The Kings are on the clock.
With just 10 days remaining before the 2021 NBA trade deadline, teams are lining up to either be buyers or sellers. For the Kings, a team that has been on the outside looking in of the NBA playoff picture for 14 straight seasons and currently sits at just 15-23 on the season, the prevailing thought would be that the Kings are ready to sell, sell, sell.
That might not be the case.
In Sam Amick’s latest piece on The Athletic, he discusses Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Hassan Whiteside and Nemanja Bjelica regarding their futures in Sacramento. Amick’s sources are very much in line with what we’ve heard and reported in the last few weeks.
According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Kings general manager Monte McNair knows that head coach Luke Walton is playing with a flawed roster, but that was mostly by design.
McNair sought flexibility coming into this season, which is why he passed on re-signing veterans like Kent Bazemore and Alex Len and balked at matching the four-year, $72 million offer sheet that Bogdan Bogdanovic landed with the Atlanta Hawks.
McNair attempted to get value from Bogdanovic in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, but a deal for Donte DiVincenzo fell apart at the last minute. A source confirmed that McNair also turned down a swap of Bogdanovic to the Atlanta Hawks for Tony Snell (one-year, $12.1 million) and Oklahoma City’s No. 1 overall pick this season.
The Kings’ GM passed on the deal while mulling over whether to retain Bogdanovic. The pick from OKC was top-14 protected next season and if not conveyed this year, it becomes a pair of second-round picks in 2024 and 2025.
Sacramento’s plan is to remain financially flexible in the coming months in case the Kings stumble into an opportunity to trade for an impact player. They have nearly $28 million in expiring contracts, not including the final year of Richaun Holmes’ deal that pays him $5 million this season. McNair also has all of his future first-round selections, as well as five extra second-round picks over the next five drafts.
The Kings are struggling without the prerequisite depth. They filled the holes in the roster with stop-gaps like Whiteside and Glenn Robinson III and they guaranteed Bjelica’s contract for this season, in case Marvin Bagley continued to struggle to stay on the court.
With the deadline just days away, the Kings now are in a position that they have been in so many times before. As of Monday, they are just 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference and 5.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 7 seed.
If the season ended today, the Kings would also be the No. 7 overall selection going into the lottery for the 2021 NBA Draft.
Sacramento isn’t so much caught in the middle as they are in a situation where they have to choose a path. This is a strong draft in the top five and there are some solid players between picks five and 10.
But the Kings also are looking at a potential 15th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. So the question once again comes back to, are the Kings buyers or sellers heading into the 2021 trade deadline?
The simple answer is both. They would like to buy if the right player is available and they are willing to sell to get to that point.
Harrison Barnes is the center of most trade rumors, specifically with the Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge would love to get his hands on the Kings’ starting small forward to pair with Jayson Tatum, but Boston’s first-round pick is projected at No. 19 as of right now and the Celtics' package of young players that they can offer is less than stellar.
Barnes is having the best season of his career, averaging 16.7 points. 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in a team-high 35.7 minutes per game for the Kings. He’s also just 28 years old and has a declining scale contract over the next two-plus seasons.
According to sources, McNair is well aware of the value that Barnes brings to the Kings both on and off the court and he also knows how difficult it would be to replace him, be it on the open market in free agency or via trade.
If the Kings move off of Barnes, they will need a very strong return, which would include picks and a player that is ready to play major minutes now. Losing Barnes would not just set the team back this season, but in the next two seasons, especially if the Kings don't get value back in a swap.
The plan isn’t to trade away every veteran and start from scratch with only De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Barnes is a strong asset that takes care of his body and has plenty more years of NBA basketball left in him. He’s also an incredible veteran behind the scenes and someone who can bridge the gap while the young players develop.
Barnes isn’t off the table, but any swap would have to make sense. The same can’t be said for Hield.
There are two factors playing against Hield. First, he’s in the first year of a four-year, $86 million contract (with incentives that can push the contract closer to the $94 million range). Like Barnes, he has a declining scale contract, but he still is in line to make $23 million next season, $21 million the year after that and $19 million in the final year of his deal. $63 million is a lot of money for a 3-point specialist who is shooting just 37.3 percent from long range this season.
In addition to the money owed, the Kings also hit the jackpot when they selected Haliburton with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The rookie has been a breath of fresh air and is considered the long-term backcourt partner for Fox.
Can the Kings move off of Hield? That’s a complex question. If they do, it likely comes in the form of a straight salary dump or in a deal for another player that is in need of a change of scenery with a similar size contract. There also is a chance the Kings can break Hield’s contract into more manageable pieces via a trade and maybe get a young asset, but there are no guarantees that there is even a market for Hield at this point, which Amick touches on in his article.
“But Buddy Hield’s deal ($62.5 million combined in the next three seasons) appears to be minimizing his market to an extreme degree,” Amick wrote. “He’s even more likely to remain than Barnes, it appears.”
If McNair can find a deal for Hield, it would free the team up to be bigger players in the offseason, as long as he didn’t take back a stack of contracts.
Holmes is another interesting situation for the Kings. They know he is due a big payday this summer after performing extremely well over the last two seasons in Sacramento. He would have value on the trade market, but he also is the prototype of the player they need to make their offense flow.
At 27 years old, Holmes is not far off the age arc of the younger players and like Barnes, he has plenty of quality years of basketball in front of him. The Kings also will have “Early Bird” rights to Holmes, which would allow them to go over the cap to retain him, although that contract would be capped at four years and just under $40 million. It likely will take more than that to keep Holmes in a Kings uniform past this season, although it’s hard to gauge how much more and it should be noted that the mid-level exception would pay roughly the same over four seasons.
As for the rest of the veterans on the team, it’s pretty simple. The Kings will continue to search for an impact player that might come available, in the same way that Barnes did in 2018. They have sweeteners in the form of draft compensation and cap relief.
If one of those types of deals pops up, McNair will jump at the opportunity. If not, there is a good chance that he can sell off Bjelica and Whiteside at the deadline for future draft compensation and that a player like Jabari Parker will be bought out and allowed to join another squad.
The coming games could change the path forward for the Kings, but not substantially. If they gut the team now, they know that it will be difficult to compete next season when at least some fans should be allowed to attend games.
McNair understands that a team of players in their early 20s rarely competes and that there needs to be at least some veterans on the squad as they transition forward. The Kings aren’t in full rebuild mode as much as they are a team looking to set themselves up for a quick build around a talented set of young guards.