Sources: Inside Sacramento Kings' Firing of Head Coach Luke Walton

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 23, 2021

Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton watches during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

In a move that seemed nearly two years in the making, the Sacramento Kings dismissed head coach Luke Walton on Sunday. 

The timing of Sacramento's decision did raise questions around the NBA, with some rival executives wondering why this change in leadership wasn't made during the summer. Yet Kings figures maintain Walton entered the season with an opportunity to lead Sacramento to the playoffs, and appeared on track to do so following the team's 5-4 start, against an opening schedule considered one of the toughest in the league. 

Vivek Ranadive's ownership group has sought a postseason berth ever since purchasing the team in May 2013. When general manager Monte McNair, hired in September 2020, met with Kings personnel during exit meetings following last season, Sacramento's new front office communicated how players and coaches needed to shift their nightly thinking from trying to win games to expecting to win games. 

There was a clear organizational goal of making this year's postseason, for the first time since 2006, with at least a Play-In Tournament appearance. Kings brass believed the clearest path to the playoffs was improving their league-worst defense to one that ranked roughly top-15, sources told B/R. Sacramento then made obvious defensive-minded personnel moves in the offseason, such as drafting Davion Mitchell at No. 9, and acquiring Tristan Thompson, Maurice Harkless, Alex Len and Terence Davis. 

But Sacramento only improved to 26th in defensive efficiency and stumbled to 6-11 at the time of Walton's ouster. The Kings lost seven of Walton's final eight games, including a loss to the clearly-rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder. They dropped their last three contests by double digits—one game notably against Minnesota, the team's current biggest rival for that pivotal 10th seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.

There have been rumors of Walton's possible departure dating back as far as the spring of 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA. Only then, a combination of finances and the optics of making such a change during the early days of a pandemic that crippled the national economy, and left thousands out of work, secured the coach's status in Sacramento. Walton is still owed $11.5 million through next season.

The writing, however, remained on the wall. So much so, the Kings' new interim head coach Alvin Gentry, himself having been dismissed by New Orleans following that 2020 campaign, chose to join Walton's staff that October despite being offered a more lucrative role on Doc Rivers' bench in Philadelphia, sources said, where the Sixers were expected to compete for the championship in 2021.

This will now mark the fourth time—the most in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau—that Gentry has taken over a team midseason. But by all accounts, there's no proverbial knife sticking out from Walton's back. Gentry and Walton share a strong connection from their days on the Golden State Warriors coaching staff, yet the possibility of Walton's departure appears clear in the calculus that led Gentry to join Sacramento, along with family being based in California. And if Walton was always going to get axed, at least a confidant would get the opportunity in his wake. 

"I came here with the intentions of helping Luke as much as I possibly could," Gentry told reporters on Monday night. He added: "When something like this happens, it makes you feel extremely bad, because I felt like I failed Luke for not being able to help in some way that this thing kept going."

It now falls on Gentry to right the Kings' ship. He remains under contract through the 2022-23 season and will coach the duration of this year's campaign, sources said, barring unforeseen circumstances. 

Sacramento hopes Gentry can revitalize the formula that led to wins earlier this season over Phoenix, its last loss before the Suns' current 13-game win streak, and their triumphant season-opener against Portland

Gentry, though, has never been known for his defensive principles, and even his biggest fans across the league recognize he's not the obvious choice to correct a team's shortcomings on that end of the floor. A proponent of Mike D'Antoni's patented pace-and-space style, Gentry will have to reignite De'Aaron Fox after the point guard's slow start. 

There is room for hope; six of Sacramento's 11 losses have come by single digits. Perhaps Gentry's veteran savvy and fresh voice can fix enough problems around narrow margins to salvage the Kings' playoff chances. 

That would likely have to come without any major trade fixes in the near future. Sacramento brass expect Gentry, Fox, and the Kings to recapture what led to their strong start themselves, as opposed to making any other stark personnel changes, sources told B/R.

However, the possibility of a Marvin Bagley III move remains obvious as Dec. 15 approaches, when a large portion of players who signed new contracts in free agency become eligible for trades. The fact that McNair's predecessor, Vlade Divac, ultimately selected Bagley over Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jaren Jackson, of course, never helped Walton's case in guiding Sacramento back to the playoffs. Divac himself was fired in August 2020, just 12 months after he had signed a four-year contract extension, before the Kings brought on McNair and assistant general manager Wes Wilcox. 

And despite strong preseason chatter that a slow start in Sacramento could lead to a potential Ben Simmons trade with Philadelphia, there remains no significant current discussion between the Sixers and Kings. Fox and Tyrese Halliburton are still deemed unavailable, and second-year standout Tyrese Maxey has emerged as a legitimate starting point guard in Philadelphia.