The start of free agency has always been a trying time for Kings fans. Everyone dons their Bill Murray mask to participate in the Groundhog day affair of heading into the marketplace with tons of cash, getting linked to, leveraged by, and eventually rejected by big names, and being forced to dumpster dive for devalued players and aging, ineffective players. The ghosts of Arron Afflalo, Matt Barnes, and Zach Randolph haunt us annually.
Sunday’s activities got off to a familiar jump. Al Horford was connected closely to the Kings, and the terms “massive offer” and “mystery team” activated the salivary glands of the fan base. Even those with the thickest of skins garnered some hope that the All-Star big man would see the light in Sacramento and head our way, even if it meant a hefty overpay for a 33-year old. Those lofty ideals were crushed rather effectively by The Athletic’s Sam Amick, as he shared that it was unlikely the former Celtic would ever wear the purple and black. It’s not that the Kings were always the bridesmaid and always the bride, they never seemed to get an invitation to the wedding.
Transitioning from wishing for an All-Star caliber player to praying your front office doesn’t royally screw things up may seem like a drastic swing of emotions, but that’s the state of fandom when your team misses the playoffs for 13 straight years. DeAndre Jordan, he of the poor attitude and sharply declining performance, had been linked to the Kings for weeks. Would the front office overpay for another subpar veteran contributor for the sake of landing a “big name”? Or would they be bamboozled by the dreams of salvaging Andrew Wiggins’ career, a former first round pick who will destroy his team’s cap flexibility for the next four seasons? Those potential mistakes felt like far too realistic of a result for two years of financial prudence.
However, instead of following those mistake-laden paths, Vlade Divac and the rest of the front office sought out high-quality role players and signed them to brilliantly structured contracts. Harrison Barnes was inked to a 4-year, $85 million extension, a hair below initial reports, and the Kings constructed that contract to decline, taking the largest cap hits in earliest years. The last year of Harrison’s deal will come in at about $19.55 million, on accounting for about 14-15% of the estimated cap in the 2022-2023 season.
In addition to securing their small forward of the future, management was also able to upgrade every available position without compromising long-term spending ability. Dewayne Dedmon is a significant upgrade over Willie Cauley-Stein, as both Sanjesh and I have argued, and the seven-footer should mesh perfectly with Sacramento’s starting lineup. He knocked down 38% of his 3.4 three-point attempts per game last season, replacing the shooting of Nemanja Bjelica, while also offering a much more efficient threat in the pick-and-roll (82nd percentile to Cauley-Stein’s 63rd percentile) and quality rim protection (56th percentile to Cauley-Stein’s 0th percentile). Dedmon doesn’t offer the same passing ability as Willie, nor can he create his own shot, but his skill set is much better aligned with his fellow starters, while the length (3 years), cost ($41 million), and structure (3rd year partial guarantee) all represent brilliant maneuvering by Ken Catanella.
The two other signings on Sunday evening marked the same improvement for the bench as Dedmon does for the starters. Trevor Ariza is a far better player than either Justin Jackson or Iman Shumpert, even though he’s lost a step defensively, and his ability to fill either forward spot will provide Luke Walton with level of lineup flexibility that Dave Joerger never enjoyed. Ariza’s shooting dropped off a bit last season as well, and while some might consider a 2 years, $25 million an overpay for a 34-year old bench wing, including a partial guarantee on the second season essentially converts that contract to a one-year, $12.5 million deal.
Cory Joseph was the late night signing and is the only new addition who fails to provide spacing from beyond the arc, but his hard-nosed defense at the guard spot is a skill the Kings been without for years. Joseph will provide a boost in ball movement as well, as his court vision exceeds that of Yogi Ferrell, and the front office was once again able to secure their target with a final year partial guarantee. Last year, Sacramento's bench unit struggled to score outside of Bogdanovic and Bagley, and was plagued by mostly poor defenders, but the shooting of Bogdanovic, Ariza, Ferrell, and Bjelica, and the defense of Joseph, Ariza, and Giles should challenge opponents on both sides of the floor. Luke Walton’s reserve unit received a major boost on Sunday.
Free agency started the same way it always has for the Kings. The first portion of the day followed protocol to a tee, as the big name player rejected Sacramento for a contender, but instead of panic-spending as has been the case previously, management smoothly pivoted to quality players and lured them with fair contracts. Significant upgrades were secured without sacrificing playing time for the kids or the long-term spending abilities of the organization. Vlade Divac failed to add a star player to the depth chart, but that desire was never an absolute necessity. The Kings have found their future through the draft and through trades, as they always have and always will, and Sacramento’s hopes of breaking the playoff drought will continue to rest on the young shoulders of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles. By propping up that young nucleus with complimentary players on fair deals, the Sacramento Kings absolutely won their version of free agency.