's talent.

Despite this, the Kings do have a top-10 offense, currently. But the bizarrely frenetic offense is also a drain on the defense, which ... yeah, let's get to that.

4. The Kings' defense is trash.

This isn't all on Karl, but research has suggested that coaches have more influence on defensive efficiency than offensive efficiency. Sacramento is No. 25 in defense. The roster doesn't support a much better rank there: only Cousins is a true plus defender, and only sometimes. Casspi gives phenomenal effort but is slight, and McLemore is spectacularly athletic but gets lost too much.

The best Kings defender might be rookie Willie Cauley-Stein, who was drafted No. 6 overall precisely because of his incredible defensive potential. Willie Cauley-Stein is playing 20 minutes a game, and he's often missing in late-game situations.

Karl's staff hasn't been able to find solutions with the roster he has, and he hasn't given much rope to the best option on his bench. Karl is famously reluctant to play rookies, and Cauley-Stein is far from fully formed. But every time the Kings give up big runs with WCS on the bench, it stands out. Beyond the rookie, the Kings have been giving up career highs to anonymous role players like Troy Daniels and E'Twaun Moore in recent weeks. It's ugly.

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All of this isn't to say that the Kings should have indeed fired Karl. There are larger structural issues with the team that need to be solved, beginning with the front office. Ranadivé really needs to decide this summer whether Divac should be running basketball operations. That decision needs to be made before a new full-time coach is hired, which means the team really cannot have another search for a permanent head coach during this season.

But while it may be easy to think that this saga happened solely because the Kings are dysfunctional, there were legitimate reasons Karl should have been gone. That doesn't preclude assumptions that the franchise is dysfunctional. It is. But there's more to this story.