SACRAMENTO -- Dave Joerger is out. So, what does it all mean?
The Sacramento Kings shocked a good portion of the basketball world Thursday when they jettisoned the veteran coach after three years at the helm. They are going in a new direction, although which way they are headed is unknown at this time.
Joerger started the season strong, shook off a behind-the-scenes battle with assistant general manager Brandon Williams that spilled out into the open, and won more games as a Kings coach than anyone not named Rick Adelman or Garry St. Jean.
Joerger also saw his team struggle down the stretch, finishing 9-17 over the final 26 games and missing the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season.
In Joerger’s defense, the Kings were predicted to win 25.5 games by Las Vegas oddsmakers. The fact they showed a 12-game improvement over the previous season and posted the most wins since 2005-06 is impressive.
Who made the decision?
Kings GM Vlade Divac had plenty of time to assess Joerger and his coaching style during their three seasons together. According to Divac, the decision was his alone.
“I was clear, it was my decision," he said. "Obviously, I had to inform [ownership] about it, but they were supportive of that.”
It’s complicated, but the short answer is this: Joerger was entering the final year of his contract, and there was very little chance he was walking into next season as a “lame duck” coach.
Divac had two choices — let Joerger go or extend him. Divac chose to let Joerger go and find someone more compatible with the path he wants the team to venture down.
“The next level is a team that is going to be a playoff team and down the road, a contender," Divac said. "I think our kids are very talented. We have to believe in them and give them a chance to take advantage of their work and talent.”
The team’s final-game meltdown in Portland didn’t help matters, but plans were in the works long before the Kings blew a 28-point lead at the Moda Center.
What went wrong?
The late-season losses were an issue, but according to Divac, he began to consider a coaching change following the All-Star break. That is the moment when the Kings sat at 30-27 and had just pulled off a series of moves to improve the talent on the roster.
“I think he did a great job to make that step, but moving forward, I just felt like we got to go in a different direction," Divac said of Joerger. "It’s been three years and we made progress, but this year, I know with you guys, and I feel the same way, it was a good season, but I think we could do more, especially after All-Star.”
While Divac didn’t force Joerger’s hand, he wasn’t in agreement with at least one specific rotational issue.
Divac preferred that Marvin Bagley start at power forward, especially late in the season. Selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Bagley showed incredible promise in his rookie season, although two separate knee injuries cost him time.
Joerger chose to start Bagley a total of four games out of a possible 62 opportunities. Bagley performed extremely well in those starts, averaging 20.0 points and 11.5 rebounds in 33 minutes per game. On the downside, Bagley ran a minus-11.8 per game as a starter and the Kings lost all four games.
The issue of Bagley starting also was one of the primary issues behind the Joerger-Williams rift. While Divac tried to play peacemaker, the tension was palpable behind the scenes all season.
Divac allowed Joerger to coach his team, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have differing opinions on some of his decisions. In the end, the winning stopped, and very few adjustments were made.
“Our new coach, which I’m looking for, has to bring, first of all, the style that we had last year -- that’s Kings style," Divac said in addressing Joerger's potential replacement. "We have to play that way. Uptempo and moving the ball and communication and defined roles and obviously believing in the team.”
Names like Luke Walton, Ettore Messina and Monty Williams already have surfaced. The Kings have a young and exciting roster that appears on the rise, which might entice Walton or one of the top-tier assistants in the league.
Walton still is employed by the Lakers, although that might not last long. The second-year head coach had a disastrous first season with superstar LeBron James. The Lakers finished the season two games behind the Kings in the standings, with James missing the playoffs after eight straight Finals appearances.
Messina has spent the last five seasons on Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs staff after an extremely successful career coaching overseas. He’s been in the running for multiple jobs over the last few seasons, but for one reason or another, he hasn’t landed a head-coaching job.
Williams has head-coaching experience from his time with the Pelicans. The 47-year-old player-turned-coach posted a 173-221 record in five seasons in New Orleans. He’s worked his way back into the league as an assistant with the 76ers after a personal tragedy had him away from the game.
Additional coaches likely will be added to this list. Divac held an extensive search before Joerger became available late in the process the last time around. Messina and Mike Woodson were high on Divac’s list of candidates at that time.
Was this the right move?
While Joerger was a very good X's and O’s coach, he has an edge that rubs certain people the wrong way. The Williams issue was one problem, but murmurs of a disconnect with his players started to filter out late in the season.
Maybe it was the blame game or maybe Joerger’s approach had worn thin. Either way, this is a major gamble by Divac. Joerger not only outperformed expectations, but he also showed an ability to completely change his coaching style to compliment his roster.
“We know as a group what we want to do," Divac conveyed. "We are aware of challenges, but we are going in the right direction.”
Joerger was the ninth head coach in Sacramento since Adelman walked away in 2006. He lasted longer than any of the previous eight and won more as well. He took on a veteran roster in his first year at the helm, fought through a complete rebuild and posted the most wins in over a decade in his third season.
It wasn’t a perfect tenure, but Joerger and his staff were a big reason for the Kings’ success this season. Time will tell whether or not this was the right decision, but it certainly was a bold move by Divac, who is taking clear ownership of his legacy in Sacramento.