Six Moves the Sacramento Kings Should Make
Continuing our series of Six Moves, it’s time to look at the Sacramento Kings. If there is a way to be in a good place coming off a 24-win season, the Kings are in it. With star power in the backcourt and the middle with young studs Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a ton of salary cap space, the Kings are in a position to improve quickly.
For 2011-12 the Kings have $32.5 million committed to nine players after they sign 2011 first-round pick Jimmer Fredette to his rookie scale contract. They also have a $1.1 million Qualifying Offer out to guard Marcus Thornton, making him a restricted free agent. Assuming the Kings don’t have interest in retaining any of their own free agents – center Samuel Dalembert, guards Marquis Daniels and Pooh Jeter, or swingman Darnell Jackson (they don’t) – Sacramento then has roughly $24.5 million in cap space (three minimum salary cap holds will eat into that). On top of that, if the Kings do renounce their other free agents, they would have the ability to spend the cap space and then sign another free agent with an exception created by the new CBA for teams in this scenario for two years starting at $2.5 million.
Given all of that, what should the Kings do when free agency opens up on December 9th?
Find a Point Guard
Right now the Kings do not have a true point guard on their roster. They traded Beno Udrih in the deal that netted them John Salmons and Jimmer Fredette on Draft Day 2011 and that’s going to be difficult to replace. Udrih was second on the team in assists and steals and third in scoring; who picks up the slack? Evans is probably the default choice at the one, but he’s not an ideal point guard. He passes, but also looks for his own shot more than most and has a bad assist to turnover ratio (1.7:1 last season while Udrih’s was 2.7:1).
Sacramento absolutely could begin the season with Evans at the one and manage well enough, but the question has to be asked: is that best for the team’s success? Or would it be better to add a true point guard, one who can distribute and shoot the three, and put Evans at the two instead?
Even if Evans is the starter the Kings don’t have any reserves, so they need to add at least one point guard anyway. The free agent market isn’t very strong at that position, but word came on Friday the Kings had reached out to the agents of Dallas Mavericks free agent J.J. Barea. Barea may be more likely to stay in Dallas and may not be a true point guard either, but he would be a solid addition to these young Kings. Acie Law and Sebastian Telfair may be worth a look too. Behind them the Kings should sign second-round pick Isaiah Thomas from Washington as their third point guard.
Thin Out the Two
The Kings have four players capable of logging minutes at the shooting guard spot, not including restricted free agent Thornton (more on him in a bit): Fredette, Salmons, Francisco Garcia and Evans. The Kings also picked Tyler Honeycutt in the second round of the 2011 Draft and he can play both wing positions. Even if Evans is locked in at the one that’s too many shooting guards. None of them can run the point and really only Salmons can play the three. The Kings want to keep Thornton, so that means someone else needs to go. The top candidates would be Salmons and Garcia, but they may be difficult to move.
Salmons makes $8.5 million this season and is owed $31.2 over the next four (last year not fully guaranteed). That’s a lot of money for a player who has averaged 10.1 points a game in a nine-year career. Garcia is owed $11.9 million over the next two years and then has a $6.4 million team option. Again, that’s a lot of money for a player with a 9.1 points per game career average.
This isn’t saying either player is worthless. No, Salmons is a very capable scorer in the halfcourt and can make the extra pass, while Garcia is a solid defender who will do anything his team asks. What is true is that with Fredette coming in and Thornton likely staying there just isn’t enough minutes to go around. Trading one of Salmons or Garcia (the Kings have no intention of using the Amnesty clause this year) for a reserve big man would go a long ways towards balancing the roster and avoiding possible future issues surrounding the distribution of minutes.
Decide on a Starting Four
Sacramento has three forwards on the roster: Donte’ Greene, Jason Thompson and J.J. Hickson (acquired just before the end of June for Omri Casspi from Cleveland). Who should start? The four isn’t ideal for Greene, who seems a better fit at the three or off the bench swinging between both positions.
So, Thompson or Hickson? (This assumes that Cousins takes over his natural center position.) Hickson started most of the season for Cleveland and posted 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, while Thompson started half of Sacramento’s games and posted 8.8 points and 6.1 rebounds. Is one of them the long-term answer? It’s very possible, so the team should let them duke it out in training camp and be satisfied they have two capable players at that position.
It’s not necessary to go crazy and blow the cap room on one of the top free agents at the four like David West, Glen Davis or Carl Landry.
Don’t Spend it All in One Place
These Kings are definitely not a contender and they may not even be in the mix for a playoff spot in April, but they also aren’t in a position where they need to go out and buy a superstar. With Evans and Cousins they have a pair of very talented cornerstone players so the emphasis should be placed on filling in the gaps in their skills. Focus on adding shooting and defense around them, not adding another scoring star when it’s not necessary.
The Kings need to spend $50 million on salaries to hit the 85% minimum amount of spending, but doing so by adding a max player isn’t the right way to do it. Think about it – what does a player like Nene or West add to this team? Of course those players are good, but do they complement the existing pieces most efficiently?
Don’t feel pressured to spend it just because you have it. The free agent class of 2012 is going to be much better and much deeper, so instead of blowing money on a player because of limited options, get to $50 million and roll the cap space over to next summer. In 2012-13 the Kings have $26.6 million committed to just six players as of now (Greene, Hickson and Thompson can be restricted).
Keep Marcus Thornton
As a rookie second-round pick two years ago with the New Orleans Hornets Thornton played well with point guards Chris Paul and Darren Collison, averaging 14.5 points a game and shooting 45% from the field in 25.6 minutes per game. Last year, with Collison traded, Thornton found himself in the coach’s doghouse and in 46 games before being traded to Sacramento averaged 7.8 points and shot 42% from the field in 16.2 minutes per game. Post-trade with the Kings Thornton exploded, putting up 21.3 points a game and shooting 45% from the field in 38.1 minutes per game. He topped 20 points in 17 of his 27 games as a King.
Sacramento issued him a $1.1 million Qualifying Offer to make him a restricted free agent last June. The question is, how much is he worth? Is Thornton the one Sacramento saw? Or is he the player he was in New Orleans before the trade? The answer probably lies in his shooting percentage where his Sacramento stats match his rookie year. Add in 37% shooting from three-point range as well as improved rebounding as a King and it’s a safe bet he deserves to be compensated at a higher level.
How much higher? Sacramento should be aggressive in keeping Thornton because he will get offers from other teams. If a team offers him the Mid-Level Exception (starting at $5 million), the Kings match that. The real question is will someone offer more than that? Or will someone get silly with an offer in the $8-9 million range? It’s a safe bet the Kings match any MLE level money and probably even up to $6 million, but higher than that it gets iffy. How confident are they Thornton is that third piece, especially with Fredette coming in? Keeping in mind the dollars committed to Salmons and Garcia, that’s a lot of money tied up at one position, making a trade of one of the others if they keep Thornton that much more important.
Sacramento should be aggressive in signing Thornton and not allowing him look too hard for a silly offer. Offer him a three-year, guaranteed deal, starting at $5 million with a fourth year as a Player Option and work from there, making it absolutely clear he is part of the future. See where the conversation goes and just hope the numbers don’t get silly.
Add Some Veterans
Assume Thornton is on the books and the team still needs to add around $10 million in salary via at least three roster spots to meet the minimum salary requirement. Take $1 million of that and sign Honeycutt and Thomas to rookie minimum salaries. What else do they need? Veteran experience in the form of three players.
A backup center is a must behind Cousins. This player needs to be capable of starting in case of an injury, but not one who is in a position to demand the starts or the minutes. He needs to defend and rebound off the bench while not being a total liability on offense. Jason Collins, Etan Thomas or Joel Przybilla could all be decent additions at cheap, if not minimum, salaries. They would also allow for rotating Thompson into some minutes at the five and further development of 2010 second-round pick Hassan Whiteside.
Then the Kings need a veteran small forward, someone who can work as a mentor to the younger players but still contribute if necessary. Why not Jason Kapono? He’s a fantastic shooter and as an unrestricted free agent could be tempted by a slightly over minimum deal. $2.5 million per for two years? They could use his shooting.
Then the Kings need a veteran at the point. Barea likely isn’t going to leave Dallas – he could, it’s just not likely – and they need someone besides just Evans and Thomas. That player needs to have experience leading a team, needs to think pass first, and needs to be a decent defender. Acie Law, as mentioned earlier, would be a decent fit.
But wait, you say, that’s not spending enough money! Correct…so make that trade to thin out the wing, adding in someone like Greene if necessary, and trade in an imbalanced deal for an expiring contract of a veteran who can play now in the $10-12 million range. A forward would be ideal. Antawn Jamison of the Cleveland Cavaliers? Mehmet Okur of the Utah Jazz? The high money is necessary to reach the salary floor, and expiring is necessary in order to have another ton of cap space for the 2012 free agent frenzy.
Despite the recent bad years the Kings are in a good place. They have talent and they have money to spend. There are other issues such as the threat of a move to Anaheim and about whether or not Paul Westphal is the right coach, but neither of those is going to change before the season begins. Will Sacramento take that next step? They should.