Kings coach Michael Malone was the first of majority owner Vivek Ranadive's significant hires. In three frenetic months on the job, Malone, a longtime NBA assistant, bought his family a home in Granite Bay, settled into an office at the practice facility, supervised predraft workouts, hired a staff, was introduced to general manager Pete D'Alessandro and met with most of his players. While seated in his office and discussing his brief, but eventful, time on the job, Malone was funny, engaging, revealing and intense.
Since you were with the Warriors the past two seasons and lived only about 80 miles from Sacramento, is it safe to assume that you monitored the Kings' possible relocation to Seattle and Ranadive's subsequent purchase of the franchise?
Sure. Sure. I remember someone saying they felt bad for the fans in Seattle because they lost their team, and that no one wanted to see the same thing happen here. I mean, when I first came to the NBA, this was the toughest place to play. So I followed it. Then when Vivek (Ranadive) got involved, because he was (a minority owner) with the Warriors, I followed it even more closely. It got so competitive. The money kept going up and up. I was thinking, "This is crazy!" But I was just rooting for Vivek.
When the sale to the Ranadive-led group was finalized, did you think you had a chance at the job?
It's funny, but I remember my father telling me, "You are always working for your next job. Somebody is always watching." And unbeknownst to me, here is Vivek these past two years, watching me at practices, watching me at games. But really, it's not like we were talking on the phone all the time. The most time we ever spent together was on draft night (2012). We were sitting in the war room in Oakland, and we talked for a while. We saw things in a very similar way, and we created a bond, a relationship that night, that led to this.
OK, but you come from a New York family of coaches and cops. I heard you were conflicted. Didn't you originally want to be a secret agent?
I always wanted to coach, but after I graduated (from Loyola in Maryland), I couldn't get a coaching job. I was a volunteer assistant, living at home, working at Foot Locker, cleaning office buildings at 1 o'clock in the morning. I was thinking, "What am I doing? This isn't part of the plan." I figured I'd become a state trooper with hopes of becoming a secret agent.
But it's like Yogi Berra says, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." I was just days from going to the academy to become a state trooper in Michigan, pulling people over, maybe getting shot, and all of a sudden, I get a call from Providence coach Pete Gillen. The next thing you know, I'm coaching in the Big East.
Given the nomadic lifestyle of NBA coaches – which you can attest to since your father, Brendan, is an NBA lifer – were you tempted to keep your family in Lafayette and just commute to Sacramento?
Yeah, this was such a rare set of circumstances. My daughter Caitlin is 8 years old, and she has moved five times. But my wife (Jocelyn) was like, "We'd never see you. The girls would never see you." So that ended that.
So, more about your boss. Early indications suggest he will be more like Mark Cuban, Joe Lacob, Robert Sarver, among others, than the old-school NBA owners who pretty much delegate responsibilities and pay the bills.
Vivek, he's just a passionate guy. He compares himself to an irritant. He goes, "How is a pearl made? A piece of sand gets in there, is an irritant, and what you wind up with is a beautiful oyster." He says, "So you and Pete (D'Alessandro), I'm going to be the irritant so that we can do something that is beautiful."
He actually described himself as an irritant?
(Laugh) He did. He does all the time.
You were more involved with the NBA draft and recent offseason moves than most head coaches. Do you expect to maintain that degree of input?
You've heard Vivek say that a lot of coaches aren't that involved, but that they need to be involved because they're the guys who have to coach. The first couple weeks – and Geoff Petrie and his staff were terrific in a very uncomfortable situation – we didn't have a GM at the time. I felt like I was head coach and GM. So I was very, very happy when we hired Pete. He came in immediately and was asking: "Who did you like during the workout? What do you think?" We had constant communication on the draft and free agency.
How well did you know D'Alessandro before he was hired?
Not much. I had heard about him, being another New York guy. And I heard a lot of good things about him when he was at Golden State and Denver. But that was it. The neat thing about Pete for me … a lot of guys probably look at this job a little differently, because I was hired before the GM, but he was fine with that.
Just so you know, that was a major topic of conversation within the league, obviously, because GMs usually are hired, and then they hire the head coaches. Was that awkward for you?
The reality is some people would be turned off by that. Is it the norm? No. But it's not like it never happens. The thing I love about Pete … there's no egos here because at the end of the day it's going to be us. We get the job done or we don't. We both know we need each other to get this thing turned around. And we have an owner who believes in us and is giving us everything we need to succeed. If we don't have that, we have no chance.
So what is your approach? Do you have a two-year plan? A five-year plan? Obviously, one of the goals is to better manage the salary cap and become major players in free agency.
This is going to be a process. We have to change the culture, establish an identity, and while we'll try to win every night, we don't want to skip steps. We don't want short-term success. I'm not sure what year we get into our new arena, but by that year, we want to be a playoff team, and not to just be competing in the playoffs. We've talked about that. We know we have to have patience to do it right. Are our young guys getting better? Are we defending? Gang- rebounding? Running with discipline? The only thing I promised Vivek is that we will no longer be the worst defensive team in the league. So if we do that and change our culture, that will result in more wins and a better product.
The phrase "change the culture" has become such a cliché. What does it even mean?
It is a cliché. What I mean is that when you want to change culture, you change people. When the players come back in September, they're going to get a sense that things are different when they're around our staff. They can see how hard we work, how committed we are. I'm running sprints last week with DeMarcus Cousins and Travis Outlaw, and they said, "Coach, we've never had a guy run sprints with us."
You had DeMarcus running sprints? Where was this?
Right across the street, on the track at Inderkum High School. This summer, we had Isaiah Thomas, Jason Thompson, Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton working out during the summer league, and we're all sweating, working. When I went down to Santa Barbara to meet with Patrick Patterson, he said, "Coach, I've been hearing things." This is no knock on Keith Smart or his staff. Keith is a great coach, and the circumstances were far from ideal. But I know for my situation, and my staff, we are going to be a work staff, an energetic staff. Aside from my father, I've hired a very young staff. I don't want any moping around. The other challenge for me, I want our players to embody unity, trust, unselfishness.
Did you see any of those elements – unity, trust, unselfishness – when you scouted the Kings last year?
Everybody talked about the Kings' lack of defense, but the one glaring thing that I saw on offense was that we were a selfish team. The ball didn't move. It was guys playing for themselves. That's not winning basketball, and it transferred to the defensive end. It was five guys playing as five individuals. And the best teams I've been with, on defense, it's five guys working as one. On offense, it's passing up good shots to get great shots. It's a simple game.
The last thing is, it comes down to habits. Who is creating the proper work habits every day? I was talking to Johnny Salmons. He said, "Coach, we were in a lot of close games. We have talent." I said, "You know what the problem was, Johnny? You were in a lot of close games, but the end of games, what happens? All your bad habits come out if you're a lazy team, if you're not disciplined, if you're not unselfish." It was exposed for the world to see.
You threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a recent River Cats game, and I know you have been active in the community, eliciting feedback and interacting with Kings fans. So what are you hearing?
The fans are so passionate, but I have to tell you, I also look at how they rallied and fought to keep this team here. They rallied, and they fought. My hope is that our team, if we can play as hard, and rally together and be unselfish, and fight – the big thing is fight – like our fans fought to keep this team? I know we will be well-received and our fans will be excited. Because you know what? They want to see a team that competes and plays together and plays hard. That's the beginning.
Assuming there are no major changes before training camp, break down your current roster. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Obviously, we have three point guards. Greivis Vasquez, a guy who gives you 14 points and nine assists. The exciting thing about Greivis is, those nine assists per game … we need willing playmakers. I think that's contagious. The fact he's 6-foot-6. You can't teach that.
Can he defend?
I think so. He doesn't have tremendous foot speed, but he's smart, and he has heart. The fans are going to identify with him. Isaiah Thomas, I love that guy. He's a leader, has a chip on his shoulder. I wouldn't put anything past that guy because of his belief in himself and his passion for the game. He's been a scorer, but we need him to run his team. Then our last point guard, Ray McCallum. Ray has a lot of talent, has a good feel for the game, and he has to continue to work on his jump shot. But you're not going to find a kid who is more willing to learn and soak it up.
What about shooting guard?
Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, Ben McLemore.
Marcus can get buckets. I challenged Marcus … "You can't come in the game and get 20 and give up 20." But he has a skill. He can change the course of a game like that. Ben McLemore is a young guy, and he's going to be better when he plays with better players. And he needs to continue to work on his ballhandling and creating shots. But he has an athleticism you can't teach, and he has an ability to shoot the ball when you get going that is special.
And then Jimmer, he came to summer league. Great kid. Hasn't had much opportunity. So the jury's out. What can he do? My challenge to him is, "Be ready." He can't be a defensive liability. But he's just hungry and patiently waiting to show what he can do.
Isn't he really a catch-and-shoot player at this point of his career?
That's the question. Hubie Brown always says shooting makes up for a multitude of sins. Jimmer can handle the ball and bring the ball up. But is he better at coming off screens? Catching and shooting? Spotting up off dribble penetration. Going back to when Jimmer was at BYU, he was an amazing player, and there's no reason he can't shoot the ball the same way. It's the same ball.
We have Luc Mbah a Moute. A character kid. We all know about his defensive abilities. We're very excited to have him. Johnny Salmons can score and make plays for himself. Travis Outlaw didn't get much chance to play last year. You can only play so many people. But (New Orleans head coach and former Trail Blazers assistant) Monty Williams was very close with Travis in Portland, and he seems to be committed to getting back to that (level).
The challenge is getting minutes for all three of our guys. Jason Thompson can play four and five (center). Patrick Patterson can be a stretch four. Carl Landry played some five for us at Golden State. That, to me, is a position of strength.
But where is the rebounding?
Great question. Patrick's numbers aren't where they need to be. Carl is a very good offensive rebounder. And Jason Thompson probably has the best rebounding stats, but he can do better. We're going to challenge our big guys, but the smalls have to help as well.
So, finally, there is the center position. It's no secret the organization regards DeMarcus Cousins as a franchise-level talent. How good is he? How much more can he improve?
I've talked about DeMarcus a lot, but he's so talented. He's a big who can play away from the basket. But I'm going to ask him to play inside as well this year, be a guy we can run our offense through at times, because he can be such a good passer. The challenge for him is to cut down on those three turnovers a game. The luxury we had last year at Golden State, we had two bigs (David Lee and Andrew Bogut) who were not only good passers but willing passers. My hope is we get to that at some point.
And the offense? How does this team score?
Our offense will be defend, rebound and run. But to be a running team, you have to be in shape. You also have to run with discipline. I don't want players coming down and just chucking up shots. If we have bad offense, we have bad shots, long shots, that put our defense at a disadvantage. In the halfcourt, I think ball reversal is ultra-important.
If we move the ball, get multiple drive and kicks, that unselfish play, now we're getting higher-percentage, uncontested shots. And I would also like us to play inside-out. Set screens and free somebody up.
I don't want to be just a one pass or zero pass and shot team, launching jump shots, no ball movement, because those teams are easy to guard.
Do we have Miami Heat talent here? No. But we have talent. Guys are going to embrace what we're doing, or they're going to resist. There is no gray area. Turning around a team is hard work, and talk is cheap.