Michael Malone waited years to get his shot as an NBA coach. He has a coaching pedigree and has paid his dues at every level. He is ready for this challenge, but nine games into his first season at the helm of the Kings, Malone has to be looking around and asking, “is this really it?”
Taking the job in Sacramento was a bold move. Malone bought hook line and sinker into the new Kings ownership and in doing so, he ignored all of the empirical data that screamed “don’t do it!”
Since Rick Adelman left the franchise following the 2005-06 season, Malone is the sixth coach to accept the Kings head coaching vacancy. The other five have one major thing in common: they have never become NBA head coaches again.
Like Malone, Eric Musselman was a coach’s son who spent years working his way up the ladder. After a two-season stretch as head coach of the Golden State Warriors (75-89), Musselman was let go. He took the reigns of the Kings before the 2006-07 season following eight straight playoff appearances under Adelman. After a 33-49 record and an early season DUI, Musselman was shown the door quickly by Geoff Petrie after just 82 games on the job. Musselman is currently an associate head coach at Arizona State.
Musselman was replaced by former-Kings-great-turned-television-star Reggie Theus for the 2007-08 season. Sure, Theus played 13 seasons in the NBA, but his coaching resume listed New Mexico State as his only real experience. He was a Maloof hire through and through. Theus was known for talking on the phone during practice and leaning heavily on assistant Kenny Natt. After a 44-62 record and a public spat with then-star player Kevin Martin, Theus was sent packing midway through the 2008-09 season. Theus is currently coaching in the college ranks at California State University Northridge.
Kenny Natt clearly drew the short straw and was allowed to finish out the 2008-09 season for Theus. The thought was it couldn’t get any worse, but it did. Natt led the Kings to an 11-47 record in only 58 games as an NBA head coach. The Kings have had a lot of losing seasons in Sacramento, but they set a new low with 17 wins in 2008-09, which was good enough for the worst record in the NBA. Natt currently works as the Director of Basketball for the IMG Academy in Florida after a stint coaching India’s national team.
Paul Westphal was hired before the 2009-10 season. Coming off a disastrous 17-win season, Westphal was tasked with developing rookie Tyreke Evans, the fourth overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft. The result was a Rookie of the Year trophy for the franchise, but a 25-win season. Westphal was given a longer leash than the previous coaches, making it seven games into the 2011-12 season before a very public disagreement with second-year center DeMarcus Cousins proved his undoing. Westphal finished his career with the Kings with a record of 51-120. Like their coach, 19 players from the Westphal era are no longer in the NBA, as the franchise ran the lowest payroll in the league both seasons he was at the helm. Westphal is currently retired and lives in Southern California with his wife Cindy.
Keith Smart was hired as an assistant to Westphal after a one-year run as coach of the Golden State Warriors. When Westphal was let go seven games into the 2011-12 season, Smart took over and instantly made nice with Cousins. Like his predecessor, Smart’s run with the team is better remembered for the relocation attempts by the Maloof family than for the play on the court. In 141 games as coach of the Kings, Smart went 48-93. He was handed his walking papers by the new ownership group in Sacramento and is currently taking some time off. He may do some television work this season covering college hoops.
Five coaches, 187 wins, 371 losses, six lottery picks later and now this team is all Malone’s.
It’s not just about the losses. Plenty of franchises go through similar droughts. The Kings organization is undergoing a complete change in culture. If they had their way, the new front office would have traded almost the entire roster. Starting over and rebuilding a franchise takes a grenade, not an ice pick.
So nine games into the 2013-14 season, Malone is learning that not only does he lack the talent to compete on a regular basis, but that the culture of his team allows nights off in an 82-game season.
The hope is that Malone is the right coach to rebuild this franchise, but it is very clear that he is going to need time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was an NBA playoff team. It takes patience and some luck and even then, there are no promises.
After a loss like the one Malone endured against Memphis on Sunday, he was angry. And rightfully so, his team waited until midway through the third quarter to show up and even then, it was Travis Outlaw trying to save the day on his own. This wasn’t the second night of a back-to-back nor was it game 60 in another lost, lottery-bound season. There are no excuses for what Kings fans had to watch for the better part of three quarters on Sunday.
This is what a culture of losing looks like and it is an incredibly difficult thing to change. A 2-7 record is a rough start, but it is an indictment on the culture of the old Kings franchise, not Malone.
Musselman, Theus, Natt, Westphal and Smart all failed, but they were part of a different organization. If Malone wants to succeed, he has to stay angry. He has to demand better from his players and when they do not give effort, he has to search his bench until someone gives like Outlaw did on Sunday.
Malone wanted this challenge. He signed the contract and accepted the consequences of coaching a team in perpetual strife. Judging so far, he is the right man for the job, but he is going to need some help to avoid the fate of his predecessors.