Solving Problems: Sacramento Kings Need Depth
For a basketball team to start recovering from the depths of rebuilding they need to pick up at least one player who can become a franchise talent. Whether that’s in the draft, a trade they make to give a buried player a fresh start, or a free agent signing, no matter where it comes from it has to happen. The Sacramento Kings have two of those players, and now they need to fill out the rest of the roster.
The Kings first struck gold in the 2009 NBA Draft, choosing Memphis guard Tyreke Evans with the fourth overall pick. Evans went on to win Rookie of the Year during the 2009-10 NBA season, averaging 20.1 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals a game. It wasn’t enough to bring the Kings back to the playoffs, and they again fell into the draft lottery in 2010. There they chose big man DeMarcus Cousins from Kentucky, a player with number one talent but with a history as a bit of a head case. Cousins didn’t disappoint in either category in 2010-11, averaging 14.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.0 steals as a rookie while also making plenty of headlines with his attitude in games and in practice.
These two players are the pillars around which everything else the Sacramento Kings do in the foreseeable future will be built around. Evans is the leader, the engine, and Cousins is the toughness in the middle. In order for the Kings to move forward they need to surround these two players with a complementary supporting cast, one who will allow Cousins and Evans to be the stars and fill in all the gaps.
They need another rebounder in the post, they need a third reliable scorer, they need outside shooting, they need defense, and they need a pass-first point guard to come off the bench behind Evans. Evans figures to be the starter at the one after the draft day trade sending Beno Udrih to Milwaukee.
That sounds like asking a lot, but the Kings are in very good position to fill just about all of those roles in one offseason.
First, the Kings have only $30.2 million committed to eight players for 2011-12 as of right now. Lottery pick guard Jimmer Fredette will clock in at about $2.3 million in the first year of his rookie scale contract, plus the Kings have a Qualifying Offer of $1.1 million out to shooting guard Marcus Thornton.
They also have a cap hold worth $14.5 million for free agent center Samuel Dalembert, $4.8 million to guard Marquis Daniels, and minimum salary holds on Darnell Jackson and Pooh Jeter. Two second-round picks – forward Tyler Honeycutt from UCLA and point guard Isaiah Thomas from Washington – who will count for a minimum salary cap hold ($490,180 in 2011-12).
The Kings may have interest in re-signing Dalembert, but not at anywhere near the salary of his cap hold. In order to maximize their spending potential in free agency, they could renounce their rights to Dalembert, Daniels, Jackson and Jeter. If they did, they would have about $23 million in cap space if the cap stays near the same as 2010-11, a shade over $58 million. (We’ll use that number here for argument’s sake, knowing full well the lockout and the next CBA could change the landscape dramatically. Even if the actually dollar amount of the cap changes and salaries change in accordance, Sacramento’s percentage of the cap available – and thus their spending power in free agency – should stay the same.)
The Kings’ first order of business will be to add the third scorer. With the draft day trade that brought in guard John Salmons and resulted in the drafting of BYU gunner Fredette, they may have that player already. In fact, Salmons is also a decent defender and Fredette an outstanding shooter, so both players can fill double duty when it comes to team needs, assuming Fredette can make his transition to the pros a smooth one.
Whether or not these two players actually become the third scorer, it’s reasonable to expect they will fill needs and become a strong part of the Kings’ rotation. Add in guard Francisco Garcia, who can defend a little, shoot, and handle the ball, and that’s a solid guard rotation.
The wild card here is Marcus Thornton and his status as a restricted free agent. With the abundance of guards already under contract, it may not make sense for the Kings to spend more money on the backcourt with so many holes up front, even though Thornton played fantastic ball after his midseason acquisition from the New Orleans Hornets. The smart move would be to allow Thornton to find his own market value and see if a team makes an offer, allowing the Kings to then match or decline to match an offer sheet. They should have a number in mind as to what is and isn’t acceptable, with something around $5 million per season probably reasonable (again, this is based on the 2010-11 market and the number will change proportionately based on the results of the lockout, if necessary).
Because of the hold for Thornton’s restricted free agent status, such a deal would only remove about $4 million from the Kings’ available spending power, leaving them about $19 million with which to focus on the frontcourt.
Cousins is a lock to start and may very well be a center instead of a power forward. Placing him there would give the Kings a very athletic look with the ability to run at every opportunity. With Evans leading the way and the abilities of Cousins, that’s a smart idea.
This means the Kings should focus the bulk of their free agent research on power forwards. They did acquire J.J. Hickson from the Cleveland Cavaliers (for small forward Omri Casspi) right before the collective bargaining agreement expired, but Hickson may be a better reserve than a starter. Jason Thompson also has been given chances at that spot, but has been inconsistent.
Quite a few power forwards are available from the 2011 free agent class, headed by Hornets All-Star David West. Coming off knee surgery signing him may be a bit of a risk, but if he passes a physical there should be no reason why the Kings should hesitate to make him a serious offer. Both he and Cousins are capable of playing on the block and hitting a jumper, plus they can rebound and play a little defense. It would be a nice fit if the Kings can convince West this is the best place for him.
Outside of West there are still plenty of options, though none who would qualify as the bona fide third star for the Kings. Boston’s Jeff Green (restricted) is intriguing, but not the rebounder they need. New Jersey Nets big man Kris Humphries may be an excellent choice with his ability to rebound, plus he may able to be signed to a reasonable rate, even though only one good season on his resume is a tiny worry. Was that the real Humphries?
The Kings have two other players already under contract who can help the bench. Donte’ Greene can play both forward positions and second-year center Hassan Whiteside should be healthy. If the Kings then sign rookies Honeycutt and Thomas they will still have a few million left over to bring in a veteran center and a veteran point guard. They can offer these players more than the minimum salaries they can get elsewhere and solid roles as the first center and point guard off the bench.
With both of these players the Kings should focus on leadership and efficiency. At the center spot, names like Joel Przybilla, Jason Collins and Etan Thomas would all be solid fits. They are smart players, respected by their peers, and each can teach Cousins some nuances to the game that will make him a better player in the long run. Whiteside would also benefit.
At the point the Kings should look at veteran point guards like T.J. Ford or Earl Watson (hey, it’s kind of a weak free agent class for point guards). Chris Quinn may also be a good choice, as would bringing back Jeter.
The Kings may be better off using one of their young forwards – Greene or Thompson – as bait to bring in a veteran point guard. Would the Lakers be interested in trading Steve Blake? Blake is the exact kind of point guard they need, a player who plays hard, looks to create, doesn’t turn the ball over, and can hit an outside shot if necessary.
When you take a step back and look at these Kings, it’s easy to see how quickly everything can fall into place for them. With just a few minor moves and maybe one major one, they could not only be playoff contenders but also building the basis of championship contention in a few years. If management focuses on chemistry and complementing the talent already in place, that’s not as farfetched as many think.