It's been a brief but rocky tenure for Sacramento Kings coach George Karl, who did not exactly deny that he wanted to trade All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. And then the two had to coexist when they appeared in Las Vegas to support the Kings during the NBA summer league.
Their interaction was terse at best, but Karl remains confident that he can lead the Kings to prosperity with Cousins, who is a favorite of owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac. There were times during the summer league when Karl sat on one side of the court during Kings games, and Divac and the Sacramento upper management team sat on the other. But Karl will get his opportunity to lead.
The Kings made a series of moves in the offseason, adding former Celtic Rajon Rondo, ex-Spur Marco Belinelli, former Memphis center Kosta Koufos, former Duke guard Seth Curry, journeyman Caron Butler, and reserve forward Quincy Acy. With Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Rondo in the same locker room, the Kings will be entertaining if not overly talented.
Karl has never coached Rondo, and the former All-Star guard has been notoriously difficult on head coaches. Karl said his experience so far has been positive. Rondo, who signed a one-year, $9.5 million deal, is looking to resurrect his career.
"Our conversations [have indicated] that he's a basketball IQ guy who is going to challenge us as coaches because I think he knows the game," Karl said. "He might have some opinions that we'll have give and take on. He's an All-Star player. He's a triple-double machine when he's playing well. He likes to lead teams. He leads teams with a spirit that has a toughness to it."
Rondo will most likely start, but the Kings had also signed Darren Collison, who missed most of last season with a hip injury, to be their starter. It should be an intense competition for the position in training camp.
"My feeling is that [Rondo's] a pass-first point guard, which I think is important and I think in the end it really excites me," Karl said. "We have two guys who can take control of the team and play together and keep the pace of the game. We can play with a lot of freedom and creativity but also play without turnovers."
Asked how he sold Rondo on Sacramento after Rondo's bad experience last season with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, Karl said: "I just sold him on how I like to let my guys have freedom. I talked to him once before he signed and it's going to be fun coaching him. I think he wants to lead our team but he also wants to be part of the decision-making, and that can be somewhat combustible but it can also work at a high level because I think we're all trying to make the team the best."
Karl pointed out his history of dealing with mercurial point guards during his 30-plus-year coaching career. The list is impressive.
"I had Gary Payton [in Seattle], Sam Cassell [in Milwaukee], Allen Iverson [in Denver], Chauncey Billups [in Denver]. Chauncey is challenging," Karl said. "Andre Miller is probably not as challenging but he'll be stubborn and wanting me to do it his way. I think all really good point guards have a trust and belief in themselves that sometimes causes conflict with the coaches."
Karl acknowledged his strained relationship with Cousins, who went to Twitter during a period of trade rumors to express his dismay for being on the block. Depending on whom you ask, the Kings either were offering Cousins or not, but Divac insists Cousins was never leaving. So Karl will have to figure out a way to manage Cousins successfully.
"We have a lot of time to get back on the same page," Karl said. "Summer talk and summer drama, I've always thought, is hype and so much of it is untrue. I'm not going to get into it but Cous and I have to work together to get back to together, and we will."
Cousins is the Kings' franchise cornerstone, but the team has not reached the playoffs in his tenure. The Kings drafted Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein, perhaps an indication that the organization was looking beyond Cousins. Either way, the Kings are more talented and intriguing than they have been for years.
"I think all our guys are hungry for winning," Karl said. "And Cous is our best player and most talented kid. And we need him to fill [a leadership] role. There's a commitment from both sides."
Add to the mix Koufos, and the Kings have three centers who will demand playing time. Cousins does have the flexibility to play power forward.
"I'm excited about Kosta and Willie," Karl said. "I think both are good guys, different types. Kosta is solid fundamentally, doesn't make many mistakes, defensive-minded, tough-minded. Willie is a young athlete. We have to show him how to play. I think it's a great combination and how much we play big is all going to be determined on how successful it is."
It was obvious the Kings needed a facelift. Whether it will result in the team's first playoff appearance in 10 years is one of the offseason's more intriguing questions.
"I think when Vlade and I sat down early in May, I think we thought whatever this [roster turnover] was called was necessary," Karl said.
Timberwolves set to turn the corner
Overshadowed by the Timberwolves' drafting of Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick was their draft-night trade that netted Duke freshman Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native. The Timberwolves appear to be growing impatient with Ricky Rubio at point guard and Jones could develop into their floor leader of the future.
It's been a whirlwind year for Jones, who was considered a solid recruit. His splendid play in Duke's NCAA Tournament run turned him into a one-and-done player. He was tabbed as a late-first-round pick and the Wolves made a deal with the Cavaliers to bring Jones home.
Minnesota has an impressive younger core of Towns, reigning Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, slam dunk champion Zach LaVine, defensive-minded forward Gorgui Dieng, and improving Shabazz Muhammad.
"I'm very excited, it's good to see the potential in this group," Jones said. "We've got a lot of young guys who are talented. We've got a good group of veterans who are going to help us learn. The good thing about us is the young guys are willing to learn and ready to learn and don't think they know it all, so it's a good mixture."
Jones is one of the younger players coming out of the draft. What's more, he was born after Kevin Garnett's rookie season with the Timberwolves. Jones grew up a Timberwolves fan and idolized Garnett. Now the 39-year-old Garnett and 19-year-old Jones are teammates.
"It's kind of crazy but he's just telling me to take advantage of the opportunity, and enjoy the process because it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but at the same time I'm looking to learn from him every day," said Jones. "He's a guy that's been there and done that. He's won a championship, so everything he says you're all ears and you listen to him."
Jones and Towns have spent the summer bonding, and Jones believes they could be a formidable tandem.
"He's a great student of the game and I'd say I am as well," Jones said. "We both pride ourselves on having a high basketball IQ, so we talk about the game a lot, talk about what we see on the court. Just as competitors we want to get better any way we can."
Towns averaged 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in five summer league games. He has prided himself as a perimeter threat but missed all five of his 3-point attempts in summer league games.
"The biggest takeaway? Man, I struggled shooting threes [that] week," he said. "I've got to get back in the gym, got to work on the shot. It goes back to the way I play, trying to be as versatile as possible. So if one aspect is not working today then I can go to another aspect."
Towns wants to be able to stretch the floor and a 3-point stroke could dramatically improve his ability to punish opposing centers.
"It's just getting used to it because you're used to seeing a college three," Towns said. "About two airballs [during the summer league games]. I bet you if I had shot them in college, they'd go straight in.
"It's a different mind-set. For me personally shooting threes, I'm still seeing it as a college line. I haven't been shooting on NBA gyms in a while. I think during the season you'll see me hit so much that you'll forget about summer league."
Asked about the difference in playing an NBA style, Towns said, "It's the officiating. I'm not so used to the officiating and how everything works with the fouls. Those things I've got to get used to. I think it's just more the way things are called — you've got to get used to it."
Garnett also has had conversations with Towns, a sign he wants to serve as a leader and mentor.
"He was just telling me more about changing my game a little bit because in an 82-game season I can't be trying to bang with people the way I like to do," he said. "Use more turnaround jump shots. Use more things that save my body for five-games-in-seven-days stretches. I expected me just to learn [from Garnett]. The biggest thing is I knew I was going to learn from whatever he said to me. I just wanted to talk to him and wanted to listen.
"I'm very excited about our potential. We're going to have a lot of fun this year."
Lakers’ Russell work in progress
Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell had an inconsistent summer league performance. He wowed fans and league executives with his dazzling court vision but also showed a propensity for turnovers or forced passes. The 19-year-old from Ohio State is expected to run the Lakers' offense this season with 37-year-old Kobe Bryant as his shooting guard, so the learning curve will be steep.
"It's just a matter of settling down," Russell said. "A lot of those turnovers are from risk-taking and it's successful sometimes, but at this level it's being able to settle down and be patient. It's about slowing down as a team, being patient."
The Lakers had the interesting decision of taking Duke big man Jahlil Okafor, once considered a can't-miss No. 1 overall pick, but instead chose Russell because of his upside. Lakers fans immediately embraced the decision. The pressure of attempting to resurrect a once-proud organization is not lost on Russell.
"When we lose, it's not like we let ourselves down or the team down, we let the whole Laker nation down," he said. "That's a worldwide nation. I wouldn't say it's a whole lot of pressure, more like we've got to get it done."
Being drafted second, ahead of Okafor, and tabbed as the next great Laker doesn't appear to affect Russell. His approach is methodical. He's confident, expecting a lot from himself.
"I really don't care about the [draft pick] stuff," Russell said. "I want us to get better as a team. Everything will take care of itself."
Meanwhile, backcourt mate Jordan Clarkson, who may play in a three-guard offense with Bryant and Russell, is downplaying a brilliant rookie season. The second-round pick was named first-team All-Rookie last season while averaging 11.9 points, 3.5 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 0.9 steals.
"I feel like it's coming along," said Clarkson. "I've still got a lot work to do. I'm still striving for improvement and still continue to work. I watch films after games and see where I could get better. And I'm trying to just turn [the team] around. And I like to play and I'd rather be playing out here [in summer league] and improving than sitting at home on the couch watching these games."
Clarkson and Russell, along with forward Julius Randle, are the core of the Lakers' future. It will be critical for that trio to bond quickly, and their summer league experience together aided that quest.
"We're around each other all day,'" Clarkson said. "So we're just trying to build chemistry. We want to change this thing around and that's going to take hard work."
The Jazz had high hopes for second-year guard Dante Exum after his impressive performance in the Utah Summer League. Those hopes were dashed when Exum tore his anterior cruciate ligament last week during a Team Australia exhibition. Exum is expected to miss the 2015-16 season, leaving the Jazz scrambling for a point guard. Why not former lottery pick Trey Burke? Well, the Jazz aren't so high on Burke because of his propensity for shooting and not running Quin Snyder's offense. But they may not have a choice but to go with Burke . . . The Cavaliers strengthened their bench by signing veteran Richard Jefferson, who had committed to returning to the Mavericks but wanted a chance to win a championship. The Cavaliers have yet to re-sign power forward Tristan Thompson, who is eligible for a five-year extension. That process could last into training camp and the worst-case scenario for Thompson is that he accepts a one-year qualifying offer and becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. Also remaining on the market is guard J.R. Smith, who opted out of the final year of his contract at $6.4 million believing he would get a more lucrative extension from the Cavaliers. That may not happen and Smith could be forced to sign a room-level (mini mid level) contract of $2.8 million . . . Speaking of the room-level exception, the Celtics still have theirs to use but that is highly unlikely. The team already has 17 players on guaranteed contracts — that number should fall to 16 when Zoran Dragic is waived — and will likely leave that exception unused. The Celtics also have until Oct. 31 to agree to a long-term extension with forward Jared Sullinger. Sullinger, who by all accounts has dropped some weight this offseason, will be a restricted free agent next summer . . . DeAndre Jordan's decision to pass on the Mavericks could greatly help the Celtics as Dallas's 2016 first-round pick is owned by Boston. It's top-seven protected and the Mavericks, who signed Deron Williams, Samuel Dalembert, and Charlie Villanueva, are expected to compete for the playoffs but are not considered title material in the Western Conference. If Dallas falls short of the postseason, the Celtics could get a lottery pick in addition to their own first-round pick and the pick from the Nets. The Nets also owe the Celtics their 2018 first-rounder from the deal that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.
The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andre Miller to a one-year deal last week — the eighth team the 39-year-old guard will play for. Barring an unlikely All-Star selection, Miller could go down as the greatest player to never make an All-Star Team: