Willie Cauley-Stein has flummoxed the Sacramento Kings for much of his young career. The experience of watching him for the last four years has been characterized by a wild oscillation between excitement and frustration. His inconsistency has put Sacramento’s front office and coaching staff in difficult places time after time.
Before the 2019 free agency period can begin this July, the Kings will have to make another tough decision regarding their former first-round pick.
Sacramento can obtain the right of first refusal — or ‘matching rights’ — for any contract signed by Cauley-Stein this offseason by making him a restricted free agent. They would do so by submitting a qualifying offer by June 29th. If the team submits the qualifying offer, a cap hold will count against the team’s salary figure until Cauley-Stein’s contract situation is resolved.
Free agency is tricky business, and it gets trickier with players who are hard to value. Lets break down some of the dollar amounts that may present themselves with Willie this summer.
The Qualifying Offer
Willie Cauley-Stein’s qualifying offer for this offseason is set at $6,265,631.
For most starters coming off of their rookie contract, the QO is usually a no-brainer. However, the center market is oversaturated and Cauley-Stein didn’t have a great year.
I wanted to take a look at what that $6.3 million value represents. What level of play have other teams in the league gotten at the center position for that type of money?
I pulled a list of every center who made between $5 million and $7.5 million this season. Only seven players hit that mark: Dewayne Dedmon, Boban Marjanovic, Montrezl Harrell, Jason Smith, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, and Aron Baynes.
A few of these guys should be disregarded for now. Jason Smith has barely played in the last two seasons, and his contract is a vestige of the 2016 cap spike. Injuries limited Dwight Howard’s season to only 9 games. And while DeMarcus Cousins put up some impressive numbers across 30 regular season games, we can assume he would have earned a much higher salary if he were not coming off a major injury.
Looking at the guys who are left, we have a group who may be better than expected.
Dewayne Dedmon collected $7.2 million on the year. He started most games and was solid on offense, defense, and on the glass. His shooting prowess is what separates him from most centers in the game. Dedmon hit 38.4% of his 3.4 three-point attempts per game and connected on an impressive 81.4% of his free throws.
Boban Marjanovic clocked in at $7 million. He is somewhat limited as a role player, but he owns a couple elite skills. At 7’3” he is a rebounding force, and he also connected on a super-efficient 66.4% of his field goals. Boban has dropped 29 points across just two post season games this week to boot.
Montrezl Harrell made $6 million this season. He had a massive breakout and is a real candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. He put up 16.6 points per game off the bench, including an average of 21.5 against the Kings this season.
Finally there’s Aron Baynes, who earned $5.2 million. He’s another guy who plays a smaller role, but plays it well. He can shoot, he can rebound, he can protect the rim, and he can make the right decisions in crucial playoff games.
All this is not to say that WCS doesn’t deserve a one-year deal at $6.3 million. He probably does — and he’ll probably end up getting more than that somewhere. But it’s not as cut and dry as you may think. And offering him the QO won’t solve much.
The Cap Hold
The cap hold for Willie Cauley-Stein, if the qualifying offer is submitted, will be $14,090,625.
That means that while negotiations are ongoing and offers are coming in, the Sacramento Kings would be unable to use about 40% of their projected cap space.
That figure would take any max deals off the table for the Kings. In fact, it would keep them out of the running for most of the top free agents. Even if Sacramento were to go the route of multiple modest deals, that hold could still get in the way of a crucial free agency period for this franchise.
And let’s be clear about this — any contract with an annual salary in the range of $14 million for Willie would be a mistake for the Kings. They have barely scratched by with him on his rookie scale deal. Tripling that figure won’t solve anything.
As opposed to the bargains found around the $6 million mark, the group of centers who earned about $14 million are characterized by overpays. Mason Plumlee ($12.9 million), Cody Zeller ($13.5 million), and Gorgui Dieng ($15.2) all have multiple years left at that level, and all of their general managers wish that they didn’t.
The real problem with the cap hold though is not the dollar amount, but the power it gives WCS in his negotiations with Sacramento. Up until the moment the franchise chooses to renounce him, he can soak up their cap while trying to find the best offer available to him. And he would be right to do so — players deserve to seek as much compensation as they can find — it’s just the Kings who would be doing things wrong.
The Way Forward
Renouncing Willie Cauley-Stein would cost the Kings $0.
While submitting a qualifying offer could be tempting, it seems unwise in the big picture. If they restrict Cauley-Stein they might bring an unpredictable and inconsistent element back onto the roster. Or they could tie up nearly half their cap space for weeks only to see him get a contract too rich to match. Worst of all, they could end up matching a massive contract that they come to regret later.
Viewing this situation from a risk-reward perspective could save the Kings — and their fans — a lot of stress this summer.
The risk of making Cauley-Stein a restricted free agent is a huge decrease of mobility in the free agent market, and the potential of creating an albatross contract. The reward is bringing back a player who may never have a significantly positive impact on the team.
The risk of renouncing Cauley-Stein is that he may figure it out and become a positive player somewhere else. The reward is massive flexibility and the opportunity to make an immediate upgrade at the center position rather than continuing to roll the dice.
It’s never easy to admit a sunk cost. First-round picks are extremely valuable in this league. But you can’t always double down. After four years of frustration, sometimes it’s best to just fold your hand.