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McNair has tough decision ahead: Are Kings buyers or sellers?

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When is it time to add? At 12-12, the Kings have put new general manager Monte McNair in a tough position. He’s had a front-row seat to a roller coaster ride that has been the 2020-21 season and now the fan base has once again been given a taste of the good life.

Yes, 12-12 is the good life in Sacramento. The franchise is riding a 14-year playoff drought and the fans are thirsty. Maybe they’re more than thirsty.

This likely wasn’t the plan coming into the season. McNair and his group sat out the first few days of free agency before landing Hassan Whiteside and Glenn Robinson III on budget one-year contracts.

They allowed Bogdan Bogdanovic, Alex Len, Harry Giles and Kent Bazemore to walk in free agency. Whatever the motivation, the Kings came into the season with serious depth issues.

Sacramento currently has four players on the main roster that were either undrafted or selected in the second round in the last two drafts. There is some talent, but very little experience. The group has played a combined total of 66 career games and with so little practice time, counting on any of them for a major boost this season is a stretch.

By design or by circumstance, the Kings’ roster is not even close to adequate for a 72 game schedule. But if the team continues to be in the hunt, McNair might need to make some adjustments on the fly.

Head coach Luke Walton has used the tools at his disposal, but he’s worked with mostly an eight and nine-man rotation. Can the current group sustain the same level of play without reinforcements?

 

Walton has veterans Nemanja Bjelica and Jabari Parker waiting in reserve, but Bjelica hasn’t played in 14 straight games and Parker has yet to make his season debut.

If you asked before the season began, the prevailing thought was that the Kings would be sellers this season. But with the team hovering around playoff contention is that still the case?

Do the Kings have the assets to make a move?

The easy answer is yes. They have the expiring contracts of Bjelica ($7.2 million), Parker ($6.5 million) and Cory Joseph has a $12.6 million contract for next season but only $2.4 million is guaranteed. Whiteside ($2.3 million) and Robinson ($2 million) are also on expiring contracts.

McNair also has small short term contracts to match salaries with players like Justin James ($1.5 million), Robert Woodard ($1.5  million), DaQuan Jeffries ($1.4 million) and Jahmi’us Ramsey ($1 million).

Richaun Holmes is also in the final year of his contract. He’s making $5 million this season, but he’s starting at center, playing 30 minutes a night and looks like a long term fit in Sacramento.

In total, the Kings have between $36 million and $41 million in expiring contracts, which should have value. McNair also has all of his first-round selections moving forward, as well as three second-round picks in the upcoming draft and two second-rounders in 2022, 2024 and 2025.

In theory, they should be able to make an addition without doing major damage to their war chest of draft stock or giving up a young rotational asset.

Do the Kings have the money to spend long term?

That’s always a tricky question. The franchise has lost in the hundreds of millions during the pandemic, but this question is more related to the cap.

De’Aaron Fox’s contract jumps from $8.1 million this year to $28.1 million next season. While Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield have declining scale deals, the team still needs to consider a new contract for Holmes, as well as a potential extension for Marvin Bagley. On the positive side, Holmes’ cap hold for next season is only $6.5 million.

If McNair guarantees the final year of Joseph’s contract, the team is already at $104 million of a projected $112 million salary cap with a luxury tax projection of $136.6 million. That means the team doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.

If McNair moves on from Joseph, the Kings’ cap number drops closer to $94 million, giving them roughly $18 million to work with.

What about the upcoming Draft?

The 2021 NBA Draft is considered one of the better drafts in the last decade, but it’s very top-heavy. Cade Cunningham looks like the next superstar and the grouping of Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Kuminga, Jalen Green and Scottie Barnes all have star potential.

After this group, the draft is all over the board. There is a lot of potential, but it’s a guessing game and nothing is certain.

The new draft lottery odds make tanking a more difficult proposition than even. Even if the Kings finish with a top-five or six worst record, they would still have a marginal chance of landing one of the top six players.

 

What does all of this mean for the Kings?

They have three paths. They can stand pat, with a thin roster and hope for the best. They can become a buyer and try to make a more substantial push for the playoffs. Or they can become a seller, throw in the towel and take a step backward with the hopes that it leads to a better draft pick and potentially another building block.

None of these paths are perfect. Each comes with pitfalls.

If McNair decides that this is the wrong group of players to push forward with then he should aggressively become a seller, collect assets and hope for lottery luck. He can build around De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton and search for young players that fit the timeline of the duo.

If he thinks that this team has a chance, then McNair needs to add to the roster and do it as quickly as possible. There is no reason to wait until the deadline in an abbreviated season and most of the assets he would use to improve the club are out of the current rotation. 

The only option that should be completely off the table is doing nothing. This team is good enough to stay in contention for a playoff spot. They are also one injury away from being in trouble. Getting caught in the middle and neither adding to the roster or selling off to collect assets would be a mistake.

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It’s not often the Kings are in this position and it’s likely a year ahead of schedule for McNair and his group. But winning games is a good problem to have. It’s good for the culture the franchise is trying to build and it’s good for a fanbase that has waited patiently for a moment like this.

The phones are already ringing. Are the Kings the ones making the calls or are they on the receiving end? Either way, it should be an interesting couple of weeks in Sacramento.