It's hard to describe what the Sacramento Kings are doing.
Is this a rebuilding team? Not really in the traditional sense. Instead of tearing it down, shedding long-term salary and selling off players for draft picks, Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro has instead opted to "remodel" more than anything else.
Since the change in ownership, the Kings have traded for zero future first-round picks. Instead, Sacramento has signed a 30-year-old power forward to a four-year deal (Carl Landry) and traded for a player slated to make $19.3 million next season (Rudy Gay).
That's not something you see from teams that are strictly building for the future. Clearly, winning now is imperative to both management and ownership, otherwise those deals would make very little sense.
So far, the Kings have failed in the pursuit of more wins this season. Sacramento has the worst record in the Western Conference, falling below teams like the Utah Jazz that are actually rebuilding.
The effort put in to win now is certainly understandable, though. This was supposed to be a new era of Kings basketball, from the top down. Ownership was going to spend. Management would be aggressive.
Both those things have happened, but it just hasn't translated into on-court success. New head coach Mike Malone was supposed to fix the defense, but the Kings are actually dead last in defensive efficiency. Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins have proven worthy as franchise pillars, but the supporting cast around them has been terribly inconsistent.
So how does D'Alessandro fix this without blowing it up? If the goal is to be competitive as quickly as possible, what can be done to make that happen?
Forget About Cap Space
If the Kings want to be competitive, conceding the ability to sign free agents is a start. Since Sacramento isn't exactly a premium free-agent destination, this might actually make some sense.
Here's the reason for that strategy. If Rudy Gay accepts his player option for next year, the Kings will have roughly $67 million in guaranteed salary for the 2014-15 season. With a projected salary cap of $62.1 million for next year, Sacramento is already well over the cap, and that's even before attempting to re-sign restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas.
Depending on the deal Thomas commands, the Kings could very easily have a payroll of over $76 million next year, which would make them a luxury-tax-paying team.
That's a scary proposition for such a talent-poor team, especially since being over the luxury-tax line limits the amount you can offer in exceptions and the ability to pull off sign-and-trade deals. It's a flexibility killer.
There isn't much Sacramento can do, though, aside from attempting to shed contracts now. Marcus Thornton and his salary worth $8.5 million seems like a prime candidate, but no team is taking that deal on this year unless draft picks are attached.
Honestly, the same could probably be said for the long-term deals of Landry (three years, $19.5 million remaining) and Jason Thompson (three years, $19.2 million remaining). Both are solid players but are probably nothing more than third big men on a playoff team. Is that worth such a substantial long-term financial commitment?
Trading either player for pennies on the dollar, or paying another team to take their salary, seems counter-intuitive for a team trying to win now. If we're working off the premise that Sacramento isn't willing to blow it up, other options need to be explored.
With so many teams trying to clear cap, Sacramento should probably zig while everyone else zags. Thornton's expiring deal will be an asset next year; just not right now. The same can be said for Travis Outlaw (expiring at $3 million) and Rudy Gay's massive expiring deal at $19.3 million.
Using those deals to bring back players locked up at least through 2015-16 makes sense, as it might be the most realistic avenue outside of the draft to attract talent.
Go After Defenders, Not Replacement-Level Scorers
The whole reason Sacramento is in this mess is because it's continually dealt for players who are scorers who lack the ability to do much else on the court. Thornton was inherited, but Landry, Gay and Derrick Williams were acquired willingly.
That just doesn't mesh with the core group. Cousins and Thomas can handle the scoring load, but they're going to give up points on the other end. This current supporting cast isn't supporting in the least bit, as it needs touches to have any real value. That's a problem.
Mike Malone is known for his defensive prowess, but he's been set up to fail with this roster. Injuries don't help, but this is a team that never really had a chance on the defensive side of the ball. For the Kings to be competitive, that simply has to be the top priority going forward. Above-average defensive teams always have a better shot at making the playoffs than above-average offensive teams.
The focus has to change, and so does the talent-evaluation process. There will likely be plenty of enticing scorers for the Kings to put next to Thomas, Cousins and Ben McLemore for the future, but that should be pretty low on the list of priorities.
The Kings need stoppers, help defenders and rim protectors. Talent should always take precedent over need in the draft, but if the Kings truly want to win right now, they can't just ignore fit like they have so frequently in the past.
Players to Target
As we've established, the Kings won't have cap space this year if Rudy Gay accepts his player option. That means there are only two real paths to acquiring new talent: trades and the draft.
The time to deal will almost certainly be after this season instead of before this year's trade deadline, but trying to get anything for Jimmer Fredette would be a wise idea. The Kings have already declined his option for next season, so he's unlikely to come back anyway.
A lot can change between now and the offseason, but here are a few players to target after this season. Again, we're looking for defenders who are on contract past the 2014-15 season.
For Marcus Thornton: Orlando Magic SG Arron Afflalo, Charlotte Bobcats SG Gerald Henderson, Washington Wizards SF Martell Webster, Denver Nuggets SF Wilson Chandler, Minnesota Timberwolves SF Corey Brewer.
Obviously, none of these teams would take Thornton's expiring deal in a straight-up trade and call it a day, but there may be some opportunities to exploit if Sacramento is willing to trade draft picks to win now.
If Orlando is looking to clear even more space for the 2015 offseason and turn Afflalo into future assets, the Kings could provide both of those things. Afflalo is a solid defender, but he's also a killer spot-up three-point shooter with an incredibly effective post game. He'd be a great complement to Thomas in the backcourt.
Gerald Henderson is similar to Afflalo, except he's not a three-point threat at all. Charlotte probably doesn't covet more cap space as much as other teams, but you never know.
If the Wizards want to hand the full-time starting small forward spot to Otto Porter or keep Trevor Ariza around, perhaps Martell Webster could be dealt at some point. Webster is one of the best corner three-point shooters in basketball and a very willing defender with size. He's the floor for what Ben McLemore needs to be.
The Denver Nuggets probably should blow it up, and Wilson Chandler would be a nice get at the 3 if that happens.
It doesn't seem likely that Minnesota will want to rebuild with Kevin Love still on the roster, but if anything changes on that front, shedding Brewer's three-year deal may become a priority.
For Rudy Gay: Philadelphia 76ers PF Thaddeus Young, New Orleans Pelicans SG Eric Gordon.
Rudy Gay's mammoth expiring deal would need to take back more than just these salaries, but they would be a starting point.
Although I don't love Young for Sacramento with Landry and Thompson still there, he's a great athlete who can force turnovers and help on the glass. He's certainly an upgrade over Gay, but Philadelphia might want to clear the books completely and fully maximize cap space for the 2015 offseason, which trading for Gay could do very easily.
Eric Gordon would be another potential acquisition. New Orleans has a logjam in the backcourt, and clearing Gordon's future salary would create some badly needed financial flexibility for the Pelicans.
In Gordon, the Kings would get a willing defender and a very capable outside shooter. The prior injuries and the size and length of Gordon's deal are certainly troublesome, but the Kings probably aren't going to get a star player via trade without taking on some risk.
In the Draft: Kansas C Joel Embiid, Kansas SF Andrew Wiggins, Australian PG/SG Dante Exum.
D'Alessandro and Sacramento's scouts better be spending a lot of time at Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas. Both Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins have the chance to be incredibly special, as both players should be excellent defenders at the next level.
What should the Kings do?
DeMarcus Cousins could really use a rim protector next to him, and Embiid is one of the best we've seen in the college ranks for a while now. Not to get too hyperbolic here, but that combo could follow in the footsteps of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan and David Robinson as the next twin towers in the Western Conference.
Adding Wiggins on the wing would finally solve Sacramento's long-lasting problems at small forward. With plenty of length, quickness and intelligence, Wiggins could be the lockdown defender Sacramento desperately needs.
Don't sleep on Dante Exum, either. He'd form an explosive scoring backcourt with Isaiah Thomas and provide extra playmaking ability, but he'd also be able to cover the tougher assignment every single night.
All three look like elite prospects, and there are plenty of power forward options near the top of the draft board as well.
As unpalatable as it may be to Sacramento's management and ownership, riding out the rest of this ugly season before making moves to upgrade the roster probably makes the most sense. As D'Alessandro told James Ham of CowbellKingdom.com, there has to be a future goal.
What I like to say is, you set a goal out on the horizon and try to steer the ship in that direction. And as things happen, you need to be able to react and be flexible enough to react. My constant thought is, are we flexible enough?
It's hard to ignore the fact that Sacramento's ship is already sinking and the flexibility for this year is limited. The deck chairs have already been shuffled, and so now it's time for the Kings to remain patient and play for the future.