Finally, things are looking up for the Sacramento Kings. Their decade-plus in the lottery should be coming to an end soon, as they finally hit on a few draft picks in a row and seem to be on their way toward building a coherent team that can compete night in and night out in the Western Conference. Aiming for smart additions rather than home run signings and draft picks, this new version of the Kings looks to be a more measured and less impulsive outfit than before, though it must be said that many of the same people are still involved in the front office as were in the past, so it’s not entirely clear whether 2018-19 was a one-season blip.
There is certainly room for skepticism about the Kings. As stated, many of the same high-level decision makers are the same ones who made the trade for Nik Stauskas back in 2014 and drafted Georgios Papagiannis in 2016. De’Aaron Fox took a massive leap in his second season, but sustaining that level of play may be difficult, particularly in how much of his offensive output came in transition as the Kings ran other teams out of the building on the nights they were successful. Fox is going to have to prove that he has the pick-and-roll chops to be the team’s primary playmaker when things slow down in the playoffs – will he be able to hit pull-up jumpers and create for his teammates? More importantly, will he be able to make the right pass-shoot decisions to propel his team forward? Those are open questions for Fox at the moment, as great as his sophomore year in the league was.
Still, from a team-building perspective, Fox is their guy. His issues are on the margins; they should know that he’s their point guard of the future. As they move in to the draft and free agency this summer, they’ll do so while keeping that in mind, which will mostly take them out of the market for a starting point guard.
The other positions are in flux. They don’t have a starting center about whom they feel good, as evidenced by the rumors that they’ll be spending big on a 5 once free agency opens. The name tied to them consistently has been Nikola Vucevic, who just completed a very strong season for a playoff team in Orlando. Maxing out Vucevic is certainly one of Sacramento’s options, though the relatively high replacement value at center and Vucevic’s playoff struggles could make that a bad contract relatively quickly. While it’s unlikely that they’d be able to sign a max player on the wing, investing more heavily in depth at the wing and guard positions while going with a cheaper option at center seems like a much better move in a league that’s overrun with quality centers right now. They do need a center, but they can find most of the production Vucevic would have given them for a fraction of the cost, should they decide to look elsewhere. This article from Sactown Royalty’s Tim Maxwell dives into the clubs various center options and is a good primer for the center market as a whole, as well as Sacramento’s individual needs.
Assuming they move on from Willie Cauley-Stein, the Kings will likely open the summer with $35.4 million in cap space. Retaining Cauley-Stein’s rights in restricted free agency would cost them about $13.2 million of that space, but they can always pull his qualifying offer if they find that they’re going to spend through the new $22.2 million threshold. Keeping Cauley-Stein as a backup option, whether on the qualifying offer or otherwise, would be a decent use of resources as well.
Center is the only hole in the team’s starting unit going into next season, which is why the focus has been so strong on that particular position. Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harrison Barnes should fill out the rest of the starting lineup, unless they feel strongly about Bogdanovic’s play off the bench and want to elevate Marvin Bagley. Either way, they have strong options for the other four positions, which is why it may make sense to invest in a center who fits what they want to do under new head coach Luke Walton. Behind their new starting center could be Cauley-Stein, should he stick around, or Harry Giles, who has struggled with injuries throughout his career but has been a strong player when he’s able to be out there. Adding a minimum center to ensure some depth at the position in case Giles becomes unavailable will be an important use of a roster spot.
Sacramento could use some bench depth, particularly if they’re looking to make a run to the playoffs. One of Bogdanovic or Bagley will come off the bench alongside sharpshooter Nemanja Bjelica, but the reserve guard line is a place for the Kings to invest, should they have the leftover cap space. Yogi Ferrell is a fine third point guard but doesn’t have the juice on either end of the floor to be an every-night backup point guard for a playoff contender. Frank Mason, the team’s second-round pick from 2018, might just be too small to be an NBA player; his $1.6 million contract guarantees just before the season starts, but it may be time to move on from him.
Going with a cheaper option at starting center would allow them to invest more heavily in the backup guard line, where there will be a number of rotation players available. This particular class of free agents isn’t great, especially compared to the overall money that will be available for teams to spend this summer, but there will be good deals for a smart team to find. Whether the Kings can be that smart team is an open question; your confidence in them may vary depending on whether you believe they’ve learned from earlier mistakes or simply got lucky last season.
There’s a finite amount of money the Kings have to spend this summer and splitting it up in the best way is their most important task. Spending heavily on a big man would complete a strong starting unit, but the cost to the bench may not be worth it. Spreading that money out over multiple positions and retaining flexibility with respect to the various lineups and rotations Walton can use could be a prudent option, if they can come to terms with the multiple players it takes to fill out those spots. They’ll also have the chance to see where they are after the draft; with picks at Nos. 40, 47, and 60, they may find a rotation player or two. This year’s “bad” draft is being labeled as such because of the lack of top-end talent, but there are a ton of guys who project to be rotation-level contributors, lending itself nicely to a team with multiple high second-round picks. The Kings also have a nice group of second-rounders over the next two years, if they wanted to cash in on a pair of those to grab another pick earlier in the second round. Jumping into the first round may be more difficult, considering how highly teams value those picks.
Sacramento is at a very interesting point in their development. They’ll be looking to capitalize on the unexpectedly strong 2018-19 season and continue that momentum forward into the new decade. Their bevy of young players showed that they can play an up-tempo, run-and-gun style last season, but they’ll still need strong development in order to compete in a playoff setting. Walton, should he still be coaching the team in the fall after an investigation into an alleged sexual assault is completed, has a mixed record as a developmental coach, though his tenure with the Lakers wasn’t short on drama, from ownership through to the players, so it’s hard to know exactly how much of that is on Walton. They have the money to spend across multiple positions or break the bank for a single star to complete a strong starting lineup. If management is convinced that Vucevic, a fringe All-Star whose game doesn’t translate to the playoffs, is the answer in the middle on big money, then that’s their decision, though the high replacement level at the center position should lead them in a different direction.