Ranadive’s Kingdom of Misdirection

With a little less than a week before the trade deadline on February 10, it is obvious that the Kings are in crisis and have been for a while. Not having made the playoffs since 2006, Sacramento is on its way to another disappointing season, one that may draw the most disgust from a fanbase deprived of a worthy product on the court.

Mediocrity, underachievement, and a deluge of losses have riddled the team again and again. It seems to happen every year in the same fashion: fans get excited about some young talent and other pieces on the roster, the front office talks it up, and yet it looks nothing like a contender. Somehow, this long drawn out swoon has begun gaping in what was supposed to be the most emergent period for the organization after new owners made a commitment to the city of Sacramento and delivered a one of a kind arena. And yet, despite the ambitions and hopes, nothing has happened in terms of success.

This organization keeps beating its head against the wall, remaining it seems always behind the curve and seeing no improvement as a result. Sacramento is becoming the place where nothing happens until it is too late.

Take De’Aaron Fox, for example, who has been viewed as the centerpiece for years, who was essentially untouchable up through this past offseason even as the Kings pursued a deal to attain Ben Simmons. After years of disappointment, though, things change. Not far into this season, after a slow start to a less productive year where sources say he’s less engaged, Fox is now available given the right deal, which as of about a week ago will not be for Simmons. Regardless of the fact his value is lower comparative to the summer, the reluctant, perhaps too late shift in philosophy is indicative of how the Kings operate.

As is obvious, this is an organization that has been nothing short of chaotic. With so many changes that have occurred amid this era of Kings basketball, from coaches to GM’s to roster moves, but two things have remained constant. One is the losing, the other is majority owner Vivek Ranadive.

Ranadive was probably the least of fans’ worries nine years ago when he was making big promises from the start. It seemed to be working out for him, hitting the scene with popularity as the guy who was keeping the Kings in Sacramento, the guy who could make the Kings an international brand, and the guy who was going to establish a winning culture.

Yet in Vivek’s ninth season as owner, the Kings have never been to the playoffs, they’ve never won more than 39 games, and they’ve never established a clear direction. This may sound like it could be attributed to all sorts of things—lack of talent, lack of development, lack of expertise—but when the seven year playoff drought is on its way to being extended to its sixteenth year, those excuses lose their weight.

And that’s what they are: excuses. They are distractions from the fact that this franchise has failed to make any progress in terms of winning, has created a poor reputation, and has by all appearances failed to learn any lessons in the process. Through it all, Ranadive’s been at the helm the whole time.

As the deadline approaches and as fans await which new direction they’re headed, take a moment to remind yourself that, if it were possible, the best move this team could make is dumping Ranadive.

An Unrealistic Owner

He’s not known for running the best of NBA operations. If anything, Vivek Ranadive’s well known for overseeing a chaotic organization, one where he has the final say, a final say that’s often impractical and out of touch. Because of this, he’s set the team back, never giving it the opportunity to go anywhere.

From the start he was guided by his “unhealthy fixation” on the Warriors, the team he previously owned shares of. The obsession wasn’t even schematic, it was borderline delusional and it was the propellant behind his whole vision. 

In his second draft as chair in 2014, Ranadive ultimately had the final say when the Kings drafted Nik Stauskas. Stauskas was the favorite to Ranadive and the front office solely because there was a hunger for “shooting” so as to get some kind of a Curry or Thompson type on the team, but even as shooting was necessary if Michael Malone was going to be able to run a similar offense to Golden State—as Ranadive wanted—it’s no easy task replicating that level of talent, and Stauskas clearly wasn’t the guy when it’s considered, in hindsight of course, that Zack LaVine and Nikola Jokic were both available. To be fair, neither of those guys were widely seen as top talents in that draft, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other options.

Another way to emulate Golden State, and perhaps a smarter route, would have been to start with the thing that turned that franchise around: put an emphasis on defense. When Mark Jackson became coach of the Warriors, the former point guard committed his team to defense. Previously lingering at the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency, Jackson moved the Warriors up to 15th in the league the first year they went to the playoffs and up to 4th the following year. That laid down the groundwork that led to the dynasty basketball fans saw flourish. Yes, shooting played a major part, but shooting isn’t everything. One of the players in high consideration among the Kings analytics team in 2014 was Elfrid Payton, the ball-distributing, defensively talented point guard. There’s no reason arguing that the Kings would have won a title had they just drafted Elfrid Payton, but that draft says something about how head in the clouds Ranadive is.

Always having been blind to the nuances of developing a winning team, Ranadive determined in 2013, according to ESPN, that Malone would have two seasons to deliver a playoff berth because Mark Jackson got the Warriors there in that timeframe. He had hand picked Malone without ever assembling a front office or picking a GM when he became owner, and nevertheless put the heaviest of expectations on his new coach. It all happened quite impulsively. He was clearly fixated on cutting straight to the end goal of trying to be the Warriors as quickly as possible without considering what it takes to produce a championship contending roster. This sort of hubris to think he knew what it took to emulate his former team proved only to be a detriment to developing any kind of success from the outset.

That incessant need to have a hand in everything is well known around the league. There have been times over the years where Ranadive’s signaled he’ll take a step back because he’s needed to in order to clear up the organization’s reputation under him, but as recent as last year he was regarded, by those familiar, as a Jerry Jones-type figure, or one trying to be involved in so many things close to the court, but just far less adept at understanding basketball at the professional level. 

It’s been like that for a while, simply being out of touch, and it fulfills the opposite outcome intended. 

For example, Ranadive had his first General Manager, Pete D’Alessandro, retrieve the out of shape, emotionally withdrawn, recently released rookie Royce White in March 2014 to fulfill Malone’s wish for a backup point guard, only left feeling perplexed as to why Malone would never play the guy. In another instance, when Ranadive saw Josh Smith play and wanted to get him in the summer of 2014, then-Coach Malone said Smith wasn’t needed, “but Ranadive didn’t care” and wanted to dump the burden on “Malone to make it work” per Yahoo! Sports. It was the start of a track record of being authoritative and unpredictable without any self-awareness of the fact.

Out of touch and, one could say, impractical, like he’s not often told the word “no.” This is the same guy who, after utilizing it as a strategy for his daughter’s youth basketball team, thought it was a genius idea to try—in the most elite basketball league—to play four players on defense with a fifth ready to cherry pick. As harmless as it sounds to put forth a useless idea like that, Ranadive’s tendency to lean on his impractical ambitions only end up exacerbating chaos. Just like how he expected Malone to navigate this team to the playoffs in just two seasons, Ranadive left the coaching staff in awe back in 2015 when he demanded 50 wins prior to George Karl’s lone full season as head coach.

And it continues, worsening with every year, as Ranadive refuses to take any responsibility for mishaps when it matters while always jumping ahead to take credit.

An Ego That Manifests Conflict

Vivek came onto the scene, high on his Warriors 2.0 fantasy, saying he wanted to be like Joe Lacob, that he was going to establish a winning tradition in one market by using what he’s learned from another. On multiple scripted occasions, he’ll often claim he paid hundreds of millions for an organization that “had no revenue, no ticket sales, an arena that is falling apart, that had chaos in the locker room, leadership that was falling apart” and claimed he had to “quickly stabilize everything.” 

True, he kept the team in Sacramento with a new stadium, a great one, and of course he’s been applauded for his revenue growth. But stadiums and revenue only go so far because at the end of the day the best way to judge your basketball organization is whether or not it’s winning and competing for a championship, which is something that has been completely absent in the Ranadive era. 

Still, in the big picture, his sense of pride, though selective, rests on all the success with the stadium, the initial revenue, the exposure alongside celebrities, and his push to extend the NBA’s outreach to India. But those feats merely fuel his apparent arrogance while blinding him from the reality that he has nothing to be proud of regarding the success of this team. 

Even so, Ranadive has a habit of bolstering his own self image, even if it is totally made up and instantly pissing off the people who know him. According to ESPN in 2017, in his fourth year as chair, those familiar said Ranadive just couldn’t “help himself” from claiming credit for things back in his time with the Warriors that he had no business taking credit for especially when he wasn’t particularly popular with members of the ownership group in the Bay Area.

Liked or not, it wouldn’t matter. Ranadive is keen to make the moves he thinks are necessary. Just as it leads him to believe he has what it takes to call big shots, the inflated ego also blocks out any view for him to take accountability, creating an untenable situation for a franchise trying to improve.

One of the most tense periods of Ranadive’s ownership was the contentious period that occurred under George Karl’s reign as head coach that implicated the front office members, minority owners, and the Kings’ lone star. Actually, what ended up being a tense period that ended with a step taken back rather than forward, could very well have been the beginning of a playoff era had it not been for Ranadive’s smug conceit.

Problems existed between Coach Karl and DeMarcus Cousins, but Ranadive, throughout it all, was in the middle of it, making things worse on both ends, and his refusal to take accountability continued to hurt the Kings organization.

Ranadive had gotten off to such a horrible start, trying to will success into existence like a child, and likewise tearing things down when things didn’t go his way.

GM Pete D’Alessandro and adviser Chris Mullin flew to Las Vegas in early December 2014 to present a case to Ranadive, who was attending a conference. That case was regarding coach Michael Malone, who was hired before D’Alessandro and Mullin got their respective jobs with the Kings. As they saw it and expressed to Ranadive, Malone was running too slow of an offense with too much focus on isolation plays. 

Wanting to change the offensive identity was not in itself absurd, but Malone had gotten off to an 11-13 start despite Cousins missing a hefty portion due to viral meningitis, and that proved enough to pull the trigger.

There is no doubt that the timing and the lack of consideration for the opinion of Cousins, who thought very highly of Malone and began maturing under him, was shortsighted and foolish, but what was done was done. It was a mess created that could be rectified. At least Ranadive, for a second there, seemed willing to commit to a direction, listening to his GM and special adviser. In fact, Ranadive even lobbied Mullin to take over head coaching duties in the aftermath of the firing, but Mullin was hesitant to take the job mid-year without any previous experience.

Ranadive brought George Karl on a few months later to relieve interim head coach Ty Corbin—who was originally supposed to finish out the year—for the remaining 30 games of the 2014-15 season. When reports came out about Karl negotiating with the Kings, all signs indicated D’Alessandro was to have the final say. Of course, D’Alessandro—who worked with Karl in Denver—was on board, contrary to later reporting, but so was the Kings’ owner. As was reported by The Sacramento Bee, Ranadive was the driving force, having “insisted on hiring Karl.”

Karl had accepted the job because Sacramento at that time was no different to the situations he inherited when coaching past teams—underachieving, lone superstar, and a loyal fanbase—as well as his familiarity with D’Alessandro.

There was an impression that this was the plan: use the front office already in place and to trust George Karl, the guy who had only missed the playoffs once in 21 seasons coaching Seattle, Milwaukee, and Denver, to develop a winning team.

It wasn’t a bad idea— the way it was implemented, again, wasn’t great given the derision it caused with Cousins, but there was potential given Karl’s track record and a front office to pair with it if, that is, Ranadive would let them work.

That potential was instantly put on shaky ground when George Karl, less than a month on the job, got a mysterious call from Vlade Divac inviting him to dinner. He’d known of Divac and knew he’d been a King, but couldn’t figure out the reason for the invitation. Confused, Karl didn’t know what to expect. When Divac told him he was part of the organization’s front office, having been hired just days before, Karl was furious.

The coach called up Pete D’Alessandro, irate at the idea that Divac could be brought on without any consultation and without any word, which went against Karl’s understanding of how things would function. D’Alessandro, as it turned out, was equally as surprised. Neither of them knew.

Vivek had hired Vlade Divac in early March, but, according to SB Nation, “no one but Divac and Ranadive actually understood he’d be in a powerful basketball operations position.” As Karl expressed in retrospect: “You have a front office basically being run by your owner.”

And it wasn’t generating happy days within the Kings front office and minority ownership.

The cold response Divac received when he came in was an indication of the chasm building between Ranadive and the rest of the front office. By trying to play a hand in everything with foolhardy ambition, Randive had the franchise falling further into disarray. 

Attention couldn’t stick to Ranadive, though, mainly because Karl, with just three games left in the season, made headlines when he said he’d “never had one player that [he’s] said is untradeable.”

The statement was in no way wrong— Karl was merely expressing that sometimes trading a star is best for the team. It’s not like it was even his authority. Context and meaning be damned, the statement caused a stir, including with Ranadive, who, according to Chris Mannix, claimed “Karl offered no objection to a long term relationship” with Cousins.

Having handed the keys to Karl made it seem like Ranadive was seriously ready to ramp up his effort to turn the franchise around, regardless of what it took. It was well known that Karl had a history of clashing with star players like Gary Payton, and of overseeing the trading away of stars in order to improve the team overall—think Shawn Kemp and Ray Allen in Seattle, and Carmelo Anthony in Denver—but his reputation was nevertheless underlined by consistent playoff appearances. So by hiring Karl, by trusting him to create a winner, Ranadive had to understand that things may get shaken up.

So either Ranadive is stupid, or he is simply full of himself. 

He fires his all-star’s favorite coach and brings in a future hall of fame coach, aligning the franchise with what his basketball people want. Then, with a Karl-D’Alessandro partnership ready to blaze forward with at least some kind of a coherent blueprint, he hires an inexperienced vice president of basketball operations without telling anyone, putting a dent in the new partnership by thrusting his new confidant into it. When his new coach said Cousins wasn’t untouchable, even when his coach isn’t in charge of actually making trades, Ranadive took offense, not because he wanted to keep Cousins at all costs—again, the guy fired his favorite coach—but more than likely because he wasn’t consulted, because it was a sign he wasn’t in full control, that things were going on in the background.

In the summer of 2015, D’Alessandro was out of Sacramento and on to Denver once again while Divac took full control as GM after Kiki Vandeweghe declined the position. The Kings were “Divac’s team,” as a Sac Bee article put it. Ranadive, the piece noted, told Divac to “do what’s best for the organization,” giving him “a lot of freedom.” With Divac’s role continuing to grow, the negative climate within the organization only got worse.

Not because anything changed, but because it stayed the same.

“Divac’s team” was, after all, a euphemism for “Vivek’s team.” As Sports Illustrated noted in November 2015, Ranadive “treats NBA ownership like a fantasy camp.” And by all accounts, Ranadive had never stopped. In fact, he was the reason the Kings went after Rajon Rondo for that year at a time when nobody wanted him. It was just that now Divac was in the driver’s seat.

And that was going the way one would expect. Instead of trading back in the draft and getting a mid-first rounder and an established player as the coaching staff thought was a good idea, Willie Cauley-Stein was picked sixth overall. 

The Kings then got off to a horrible start to the 2015-16 season despite high expectations. Once they reached a 1-7 record on November 11, DeMarcus Cousins acted out in the locker room, berating his coach in a confrontation that drew media attention.

Cousins apologized soon after the incident, and attributed it solely to the losing record and not his coach, but the league was aware of the climate in Sacramento, which was continuing to worsen. 

When the coaching staff wanted to suspend Cousins for a game or two as a punishment, Ranadive was against it, for no clear reason other than that he was the boss.

In early 2016, reports were painting a Kings minority ownership that was ready for mutiny because of “Ranadive’s mismanagement” that had “set the rebuilding Kings back years.” However, Ranadive maintained control due to the fact that the owners have become “almost bulletproof.”

With those reports, though, Ranadive appeared to step back, allowing Divac to make the decision on what to do with Karl—who was not only unpopular with Vivek and Vlade, but who was about 10 games behind .500 at that time in February. At a time when everyone thought it was coming, Divac came out saying Karl would not be fired, not yet. 

The major reason another midseason coaching change did not take place then in Sacramento was that because of what was left on Karl’s contract, firing him would require involvement from minority owners because “it would potentially require a capital call from investors.” 

Instead of venturing down that path and forcing Vivek to descend the steps from his tower to talk with disgruntled minority owners, the Kings held onto Karl for the remainder of the season. But as if they wanted to prove a point and deliver a lesson about who’s in charge, Ranadive had Divac fire Karl’s assistant coach Vance Walberg.

And so the season went on and eventually came to an end with George Karl being fired the day after the final game, not to mention further rumblings of discord among Kings ownership and continued criticism of Ranadive all the way through. 

When Vivek Ranadive’s third season as over-involved owner was in the books, the Kings had made no progress, having won just 33 games, firing another coach, and alienating their star player.

What was crazy was that despite all the disagreements about keeping or trading the guy, the Kings ultimately traded Cousins in February of 2017, calling into question everything that happened under Karl’s reign as head coach and shining a big light on Vivek Ranadive’s authoritarian role.  

It’s hard to win like this, and if there is no responsibility taken it’ll be prone to keep repeating itself, digging an even deeper hole. 

After the Malone and Karl fiascos, the Cousins disharmony, and the tension with the owners, so much damage had been done to the Kings reputation. 

Vivek had wanted Kevin McHale to come in and take Karl’s place, but McHale, according to Yahoo! Sports, was “cautious in his approach.”  

Rudy Gay had expressed his “lack of faith in ownership’s ability to create a sustainable, winning environment” when considering a player option.

And when asked about Ranadive and Divac after being traded to the Pelicans, DeMarcus Cousins made note of the fact that he was there when Malone was fired, that he’d “seen how they operate.”

So the losing nature continued reverberating throughout the franchise because a winning one could never take place. Once more, no accountability was ever taken form the very top, and the result was Vivek—now through Divac—keeping his hands on everything and, of course, the continuous losing.

No Clear Direction, Just a Love for Loyalty

Following his hiring in the spring of 2016, Dave Joerger, for no apparent reason, made it known that Vivek gave Vlade Divac the responsibility of making that decision. The signal that Ranadive had taken a step back was desperately disseminated to salvage this decaying reputation around the league, but it meant nothing.

Whenever Ranadive signals he’s taking a step back, it was always a step back to take cover behind Vlade. The reason Divac got to be this right hand man to Ranadive was because he had always been loyal to him. 

Loyalty is a valuable thing in the eyes of Ranadive. Dean Oliver was Ranadive’s pick to be Director of Player Personnel and Head of Analytics after being an analytics guy for ESPN. Nine months into the job, the Kings owner had Divac fire Oliver. The reason for it, according to Sportando in July 2015, was because Oliver had shared data and information with Ranadive when he was only supposed to be sharing it exclusively with Divac. 

It’s loyalty that explains everything about Divac’s time with Ranadive. Why else would Divac have been there so long?

On multiple occasions, it was clear and acknowledged that Divac’s enhanced role caused the former big man to feel “overwhelmed with … the sophisticated ways with which most NBA organizations are run now,” according to Yahoo! News in February 2016. 

And the things Divac did as GM were atrocious, whether it was the July 2015 salary dump to the 76ers that sacrificed a swap option—that landed Jayson Tatum in Boston—and lost a 2019 first round pick or his catastrophic decision to not draft Luka Doncic in 2018 with the second pick.

That 2018 draft pick only happened because of the loyalty. Not only was Coach Dave Joerger pounding the table for Doncic, but Ranadive’s own son Aneel was as well. Then after the draft mistake, and as Joerger was only falling further out of favor with his dissatisfaction of the pick, Ranadive allowed Divac to can Joerger.

To be clear, the year Joerger got fired, they finished with a Vivek era-high 39 wins. Yeah, they started off 30-26 before finishing out the season 9-17, but if ever the Kings were on a path to an established identity and culture, it was then. And because Vlade and Joerger did not work very well together, and because Vlade was higher in Ranadive’s favor, the chance to establish a direction was scratched as the Kings owner once again steered the organization somewhere else in favor of those who are in his best graces.

Eventually Divac was asked to walk—only after he refused working beneath Joe Dumars—but by that time, the damage had been done. And it was loyalty that kept a tornado like Divac on the ground in the front office, naturally tearing up anything in his path. 

But could loyalty be keeping other lesser known individuals in powerful positions that empower Ranadive’s follies?

Vlade seemed like the lone figure of continuity before he stepped down, but even more so is the “onewoman [example of] continuity” Matina Kolokotronis, the organization’s COO who’s been with the Kings for 25 years and was the “catalyst behind Divac’s hire,” per ESPN. Leading up to what ended up being Divac’s hire, Kolokotronis steered Vivek away from Mullin and D’Alessandro, viewing them “as driven by self-interest and prone to cracking on Ranadive on (sic) background to the media.” 

“She’s the only person in the organization that Vivek really trusts,” the ESPN piece quotes from a league executive. “She’s the connective tissue of the organization. Her institutional knowledge is second to none, and she’s politically wired in Sacramento. She knows where every body is buried.”

Ranadive operates either on his own whims or through some nexus of non-basketball individuals that is based on loyalty and trust, and it’s gotten the Kings nowhere. All it does is dig a bigger hole in the last nine years.

Things appeared to be headed in a steadier direction when Monte McNair was made GM, mainly due to his respected reputation around the league. Off the bat, it was indicated that Ranadive would allow McNair to act freely. However, as Sam Amick pointed out following McNair’s hiring, since he’ll be subject to “similar forces” to what previous GMs faced, questions were quickly raised “about whether Ranadive is truly empowering McNair.” 

The question still remains.

McNair, by all accounts, liked the partnership with Luke Walton enough for the coach to keep his job last offseason, but he was let go in November after another slow start to this year that drew ire from the fans. And of course, there was also the fact that Fox was off limits, and then he suddenly wasn’t when the message was made clear that McNair has the freedom to do whatever he needs.

Also there are clearly still some signs of classic Randive-style meddling, but not to degrees fans are used to enduring. As to whether or not he’s learned anything in his near decade as owner is anyone’s guess, and the near future will bear that out.

Meanwhile, fans will have to wait to see if the Kings pick a direction to move in so that they can finally establish an identity and culture. If they have any chance of doing that, one thing is certain: Vivek Ranadive has got to keep his hands off of it.

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1 year ago

Vivek, do us all a favor and sell the team already.