Few teams were as much fun to watch last season as the Kings. After a decade and a half short on achievement and long on rake-stepping, Sacramento became one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises, topping 35 wins for the first time since 2008 and hanging in the playoff race until late March thanks to a pedal-to-the-metal transition attack. With De’Aaron Fox meriting Most Improved Player consideration, Buddy Hield scorching the nets from long distance, and rookie Marvin Bagley III establishing himself as a foundational piece, the Kings had plenty of reasons to feel good about the future.
One big gray cloud loomed, though: the delicate financial balancing act of keeping all that young talent together. As the 2019-20 season approaches, the Kings find themselves coming to a crossroads and up against the clock when it comes to securing a core that’s on the verge of getting very expensive.
Hield, the no. 6 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, is eligible for an extension of his rookie contract. Several members of the 2016 draft class have already received lucrative new deals: Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Denver’s Jamal Murray got full five-year, $170 million maximum contracts; Malcolm Brogdon landed a four-year, $85 million contract in the sign-and-trade that sent him to Indiana; and Caris LeVert agreed to a three-year, $52.5 million extension to stay in Brooklyn. The sticking point in Sacramento: Where in that wide price range should a Hield deal fall?
Injury concerns kept LeVert’s years and dollars down, but durability is no concern for Hield, who has missed just two games in his three seasons. But he’s yet to make an All-Star team or establish himself as a Swiss army knife defender like Simmons. And though he’s been roughly as productive as Murray to this point in their careers, the Nuggets guard is a full four years younger, could have a higher ceiling, and has already proved to be a vital piece of a team with its sights set on title contention.
The five-year max likely isn’t in the cards for the 26-year-old, but Hield probably won’t be interested in offering too much of a discount. He developed into a bona fide scorer last season and averaged a team-high 20.7 points per game while actually making good on some of the “next Steph Curry” hype that followed him out of the University of Oklahoma. Hield posted the seventh-highest single-season 3-point total ever last season and drilled long balls at a blistering 42.7 percent clip despite taking 7.9 per game; that slots him in alongside You Know Who as the second player to shoot 3s that accurately at that volume for a full season.
Hield wants an agreement before the October 21 deadline for rookie-scale extensions—“I’m ready to get this shit done,” he told Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee last week—but Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported Wednesday that Hield and the Kings remain embroiled in a “strenuous discourse” over a deal. How strenuous? Sacramento is reportedly offering four years and $90 million; Hield reportedly wants “a number closer to $110 million.”
Maybe they’ll meet in the middle and settle on something close to $100 million by Monday’s deadline. If not, Haynes reports that “Hield is prepared to bet on himself and play out the season to test the market as a restricted free agent next summer.” That, in and of itself, isn’t a disaster for the Kings; they’d retain the right of first refusal, and the ability to match any offer sheet Hield might get. But ruffling the feathers of a popular and positive young presence like Hield could scuttle all those good vibes in Sacramento, and a 2020 free-agent crop light on major difference-makers could prompt another team with cap space to make a richer offer—perhaps even the full-freight max—to try to snare one of the league’s best up-and-coming shooting guards. Matching that sort of deal would seriously complicate Sacramento’s roster-building in the years to come … especially considering the Kings’ other ace shooting guard is also coming up for an extension.
Bogdan Bogdanovic told Anderson of the Bee on Tuesday that the Kings offered him the maximum extension of his contract, but that he doesn’t “want to rush anything” by signing it. Why would the 27-year-old guard, fresh off a star turn for Serbia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, soft-pedal a max offer? Because not all maxes are created equal, and not all negotiations unfold on the same timetable.
While players drafted in 2016 have until October 21 to reach new extensions, Bogdanovic—a first-round draft pick in 2014—operates under a different timeline. By staying in Europe to play for Fenerbahce until 2017, Bogdanovic was able to sidestep the NBA’s rookie scale and sign a three-year, $27 million contract. This means that while Bogdanovic was a rookie in 2017, his contract isn’t a rookie contract; it’s a veteran contract, which can be extended all the way up until June 30, the day before he’d hit free agency.
It also means that the most the Kings can do for Bogdanovic right now is tack four years onto his current deal, with a year one salary of up to 120 percent of what he’ll make this season; this caps Sacramento’s best current offer at four years and about $51.4 million. If Bogdanovic is able to replicate the form that had him looking like the best player in the World Cup during the upcoming NBA season, he, like Hield, would almost certainly field richer offers upon reaching the restricted market.
“Maybe we will sign tomorrow. Maybe we sign in a month,” Bogdanovic told the Bee. “Who knows? We will see.”
On their merits as players, you’d imagine the Kings would want to do everything in their power to keep both Hield and Bogdanovic, who can both shoot, handle the ball, attack the rim, and fit hand-in-glove in what promises to continue to be an uptempo scheme under new head coach Luke Walton. It certainly tracks that Sacramento would want to lock both players up right now, as affordably as possible, rather than let them get to the market. But Bogdanovic has no reason to move fast, and potentially curdling the relationship with Hield over what could amount to only a few million dollars per season might be penny-wise but pound-foolish for a franchise that has struggled mightily to import, develop, or retain bankable stars.
The price points matter, though, because Vlade Divac and Co. aren’t doing these deals in a vacuum. Sacramento just gave $85 million to X factor forward Harrison Barnes and will likely need to tender a max offer to Fox as soon as he becomes extension-eligible this July; they’ll also need to open up Vivek Ranadivé’s checkbook again when Bagley becomes eligible in 2021.
As much reason as there is to love both players, ponying up north of $25 million per year for Hield and likely upward of $15 million per year for Bogdanovic could wind up being too rich for Sacramento’s blood. That’s especially true considering the potential pitfalls of devoting a large chunk of your salary structure to three players who might struggle to produce at the same time.
The Kings flagged on both ends when playing small with Fox, Hield, and Bogdanovic on the floor together last season, and were outscored by 3.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—far below their efficiency numbers when only two of the three shared the court. Then again, the prospect of losing either Hield (the jewel of the DeMarcus Cousins trade) or Bogdanovic (heisted from Phoenix in the eldritch horror that was the Marquese Chriss–Georgios Papagiannis–Skal Labissière swap) for nothing has to make Sacramento’s brass a little hot under the collar.
Maybe continued development from all three players will help bolster those numbers. That—plus a full training camp to acclimate Barnes and the offseason additions of Dewayne Dedmon, Trevor Ariza, and Cory Joseph—could provide better balance in the Kings’ rotation and push last season’s 39-win team off the bubble and squarely into the playoff picture. Maybe this season does wind up proving that, while what’s being built in Sacramento is better than the city has seen in ages, it’s still not good enough in a West that just keeps getting more and more fierce. It’s probably going to cost the Kings a hell of a lot to learn how it’s all going to shake out. The only questions are whether they wind up paying now or later, and just how much their decisions will wind up costing them.