Sacramento Kings head coach Michael Malone still learning in first year

Michael Malone stands on the sidelines against the Philadelphia 76ers (Photo: Tobin Halsey)

In Gregg Popovich’s first season as an NBA head coach, his Spurs struggled to a 17-47 finish. Seventeen years later, he’s still employed by the same franchise and has never again won less than 61 percent of his games in any given regular season. He has also won four championships.

Jerry Sloan was fired after three unimpressive seasons with the Bulls and had to wait six years before getting another crack at a head gig. Luckily for him, that second and final landing spot in Utah made his career.

But for every Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan, there are countless examples of head coaches who only get one opportunity. Certainly Michael Malone hopes his time leading the Kings will be a success, but the jury is still out.

A month before the season’s end, the Kings were already officially eliminated from playoff contention. That can’t be good. But it’s no secret that in a deep Western Conference, Malone is coaching a team with an awfully inexperienced core. And this is his first season as a lead coach at the game’s highest level.

Not even Malone, who spent the last 12 years as an assistant, could fully imagine the rigors of coaching in the NBA.

“I knew this was going to be a challenge,” the first-year head coach admits. “but going through it is a lot harder than I anticipated.”

With seven games remaining in Malone’s inaugural season at the helm, the Kings sit 13th in the Western Conference with 27 wins and 48 losses. But the Kings’ subpar record matters little to Malone. It’s all about the process.

“I don’t get caught up in the wins and losses,” Malone says. “Since day one when I got this job, I said, ‘Year one would not be about wins and losses.’”

In early December, just as Malone and his team were acclimating themselves to the 2013-14 season, Kings management pulled off a seven-player deal involving Rudy Gay, Greivis Vasquez and others, significantly altering the nucleus of the team. Just two weeks prior, Sacramento swapped Luc Mbah a Moute for 2011 No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams.

Even as the season winds down, the front office continues to bring in various players on 10-day contracts, further challenging Malone in his first year on the job.

“The hardest thing for me this year is probably the (player) turnover,” Malone says. “You have a group that’s together for September, October and parts of November. Then, you make a big trade, and you bring in a lot of new faces and you’re starting over on the fly. That takes a while. It’s not going to happen overnight.“

And it didn’t. Still, the Kings began to show promise from late-December to mid-January when they reeled off seven wins in 13 games, beating teams like the Heat, Rockets and Blazers. They’ve also played close to .500 ball when Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas all suit up.

Jason Thompson has had his fair share of coaching throughout his six seasons in the NBA.  The veteran big man has played for five different coaches since being selected 12th overall by the Kings in the 2008 draft.  From his perspective, Malone has grown into the head honcho role. Thompson admires that Malone “gives good advice and his door’s always open.”

“Sometimes as an assistant, even if you’re the top assistant, you can’t say as much as you want to around the players,” Thompson says. “You could tell, maybe early on, that he was hesitant at times, but with more experience, getting to know the guys (he’s adjusted).”

Since the departure of Rick Adelman in 2006, the Kings have desperately searched and longed to find the right person to fill his shoes.  With the baggage of seven-straight losing seasons, there came along some burden for Malone when he took the job last summer.  Could he be the one to resurrect a sleeping giant of a franchise?

Leave it to a highly drafted, first-year player to put into context the pressure faced by a first-year head coach of a team in search of a rebirth.

“Being a first-year coach, it’s kind of tough,” says Ben McLemore. “It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. Being an assistant coach for 10-plus years and not being a head coach, it’s all about baby steps.”

Those steps continue to be taken, at least in the coach’s own assessment, as part of his process-oriented journey. Despite Malone’s near 20 years as a college or NBA assistant, he admits he is still learning and improving as a head coach.

“I think we are a together group,” he says. “I think we’re a group that’s still trying to play the right way and I think the guys have bought in and they know who we need to be, playing and moving forward. So I think it’s been a success and I’m excited about the future, knowing that I am going to get better and this team is going to get a lot better.”

Every first head-coaching gig happens in a vacuum.

Gregg Popovich’s first season in the role saw an injury-decimated San Antonio team (David Robinson played six games that year) stink badly enough to position itself for the No. 1 selection in the 1997 NBA Draft. With that pick, the Spurs selected Tim Duncan, who has become one of the greatest players in league history. For Sloan, he had the good fortune of taking over the Jazz when Karl Malone and John Stockton were just entering their prime.

Similarly, Malone has begun his tenure with talented pieces at his disposal.  His front office has been quite active in their search for the right personnel, but Cousins, Gay and Thomas are a solid core to start.

Granted, it’s too early to tell if Malone will be on the job for many years to come, but we do know that he’s open to learning and evolving. There’s really not much else you can ask of a first-year coach.

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About: Aaron Fischman

Fischman is an editor and contributing feature writer for Cowbell Kingdom. The Los Angeles native graduated in 2011 from UC Davis with his Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Communication and received his Master's in Print and Digital Journalism from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2013. Besides CK, Fischman has covered the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks for SLAM and the Clippers for Clipper Blog, an ESPN.com TrueHoop Network Affiliate.