Luke Walton Firing Just the Latest Chapter In Sacramento Kings' Legacy of Dysfunction

Sean Highkin@@highkinFeatured Columnist IIINovember 22, 2021

Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton gestures to the team during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
AP Photo/Steve Dykes

The only surprising part about the Sacramento Kings' Sunday morning firing of head coach Luke Walton was that it didn't happen sooner.

Before last season, the Kings hired Alvin Gentry as associate head coach, and from the moment that move was announced, it had the feel of a "We're going to fire our coach two weeks into the season and need an adult there to take over" hire. Only it didn't happen during the season, nor after their 5-10 start or their nine-game February losing streak. And it didn't happen in the offseason, despite a 31-41 finish that put them 12th in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs for a 15th straight year.

It finally happened a month into this season, after the Kings started off 6-10. Apparently, owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Monte McNair still had some evaluation to do on Walton, who has now parlayed a brief stint as acting head coach of the 73-win 2015-16 Golden State Warriors into two head coaching gigs with zero playoff appearances to show for it. 

And before the widely-liked coaching lifer Gentry was ultimately named interim head coach, they couldn't help but let it leak (via ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski) that Doug Christie, a franchise legend with virtually zero coaching experience, was under consideration for the job. Because there's nothing more Kings than giving big jobs to people with no experience in those roles but who played for the team when they were relevant in the early 2000s. No Kings fan looks back fondly on Vlade Divac's tenure as general manager.

Gentry is a good coach and has been for a long time, so he'll probably do as good a job the rest of this season as anyone could reasonably be expected to. But he won't be the first good coach the Kings have had during their 15-year playoff drought. Walton's predecessor, Dave Joerger, coached the team to a 39-43 record in 2018-19, their best showing in that time—and was promptly fired at the end of the season.

That's to say nothing of one of the most awkward, poorly-handled coaching changes in recent memory, during the 2014-15 season. The Kings fired Michael Malone, the only coach All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins had ever connected with, 24 games into the season. They named Tyrone Corbin interim head coach, and subsequently took the step of officially removing his interim tag and publicly declaring that the job was his for good. Despite that, reports surfaced shortly before the All-Star break that Corbin would be replaced by George Karl, a move Cousins publicly opposed along with the initial firing of Malone. During this time, Corbin was forced to be a professional in public while everyone knew he was being replaced.

Two years later, after Karl was fired and yet another new coach was installed in Joerger, the Kings traded Cousins (to this day the best player the franchise has had in the post-Chris Webber era) to the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2017 All-Star Game, something Cousins found out about when he sat down after the game to talk to reporters.

This weekend's move to fire Walton is part of the same lineage of dysfunction and chaos. The detail that his final game on the job, a loss at home to the Utah Jazz, was highlighted by a fan vomiting profusely in his courtside seats, causing a delay in the action, is a little too perfect. If the Kings were a reality show—call it Love & Hip-Hop: Sacramento—that would be a plot line that would make viewers question how much of it was actually real.

The Kings' current roster is not bad. De'Aaron Fox is a borderline All-Star and a worthy franchise point guard, and his backcourt-mate, Tyrese Haliburton, is one of the league's most promising up-and-coming guards. Rookie guard Davion Mitchell is already an elite defender. Buddy Hield is one of the league's best shooters. Harrison Barnes is a reliable veteran wing. Richaun Holmes is one of the most unheralded, but dependable, big men in the NBA. On paper, that's a team that should be closer to the playoffs than they are.

Maybe they'll get there under Gentry. But in truth, it doesn't matter who the Kings coach is, or who their general manager is. McNair, who replaced Divac before the 2020-21 season, was well-respected during his 13 seasons in the Houston Rockets front office, but we may never know if he's a good GM or not, because thus far he hasn't been given a chance to put his imprint on the franchise.

By now, we're almost a decade past the burning of any goodwill Ranadive earned by stepping in at the 11th hour in 2013 to buy the Kings from the similarly dysfunctional Maloof family and save the franchise from a move to Seattle. Forget not making the playoffs since 2006—just in the eight-plus seasons since Ranadive bought the team, they've gone through five head coaches and four general managers. 

Of their eight lottery picks in that time, only Fox has signed a second contract with the team (although Haliburton and Mitchell look like hits based on early returns). They passed on Luka Doncic in 2018 to draft Marvin Bagley III, who is currently out of the rotation and could be had by any team that wants to trade for him. Their most enduring draft-night moment is the infamous 2014 video of Ranadive in the decision room lobbying for Nik Stauskas by shouting "Stauskas!" over and over again, while comparing the former Michigan star to both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at the same time. (Stauskas went on to play for five teams in five seasons and has been out of the league since 2019.)

Walton's firing won't be the last time the Kings play the role of the laughingstock of the NBA. It's a title they've grown accustomed to holding and continually find new ways to live up to. Even a team like this one that should be pretty good can't get out of its own way.

When the Kings face the Philadelphia 76ers at home Monday, they'll have a new coach and a new focus on eliminating distractions. But they'll still be the same old Kings, carrying on a long legacy of dysfunction that isn't coming to an end anytime soon.

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.