Ignore the fact that a year ago, the owners of the Sacramento Kings were broke. Ignore that the owners were talking to officials in Virginia Beach and Las Vegas about relocation and were openly warring with the Sacramento municipal government, the business community and fans.
Just consider the basketball operations. You had Tyreke Evans, the 2010 Rookie of the Year, eligible for an Early Bird extension that would kick in for 2013-14. He'd dropped off from his R.O.Y. season, but was still pretty valuable and lousy with potential.
Other teams locked up their 2009 draft class point guards. The Philadelphia 76ers locked in Jrue Holiday at $41 million over four years. (He subsequently made his first All-Star team.) The Warriors got a crazy good deal for Stephen Curry at $44 million over four years. (He became a legitimate NBA star -- a superstar? -- this season.) The Nuggets reached a four-year, $48 million deal with Ty Lawson. (He was in the running for an All-Star spot.)
Like Evans, Brandon Jennings and Jeff Teague left the 2012 offseason without deals and are now restricted free agents. Evans was the first to strike gold: the New Orleans Pelicans reportedly offered Tyreke $44 million over four years. And he didn't take it -- he took more meetings. So it's safe to say that not getting a deal in 2012 didn't hurt Evans' cause.
Restricted free agency is pretty tricky, and whether to sign the early extension or test the waters is a guessing game on everyone's part. Take the Curry situation for example. A year ago, Curry could have held out for a max offer (closer to $60 million). Or, Golden State could have been frightened off by his chronic ankle injuries and let him get another season under his belt before forking over the dough. But Curry's camp, perhaps guessing that the ankle was not to be trusted, signed a much smaller deal. And the Warriors, perhaps guessing that Curry was on the cusp of a breakout, signed him before he could cross the threshold to obvious max player. The Warriors won. The decisions made by Camp Curry and the Warriors in 2012 ended up sticking the guard with a smaller contract than he deserves (while healthy).
It's a game within the game.
The funny thing is that agents and players almost always win. How frequently do we see high-dollar contracts that are relative bargains for teams? Plenty of deals are fair, like those of Holiday and Lawson. Curry's is a bargain. Why do we see so few bargains in the upper ranges? Because the market gets really hot this time of year. When teams step up to meet with free agents, they are looking at the good almost exclusively. The market opens up wide. Instead of negotiating with a player, teams are essentially negotiating against other teams.
And we're a media that does the agents' bidding: we hype up every offer with breathless coverage, make the money as well-known (if not more well-known) than the players' stats. Fans love this stuff: we breathe salary cap info, we keep Larry Coon's FAQs on the nightstand, we stress over poison pills and Bird rights. We as fans fuel the demand for detailed coverage, which leads to agents having an immense voice in the public conversation, which leads to more hype, more info, a hotter bidding war and all of that.
Consider this: after hearing about the Pelicans' offer to Evans, when the Hawks sit down with him on Tuesday, how will they react? If they don't offer a similar or higher number, their fans will know. Maybe their fans will be upset that Atlanta isn't stepping up to pull in a top guard to play with Al Horford. Maybe that pressure won't apply to the Hawks, but myriad teams are said to be interested in Evans. A dollar amount is out there, and it's negotiable in exactly one direction.
That's how the market gets hot, especially in an offseason when lots of teams have cap space. (That will happen more frequently as the new collective bargaining agreement shortened contracts across the board.)
So when it comes to the guessing game, in most situations, it's going to pay off for the player to not be conservative and be willing to test restricted free agency. It worked for Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon. It's working for Tyreke Evans.