If there’s one guy who should know that the Kings will never find a star in free agency, it’s their general manager, Vlade Divac. Divac himself is easily the best free-agent signing in the history of the franchise, and that was 18 years ago. Since the glory teams of the early 2000s fell apart, Sacramento has seen no one better than John Salmons come to town on a free-agent contract. And as a small-market team, they can’t count on that changing.
The obvious, almost knee-jerk solution for any team in this position: tank! Lose games, get high draft picks, wait until you get the right superstars to rebuild in earnest. It seems to be working in Philadelphia, the Lakers are pulling it off almost by accident, and the Nets are accomplishing it on behalf of the Celtics. It’s a good plan, and the Kings have already flirted with the prospect of bringing Sam Hinkie’s Process to Sacramento. But there’s a twist for the Kings: They owe Philadelphia their 2019 pick, unprotected. So any long-term tank job would be set back at least a year, and that may take too long to pull off for a frustrated fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs in 11 seasons.
That stipulation sets up the puzzle the team has to grapple with: how to maximize the value of arguably the team’s best asset, its 2018 draft pick, without also sending the team into a tailspin in 2019, when there will be no incentive or even silver lining to losing games.
The answer: an abbreviated, one-year tank job. The Kings are even in a good position to do it. Here’s how:
Re-sign No One
Rudy Gay reportedly will opt out, which is $14.3 million off the books and the end of a relationship that hasn’t been fruitful since 2014. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento’s prodigal son and an unrestricted free agent, doesn’t have an obvious future with the franchise. If the Kings draft a point guard with the fifth pick in this year’s draft, Darren Collison doesn’t have a future either and should not be re-signed. Ditto for Ty Lawson. Arron Afflalo put up efficient scoring in limited minutes, but isn’t worth the $12.5 million the Kings would have to pay to keep him, especially with the myriad young guards they should be focused on developing. Waive Anthony Tolliver.
Ben McLemore, a restricted free agent, could be worth another year or two with the franchise if it weren’t for the logjam at shooting guard. He’s an athletic, lengthy guard whose 3-point shooting has improved every year with the team. But at 24, he still looks like a kid who just got unexpectedly called on in class every time the ball is in his hands, and Buddy Hield has already outperformed him even when you include Hield’s lackluster time in New Orleans.
Trade Everyone Else
Garrett Temple has the same issue as Afflalo: He’s aging, and he plays at a position where the Kings would do better by developing their young talent. But he played well for the team — he may not have a future with the Kings, but he could be a piece on a playoff team’s bench. Kosta Koufos is in a similar spot. There may not be a huge market for him, but Sacramento should at least test the waters. These guys aren’t part of a long-term future, and the team should be focused on its young core and making trades to get any other assets.
Get Bad Contracts … and Assets
If the Kings only waive Afflalo, they’ll have almost $15 million in cap space. If Gay, Evans, Collison, McLemore, and Langston Galloway also leave, that number will balloon to more than $60 million.
Many teams would kill for that kind of cap flexibility, and the Kings won’t even really be able to use it. The last time they tried to build through free agency they got Koufos, a frustrating Rajon Rondo, a comatose Marco Belinelli, and their 10th straight season missing the playoffs. How did they get all the cap space to bring in such an uninspiring haul? In 2015, Divac handed Nik Stauskas, a 2017 pick swap that materialized into the third pick in this year’s draft, and a 2019 unprotected first-rounder to the Sixers for essentially nothing.
The team could try that again, but if Sacramento is doomed to overpay washed-up players, it might as well get something for it. The Kings should do to the rest of the NBA exactly what the Sixers did to them in 2015: collect everyone’s toxic contracts, for a price.
The last two years of DeMarre Carroll’s four-year, $58 million contract? Yep! As long as a weakly protected first-rounder comes with it. Evan Turner? That’ll be a steep price, but sure. The last three years of Joakim Noah’s four-year, $73 million deal? … OK, maybe not that one.
But the strategy makes sense. The Kings can use their stretch provision on one of these guys when they want to be good again. Cap space can still be useful for this team, but Divac needs to realize that his own experience is the exception, not the rule. He can get creative here.
Don’t Screw Up the Draft
The Kings aren’t as bad at the draft as you might think. Yes, Sacramento’s decision last year to move down five spots in a swap with the Suns and draft Georgios Papagiannis with the 13th pick was curious. Papagiannis is a project and his NBA future is still a mystery, and he almost definitely wasn’t worth a lottery selection, but that trade allowed Sacramento to pick up Skal Labissière and the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic. Labissière might be the best asset on the team; as a former five-star recruit, his potential is enormous, and he’s already shown more than just flashes for the team.
Bogdanovic, meanwhile, is an All-EuroLeague shooting guard who could soon find a home in the NBA. When you take into account Divac’s additional trade of Marco Belinelli, who’d long outstayed his welcome in Sacramento, for Malachi Richardson, a first-rounder who has shown upside in limited minutes, it looks like that draft solidified the beginning of a solid young core. Divac has quietly made three defensible — maybe even solid — trades in a row after the disaster with the Sixers.
Now the team has jumped from the eighth pick to the fifth pick and owns the 10th pick from the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans. Divac is always liable to overdraft a 7-foot-1 European project player at any time, but if the team plays it right — currently The Ringer’s mock draft has the team taking De’Aaron Fox and OG Anunoby — these two picks could solidify one of the most exciting young teams in basketball.
With two top-10 picks, Sacramento will see a lot of time in the rumor mill in the coming weeks. A known quantity is tempting, but for the Kings, a gamble makes more sense. The team will never sign a superstar in free agency, and the fifth and 10th picks aren’t enough to trade for one, but they might be high enough to draft one (and even the 34th pick could land a contributor).
Lose a Lot of Games
The Kings already know how to do this, but only by accident. There are two goals here: (1) make the most of the 2018 pick, the team’s last asset in this rebuild, and (2) develop young players who aren’t yet good.
Dave Joerger should run this team like some kind of top-secret Russian lab. No regulations, just endless experimentation. Hield can take 20 shots per game. Labissière can start at power forward, and Willie Cauley-Stein and Papagiannis can rotate in and out of the lineup. The rookies, whoever they may be, should see as much time as possible on the court. Figure out what works. Bogdanovic should stay the hell in Europe (for now).
The Kings can pull some guys off the streets — the cheapest free agents they can find — to fill the holes. Joerger didn’t seem too excited by the pressure to tank at the end of last season, and he’s a decent enough coach that the Kings might still win 35 games with this roster, but maybe the temptation to experiment freely will allow him to find lineups that work while also not really winning anything. That would be ideal, because the last step in this process is to …
Make the 2018 Pick Count
This is self-explanatory, but it’s worth reiterating this is a season-long goal for the franchise. If the team tries to go into win-now mode, it’s likely to end up with a late lottery pick and put a dent in their rebuild in the process. You can’t just jump into sixth gear.
Party in 2019
This is it. Bring over Bogdanovic. Bring over Milos Teodosic, too. A roster that includes a third-year Labissière, a fourth-year Cauley-Stein, a third-year Hield, two second-year top-10 picks, another high-lottery rookie, whatever Papagiannis becomes, whoever Richardson is, and Bogdanovic could be quite attractive. And that group could grow together, in 2019 and beyond. Plus, the team will have whatever other picks or assets from any bad contracts they take on now. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
This plan, obviously, might not work. The draft picks could bust. The promising youngsters on the team now might not develop into anything worthwhile. Vivek Ranadivé will almost definitely lose his patience. But all that might happen anyway — will signing fringe free agents and trying, once again, to crawl into the eighth seed be a better plan? If you’re the Kings, what do you really have to lose by trying a one-season tank job? And what do you really have to win in 2018?