SACRAMENTO -- When the door opens to the makeshift owners lounge that used to act as a media workroom, former St. John’s teammates Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin are standing in the center of the room reminiscing and sharing a laugh. General manager Pete D’Alessandro is sitting at a table with white linens in preparation for an influx of former Kings, all in attendance for the jersey retirement ceremony of Peja Stojakovic. And owner Vivek Ranadive is waiting anxiously for his last of many one-on-one interviews.
It’s been a rough 48 hours for the former tech giant. The firing of popular head coach Michael Malone on Sunday night has been received quite poorly almost across the board. The media has come calling in search of answers, and Ranadive has a list of five points, memorized, that he wants to share.
“There are five things I want to say,” the soft-spoken Ranadive begins. “The first thing is -- look, I know the fans have reacted to this aggressively, and it just underscores for me that we have the best fans in sports. They’re passionate, they’re engaged, they let their views be known, even if they don’t agree with what we’re doing.”
Ranadive is correct. Sacramento Kings fans are dumbfounded. After a 9-6 start to the season, DeMarcus Cousins came down with viral meningitis and hasn’t played since. Without Cousins, the Kings are 2-8 and losers of four straight.
Now 11-14 on the season, D’Alessandro, with the backing of Ranadive, handed Malone his pink slip.
“Michael Malone is a good man, he’s an honorable man and that he did great things for this organization,” Ranadive says, moving to Point 2. “I, personally, and the Sacramento Kings will always have the highest respect and regard for Michael Malone. And that whatever he does, we know that he will continue to have a great career in the NBA.”
The typical exit speech from an owner when a coach is fired. In Sacramento, there is a template sitting in a drawer somewhere.
“When we got Michael Malone, we believed it was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Ranadive, who hired Malone soon after he agreed to purchase the Kings and before he hired D’Alessandro. “I was handed the keys to the kingdom, and the place was literally and figuratively falling apart. The roof was falling down, we hadn’t sold a single ticket. There was chaos, even anarchy, in the locker room, and the draft was only weeks away. So we needed a coach that would restore structure, restore discipline, restore a system, defense and I consulted with some of the experts in the business, and they said he was a great choice.”
This third point should come in bold print. Chaos and anarchy are perfect descriptions for where the Kings were when Ranadive took control of the team from the Maloofs, who nearly sold the team to owners who intended to move to Seattle. In 18 months, Malone transformed one of the most dysfunctional locker rooms in the league, without giving up on Cousins.
Described as both a disciplinarian and players' coach, Malone laid a foundation that interim coach Tyrone Corbin, the former head coach of the Utah Jazz, now takes over.
“The NBA has become like the high-tech business,” Ranadive said. Point 4. “Just because you invented the iPhone, doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels, because somebody else is building a better iPhone. Just because you win 50 games, doesn’t mean you can be satisfied with the status quo. Just because you win 16 games in a row, doesn’t mean that you don’t look for Ray Allen to make your team better. So we live in a time when good enough isn’t, and we need to keep getting better. So while we have a good foundation, we needed to pivot. We needed to go.”
Ranadive wasn’t finished with this point. In fact, of the five, this is the one he says led to Malone’s dismissal.
“Defense is great, but we need defense and offense,” he said. “We need to go from a rules-based organization, which was important when you had chaos, to a values-based organization. From kind of a programmatic offense, to a read-and-respond, free-flowing offense. I like to use a music metaphor. We had a Sousa marching band, which was needed when there was chaos, but now we need to shift to a jazz band, where people can be individually showcased and improvised. What we need is a jazz director. I think that’s the kind of leadership moving forward.”
Known for his defensive coaching acumen, the Kings under Malone felt more like the New York Knicks from the early 1990s. Before owning the Kings, Ranadive was a co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, long known for their offense. D’Alessandro was the assistant GM for George Karl’s high-octane Denver Nuggets.
There was a clear mismatch in styles. While the brass preached pace, Malone emphasized defense. A middle ground was never reached.
Now the last point.
“This ownership group has shown a willingness to open its wallet,” Ranadive said. “Open it for the players, for the coaching staff, for the facility, for the old arena, the new arena, the downtown Sacramento development, and we will continue to do that because we have the best fans in sports.”
After running through his list, we have time for one question before we lose our spot on the white leather couch. Ranadive has taken a beating in the press, both locally and nationally. How is he holding up under the scrutiny?
“I’ve been beaten before,” he said. “They said that Seattle had won, and we would never be able to keep this team. People said that Cousins was toxic, and he was a cancer and we should get rid of him. They said that Rudy [Gay] was terrible, and even if he came, he would never stay. They said if Isaiah [Thomas] left, the team would fall apart. So look, I’m surrounded by really smart people, and they give me great advice. They call the shots, and I support them.”