The Sacramento Kings behaved like a normal, rational team for about two weeks, so of course they were long overdue for a couple of head-scratching reports.
Since buying the Kings in 2013, Vivek Ranadivé has seemingly changed the organization to be both tech and analytics-friendly. He’s done this with his hires—Pete d’Alessandro as GM, the father of basketball statistics Dean Oliver as Director of Player Personnel—and with potentially innovative ideas like inviting regular Joes to submit proposals for who the team should draft. But as time goes on, it becomes clear that the defining trait of Ranadivé’s decision-making process is the inability to commit to any one strategy for a length of time.
In the span of two months last season, the Kings fired coach Mike Malone, named his assistant Ty Corbin the interim coach, “removed” Corbin’s interim tag for the rest of the season, fired him, and then hired George Karl over star DeMarcus Cousins’s objections. But rather than learn from this bungling, they’re repeating it in the front office.
In March the Kings hired beloved former player Vlade Divac as vice president of basketball and franchise operations. While he was officially the head of the front office—above GM Pete D’Alessandro—it seemed like he would be doing more on the business side, and act as sort of a free-floating advisor. A month later he had usurped basketball operations power, and two months later D’Alessandro left for the Nuggets.
The beginning of free agency showed Divac to be in over his head, with a report that his unfamiliarity with the CBA and salary cap was causing struggles. And when he actually had to make decisions he was robbed by the 76ers in a trade, and failed to secure wanted players despite throwing funny money at them. But he recovered, and handed out reasonable deals to reasonable players like Kosta Koufos and Marco Bellineli. It’s damning with faint praise to tout the perfectly average deals Sacramento negotiated, but that’s where we find ourselves.
Yesterday it was reported that Divac had offered a front office position to former teammate Peja Stojokavic. No sooner was everybody done making jokes about how Divac was just going to hire the entirety of the 2002 Sacramento Kings squad than another report came out that he was trying to persuade Bobby Jackson to take a job with the Kings. Stacking the front office with former players with no experience is just about on the opposite end of the spectrum as a techno-analytics driven front office, and today the other inevitable shoe dropped.
According to Sportando, Divac halted all communication with statistics guru Oliver, forbid him from attending Summer League in an official Kings capacity, and has “told confidants that he is strongly opposed to the use of analytics in evaluating players.” A report that Dean Oliver has resigned/was fired can’t be far in the future.
I have seen a lot of questioning of Sportando’s report, which I don’t think is quite fair. We should be skeptical insomuch as we should be skeptical of every single report that relies solely on anonymous sourcing, but not any more so in this case. Sportando has a track record as the most reliable source for European basketball news, and has broken numerous (mostly player transaction) stories. It does seem odd that such a pro-analytics owner would hire such a seemingly anti-analytics basketball decisionmaker, but then again Vivek Randivé did hire Divac without explaining to the rest of the front office that he was the final decisionmaker, among a number of other questionable moves. Hiring an “old-school” VP of basketball operations—or not realizing the guy he hired was “old-school”—that is marginalizing others in order to consolidate his power is firmly within the realm of possibility.
There is no need to re-litigate the basketball analytics wars, as by now it is self-evident how dumb being “strongly opposed to the use of analytics in evaluating players” is. Not using analytics to evaluate players is like attempting to build something without a hammer or saw in your toolbox: sure, you can do it, but it will be much more difficult and there’s no point.
Building an NBA team is a long process, the result of thousands of decisions, some of them big and most of them small. An owner can’t be—shouldn’t be—involved in every single decision, but it is their job to hire a group of people who can work together to execute a strategy to build a team. At this, Vivek Ranadivé has been utterly incapable. Ranadivé managed to keep the Kings in Sacramento and convince the city to help pay for a new arena, but after that the most noteworthy aspect of his two years owning the team is how seemingly not a single person he has hired has gotten along with anybody else in the organization. The defining characteristic of the Sacramento Kings is in-fighting.
Yo-yoing from a Pete D-Alessandro/Dean Oliver front office to a Vlade Divac/Peja Stojokavic one within the span of a few months, and firing a coach his star player loves and hiring one he does not, are clear signs that Vivek Ranadivé has no overarching organizational philosophy that guides his decisionmaking. Rather, he lurches from one sage to another in search of The Answer.
On the last couple of pieces I wrote castigating the Kings’ moves, I got pushback from Kings fans and others that my analysis was overly harsh. That the trade with the 76ers wasn’t actually that harmful, that given the circumstances the Kings were successful in free agency, that they took a step forward and will be on the fringes of the playoff race next season. I obviously don’t believe these things to be true, but I am open to the possibility that these individual moves will turn out better than I think. I am open to the possibility that I am wrong.
But what I am sure about is that, long-term, the Kings have no chance at success if every year Ranadivé riffles through personnel in search of different immediate results. That’s not to say he should never change his mind or fire people, but the West is extremely tough—and will be extremely tough for the next half-decade—and the Kings have precisely one player who is good enough to start on a contender. They need somebody who can execute those thousands of decisions, and get most of them right. Divac’s disavowal of analytics is discouraging, but even more so is the process that resulted in Ranadivé putting him in charge in the first place.