Each year dozens of talented NBA players hit the open market in the offseason. All-Stars, All-NBA selections, and even MVPs get the chance to choose a new team when free agency rolls around. The problem for the Kings is that those players rarely end up in Sacramento. At least not recently. Being in a small market makes those types of signings difficult. Missing the playoffs for a decade in a small market makes them nearly impossible.
As evidence to that point, here are the ten highest salaried free agents signed by the Kings since their last playoff appearance, listed by average yearly salary:
George Hill: 19 million (3 years/57 mil)
Arron Afflalo: 12.5 million (2 years/25 mil)
Zach Randolph: 12 million (2 years/24 mil)
Rajon Rondo: 9.5 million (1 year)
Kosta Koufos: 8.25 mil (4 years/33 mil)
Garrett Temple: 8 million (3 years/24 mil)
Anthony Tolliver: 8 million (2 years/16 mil)
Vince Carter: 8 million (1 year)
Carl Landry: 6.5 million (4 years/26 mi)
Marco Bellinelli: 6.33 million (3 years/19 mil)
Not exactly a murderers’ row. Of those players only Rondo, Randolph, and Carter were ever All-Stars. And they were 3, 5, and 11 seasons removed from their last appearance by the time they joined the Kings. None of the ten made an All-Star game while playing for Sacramento. In fact, the Kings have not signed a free agent in this millennium who went on to appear in an All-Star game. The last King signing to do so was current GM, Vlade Divac, who joined the team in 1999.
So how should Sacramento go about acquiring the best possible talent? While I would never suggest giving up on the pursuit of free agents, it seems the Kings are mostly stuck with drafting and trading as their primary options to improve. A young core and the second overall pick should go a long way toward turning this roster around, but even teams who have top picks year after year need extra pieces to truly turn the corner. And as Kings fans are all too aware, they have no 2019 first-rounder with which to continue their run on rookie talent.
They do have advantages over the competition, however, when it comes to trades. Those advantages are in the form of a mountain of expiring contracts next season and an ocean of cap space from 2019 on.
Depending on a few player options, the Kings could have close to $45 million of expiring contracts in Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert, Kosta Koufos, Garrett Temple, and Willie Cauley-Stein. This gives them huge flexibility for the 2019-2020 season, with 7 players under contract for a very affordable total of $35 million. Add the expected rookie salary for their upcoming draft picks and some money still owed to previously waived players, and they are looking at a bare minimum of $60 million in cap space starting in 2019. That’s enough to accommodate any trade target, perhaps even any two.
So my suggestion for the Kings is to find talent on teams who are looking to shed salary. Quality starters are out there, and if you look in the right places there is potential to find them for a song. The open market has not been kind to the Kings, but they can turn that perceived weakness into a strength by taking on players whose teams can no longer afford them. When Kings fans hear of a player on a big market team with a “bad” contract, it’s time to start thinking of them instead as a good opportunity.
With an emerging core of young players and a high draft pick, Sacramento could be one big piece away from competing for a playoff spot. And as long as it doesn’t take a key prospect or a future first round pick, it would be wise to start considering that type of a move.
An ideal player to target in a trade as a salary incentivized buy-low would have the following qualities: A salary over $20 million, a contract with at least two remaining years, belong to a team that is already over the cap for 2018-19, still be in their 20’s so that they retain their current skill level, and be able to provide an upgrade in talent at a position of need for the Kings. I have assembled a shortlist of players that fit these descriptions, and outlined some specifics about why they could be acquired at a bargain.
Otto Porter Jr., WAS (3 years/82 mil)
The Wizards are in dire straits financially. They operated at $25 million above the salary cap this year, which put them into the luxury tax. Some owners are willing to pay for that, but it never lasts unless their team is a serious contender for a championship. Only four teams paid the price this year, two of which are in the finals. So a first round out as the 8th seed is not likely to rationalize Washington’s costs. They will also be facing the far steeper “repeater tax” soon if they don’t start shedding salary. Problem is, they have an even larger payroll on the books for next year already.
With John Wall and Bradley Beal both making the All-Star team, it seems Porter may be the odd man out. That idea is supported by the emergence of Kelly Oubre, who is the youngest player on the roster and plays Porter’s position. With Wall’s designated veteran extension in place, the Wizards are set to pay over $92 million in 2019-20 to Wall, Beal, and Porter alone. That figure increases to $98 million for 2020-21. The Kings could capitalize on the situation with offers of expiring salaries and smaller assets in order to fill what may be their greatest positional need in a combo forward.
Hassan Whiteside, MIA (2 years/52.5 mil)
The Heat are already $20 million over the cap for 2018-19 without a full roster. They could eliminate that entire figure by moving on from just one player: Hassan Whiteside. The crazy part is that they probably wouldn’t win any less games without him. They have what is possibly the best center depth in the whole league with Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo. And after losing minutes to those guys late in the season and in the playoffs, there is no doubt that Whiteside is a buy-low candidate. Even a real contender would want to reduce a salary as high as the Heat’s, but it has to be a top priority for a team that knows their current roster is not elite.
Kings fans have been looking for a volume rebounder and rim protector for a while. Whiteside more than qualifies as both, with career averages of 11.4 boards and 2.4 blocks in only 27 minutes per game. His Per-36 numbers last year show a 20-point, 16-rebound player. If the Kings draft a guard or a forward with the number two pick, Whiteside could easily step in as their most talented center.
Andrew Wiggins, MIN (5 years/146 mil)
Wiggins and the Timberwolves agreed to a 5-year maximum rookie extension last year. On a team where money will be tight next season ($15 million over the cap with just 9 players under contract) his payday already feels like an overreach for their books. Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to make even more than Wiggins when he extends, so unless the Wolves are ready to pay the luxury tax for the foreseeable future, some big contracts need to be moved.
If the Kings go with a big man in the draft, Wiggins could be the answer at Small Forward. It’s rare that any team has a chance to bring in first-overall-pick type of talent, and even more rare to do so without giving up an enormous price. But that could easily be the situation for the Kings with Wiggins. And though his contract is both large and lengthy, the Kings payroll is so small that it wouldn’t put them over the cap in any future year, even before considering any departing salaries. And having just turned 23, he is expected to still be in his prime at the end of his 5-year deal.
Danilo Gallinari, LAC (2 years/44 mil)
The Clippers are a tough situation to parse as they appear to be in the intermediate stages of a rebuild – or at least a cost-efficient retool. After Chris Paul left in free agency they unloaded their second star, Blake Griffin, and his $132 million in guaranteed salary. Despite that, the Clippers will still be in the dreaded repeater tax this year if they don’t make more adjustments. Steve Ballmer has deep pockets, but rarely does that type of money come from foolish decisions. The Clippers know they must continue to make changes in order to save money. And creating cap space in Los Angeles is always valuable, as it provides an opportunity to bring in even bigger names through free agency down the line.
With those facts in mind, it’s natural to wonder if DeAndre Jordan and Danilo Gallinari are the next players to go. While DeAndre could be a target for the Kings, his player option is for a single year only, meaning he could be short term rental for any team that acquires him. Gallo, on the other hand, has a two-year deal and boasts some very attractive attributes. A career 37% shooter from three with the size and length to play either forward position is a player type that any team should covet. Not to mention that his international roots could continue a long standing tradition in Sacramento and continue to strengthen the team’s relationships with European players and clubs.
Serge Ibaka, TOR (2 years/45 mil)
The Raptors just got knocked out of the playoffs by LeBron James for the third consecutive year. They won only a combined two games over those three series. Clearly something isn’t working for this squad and changes need to be made. It’s evident that their front office agrees with that assessment, having fired head coach Dwane Casey earlier this month. It remains to be seen if a shakeup in the roster is also in store. But with so many back-loaded salaries, It seems more likely than not. They paid $116.5 mil this year to 14 players, but have $127 mil already on the books for 12 players next year, and $132 mil for just 10 players the year after that. Do you think Masai Ujiri is willing to pay that to watch his team get swept in the playoffs again? Me neither.
If someone were to be moved, Serge Ibaka seems to be the clear front runner. They have a younger and far cheaper Power Forward in Pascal Siakam who appears ready to step in. Frankly, Siakam had a better showing in the postseason than Ibaka did, as Ibaka seemed lost during some pivotal moments in their series against the Cavs. But the Kings don’t yet need a player who can excel in the playoffs, they just need someone to help get them there. His career numbers of 2.2 blocks per game and 37% shooting from three suggest that he could do just that. Players who can both shoot from distance and protect the rim are extremely rare and are valuable commodities in the modern NBA. If the Kings go with a 3 or a 5 in the draft, Ibaka could slot in alongside either one and be an immediate upgrade.
Who should the Kings make an offer for?
If I ran the show, I would be engaging in serious talks about all of these players and more. The possibility of nabbing an above average starter without sacrificing any foundational pieces of the Kings rebuild is just too tantalizing to ignore. Now, I don’t expect these guys to come in and win an MVP award in Sacramento. They may not even make an All-Star game, necessarily. But could they have a better tenure with the Kings than George Hill or Zach Randolph? It’s very possible. How about Arron Afflalo or Rajon Rondo? Almost certainly. So if you’re a Kings fan who wants to swing for the fences in free agency, know that I am with you. That is the first and best option. But optimism and practicality are not mutually exclusive. It’s never too early to plan ahead in the NBA, and you can never have too many options.