Free agency began with a bang for the Sacramento Kings. But it wasn't the good kind, like fireworks. It was the type of bang you hear when your car blows a head gasket and starts smoking.
On July 1, the Kings dealt Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, a protected future first and two pick swap options to the Sixers for ... nothing. The Kings intended to use the bevy of cap space to lure big name free agents to Sacramento.
Those big names? There was Monta Ellis, a scoring combo guard who didn't at all fit the Kings' backcourt needs (deep shooting, defense). Next up was Wesley Matthews, a two-guard who does fit Sacramento's needs, but is coming off of an Achilles tear, which is the worst possible injury for an NBA player. Finally, Rajon Rondo: a brilliant passer who can't shoot, has lost his will to defend and no longer gets to the rim because he suddenly can't hit free throws.
Needless to say, this was a highly risky plan, especially when giving up a 21-year-old gunner one season in and a future draft pick with no sure assets coming in. What if the Kings did that deal, then struck out on their targets?
That actually happened! The Kings offered Ellis about $1 million per year more than what Indiana had presented; Ellis picked the Pacers without even visiting Sacramento. Matthews did venture to the River City, but eventually turned down the Kings' $64 million over four years for $57 million from Dallas. Rondo, as expected all along, arrived and took a 1-year flyer worth $9.5 million.
Of course, the Kings could have afforded the Rondo deal before making the Sixers trade. Once Matthews and Ellis demurred, essentially the referendum on that trade became what the Kings would end up with in that space. Given that the team's top two targets declined more money from Sacramento to sign elsewhere, things looked bleak.
There were also rampant rumors that the Kings' front office, led by Vlade Divac (who hadn't worked in the NBA for a decade prior to getting the job in March), had no idea what it was doing. It's tough to understate how loud these rumors were -- you can't even call them whispers. Agents, other teams' GMs and reporters have been trading stories on the Kings' front office ineptitude since June. With Wes and Ellis out of the picture and the Kings having shipped at least two good assets for cap space, it looked like those rumors had truth.
But Divac was always a good rebounder. He signed Marco Belinelli to a fair market deal; as a career 39 percent three-point shooter who takes more than five per 36 minutes, he'll provide key spacing for the Kings' backcourt. Divac then locked up one of the best non-star big men available, Kosta Koufos, to an appropriate-for-2015 deal (just over $8 million per season). Koufos can either play next to DeMarcus Cousins as a 7-footer doing dirty work or as the first big man off the bench if the Kings go ahead with Rudy Gay at power forward. Finally, the Kings brought back Omri Casspi on a steal of a deal ($3 million per season). Casspi shot 40 percent from three last season and looked absolutely electric under George Karl.
This was the real stunner. After all, Casspi had been way better than Derrick Williams for the Kings last season and more clearly fits the image of the modern NBA wing. Williams received $10 million over two years from the Knicks. Add in that Casspi is represented by Dan Fegan, who is also the agent for disgruntled DeMarcus Cousins. Given Fegan has seen the Kings' slow-motion disaster firsthand, and given that Casspi surely could have held out for more elsewhere, it was truly surprising to many people around the team and league that the Israeli forward took the deal. He really loves Sacramento, Karl and Cousins.
The Kings don't have any additional cap space. If their deals are officially completed properly when the July moratorium ends on Thursday, Sacramento could have a substantial $16 million traded player exception from the Sixers deal. (You don't receive a trade exception when you're already under the cap, but there could be a way around this. The Kings could sign Rajon Rondo using their initial 2015-16 cap space, then sign rookie Willie Cauley-Stein to go over the cap. At that point once they trade Stauskas, Thompson and Landry to the Sixers, they'd receive a $16 million traded player exception. That would then leave the cap space and exceptions for Koufos, Belinelli and Casspi.)
Still, with these additions, on paper, it looks like the Kings should improve a good deal ... if things break well on the court. Cousins and Karl remain at loggerheads off the court over the coach's attempts to get the All-Star traded and over the center's unwillingness to chat with the coach. (Chicken and egg situation, that.) There's no sense of how Karl will handle Rondo and Darren Collison; the latter is almost assuredly better and more representative of what the Kings need, but the coach loves passers and Rondo will be hypermotivated to rebuild his value for 2016 free agency after the awful end in Dallas. How Cousins will fit with Koufos and Cauley-Stein remains to be seen. In a league obsessed with spacing, there isn't much in that frontcourt unless the Kings play small a lot.
The playoffs are a pipe dream unless one or two more West titans slip. The best candidate is the Blazers, who figure to be among the worst teams in the West along with Minnesota. The Nuggets have done nothing in free agency, but they always feel a moment away from a major cap-clearing trade or three. The Lakers rallied to add some much needed talent in Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, but the team is still going to be iffy on defense and lacks much in the way of shooting or, uh, coaching prowess.
The Kings should be better than all four of those teams. Otherwise, who knows. The Suns could slide after missing out on LaMarcus Aldridge, but none of the other top-10 West teams are going anywhere.
So that's where Sacramento sits after Vlade's big rebound: much improved on paper, no longer the league's biggest laugh line and still likely to be outside the playoff bracket. Chances are the Kings will lose their 2016 pick to the Bulls (it's protected in the top 10), which negates one of the pick swaps traded to Philadelphia. (Few details about the swaps have emerged, but according to Sixers reporter Derek Bodner, they do not appear to defer if the Kings no longer own their pick.) The Kings would only lose their 2017 to Philadelphia if the Sixers manage to shoot up the standings or Sacramento falls back into the cellar. The pick they owe to Philly two years after the Chicago one conveys (likely 2018) is well protected. With Divac's post-trade moves, the Kings appear to be relatively safe from disaster.
That's a modest improvement from July 1, but an improvement nonetheless. Winning cures all, and it looks like the Kings can win more than they have in the past seven years. It may seem funny to those outside of Sacramento, but 38 wins will do tons to assuage concerns about ownership and the front office. Expectations are relative, and even small victories matter.
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