Analysis: Sacramento declines Harry Giles’ option

The Sacramento Kings waited until the last day to make their rookie scale option decisions and when they did, they surprised us by turning down the fourth-year option for Harry Giles. Giles was slated to make $3.98 million next season on the fourth year of his rookie scale contract after the Kings took him with the No. 20 pick in the 2017 draft, acquiring him in a draft-day trade along with Justin Jackson from the Portland Trail Blazers for Zach Collins.

Giles will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and the Kings, or whichever team holds his rights if he’s traded this year, will be limited in how much they can pay him on his next contract to that $3.98 million he would have made on his fourth-year option. This rule is in place so that teams can’t opt out of their star’s rookie deals and pay them earlier; or, more accurately, so that there’s no pressure on teams to do this from those star players who would obviously like to be paid at their market value earlier than their fifth season.

Sacramento’s decision to decline Giles’ option could give us a peek behind the curtain at the club’s future plans, as they’re facing tough choices this summer to maintain the positive momentum generated last year while staying within the spending limits faced by small market teams.

With Giles off their books, I project the Kings to walk into next summer with roughly $29.4 million in space below the luxury tax threshold. This number is still very fluid, as any dip in the 2020-21 salary cap would create a corresponding dip in the luxury tax threshold. Baked into that number is also the Kings’ preseason projection of the No. 10 pick in the 2020 draft, which comes with $4.5 million in first-year salary.

That $29.4 million will be what the Kings will have to split among the rest of their roster, with five roster spots up for grabs and Bogdan Bogdanovic coming up on restricted free agency, four 2020 second-round picks (Detroit, Houston, Miami, and their own) in their coffers, as well as the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and bi-annual exception available for use in free agency. Should the Kings move on from Nemanja Bjelica (I’m already projecting they will cut Trevor Ariza), they would have $36.5 million to work with below the projected luxury tax threshold and would open up an extra roster spot on their projected 15-man roster for the 2020-21 season.

Taken into account when the Kings made the decision to part with Giles a year ahead of time is the fact that they may find themselves right up against the tax and roster limit next season. If they want to bring back Bogdanovic in restricted free agency at starter money on the wing (even if he doesn’t necessarily want to return, they’ll have match rights on any contract he gets next summer), retain Bjelica, and use their mid-level to bring in a difference maker for their rotation, they’re going to be awfully close to the luxury tax with a few roster spots yet to fill. $16 million for Bogdanovic and the full mid-level exception would leave them with just $3.5 million in wiggle room below the $141 million tax threshold and only 12 players on roster. Giles’ $3.98 million fourth-year salary isn’t a lot for what he could possibly bring to the table for them and his long-term potential, but with tax concerns on the horizon for the Kings, they decided to turn that option down.

Giles looked good last year, coming off the bench in 58 games and generally playing well as a passer and defender, but the issue has never been how he plays when he’s on the court. As they say, the best ability is availability, and Giles has had precious little of that in his career. Those 58 games are the only games in which he’s appeared in his career after missing his entire rookie year and having yet to play in the first week-plus of the 2019-20 season.

Giles came into the NBA with significant concerns about his knees. He missed his sophomore year of high school with an injury to his left knee, then tore his right ACL early in his senior season, which bled into his lone season at Duke. In October of his freshman season in college, he had surgery again to repair a small issue in his knee but played 26 games for the Blue Devils, enough to show what he could do and get drafted in the first round. During his first season with the Kings, there was some optimism that he could play in the second half of the season, but he was eventually shut down for the remainder of the year in January 2018.

2018-19 was significantly better for Giles, but he was still only available for 58 games and less than 1,000 minutes in total. This year, he’s officially day-to-day with another knee issue and on Thursday the Kings decided that Giles wasn’t worth the long-term investment and will likely cut ties with him after this year.

Another factor may have been their overall roster construction – they brought in a pair of free agent centers in the 2019 offseason in Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes, plus they still have Marvin Bagley, whom they want to get minutes in the middle. Bjelica can play some small ball center in a pinch, and there are always replacement-level free agent centers to be had for the minimum if they need some depth at the end of their bench. Giles’ path to playing time was already hindered by his inability to stay healthy, but even a fully-healthy version of Giles would struggle to beat out Dedmon, Holmes, and small-ball Bagley for minutes at the center position.

Sacramento’s 2020-21 tax issues, Giles’ unavailability, and the club’s investment elsewhere at center makes their decision to turn down his option understandable. Their play in the early part of the 2019-20 campaign hasn’t exactly inspired confidence and ownership won’t be looking at their early returns and think they’re on the path to contention in the near future. When the time comes for De’Aaron Fox and company to truly contend at the top of the West, we’ll see if ownership is willing to pay the tax, but they’re not at the level where that makes sense for the 2020-21 season.

Giles will catch on elsewhere next summer – he has enough talent to make some money next year and continue to prove he’s healthy enough to contribute at an NBA level. This isn’t the end of Giles’ career, as it is for so many players who see their rookie scale options declined (like teammate Caleb Swanigan), but if he can’t stay healthy in the next year or two, he may find himself on the outside looking in on the NBA.