What a strange world, this NBA: Dave Joerger, good NBA coach of a good NBA team, decided he wanted out after internal strife with the Memphis Grizzlies front office, and somehow came to the conclusion that the Sacramento Kings might offer a more stable working environment.
It will now be on everyone, including Joerger, to make that long shot a reality.
The Kings did offer double the money, and that mattered to a coach who signed an extension in Memphis before it became clear how much the new TV revenue flood would warp the coaching salary structure. First-time head coaches now routinely get $5 million per season. Scott Brooks, entering job No. 2 after taking criticism for his X's and O's, just got $7 million per season -- more than nearly any other coach who doesn't double as his team's general manager.
The Kings, of course, are a mess at just about every level. Bad picks, poor decisions in free agency and awful trades have left an incoherent roster -- a mishmash of mediocre veterans, lottery busts, pending free agents about to get overpaid and positional overlap centered around a malcontent, DeMarcus Cousins, who sours the overall workplace climate. They have cycled through a coach a year for the past decade, and exactly one of them, Michael Malone, appeared to make any headway. The Kings promptly fired him.
They are short-staffed, with a murky decision-making hierarchy topped by two guys -- Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic -- who do not appear qualified yet to make major basketball decisions.
But the Kings have done two smart things in the past two weeks: hiring Ken Catanella from the Pistons as assistant general manager, and snaring Joerger.
Both hiring processes were a little messy. The race for the spot that eventually went to Catanella was marred by miscommunication, per several league sources. Coaches asked out of the Kings' hiring process, and others simply used them as leverage to prove they could make the short list of at least one team.
The Kings ended up in a good place with both hires. You can't praise one team for a thorough interview process and then mock the Kings, just because they are the Kings, for interviewing everyone who would visit. The speed with which they scrapped that process to hire Joerger suggests the Kings had at least an inkling he would become available, though no one involved would go there. (It appears they didn't consider Frank Vogel, which bolsters that theory.)
Joerger can coach. He is an X's-and-O's wiz who can rattle off the play calls of every team with zero notice. He draws up a nice out-of-timeout set. He can go adjustment-for-adjustment with almost anyone; he rejiggered defensive matchups in optimal ways during several playoff series, and was one of the first coaches to try snuffing the Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll by slotting a wing player on Green. Joerger helped set the template, now common, for encroaching further and further off of Oklahoma City's role players to strangle the paint and smother the Thunder's stars.
He found something, at least briefly, using Jeff Green as a small-ball power forward off the bench. And year after year, the grit-and-grind Grizzlies won more close games than their point differential suggested they should.
You could nitpick some stuff -- overplaying Tayshaun Prince, burying young guys in favor of Ryan Hollins, shooting too few 3s, a couple of attempted stylistic revamps that went over badly with key players (more than a nitpick, really) -- but you could do that with any coach. Joerger knows his stuff, and his Grizzlies always -- always -- played hard, together and for each other.
Most of all, the Grizzlies played good defense, something the Kings haven't done in forever. Players, coaches and owners have changed, but over the past decade, one thing has been constant: The Kings stink on defense. George Karl, for all his gifts, was not the right hire to change that, and Sacramento during his season-plus at the helm was an aimless mess on that end.
Joerger proved adaptable on defense, and that will come in handy. He won't have any wing defender in Tony Allen's universe to unleash on the opponent's No. 1 option. Darren Collison and Rajon Rondo are huge steps down from Mike Conley; Rondo barely even pretended to try on defense last season.
Joerger does inherit Cousins, a burly big man with quick feet and quicker wits who has the potential to be at least 90 percent of Marc Gasol on defense -- provided Cousins tries harder and pouts less. Joerger is used to coaching feisty personalities after dealing with Zach Randolph, Allen and the absurd number of NBA oddballs the Grizzlies foisted upon him at the end of his last injury-riddled season.
Willie Cauley-Stein is a promising frontcourt partner for Cousins on defense, and he has the speed to blitz pick-and-rolls, switch onto little guys and do all sorts of stuff.
Joerger didn't have a toy like that in Memphis, but he showed he was willing to experiment with different styles -- even blitzing styles that went out of vogue -- and tailor schemes to personnel. Any lineup with Cousins and Cauley-Stein will suffer from spacing issues, especially if Rudy Gay and Rondo are still around, and perhaps no coach has more experience than Joerger at squeezing points from lineups that looked as if they were playing in 1985.
It's something of a mystery what Joerger might do with a more modern team -- his attempted reconstructions in Memphis never stuck, including moving Randolph to the bench midseason -- or whether the Kings will provide him with such a team.
Having coached Gasol and Randolph, Joerger probably has a good idea of how he'd like to use Cousins on offense -- of how to balance his high-post passing skills with his unguardable low-post brutality. That balance got a little out of whack under Karl, when Cousins posted up less and jacked a ton of 3s. Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé wants to play fast, but it seemed that the Kings were hurtling out of control last season -- running for the sake of running, while sacrificing Cousins' power game and their own already dismal transition defense.
There might be an interesting push-pull between what Ranadivé wants in terms of pace, and how Joerger prefers to play -- and certainly how his power-post teams played in Memphis. That could be an early test of the organizational cohesion the Kings are trying to build -- something that was lacking in both Memphis and Sacramento last season.
Joerger will have the Kings prepared. Whether he can convince them to play hard, all the time, is the more interesting question. The Grizzlies had a collection of lovable loons, but by the time they arrived in Memphis, those veterans could largely police themselves. Guys like Allen, Randolph, Gasol and Conley didn't need anyone to push them or stoke their championship aspirations.
The Kings do not offer such a foundation. Even those who rave about Joerger's expertise wonder if he can galvanize a disparate, yappy group that badly needs a unifying force -- both on the floor and in interactions with management.
Unity was an issue in Memphis, too, and Joerger is going from there to a place that has been in a state of constant sniping dysfunction.
Joerger asked to explore the Minnesota job two summers ago, secured an extension out of it, and didn't wait long to request a hearing with Sacramento, per sources familiar with the matter. He was plainly unhappy with the deadline deals of Jeff Green and Courtney Lee, even though both were good trades when viewed through a wider lens. He rankled some in the organization by declaring during exit interviews that he would not be involved with the draft, and that reporters wouldn't see him again until the start of free agency on July 1.
You can understand Joerger's discontent on some level. Robert Pera, the Grizzlies' owner, reportedly considered firing Joerger during the first months of his tenure, and wondered whether Joerger might wear a headset during games. That passed, but the Grizzlies' front office was roiled in melodrama until Pera canned Jason Levien and Stu Lash almost exactly two years ago. Pera and the current minority owners aren't exactly on the same page now.
(Joerger's camp might argue that the Grizzlies triggered the final separation by declining to pick up Joerger's option for 2017-18, but that option was linked to the same below-market contract Joerger was seeking to escape, and it doesn't really matter.)
A good veteran team can survive some disharmony. A bad team can't. The Kings won't make any progress until they get everyone in the organization on the same page and form a culture in which everyone feels comfortable expressing viewpoints. They have not had that at almost any moment since Ranadivé purchased a controlling interest in the team -- to the point that minority owners have been grumbling for the last year-plus about Ranadivé's stewardship.
You can blame lots of people for the toxicity, including some expats, and most of these people probably deserve some of the blame. It doesn't really matter anymore. The damage is done, seasons have been lost, and the Kings are now two important hires into the process of stabilizing themselves.
Letting Joerger coach the way he wants would be a good start along that path. Ditto for giving Catanella a real voice in personnel decisions. The biggest question revolves around potentially trading Cousins for a bounty, effectively rebooting the roster, but that chatter has quieted of late. The Kings should see if Joerger can bring out the best in him on both ends, as Malone did before they inexplicably fired him.
Bottom line: We know less about coaches than we think. What we know about Joerger suggests he has grown quickly into a good one, and he was perhaps the very best hire Sacramento could have made today.