Costly Vets on a Rebuild? Sacramento Kings’ Latest Deals Don’t Make Any Sense

Years of shaky moves and capricious changes in philosophy mean no Sacramento Kings free-agent signing gets the benefit of the doubt.

So the starting point on deals announced for George Hill and Zach Randolph must be, by default, skepticism. It’s not fair, but it’s what the Kings have earned for themselves over the last few seasons of mismanagement.

In a vacuum, the contracts for Hill and Randolph are fine. Maybe better than fine.

Hill, 31, is on board for three years and $57 million, per Shams Charania of The Vertical. With the third year partially guaranteed, according to David Aldridge of NBA.com, it’s a fair agreement—especially after Jeff Teague, an inferior talent, signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves under similar terms, per Charania.

A steady vet who can shoot, guard both backcourt positions and help set up a gaggle of young bigs with reliable passing is worth $57 million over three years. And he’s definitely worth less than that over two.

Randolph, another strong veteran presence who’ll command locker room respect, can score off the bench and provide toughness seminars for anyone brave enough to attend. At two years and $24 million, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com, he’s maybe slightly overpaid. But only barely.

Sacramento doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though. Its circumstances are specific. The context matters.

The Kings just earned universal plaudits for a terrific draft. They snagged De’Aaron Fox as their point guard of the future, traded down for Justin Jackson and Harry Giles and got Frank Mason in the second round. Already loaded with low-experience bigs in Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein and Georgios Papagiannis—not to mention too many young shooting guards to count, led by Buddy Hield—this was a team primed to serve its youth.

But Hill and Randolph will arrive to sop up significant minutes at key positions instead.

The idea that rookies and young players must be thrown into the fire, that kids need to play, is misguided. There’s not much evidence to prove a rookie who gets his head kicked in for 38 minutes every night develops any more reliably than one who gradually works his way into the rotation and learns from the bench the rest of the time.

So Hill and Randolph taking minutes from Fox and the frontcourt, respectively, isn’t really the issue. In fact, maybe the tradeoff of a bit less playing time in exchange for veteran mentorship is actually a net gain for Sacramento’s young players.

Hill and Randolph getting in the way of the youth movement isn’t a problem because of how it affects the young players themselves. It’s a problem because it clouds the big picture and squanders the franchise’s golden opportunity.

This was the year to tank.

The Kings own their 2018 first-round pick, and with Luka Doncic and Michael Porter Jr. projected as potential franchise cornerstones atop the class, the temptation should have been too strong to resist.

The Los Angeles Lakers don’t own their 2018 first-rounder. The Philadelphia 76ers are built to win a playoff series. The Brooklyn Nets don’t have their pick either, and they’re run well enough to get clear of the cellar. Those were three of last year’s worst teams, and all have less incentive to chase top lottery odds this year.

The window was open. The path was cleared. Sacramento, a young team that needed to find out which of its many assets figured into its long-term plans, had a perfect excuse to lose for all the right reasons.

This isn’t a suggestion that the Kings should have gone full “Process 2.0.” Protracted failure makes less sense for an organization that doesn’t own its 2019 first-round pick.

This is a plea to go just one year without arresting a full rebuild, without straying from the difficult but necessary course, without making those oh-so-predictable last-second pivots toward mediocrity.

Hill and Randolph may not be enough to get Sacramento within striking distance of the playoffs, but they can keep it out of the top two lottery spots. Adding them at a time when the Western Conference is getting stronger at the top and bottom is difficult to understand.

Even if we confine the study to teams that, like the Kings, didn’t reach the 2017 postseason, we see the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves improving to a much more dramatic degree. The New Orleans Pelicans just spent a boatload on Jrue Holiday. They’re not bottoming out, particularly when they need to impress DeMarcus Cousins enough to keep him as a 2018 free agent. More generally, a refusal to tank basically defines the Pels of the last half-decade.

The Mavs?

Nope. They’re always trying to reach the playoffs in service of Dirk Nowitzki.

Look around at the rest of the league’s bottom feeders, and you generally see less reason to tank than the Kings had.

So if Hill and Randolph aren’t a ticket to the playoffs, and they aren’t part of a one-year path to a rebuild, what are they?

Symbols the Kings can attract free agents? Is that worth it?

Assets to flip in trades down the line?

There are loads of defenses available.

Vacant cap space isn’t an asset in Sacramento like it is everywhere else.

Getting anybody of consequence to sign is a positive step.

The terms are fine.

Not every organization is cut out for deliberate losing, especially one that’s prioritizing character and trying to instill winning habits.

The counterpoint is simple: Just hang on for one more year!

This was the Kings’ chance, and they passed on it.

Losing with purpose, with an emphasis on young talent you believe is worth keeping and worth subjecting to adversity, is not the same as deliberate failure with no end in sight. The mental toll is different. Less severe.

The Kings could have used their cap space to take on bad contracts with assets attached, which is what the Nets are doing and what the Sixers did before them. Better that than adding players who’ll want to win, and who are good enough to help make that happen.

There’s value in creating a culture. In acting as if your organization is respectable. There’s worth in saying, “We will not lose on purpose, to any end.” Apparently, Sacramento values that message, that marketing, more than the actual process of becoming respectable.

The Kings got good players who are good guys on good deals.

But they got them at a bad time and for the worst reasons.

    

Follow Grant on Twitter and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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