Checklist for Mike Malone to Finally Fix the Sacramento Kings
When new owner Vivek Ranadive officially took control of the Sacramento Kings, he wasted little time tabbing Mike Malone as the franchise’s next head coach. In fact, Ranadive was so convinced that Malone was the man for the job—the two were familiar with each other from their time together with the Golden State Warriors, of which Ranadive was a minority owner and Malone the lead assistant head coach—that he shirked conventional wisdom and hired Malone before finding a general manager.
Malone has been one of the league’s top assistants for years, but this is his first stint as a head coach in the NBA. And needless to say, he got that opportunity because the Kings have been floundering and are in dire need of a new direction—with Malone being the one guiding them through that process.
It certainly won’t be easy, but Ranadive’s convinced Malone is the one to lead the charge. And unlike in years past, the team now has a strong ownership group that’s willing to back its coach monetarily and philosophically.
In short, Malone’s got the keys to the car and there’s gas in the tank—he’s just got to be the one to drive it. If he wants to steer the Kings in the right direction, here are a few keys to start on the road back to prominence.
Change the Culture
Before Malone does anything else, he’ll need to change the culture in the locker room, which in the past has been one of unaccountability and acceptance of subpar play. While he’ll likely have many of the same players on the roster that were there in the past, by simply providing strong leadership skills and having the backing of ownership, he should be able to accomplish this without a wholesale change of players.
It’s true that, as a coach, there’s only so much one can do; after all, the players are the ones on the court. But that’s the key right there, the players are the ones on the court, and Malone is in charge of how many minutes they’ll get on it.
That alone can be a very powerful tool.
In the past, whenever DeMarcus Cousins would act up, the head coach—whether it was Paul Westphal or Keith Smart—and GM Geoff Petrie would suspend him for his actions, only to have the Maloofs come in and reinstate him. With an ownership group fully backing Malone, playing time should be a tool at his disposal.
Beyond that, Malone can instill the virtues he values onto the players, knowing he has the full support of the front office behind him. And without recourse other than listening to him, because there are no Maloofs coming in to the rescue, the players will have no choice but to fall in line.
Develop a Rapport with DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins is the future of the franchise. Ranadive, Malone and new GM Pete D’Alessandro have made that perfectly clear in their comments. Yet actions speak louder than words, and the new brass recently flew down to Mobile, Ala. to make sure they were on the same page with Cousins.
For Malone, gaining the respect of Cousins will be key. The problem is knowing how to gain Cousins’ respect, as it’s been somewhat of a white whale for previous coaches. Malone can do this by making sure he’s there to support Cousins.
But he can also do it by limiting his playing time when Cousins acts up. Players usually don’t care if you fine them, but when they’re playing time starts disappearing, they’re usually more apt to fall in line.
After all, respect is a two-way street; it goes both ways. And with DeMarcus clearly being the best player on the team and one of the most talented big men the NBA has to offer, finding a way to tap into that will be paramount in the team’s success and, ultimately, Malone’s success as a head coach.
Fix the Defense
Beyond his strong resume as an assistant head coach, one of the main reasons Malone was brought in was because of his defensive acumen.
In Malone’s most recent stop with the Golden State Warriors, there was a steady improvement on the defensive end. In 2011-12, his first year with the team, Golden State finished 26th in defensive rating and 18th in opponent field-goal percentage. Last season, the Warriors made a serious progression, ranking 13th in defensive rating and fourth in defensive field-goal percentage.
After finishing 29th in defensive rating and 28th in opponent field-goal percentage during the 2012-13 season, it’s clear Sacramento could use serious help on defense. And with Malone’s track record, that’s something he should be able to provide.
In fact, he expects to be able to impact the defense immediately, and he also thinks it can be done with some schematic tweaks and teaching his system rather than bringing in a whole new roster of more capable defenders.
"There's only room for improvement when you're last in the league in almost every defensive category," Malone said, according to Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee. "So it's a matter of teaching, and I think that's what all good coaches are. Demanding it from them, holding them accountable, using film as a great teaching tool, there's no doubt that we'll improve with the current players or any new players that we add to the team."
Figure out a Set Rotation
As the coach, it’s not Malone’s job to bring in players. His job is to make it work with the players on the team. A big part of that equation is setting a rotation that works.
Of course the roster isn’t set yet, as we’re still in the middle of free agency, but we’re already starting to get a good picture of who will be on the team. And from the looks of things, Malone will have his work cut out for him in the backcourt.
With Greivis Vasquez, Isaiah Thomas, Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Ben McLemore and Ray McCollum currently on the team, that’s six guards that can only occupy two spots on the court. And of those six, none are really capable of moving to small forward. Therefore, Malone will need to find a way to get all of them playing time, while making sure he focuses on whoever he sees as the two best guards.
At the forward spots, it’s much of the same. John Salmons, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Travis Outlaw and Patrick Patterson are all on the team. Landry, Thompson and Patterson play the vast majority of their minutes at the 4, and all of them are capable players worthy of getting a steady diet of minutes on a nightly basis, so Malone will need to juggle that situation.
Small forward appears to be a fluid situation; for that matter, the whole roster is still a fluid situation. When everything is set, we’ll have a better idea of how playing time will shake out. But regardless of who’s on the team, it’ll be up to Malone to set a rotation and keep everybody happy with it.
Creating a cohesive unit will be paramount for the Kings’ success in Year 1 of Malone’s tenure as coach. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important every year—especially so this first season, because Sacramento will be returning a roster similar to what it rolled with last season.
Luckily for Malone, he’ll have the whole offseason to get to know the players. He’ll also have a chance to install his system from the get-go, an opportunity Keith Smart didn’t get in his first season after taking over midway through the year when Paul Westphal was fired.
In order to have success, the Kings will need to understand the intricacies of Malone’s scheme and how to operate in it. In short, they’ll have to perform as one single unit on both offense and defense.
Theoretically, as Malone gets further into his tenure, along with Ranadive and D’Alessandro, there will be better players to work with. But he’s got to go with what he’s inherited this season, and the only way he’ll make a significant improvement right off the bat is with the team playing together and to the absolute best of its abilities.
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