As the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers gear up for runs at big-name free agents, the Sacramento Kings lurk as one of the NBA’s bigger wild cards.
Harrison Barnes’ decision to decline his $25.1 million player option initially positioned the Kings to have more financial flexibility than all but a few teams this summer. If they renounced the rights to all of their free agents, they could have carved out a whopping $62.6 million in salary-cap space, putting them in position to be major free agency factors.
However, according to KHTK’s Carmichael Dave, the Kings “are working towards an agreement” with Barnes in the “four-year, $88 million dollar range.” Marc Stein of the New York Times affirmed that they intend to offer him a four-year deal “worth nearly $90 million” when free agency begins Sunday.
Breaking down whether that’s the right price for Sacto and whether they’re bidding against themselves is a whole other article, but Barnes does make sense as a shot-making veteran with some youth left. So let’s instead concentrate on the fact that, even after re-signing him, the Kings could till have somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million in cap space.
How they divvy that up may ultimately determine their long-term ceiling.
Though another guard could be helpful, the Kings’ depth chart is actually looking rather solid these days across the 1-through-4 spots, with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield giving a nice combination of playmaking and shooting, respectively, in the backcourt. Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic have been effective shot makers on the wings, while the surprising Nemanja Bjelica is keeping the forward seat warm for budding Marvin Bagley III.
Thus, finding a center should be among Sacramento’s top priorities, as they’re unlikely to lure a superstar free agent such as Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. While a stretch-5’s are a hot item these days, Sacramento could get by with a highly competent traditional 5 who can finish plays, block shots and quarterback the defense.
Starting center Willie Cauley-Stein will become a restricted free agent if the Kings extend him a qualifying offer, but his agent, Roger Montgomery, told Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee that he was “hopeful they will not even give Willie his qualifying offer so Willie can be an unrestricted free agent.”
“I really think Willie needs a fresh start,” he told Jones. “Based on how things have gone for him there in Sacramento, I just think it’s time for Willie to move on, and we’d really like him to move on.”
With Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol having picked up his $25.6 million player option Wednesday, there aren’t many top-tier centers on this year’s free-agent market. The two most notable remaining ones might be questionable fits in Sacramento, anyway.
According to Stein, “Numerous teams and agents believe Al Horford has a four-year offer awaiting him in free agency worth an estimated $112 million.” While Horford is an excellent, savvy two-way player, he also turned 33 at the beginning of June and in no way aligns age-wise with the rest of Sacramento’s young core. He also figures to prioritize teams closer to title contention in free agency.
Fresh off his first career All-Star nod, Nikola Vucevic is the other pivot prize on the free-agent market, but similar concerns exist regarding his fit in Sacramento.
While he’s younger than Horford—he won’t turn 29 until late October—he would be transitioning from the NBA’s seventh-slowest team to its third-fastest. Could he keep up with De’Aaron Fox’s blazing speed on fast breaks, or would he bog down the Kings’ transition attack?
Rather than go big-game hunting for a free-agent center, it might behoove the Kings to sign a discount option instead while other teams spend wildly.
Nerlens Noel figures to sign at a fraction of the price Horford and Vucevic will, as he played on a minimum contract this past season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 25-year-old is rail thin and wouldn’t hold up well against burly centers such as Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, but he’s posted elite steal and block rates throughout his five-year NBA career and should have no trouble keeping up with Fox in transition.
The Kings could also go after Kevon Looney, who the Golden State Warriors may struggle to afford if Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant re-sign there.
The 23-year-old ranked ninth among all centers this past season in ESPN.com’s real plus-minus, and he was Golden State’s best option at the 5 over established veterans such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andrew Bogut. Looney didn’t play at all during the Warriors’ 2016-17 title run, but he started five games and averaged 18.4 minutes during the playoffs when they repeated in 2017-18.
However, as TBW colleague Adam Spinella pointed out, an overestimated market for Looney could get out of hand pretty quickly.
On the restricted-free-agent front, Thomas Bryant and Ivica Zubac could both be of some interest.
The Washington Wizards are in salary-cap hell and may be reluctant to match a sizable offer sheet for Bryant, who averaged 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 20.8 minutes per game this past season and won’t turn 21 until the end of July. If the Los Angeles Clippers succeed in luring Kawhi Leonard and a second max star, Zubac could be a cap casualty after averaging 9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 20.2 minutes across 26 regular-season appearances with the Clips.
If none of the free-agent options strike their fancy, the Kings could turn to the trade market, too.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Houston Rockets “are canvassing NBA teams with significant salary-cap space to individually offer center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and forward PJ Tucker as a prelude to their pursuit of a sign-and-trade deal for Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Jimmy Butler.”
Stein reported Friday that the Rockets believe they have a trade partner lined up for Capela, but they “do not intend” to deal him unless they’re certain they can acquire Butler.
Capela is entering the second year of an incentive-laden five-year, $90 million contract. While he’s limited offensively, he’s coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 16.6 points on 64.8 percent shooting, 12.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in only 33.6 minutes per game with the Rockets. The 25-year-old would give Sacramento an upgrade in rim protection while profiling as a promising pick-and-roll partner for Fox.
Steven Adams could be an option as well. According to Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated, the Oklahoma City Thunder were shopping Adams and others ahead of the 2019 NBA draft in pursuit of salary-cap relief. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is entering the third year of his four-year, $100 million contract, and his bone-crunching screens could help free up both Fox and Hield offensively.
The Kings could also go the asset-acquisition route by calling the Miami Heat about Hassan Whiteside, who’s entering the final year of his four-year max contract. The Heat certainly would be unlikely to part ways with the likes of Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo or Justise Winslow to dump Whiteside—unless perhaps clearing the salary decks for their own big splash—but prying away a future unprotected first-round pick or two could justify burning $27.1 million in space on the oft-disgruntled center.
Let’s not forget Whiteside began his career in Sacramento, though he largely was an afterthought between G-League stints and injuries.
How the Kings address their void at center should be emblematic of their overall free-agency strategy. Rather than going after the biggest-name targets, Sacramento should keep its powder dry at first and pursue bargain options once cap space dries up around the league.
The worst values often come off the board within the opening hours of free agency, and a lot of teams will have burned their flexibility for next summer when the Kings could return to a calmer market as a more attractive landing spot. (A playoff berth of any kind would go a long ways towards making that happen, and Sacramento can be a realistic lower seed this year with the aforementioned minor additions.)
Hield becomes eligible to sign an extension in July and Fox does next summer, which gives the Kings two more years before their cap room closes off. Being judicious with that money this summer could help the Kings build toward annual playoff contention for the first time since the mid-2000s.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.