This offseason, Sacramento racked up a large amount of cap space, enough to pursue Draymond Green or Kyle Kuzma.
Recent attempts by Sacramento to play below the salary cap have failed. They exchanged the choice that would eventually become Jayson Tatum in 2015 for the salary cap room needed to sign Monta Ellis, who later signed with the Indiana Pacers. In 2017, they gave George Hill the most costly contract they have ever given to an outside free agent. Eight months later, he had joined the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2018, they did sign Zach LaVine to a pricey offer sheet, but the Chicago Bulls quickly countered. Free agency has primarily been a nightmare for the Kings when you combine the unofficial small-market tax and the unofficial bad-team tax that they have had to pay free players over the previous 15 years.
These are obviously not the same Kings. After a 48-34 regular season that culminated in one of the most entertaining first-round series in recent memory against the Golden State Warriors, they just finished a season. The mid-level addition Malik Monk scored more points against the Warriors than any other King besides De’Aaron Fox, and free agency was a major factor in that victory. Sacramento might have won that series if it weren’t for Stephen Curry’s historic 50-point performance in Game 7. The league appears to have taken note.
The Kings are now a legitimate option, possibly for the first time in the history of the franchise. They are kids. The highly prosperous Bay Area is commutable for them. Most importantly, they’re excellent. The Kings are aware that a few adjustments might swiftly turn 48 victories into 58 victories. So, on draft night, they took advantage of a unique opportunity. Only a few hours prior, the Dallas Mavericks traded Davis Bertans to Oklahoma City to free up contract space. Due to the creation of a $17 million trade exemption, they were able to add another player with comparable pay.
The Kings swooped in. They made the Mavericks an offer to sign Richaun Holmes’ contract in exchange for the No. 24 overall pick. Sacramento’s entire offseason changed in an instant when $15 million in anticipated pay abruptly disappeared from the team’s books. The Kings are suddenly in a position to have a lot of financial room, so they can avoid using Bird Rights to keep Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles, who are essentially the same players from last year’s squad. Specifically, if they waive their rights to everyone but their six primary players, about $36 million of it: Fox, Monk, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, Domantas Sabonis, and Davion Mitchell. The only cities with greater money available are Houston and San Antonio.
The Kings now have access to every eligible free agent on the market, presumably with the exception of James Harden. With the freshly improved $7.6 million cap room mid-level exception, they can pretty much restructure their roster anyway they see fit and probably won’t even have to give up much depth in the process. The Kings would likely wish to make use of that provision in order to keep Lyles, one of their top backups from the previous campaign. Additionally, they might decide to renegotiate and extend a contract with reigning All-NBA star Sabonis in order to increase his criminally low salary.
But the Kings had a purpose when they made this area. They have the freedom to choose who they want when they want someone or a group of players. That brings up the $36 million question: what kind of players are the Kings looking for?
Over the next days, Draymond Green’s name will be mentioned frequently. The Kings recently had the most productive offense in NBA history, but the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Green significantly contributes to resolving that. Green can play great man-defense on nearly every matchup or genuinely cover the backline and orchestrate a zone, even though the Kings aren’t equipped to switch as frequently as the Warriors do.
Because of their time spent together at Golden State, Mike Brown understands just how to use him defensively. Especially in light of Sacramento’s postseason sorrow, former minority owner of the Kings Vivek Ranadive would undoubtedly want to put the last nail in the coffin of Golden State as a dynasty. The Warriors’ payroll this season would have surpassed $400 million if they had kept Green, even at his player-option contract that was refused. There are situations in which the Warriors would need to pay more than $500 million in a bidding battle to retain their team for the upcoming season.
However, for the time being, Green moving to Sacramento doesn’t seem very plausible, and that has nothing to do with the unpleasant dynamic that would undoubtedly accompany Green and Sabonis into a locker room following their disastrous Game 2 altercation. To make room for a Green extension, the Warriors expressly traded Jordan Poole for Chris Paul. The Warriors may have to spend $500 million on the roster for the upcoming season because Paul’s 2024–25 salary is not guaranteed, but their tax burden will be greatly reduced after that. Green is probably ecstatic to have the Kings as a negotiating chip, but until he actually abandons the only team he has ever known, it’s safe to assume that he will stay.
The same is undoubtedly true of Khris Middleton, who reportedly assisted in the selection of Adrian Griffin as Milwaukee’s new head coach despite his approaching free agency. If Middleton left, the Bucks won’t be able to replace him, and in such situations, the incumbent teams will usually spend more to maintain their former champs. He’s not exactly the Kings’ best fit anyway. His late-game shot creation now accounts for the majority of his worth since his defense has gotten worse. Fox takes care of that on his own and is now much more resilient in his job. The Kings don’t really have a good incentive to spend much on Middleton. Their offense is acceptable in its current form.
In addition to defense, what they truly need is a gap-filler. The Kings are a unique large spender that lacks quality on-field assets to offer free agents. They want a guy who can capitalize on stronger teammates, move and cut in the half-court, fill the lane during transitions, score on put-backs, and dissipate attention while his primary creators are busy. It’s ironic that Kyle Kuzma is now that player, given his reputation when he first joined the league.
Sacramento previously made an attempt to trade for Kuzma. In order to pursue Russell Westbrook, the Lakers withdrew from a Buddy Hield trade proposal in 2021. They should be happy that they did, Kings. A few months later, they were able to acquire Sabonis thanks in large part to Hield’s salary, which makes Kuzma a much better fit in Sacramento than he otherwise would have been.
Although Kuzma entered the NBA as a heat-check scorer, he developed into a versatile role player throughout his time with the Lakers. Marc Gasol, who was arguably the best passing center the NBA had before Nikola Jokic, was the teammate who accelerated that shift. In the process, Gasol’s selflessness rubbed off on Kuzma, helping him become a far better functional passer than he had been previously in his career. Kuzma quickly realized that Gasol would find him points if he moved off the ball. Their chemistry was so palpable that when Frank Vogel took Gasol out of the rotation, Kyle Kuzma publicly argued for him to play more minutes.
The best part of Sunday’s Lakers win over the Timberwolves was Marc Gasol embracing Kyle Kuzma as his passing padawan.
Gasol’s first four assists went to Kuzma. Kyle returned the favor with a couple of nice passes of his own, and some other beauties to different teammates. pic.twitter.com/y5Adbtv3OQ
— Sam Quinn December 28, 2020
Kuzma brought these talents to Washington, where he exchanged valuable teammates for a much larger position. There, he honed his on-ball scoring skills and, while playing for a lackluster Wizards squad last season, topped 21 points per game. Even though Fox can monopolize late-game touches, Sacramento’s system is egalitarian by design, so those abilities will occasionally come in handy for him. But what makes him such a compelling King is the mix of what he demonstrated in Washington and how he developed in Los Angeles. As close to Gasol as Kuzma will get in the current NBA without heading to Denver is Sabonis. Who’s to say that the Sabonis-Kuzma offensive duo couldn’t develop into a cheaper version of Jokic and Aaron Gordon?
Kuzma would help the Sacramento defense, but he wouldn’t make it better. He has developed into a rather competent multi-positional defender who excels against power forwards but has played defense at shooting guard in Los Angeles. He shoots somewhat less effectively than Gordon, but more frequently than Gordon, which keeps defenders on their toes. Defenses won’t let him get through, and he is more than capable of punishing frantic closeouts by putting the ball in the ground.
Sacramento will look at the other forward options, but Kuzma is the best option in terms of talent, availability, and cost. Sacramento probably wouldn’t have gone to such measures to avoid the tax if they had wanted to bring Barnes back. While Jerami Grant is a better individual scorer and defender than most people seem to realize, he struggles with small details and demands shots that the Kings are probably not keen to give him. Portland appears set to roll it back for the upcoming season. Grant’s salary is likely only paid by the Blazers to placate Damian Lillard. The suggestion of paying Brook Lopez and shifting Sabonis and Murray each down a position has been made, but Sabonis recently escaped a center timeshare in Indiana and had his finest game ever.
Although Kuzma will be expensive, he won’t be making $36 million next season. He will probably cost the Kings between $20 and $25 million, giving them a little more to work with. At least enough to bring back Lyles and look for a backup center, though probably not enough to extend Sabonis at fair value. As a center who is stylistically comparable to Sabonis, Mason Plumlee would make a good match in that position. That in part explains why Denver continued to use him as Jokic’s back-up for so long. Having a backup that doesn’t necessitate a radical change in the schematic has importance.
The Kings are likely looking into potential routes to Green. Although he overlaps with Sabonis quite a bit on offense, it is justified given the effect he would have on almost any defense. Additionally, pairing Fox with two big men who don’t shoot threes would be very beneficial for opposing teams. In addition, the Kings intend to trade one of their current backcourt players for a forward while using their available space to acquire a guard. Although the only guard worth chasing at Sacramento’s price point is Fred VanVleet, and chances are the Raptors won’t be letting both of them go, Huerter and picks for OG Anunoby have been a popular trade proposal for months.
All of this makes Kuzma the more likely target at the moment, and even if he ends up being the consolation prize if Green declines, he’s a better fit overall and an immediate improvement over Barnes. He would certainly be their best offseason acquisition in decades, given their current free agent record.