Patience is the buzz word in Sacramento right now. The Bee's Jason Jones is the latest to report a sense the Kings will remain fairly quiet in free agency, instead following the so-called Portland-Oklahoma City model: build through the draft, and add cheap supplementary players. The argument is that by focusing on youth and flexibility, you build a foundation for long-term success rather than chasing one good season.
But the strategy Portland and OKC have undertaken has been seriously misconstrued. Yes, both teams have built their core through the draft. No, neither team has signed a top-level free agent. But what the Blazers and Thunder have done, and what Sacramento is purporting to be doing are completely different.
After the jump, I explain why.
Portland has three top-6 picks from within the past four years. Oklahoma City has four.
After June, the Kings will have two.
Sure, one of those two is Tyreke Evans, and the other could be John Wall or Evan Turner. But to get a third top-6 pick, the Kings will again have to be awful -- as in 26 wins or worse -- in 2010-11. Anyone looking forward to that? And let's face it: Evans isn't Durant, and probably will never be Durant. I'm as starry-eyed as the next guy, but Durant is a LeBron rival. He's not of this planet. Anyone projecting Evans to rival Durant or LeBron within a few years is bargaining with lunacy. Reke's great, and a hard-worker, and the brightest star Sacramento's ever had. But he's not Durant.
The Blazers, meanwhile, have certainly not avoided paying substantial salaries to supplementary players. The team did everything it could to keep Darius Miles's $9 million 2009-10 salary off the books so the Blazers could be the biggest players in free agency last summer. When that failed, Portland made high-profile (and high-dollar) bids for Hedo Turkoglu (despite having Nicolas Batum, Webster and Travis Outlaw at small forward) and Paul Millsap (despite having Aldridge, Oden and Joel Przybilla up front) before settling on Andre Miller (despite having Steve Blake at the point). When injuries destroyed the front line, the team flipped for Marcus Camby; when he worked out well, the team extended his contract two years to the tune of $20 million. Before making any additions this summer -- rookies, a mid-level exception -- the Blazers are knocking on the 2010-11 luxury tax threshold.
That the Blazers have patiently built while avoiding paying veterans big money is a complete myth. The Blazers made brilliant decisions to free up cap space (the Zach Randolph deal, in particular) so a player like Miller could be obtained, made great draft decisions in 2006, and lucked into a top-3 pick in 2007. If Portland happened to have $20 million of cap space in 2007, do you think Kevin Pritchard would have sat on it? Of course not! He did all he could to get 2009 cap space, and spent every penny.
Oklahoma City's Sam Presti did forego 2009 cap space, however. The Thunder had about $9 million, and Presti sat on it, instead letting his young squad grow organically. (He eventually used a chunk of it to take Matt Harpring's dead weight contract from Utah, saving the Jazz $6.5 million in luxury tax and netting the Thunder Eric Maynor.)
But don't forget Presti's attempt to trade expiring contracts for Tyson Chandler in February 2009. That would have put the Thunder over the cap before July began, as Chandler made $11.7 million this season (with $12.6 million due in 2010-11). At the time of the near-trade, Durant was 20, Westbrook was 20, Green was 22 -- the core was as young as could be. So much for patience, right? Presti saw an opportunity to acquire a big-salary player, and took it, before his team doctor found problems with Chandler's foot and reversed the trade.
The Thunder have $19 million in cap space this summer. Who wants to bet Presti won't be on the phone with the agents for any number of elite big men on July 1?
Advocates of patience would argue the Kings aren't at the same level as the Thunder, and that's obviously correct. The Kings won 25 games. The Thunder are tied with the defending champs in the first round. Following that pattern would leave the Kings looking for veteran additions no earlier than 2011.
But the Kings may not have the opportunity to add much in 2011, depending on the league's labor dispute and the expected shrunken salary cap. The Kings have $30 million committed for 2011-12, and that doesn't cover Spencer Hawes, Carl Landry or the 2010 lotto pick (who will make $3-6 million that season). There's a very serious chance that if the Kings don't add long-term salary this offseason, they still wouldn't be able to in the two following seasons. This offseason (and the 2011 trade deadline) grants the team its largest opportunity to add a big-name player. If not now, there's a distinct possibility it will never happen.
That isn't to say the team should necessarily bet the farm on one big player. You still have to make smart decisions, sign the right player who fits with the extant core (that'd be Evans and the lotto pick) well. (To that point, what happens May 18 and June 24 matter a ton.) This is not a call to offer Carlos Boozer $15 million, or David Lee $12 million. But the idea the Kings are better off sitting out July completely is all out of whack, based on blueprints falsified as myth. The Blazers and Thunder haven't gotten to the postseason by sitting on their hands, and the Kings can't do that either.
(Note to readers from the future: if Hawes and Jason Thompson quickly morphed into Oden and Aldridge, or Omri Casspi turned into Peja Stojakovic circa 1999, or Donte Greene realized The Prophecy, ignore this post.)