CHICAGO — When Tyrone Corbin addressed reporters outside the visitor’s locker room at the United Center on Tuesday, before the Sacramento Kings’ 104-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls, he didn’t carry himself like someone who knows he's a dead man walking.
As impossible, though, the situation in which Kings management has put Corbin may be, he couldn’t let it show.
He knows Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee is likely the last of his short-lived term as interim coach, with George Karl all but locked up to take over after the All-Star break, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Chris Broussard.
He knows there’s nothing he can do to save it. He has every right to go off on an organization that has handled this season’s coaching changes about as poorly as possible, but he's chosen to take a higher road.
“This is your job,” Corbin said. “My job is to coach the team, their job is to play. I’ve been through a lot in this league. I played for 16 years; I’ve coached for 12. It’s a difficult time. But it’s a part of being in this league.”
Nobody was prepared for the circus that has unfolded in Sacramento this season. The Dec. 15 firing of head coach Mike Malone came out of nowhere—the Kings started the season 9-5 before falling to 11-13 after DeMarcus Cousins went out with a viral infection.
The circumstances surrounding Malone’s dismissal were bizarre, rooted in disagreements with owner Vivek Ranadive about the team’s on-court philosophy.
The Kings tabbed Corbin as Malone’s interim replacement and shortly thereafter signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season. But that didn’t quiet the chatter that the team still had its heart set on Karl. Those rumors have picked up steam in the last week as the Kings have continued to underperform (they’re 7-20 since Corbin took over), and the team is now operating as if Karl will step in after the break.
All of which is grossly unfair to Corbin and to his players, who still have games to play and are now being asked to carry on as if nothing is happening, all the while becoming a punchline around the NBA.
“You have to commend him,” Rudy Gay said of Corbin after the game. “I think [Malone’s firing] came as a shock to everyone. He’s handled himself as a professional.”
Cousins, days before the first All-Star appearance of his five-year career, is ready for it to be over. Multiple reports (USA Today's Sam Amick among them) over the weekend indicated that Cousins and his representatives were opposed to the Karl hire, which only added to Cousins’ less-than-stellar reputation around the league.
It's a reputation, by the way, that’s been overblown for a while. The chatter got so loud that Cousins issued a statement to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski before Tuesday’s game to air out his perspective:
I wasn’t consulted when the decision was made to fire Mike Malone and I’m not being consulted now. I just hope they make a decision soon and stick with it. George Karl is an experienced, proven coach and if that is who they chose to coach this team, I will support it. I do not like all these discussions in the media while we have a coach in place. It is a distraction and not fair to Coach Corbin and this team.
In the visitor’s locker room at the United Center, Cousins was exhausted from constantly being made to talk about things that are out of his hands but thrust him into the limelight all the same.
“It’s been a difficult situation for everybody,” Cousins said. “Not just the players, but the coaching staff. All of us got thrown into this situation. But we have to make the least amount of excuses possible and go out and do our job to the best of our ability.”
On Tuesday night, the Kings were overmatched by a Bulls team that looked more in sync than it has in weeks. Sacramento kept it close early and trailed by just eight points at the half, but it was outscored, 27-15, in the third quarter, all but putting the game out of reach.
The constant change, uncertainty and speculation hasn’t made things easy for the players, who have to deal not only with outside attention but also a lack of continuity. In the best of times, an NBA season is a grind. When something as crucial as the head coach position is constantly in a state of flux, it gets that much more difficult.
“When you start training camp doing one thing, it’s hard for [Corbin] to come in [in the middle of the season] and insert his way,” Gay said. “It’s tough for him, but he played it like a professional.”
Having a veteran like Gay, who has twice been traded midseason in his career, in the locker room helps with a roster as young and unproven as the Kings’.
“It’s the NBA,” Gay said. “I’ve pretty much been through everything in this league. I’ve been through coaching changes. I’ve been through trades. I’ve been through a lot. This is nothing to me. I’m one of the veterans on this team, so I have to just come in and be a professional. I can only control what happens on the basketball court.”
That part isn’t going well for the Kings at the moment.
But the All-Star break is coming up, and then Karl will most likely be the coach.
Ideally, that will bring some closure to what has been one of the most trying seasons of Gay’s career. In the meantime, he’s just trying to focus on the present.
“The marathon continues.”