The Sacramento Kings have a talented young core and a ton of money to spend. If they do it wisely, they have a shot at the playoffs next season.
In a summer where many NBA teams have money to spend and a lot of notable players looking for new deals, it’s hard to focus on just one thing at a time. While much of the chatter has been devoted to what the Brooklyn Nets do with two near-max slots available, only a little bit of attention is being paid to the team right below Brooklyn in available funds: Sacramento.
Brooklyn is coming off its first playoff appearance since 2015. Ever since then, general manager Sean Marks has been tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding the team with the few assets the previous regime left him. In just three offseasons, Marks acquired enough talent through smart trades and post-lottery drafting to win 42 games and earn the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed. Now, Brooklyn may have the chance to cash in on that success and attract two stars in free agency.
Their situation isn’t completely mirrored across the country in Sacramento, but there are some similarities.
After years of drama and no playoff appearances in the DeMarcus Cousins era, Vlade Divac and company finally pulled the plug in 2017 — trading him to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, salary filler, and a first-round pick (which was flipped for Harry Giles and Justin Jackson; Jackson was then used to help acquire Harrison Barnes). This deal was mocked by NBA Twitter, as most deals are, because why wait to see the players actually play before judging a trade?
Hield was good in his first full season with the Kings (2017-18), but he took a major step up this season — averaging 20.7 points per game on a 56.2 effective field goal percentage. As good as Hield was, though, it was his backcourt partner De’Aaron Fox that took the league by storm. Fox took a leap as a finisher, shooter, passer, and defender that is rarely seen immediately after a rookie season.
With the ying-and-yang of a Fox-Hield backcourt, Sacramento had its best season since 2005-06 — winning 39 games. It’s the West, so the Kings still missed the playoffs by nine games. But a 12-game year-over-year improvement due essentially to internal development is quite impressive, especially for an organization like Sacramento that has done almost everything else wrong for the past decade-plus.
With a strong backcourt, the Kings now enter the offseason with some momentum. Assuming they renounce all of their free agents, they could have as much as $60 million in cap space. In a free agency market with so many players available and so much money to spend, teams may be tempted to splurge on a player they really like. Sometimes, that’s okay. But for a team like the Kings that have missed more than they have hit, it makes sense to be more cautious than optimistic about their plans.
This could be the perfect storm for Sacramento or the makings of a terrible disaster. Despite hitting on Fox in the 2017 draft and acquiring Hield, the league should not trust Divac and the rest of the Kings front office yet. Just last summer, they attempted to give Zach LaVine $78 million. (If the Bulls hadn’t matched, would the sentiment of the Kings be so positive this summer?)
If Sacramento chooses to renounce Harrison Barnes and Willie Cauley-Stein, they will have two holes to fill in their starting lineup. And, depending on how they feel about the prospects of Nemanja Bjelica or Marvin Bagley starting at the 4, potentially three.
There will be plenty of options for them to fill these voids.
Despite previous rumors of the Kings and big man Nikola Vucevic being a potential free agency match, that no longer seems to be a possibility. While that is more about fit in their uptempo system over age (Vucevic will turn 29 shortly after the season begins), it’s fair to doubt whether Al Horford will be a target of the Kings as well. It seems more likely for Sacramento to target a short-term, cheaper option at center.
On the surface, DeAndre Jordan, Dewayne Dedmon, and Kevon Looney make sense. Perhaps they get cheeky and hope Maxi Kleber (restricted), Thomas Bryant (restricted), or Richaun Holmes hold up with an increase in minutes.
To replace Barnes, the Kings could look at one of the more underrated free agents available this summer: Bojan Bogdanovic. It seems impossible to predict what he will make, but with a potentially robust market, it would not be surprising to see one of the league’s best shooters push $20 million annually — especially if it’s on a short-term deal.
At 30 years old, Bojan might be just out of Sacramento’s ideal age range. But, really, when you have the opportunity to put two Bogdanovics on the same team, you do everything you can to make it happen.
There will be other options if that (unfortunately) doesn’t work out, however. Sticking to older players, DeMarre Carroll has rehabbed his value quite nicely in two years with the Nets and could be useful as a stop-gap starter. They could go smaller and go after veterans such as Terrence Ross or Danny Green. They could also test the restricted free agency market (as they have done the past couple of summers with LaVine and almost Otto Porter) and throw an offer sheet Kelly Oubre’s way.
Or, they could do something more fun, and chase the bigger fish. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson could all up end up signing new deals in California, but they will not be in Sacramento. When it comes to Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Khris Middleton, however, a marriage with the Kings makes more sense.
All three of these players have something in common: they have been playing above their pay grade and will be looking to, as the kids say these days, secure the bag.
These three players all have their issues and in a perfect free agency market would likely not get max contracts — at least for a full four or five years. It’s simple economics, though: where there is supply, there will be demand. NBA teams demand multi-level scorers that can defend and are willing to pay a premium for it.
Sometimes, though, winning teams must be stingy with their payroll. Winning teams have good players that make a lot of money. Milwaukee and Philadelphia, where Middleton, Harris, and Butler currently reside, are both good teams that will have a high payroll. It seems likely that Middleton will be re-signed by the Bucks and get close enough to a max deal to be happy. The Sixers could bring both Harris and Butler back, but will they offer both what they want if they do? Or will they choose one and let the other walk?
One of Harris and Butler looking for a new team seems like a real possibility and it would make sense for either to look at Sacramento as a potential suitor — and vice versa.
Butler would be the best option of the two. With eight years of experience, both are eligible for a 30 percent max deal starting at $32.7 million. Sure, Butler comes with a rigid attitude that may rub younger players the wrong way. But let’s keep it simple here: he joined a young core in Minnesota last season with no playoff experience and helped improve their win total by 16 games year-over-year — earning them the eighth seed in the West.
Throwing Butler on a roster that just won 39 games could be a good recipe for a similar run at the playoffs.
Harris would help, too — don’t get me wrong. He was the best player on the Clippers and they were winning games. He wasn’t great in Philly but was also playing alongside three very good players that are all best with the ball in their hands. Perhaps playing off the shooting and shot-creation of Fox and Hield would be the perfect scenario for Harris.
Getting either of those guys would be great. Getting any of the previously-mentioned names would be fine, too. Star players are the NBA’s main attraction, but there’s nothing wrong with spending wisely on undervalued players that play an important role on a winning team either.
Swinging for the fences can yield a home run or an embarrassing strikeout. Hitting enough singles and doubles scores runs, too.
The only thing the Kings must avoid at all costs is seeing wild pitches as strikes down the middle and going for that home run anyway. If history says anything about the Kings, it’s that they may take a few big swings at some terrible pitches.
Every offseason is a new opportunity for them to redeem themselves, though. Since the Cousins trade, they have made mostly good decisions. What the Kings front office must remember is that dishing out salary in lump sums to stars or incrementally to solid starters/reserves can lead to the same goal: the playoffs.
With staple young players and difference-making cap space, the Kings could be the sleeping giant of the offseason. And perhaps more importantly, the Kings front office has the chance to change the narrative surrounding their team.