Saving Sacramento: Can Alvin Gentry salvage Kings’ season?


Sacramento Kings interim head coach Alvin Gentry fist bumps Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (5) during his first game as interim head coach against the Philadelphia 76ers at Golden 1 Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Sacramento.

The Kings couldn’t save Luke Walton’s job and Alvin Gentry might not be able to save them from themselves, but he is uniquely qualified for the position.

This is the fourth time a team has made a midseason move to hand head coaching duties over to Gentry, the most in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau. He’s done it in Miami. He’s done it in Detroit. He did it in Phoenix.

Now, Gentry, 67, is doing it again as interim coach of the Kings in Sacramento, where he has been asked to salvage a season that started with a stated goal of reaching the playoffs. None of Gentry’s other midseason appointments ended with a postseason appearance, but this is the first time he’s taken over so early in the season.

“All situations are different, but obviously it’s something that I’ve gone through with other franchises, and it’s the same thing,” Gentry said. “Obviously, it’s a change of coaching, and, basically, there’s not a whole lot that’s going to change from the standpoint of what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to do. It’s just getting the players to perform at a higher level, and then, obviously, finding a way to complete games.”

Maybe the Kings (6-12) can play a complete game when they entertain the Portland Trail Blazers (10-8) on Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center, but they haven’t done that lately. They went 5-4 to start the season against the toughest early schedule in the NBA, and then they completely collapsed, losing seven of their last eight games under Walton. They’ve lost eight of nine now after Gentry’s interim coaching debut was sullied by Monday’s embarrassing 102-94 loss to a Philadelphia 76ers squad that was missing Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Danny Green.

Core players De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley III have failed, to various extents, to bring winning basketball back to Sacramento. There have been flashes of brilliance from each of them, but chemistry, compatibility and roster construction are in question for a team that can’t find the fight to finish games.

“We’re going to find the combination of guys that’s going to play,” Gentry said. “I don’t really care what the hell the back of the jersey says. We’re going to play the guys who are going to play hard and try to do what we ask them to do. If you don’t, and if you don’t want to run and if you don’t want to get out and play in the open court, then we’ve got to find somebody who will.”

Gentry combined the tough-love assessments with a touch of compassion as well. When asked if the team lacked toughness, maturity or something else, he said: “I think our confidence is down a little bit, and that’s something that we can’t do. We have to put ourselves in a position where we feel we can go out and win games, and I think we have that attitude, but the only way to shake this, and as I said to the guys, is we have to actually win some games.”

Gentry has won some and lost some over 34 years in the NBA. He has a 510-596 record over 18 seasons as a head coach with the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans and, now, the Kings.

In 1994-95, in his fourth year as an assistant with the Heat, Gentry was named head coach when Kevin Loughery was fired after going 17-29 over the first 46 games. Gentry went 15-21 to close out the season before moving on to become an assistant with the Pistons in 1995-96.

Gentry worked as an assistant in Detroit for two-plus seasons before he was named head coach when Doug Collins was fired after going 21-24 to start the 1997-98 season. Gentry went 16-21 over the last 37 games that season. He posted a 29-21 record in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season and went 28-30 before he was fired in 1999-2000.

Gentry enjoyed his greatest success as a head coach with the Suns from 2008-13. He served as an assistant with the Suns for six years under Mike D’Antoni and Terry Porter. Gentry stayed on staff when the Suns hired Porter as head coach after D’Antoni left to coach the New York Knicks in 2008-09. Porter went 28-23 to start the season, but he was fired after the Suns lost five of eight going into the All-Star break.

Steve Kerr, the general manager in Phoenix at the time, felt Porter was an awkward fit for a team that was built to suit D’Antoni’s up-tempo system, so he turned to Gentry to push the pace with point guard Steve Nash. Gentry went 18-13 as interim coach that season, but the Suns missed the playoffs by two games despite finishing 46-36.

The Suns formally made Gentry their head coach in 2009-10. He went 54-28 in his first full season, leading the Suns deep into the playoffs before they lost to the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Gentry posted records of 40-42 in 2010-11 and 33-33 in 2011-12 (another lockout-shortened season) before he was fired after going 13-28 to start the 2012-13 season.

Kings general manager Monte McNair said he has confidence in Gentry given his vast experience and extensive work history in the NBA.

“Alvin’s done a great job at many different spots,” McNair said. “I think Alvin has seen a lot of things. He has a wealth of experience and I think Alvin will put his stamp on things.”

76ers coach Doc Rivers brought Gentry in as his lead assistant with the Clippers in 2013-14 before Gentry left to join Kerr’s staff with the Golden State Warriors.

“He’s a terrific coach,” River said. “He really is. He was on my staff in L.A. for a year and we probably shouldn’t have let him go. We allowed Golden State to steal him from us. We should have kept him if we could have, but he’s just got a great basketball mind and he’s been around this kind of transition. I don’t know how many times he’s stepped in to take over teams … but that’s also why teams want him around, just in case something (goes wrong). He is a guy who has the ability to fix things, so he’ll be terrific there.”

There was speculation Gentry would eventually end up in this position when he joined Walton’s staff as associate head coach in October 2020, but Gentry said that was never his intention.

“I came here with the intentions of helping Luke as much as I possibly could,” Gentry said. “I didn’t really think about the head coaching situation or anything like that, or the head coaching situation of any other team. I was here simply because I thought I could help Luke along. When something like this happens, it makes you feel extremely bad, really, because I felt like I failed Luke by not being able to help in some way that this thing kept going.

“I didn’t really think, boy, where’s my next head coaching job going to come from? I’ve done it six times now and all of them have been different situations and some of them were very positive and some of them have not been so positive, so I just felt like this is a situation where, hopefully, I can step in and help in a way where we can accomplish what we set out to. We have 65 games left in the season, so that’s a lot of games and it still allows us a situation where we can accomplish what our initial goals were, and that is to try to find a way to play ourselves into a playoff situation.”

This story was originally published November 24, 2021 5:00 AM.

Jason Anderson is an award-winning sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee. He started his journalism career at The Bee more than 20 years ago and returned to cover the Sacramento Kings in September 2018.

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