Friday, December 1 2023
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Sacramento’s recent forays below the salary cap have gone… poorly. In 2015 they traded away the pick that would eventually become Jayson Tatum for the cap space to sign Monta Ellis… who proceeded to sign with the Indiana Pacers. The most expensive contract they gave to an external free agent in the 21st century went to George Hill in 2017. He was a Cleveland Cavalier eight months later. They did sign Zach LaVine to an expensive offer sheet in 2018, but the Chicago Bulls swiftly matched it. When you combine the unofficial small-market tax with the unofficial bad-team tax that the Kings have had pay free agents over the past decade-and-a-half, free agency has mostly been a nightmare for the Kings.

Of course, these aren’t the same Kings. They’re coming off of a 48-34 season that culminated with one of the most fun first-round series in recent memory against the Golden State Warriors. Free agency played a significant part in that success, with mid-level addition Malik Monk scoring more points against the Warriors than any King not named De’Aaron Fox. Were it not for a historic 50-point Game 7 out of Stephen Curry, Sacramento might have won that series. The league has seemingly noticed.

For perhaps the first time in franchise history, the Kings are now a viable destination. They’re young. They’re within driving distance of the increasingly lucrative Bay Area. And most importantly, they’re good. A few tweaks can turn 48 wins into 58 wins pretty quickly, and the Kings know it. So they seized on a rare opportunity on draft night. The Dallas Mavericks had only hours earlier traded Davis Bertans into Oklahoma City’s cap space. This created a $17 million trade exception that they could use to absorb another similarly salaried player. 

The Kings pounced. They offered the Mavericks the No. 24 overall pick to take on the contract of former starting center Richaun Holmes. Around $15 million in expected salary vanished from Sacramento’s books in an instant, and suddenly, their entire offseason changed. Rather than using Bird Rights to retain Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles to mostly run back last year’s team, the Kings are suddenly positioned to have quite a bit of cap space. Roughly $36 million of it to be precise, assuming they renounce their rights to all but their six core players: Fox, Monk, Domantas Sabonis, Keegan Murray, Kevin Huerter and Davion Mitchell. Only Houston and San Antonio have more money to play with.

With the likely exception of James Harden, every free agent on the market is now theoretically available to the Kings. They can remake their roster in just about any way they choose, and thanks to the newly buffed $7.6 million cap room mid-level exception, they they probably won’t even have to sacrifice much depth to do so. The Kings would probably like to use that exception to retain Lyles, one of their top reserves from last season. There is also the possibility that they use some of that cap space to give the criminally underpaid Sabonis, a reigning All-NBA player, a raise through a renegotiate-and-extend arrangement. 

But the Kings created this space for a reason. They want someone, or a group of players, and now they have the flexibility to get whomever they want. So that raises the $36 million question: what players do the Kings want?

The name you’ll hear plenty over the next several days is Draymond Green. The Kings just had the most efficient offense in NBA history, but the league’s 24th-ranked defense. Green goes a long way toward fixing that. Though the Kings aren’t equipped to switch as frequently as the Warriors do, Green can play elite man-defense on almost any matchup or credibly protect the backline and organize a zone. 

Mike Brown knows exactly how to deploy him defensively from their time together in Golden State. Former Kings minority owner Vivek Ranadive would surely love to drive the nail into Golden State’s coffin as a dynasty, especially after Sacramento’s postseason heartbreak. With the luxury tax factored in, retaining Green at even his declined player-option salary would have pushed the Warriors far north of $400 million in payroll this season. In a bidding war, there are scenarios in which the Warriors have to pay over $500 million next season to keep their team together.

For the time being, however, Green joining Sacramento doesn’t appear especially likely, and that has little to do with the awkward dynamic that would surely follow Green into a locker room with Sabonis after their ill-fated Game 2 scuffle. The Warriors swapped Jordan Poole for Chris Paul specifically to facilitate a Green extension. Paul’s 2024-25 salary is non-guaranteed, so the Warriors may have to pay $500 million for next season’s roster, but their tax burden eases significantly afterward. Green is likely thrilled to have the Kings as leverage, but until he actually leaves the only team he’s ever known, he’s a safe bet to return.

The same is probably true of Khris Middleton who, despite his impending free agency, was reportedly involved in the hiring of Adrian Griffin as Milwaukee’s next head coach. The Bucks have no means of replacing Middleton if he leaves, and in such scenarios, incumbent teams tend to pay up to keep their former champions. He’s hardly an ideal fit for the Kings anyway. Now that his defense has slipped, most of his value comes from late-game shot-creation. Fox handles that himself, and he’s far more durable at this stage of his career. The Kings don’t have much of a reason to splurge for Middleton. Their offense is fine just the way it is.

What they’re really looking for, aside from defense, is a gap-filler. The Kings are the rare big-spender who don’t really have on-ball possessions to offer free agents. They need a player who knows how to function off of better teammates, moving and cutting in the half-court, filling the lane in transition, finding points on put-backs and making himself scarce while his primary creators cook. Ironically, considering his reputation when he entered the league, that player is now Kyle Kuzma.

Sacramento tried to trade for Kuzma once before. The Lakers backed out of a proposed deal for Buddy Hield in 2021 to pursue Russell Westbrook. The Kings should be glad they did. Hield’s salary helped them land Sabonis a few months later, and that makes Kuzma a far better fit in Sacramento than he otherwise would’ve been. 

Though he arrived in the NBA as a heat-check scorer, Kuzma spent his final years with the Lakers transitioning into a do-it-all role player. The teammate that hastened that change was Marc Gasol, perhaps the best passing center the NBA had before Nikola Jokic. Kuzma learned quickly that Gasol would find him points if he moved off of the ball, but in the process, Gasol’s selflessness rubbed off on Kuzma, helping him because a far better functional passer than he had been earlier in his career. Their chemistry was so apparent that Kuzma publicly advocated for Gasol to receive more minutes when Frank Vogel took him out of the rotation.

Kuzma took those skills to Washington, where he traded in worthwhile teammates for a far bigger role. He developed as an on-ball scorer there, topping 21 points per game last season on an unspectacular Wizards team. Those skills will serve him well on occasion, as Sacramento’s offense is egalitarian by design even if Fox can monopolize late-game touches. But it’s the combination of what he proved in Washington and how he grew in Los Angeles that makes him such an appealing King. Sabonis is as close to Gasol as Kuzma will find in the modern NBA without going to Denver. Who’s to say the Sabonis-Kuzma pairing couldn’t grow into the low-rent version of Jokic and Aaron Gordon on offense?

Kuzma wouldn’t fix the Sacramento defense, but he’d contribute to it. He’s grown into a relatively strong multi-positional defender who is at his best against power forwards, but defended as far down the positional spectrum as shooting guard in Los Angeles. His shooting comes in roughly a tier ahead of Gordon’s: relatively inefficient, but at a high enough volume to keep defenders honest. Defenses won’t leave him open, and he’s perfectly capable of punishing scrambling closeouts by putting the ball on the floor.

Sacramento will sniff around the rest of the forward market, but Kuzma is the best compromise of talent, availability and price. If Sacramento wanted to bring Barnes back they likely wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to duck under the tax. Jerami Grant is a better defender and individual scorer (though the gaps on both fronts are smaller than most seem to believe), but he’s worse at the little things, and he wants shots the Kings probably aren’t eager to give him. With Portland seemingly planning to run it back next season, odds are the Blazers pay Grant just to appease Damian Lillard. The idea of paying Brook Lopez and moving Sabonis and Murray down a position each has come up, but Sabonis just escaped a center timeshare in Indiana and played the best basketball of his career.

Kuzma will be pricey, but he’s not making $36 million next season. More likely, his price comes in somewhere between $20-25 million, and the Kings have a bit more money to play with. Likely not enough to extend Sabonis at fair value, but at least enough to bring back Lyles and pursue a backup center. Mason Plumlee would be a nice fit in that spot as a center who shares stylistic similarities with Sabonis. That’s part of why Denver kept him around as Jokic’s backup for so long. There’s value in having a backup that doesn’t require dramatic schematic variation.

The Kings are probably exploring possible avenues to Green. It’s justifiable given the impact he’d have on virtually any defense, though he overlaps pretty significantly with Sabonis on offense, and pairing Fox with two big men that don’t make 3’s would be doing opposing defenses quite a favor. The Kings could also use their space on a guard and plan to swap one of their current backcourt players with draft picks for a forward. Huerter and picks for OG Anunoby has been a popular trade idea for months, though the only guard worth pursuing at Sacramento’s price point is Fred VanVleet, and odds are, the Raptors aren’t letting both of them go.

All of this makes Kuzma the likeliest target for the time being, and even if he is the consolation prize after a rejection from Green, he’s an easier overall fit that represents an immediate upgrade over Barnes. Considering their recent history with free agency, he’d likely be their best offseason signing in decades.



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