‘Basketball Hell’: How Vivek Ranadive turned Sacramento Kings into NBA’s biggest losers


imageSixteen years of failure have given the Sacramento Kings ample time to amass a stunning record of futility spanning two ownership groups, four general managers, 11 coaches, countless players and a whole new generation of fans who have never experienced winning basketball in Sacramento.

Heads have rolled and blame has fallen on numerous players, coaches and front office executives, but one man, more than any other, has become the face of the longest playoff drought in NBA history: Kings owner and chairman Vivek Ranadive.

“I’ve been in the room with Vivek during draft time,” a former member of the team’s basketball operations staff told The Sacramento Bee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.”I’ve been on conference calls with him around the trade deadline.I think, like any successful business or organization, a lot of this stuff starts at the top.

“In an ideal situation, you hire someone you feel is qualified.You do your homework on them and then you trust that person is capable of doing the job.

It’s one thing to be a fan and want to be involved from afar, but I think when you are meddling in decisions, I think the problem is you have an owner who’s too involved.”

The source described a “toxic” work environment in which “people don’t trust each other” and “they are thirsty to get any advantage or any promotion they can.” He borrowed a line from former Kings forward Rudy Gay, saying: “It’s basketball hell.”

“People are not treated well,” he said.”They’re not valued.It’s a toxic workplace where there are some super-talented people who either move on or get let go for different reasons.

It’s unfortunate because I think people come with really pure intentions and want to turn it around.”

The source said the revolving door of players, coaches and executives created a culture of chaos where change was constant, direction was lacking and decision-making power shifted depending on who shared Ranadive’s views.

Vlade Divac served as general manager from March 2015 to August 2020, but at various times his power was usurped by special advisor Joe Dumars and assistant general managers Ken Catanella, Scott Perry and Brandon Williams, the source said.

“If it wasn’t someone getting fired, it was someone else getting hired or someone else getting power, becoming a decision-maker,” he said.”It was everybody from Vlade to Ken to Scott Perry to Brandon Williams to Joe Dumars.That list is just kind of crazy.Every summer, someone else had juice.It was never the guy who actually held the title.It just reminds me of the Brandon Williams situation where you’ve got one guy running the show internally and another guy holds the title.”

The source said Ranadive and Williams were driving forces behind the decision to draft Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic in 2018, but there was consensus within the organization because Bagley was a “modern-day big who could run the floor with De’Aaron Fox.”

The source said the Kings nearly acquired Jordan Clarkson from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a trade involving Yogi Ferrell, but they didn’t act fast enough due to Ranadive’s involvement.

Instead, the Cavaliers traded Clarkson to the Utah Jazz, where he would become the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, in exchange for Dante Exum and two future second-round draft picks.

“Getting decisions made was crazy,” the source said.”I remember it took a number of hours.Vivek would have to go, ‘OK, let me talk to (Oklahoma City Thunder general manager) Sam Presti.Let me talk to a variety of rival executives and agents.’ When a deal is on the table, it can very quickly be gone, so it’s one thing to do all the work and have the conversations and have a deal ready, but it’s another thing to convince your owner.”

The Kings said Ranadive was not available for comment.

Multiple sources told The Bee there is a sense that the dynamic has changed in Sacramento since the Kings hired current general manager Monte McNair to replace Divac in September 2020.

One of the team’s minority owners said he believes McNair is calling the shots without interference.

“I’ve looked people in the eye and said, ‘We know this has been a problem.Is it a problem today?’ They’re telling me it’s not,” he said.”Does Vivek have the right to approve trades or give his input? Yeah, but I don’t believe Vivek is micromanaging Monte.I believe Monte is in charge and has total control.”

McNair, now finishing his second season with the Kings, said he and his staff are focused and working hard to improve the team.

“Our fans have every right to be frustrated with how this season turned out,” McNair said.”We did not meet our expectations, but we are taking aggressive steps to course correct and put us on the right path.We have been given all the tools to create a winning culture at the Kings and we intend to do just that — starting with making the playoffs.”

Good people, bad basketball

Ranadive helped rescue the Kings from relocation when he purchased the team from the Maloof family in 2013.

He has invested heavily in the team, Golden 1 Center and the surrounding Downtown Commons business and entertainment district.

Ranadive and the Kings changed the city’s landscape, with an eye toward innovation and technology.They have been visibly active in the community through numerous charitable, social and public health initiatives, including basketball court refurbishments, community gardens, the Kings and Queens Rise partnership with Build.Black., Team Up for Change, Season of Doing Good, mentorship programs and more.

But they have failed to build a winning basketball team.

The Kings went into Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers with a 29-51 record.They will conclude their 16th consecutive losing season when they visit the Phoenix Suns on Sunday.They have not finished with a winning record or reached the playoffs since 2006.

Their 16-year playoff drought is the longest in league history, breaking the record they shared with the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers/Los Angeles Clippers, who missed the playoffs 15 years in a row from 1977-91.

The first seven years of Sacramento’s playoff drought came courtesy of the Maloofs, whose empire crumbled after eight seasons under general manager Geoff Petrie and Hall of Fame coach Rick Adelman.That group had a memorable run to the Western Conference finals in 2002.

But the last nine years belong to Ranadive.Under his stewardship, the Kings have compiled a record of 279-437 (.390) while churning through six head coaches and four general managers.

Former coach Luke Walton was fired in November.Interim coach Alvin Gentry could be relieved of his duties in the coming days, setting up another search for another head coach.

Turnover and instability

Veteran forward Harrison Barnes recently pointed to a lack of continuity when he was asked about the playoff drought.

“To me, I think about stability,” Barnes said.

“Since I got to Sac, I think it’s just me and Fox.Those are the only two people in the entire organization who are still here, and this is my fourth season being here.Obviously, I can’t speak to the years before I got here, but since I’ve been here, it’s been a lot of ups and downs.It’s been a lot of tough times.

It’s been a lot of changing parts — roster-wise, coaching-wise, front office-wise — so I think moving forward, in order to establish a culture where people do feel equity and do feel the need to want to change that narrative, as opposed to Sacramento simply just being a stop on the way, either to another team or out of the league, we just have to embody that, and those are conversations we’ve had as a group.”

Fox and Barnes will likely be playing for their fourth head coach in five seasons if they remain with the team in 2022-23.

Jerry Reynolds, who spent 35 years with the organization as a coach, executive and broadcaster, agreed the Kings have suffered from instability.

“There has been no stability in the front office or coaching,” Reynolds said.”At some point, if you want to have a stable franchise, you’ve got to be stable, and the Kings just haven’t been for a long time.”

The minority owner who spoke to The Bee offered a different take on the stability debate.

“Let’s say you and I invested in a restaurant and the restaurant isn’t doing very well,” he said.”We change our chef, but the restaurant still isn’t doing any good.Do we need the continuity of a bad chef? The only thing worse than changing is not changing what is not working.

If you’ve got the right people in place, then stability is fantastic.I don’t like being unstable, but it beats sticking with somebody who wasn’t doing a good job.”

‘Let’s not overreact’

Former coach Michael Malone seemed to be doing a good job in his second season in Sacramento in 2014-15, but the Kings fired him anyway.

During a recent stop in Sacramento, Malone, who now coaches the Denver Nuggets, was asked what the Nuggets have done to make the playoffs each of the past four seasons after falling short in his first three seasons.Malone pointed to ownership and management.

“It starts at the top,” Malone said.”I think leadership starts with the ownership group.I know I allude to this all the time, but Game 82 at Minnesota my third year, we lose the game with a chance to go to the postseason.I know most owners in that situation probably would have been feeling the urge to make a change.Year 3, we didn’t win, didn’t get over the hump, and I have to give credit to Josh and Stan Kroenke because they had the willingness to take a step backwards and think big picture, not moment.

“Hey, you know what, Nikola Jokic is playing really well.Jamal Murray is going to be a hell of a player.

We just won 46 games.Let’s not overreact.

Let’s be patient.Let’s see this thing through, and here we are, obviously, four seasons later and we’re reaping the benefits of that, so I think that’s a big part of it.We have drafted well.We have developed our talent really well, but I think the most important factor is patience and stability and not always looking for a quick change, and having a common mission that doesn’t change from day to day.”

Bad drafts

NBA legend Jerry West once told The Bee: “The lifeblood of any NBA team is the draft.”

The Kings have been notoriously bad in the draft.From 2011-14, they selected Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas when they could have chosen the likes of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard and C.J.McCollum.

Then, in 2018, they chose Bagley over Doncic.

“When you’re in the lottery, it doesn’t mean you’re going to hit a home run every time, but you can’t afford to strike out, and it’s fair to say the Kings really struck out on several lottery picks,” Reynolds said.”A lot of people want to focus on who you didn’t get.The point is, you don’t have to make the absolute best pick, but you’ve got to get somebody who’s a real good player.In my mind, Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas and Marvin Bagley, those are five misses.

If you get even two legitimate, top-level players, that playoff drought doesn’t happen.”

Reynolds said the Kings wanted to draft Joakim Noah in 2007, but Noah went to the Chicago Bulls at No.9, so Sacramento took Spencer Hawes at No.10.In 2011, the Kings wanted Kemba Walker at No.

10, but they selected Fredette after Walker went to the Charlotte Bobcats at No.9.

“Luck of the draw plays a role in it, too,” Reynolds said.

Trust in Monte

The minority owner who spoke to The Bee said McNair represents a symbol of hope after 16 years of pain and suffering.He pointed to McNair’s first-round draft picks, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell, and his decision to trade for Domantas Sabonis.

“They always talk about people we miss in the draft, but if you look at every team in the NBA, they all miss sometimes,” he said.”It’s just when you’re small-market, you have a smaller margin for error, but I like who we’ve picked lately.I’ve never had greater confidence than the leadership we have right now.”

The shareholder reiterated his trust in McNair when asked about the record playoff drought.

“I don’t get too hot and bothered over this record,” he said.”Do I like it? No, but I’m really glad we didn’t make this balls-out effort to sneak into the playoffs this year.

I think that would have been a mistake.I want this team to be good for more than just one year.

That takes a plan and I think we’ve got it with Monte.”.

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