The Sacramento Kings announced this afternoon that they’d hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger. Since it’s the Kings, you probably reflexively think this is a dumb move, but it’s actually the opposite!
Joerger is a talented young (42) NBA coach. He was widely-acknowledged as the architect of the Grizzlies’ gritty and grindy defense as an assistant, and in his three years in charge he took the team to the playoffs each time. Last year he even has the soon-to-be champion Warriors down 2-1 before they figured out they didn’t have to guard Tony Allen, and this season he coaxed a playoff spot out of a bunch of hard-working D-Leaguers.
Whatever Joerger’s failings in Memphis—and the ones that seemed to get him fired was constantly clashing with management, and for the second time in three years asking permission to interview for outside positions while still under contract—he got the best out of the limited roster he was forced to try and contend with.
But Memphis’s loss is Sacramento’s gain, and for the first time under Vivek Ranadivé’s ownership, they did something smart in the coaching department. Before now they had hired Mike Malone before hiring a GM, fired Malone even though he overachieved and had established a rapport with DeMarcus Cousins, promised the interim Ty Corbin he would have the full season to prove himself, fired Corbin after just 28 games, hired the notoriously cantankerous George Karl, reportedly came up to but did not cross the precipice of firing him numerous times, and finally did so this offseason.
Joerger should immediately improve the Kings, who went 33-49 this season. With Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein he is in a similar situation as Memphis, with one offensively gifted big and one defensively gifted big. But Cousins is mobile and with proper coaching (and effort levels) there is no reason he can’t be an average defender, and as a second-year player, Cauley-Stein will undoubtedly improve. The backcourt isn’t as talented—and the Kings don’t have a starting point guard—but with a shrewd offseason the Kings could be reasonably projected to go something like 40-42 and challenge for that final playoff spot.
The other thing that general manager Vlade Divac—who reportedly struggled with understanding the CBA—did was shrewdly negotiate the contract. The Kings still owe Karl $6.5 million, and as Tom Ziller deftly explained, small market teams can’t afford to revolve through coaches and constantly be on the hook for dead money, like the Kings have done.
But the Kings took advantage of the fact that many of the open jobs on the market (Wolves, Wizards, Lakers, seemingly the Knicks) have already been filled, and according to numerous reports, signed Joerger to an eminently reasonable four-year, $16 million contract, with the fourth year a team option. If for whatever reason the Kings decide to go in a different direction—and for all the sense this move makes, they’re still the Kings—they won’t be harshly financially penalized.