For all of his career, the reputation of Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas has failed to catch up with his production. He's had to battle for playing time and a starting gig, and now, he may have to look elsewhere for employment in restricted free agency or agree to a sign-and-trade deal.
Yes, the Kings have money issues, and defensively the team could stand to upgrade at multiple positions, including point guard. But that doesn't mean Thomas should be so readily cast aside, especially since his efficient scoring is so important on a team that features Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins.
If Thomas was a first-round pick, or if he was bigger that 5'9", we might not even be having this discussion. He'd be a lock to stay, and the Kings would look to build around the elite offense he brings to the table.
Maybe you're uncomfortable with hearing "elite" and Thomas in the same sentence, but remove the name and evaluate his numbers straight up, and you'll get an idea of how positively great he's been to start his career:
Player A: 19.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 18.7 PER, 57.4 True Shooting Percentage (Per 36 min)
Player B: 21.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 20.0 PER, 51.9 True Shooting Percentage (Per 36 min)
These are the stats of the first three years of two different players' careers.
Player A is Thomas.
Player B is Allen Iverson.
This isn't to say that Thomas is a Hall of Fame talent like Iverson, or that he'll have a career like Iverson did, but more to illustrate the type of player he can be. Like Iverson, Thomas is small of stature and is a scoring guard through and through. He gets to the line, and he creates for himself and others with his ability to break down defenders off the dribble.
Those skills would probably carry more weight on a winning team, but Thomas hasn't had the luxury of playing for someone like Larry Brown who could construct a contender out of spare parts like a basketball MacGyver.
And so as the losses have piled up over the last three years, Thomas has seemingly failed to win over skeptics in his own front office.
Per multiple sources, Sacramento Kings' front office is split on moving forward with Isaiah Thomas at PG, has engaged in prelim trade talks.— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) June 18, 2014
Of course, this is about more than just a lack of faith in his ability. It's a lot about the money, as well, and Sacramento might be strapped of it completely this offseason.
As it stands right now, the Kings have over $47 million in guaranteed contracts. If Rudy Gay opts in to his massive player option worth $19.3 million, that will bring the Kings to over $66 million.
Then there's the eighth pick in the draft to account for ($2.2 million), as well as Thomas. Without Thomas, the Kings should be at around $68.5 million in salary commitments.
That's a problem, as the salary cap is projected to check in at somewhere between $63 and $65 million, meaning the luxury tax will be around $77 to $79 million.
If Thomas were to sign an offer sheet starting at around $8 million annually, which doesn't seem unrealistic since that's what point guard Jeff Teague pulled down in a similar situation last offseason, then the Kings would be a tax-paying team.
You have to think that Sacramento's ownership wants to avoid that, particularly if the product on the floor is an unlikely playoff team.
While it's certainly possible that Gay opts out and negotiates a long-term deal, freeing up the necessary cap room to sign Thomas, it's probably not the most likely scenario. Gay is going to have a hard time justifying the decision to leave all that money on the table.
Thomas has played well in Sacramento and has developed a nice chemistry with DeMarcus Cousins, so it makes sense that he may want to stay. Here's what Thomas told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee earlier this year:
“I definitely want to be around when it does turn around,” Thomas said. “I was drafted here. I’ve been welcomed with open arms by the Sacramento community. It just feels like a second home. I can’t control it, though. At the same time, I’m going to do whatever’s possible to be around. That’s all I can do.”
It would be awfully hard to blame Thomas for looking for a big payday elsewhere in restricted free agency. Sacramento seems reluctant to have him start at point guard, and although there are limited starting jobs around the league (Orlando Magic? Los Angeles Lakers?), Thomas could at least latch on to a contender as a high-paid sixth man, a role he's flourished in previously.
Thomas deserves the money and the role, but finding it might be difficult. A sign-and-trade might make the most sense here, and it sounds like Sacramento is exploring a few different options.
One source even mentioned Sacramento offering a feeler trade to Phoenix last weekend of No. 8 and Isaiah Thomas for Eric Bledsoe.— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) June 18, 2014
While that particular deal is a pipe dream since the Suns would almost certainly balk and it would put the Kings deep in the luxury tax, it does give you an idea of what Sacramento may be looking to do with Thomas instead of having to match an offer sheet in restricted free agency.
Using Thomas as bait alongside the eighth pick in the draft could fetch Sacramento a "true" point guard, which might be a wasteful move. That would fall right in line with the rest of the organization's moves over the last year or so, which included the signing of veteran forward Carl Landry (who was redundant with Jason Thompson) and the trade for Gay.
The Kings, basically, are in scramble mode. Thomas may be a casualty of that, even though head coach Mike Malone told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee earlier in the year that he's optimistic about his core's future:
“Not many teams have that three-headed attack,” Malone said. “It’s great to have. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep those guys together because with that core, you add some pieces to that and you allow (rookies) Ray (McCallum) and Ben (McLemore) to continue to mature and get better, I think we have a solid foundation. Those guys offensively are terrific, and they’re getting better defensively.”
Thomas could be viewed as a core member, but it appears Sacramento may still be stuck looking to upgrade at point guard even though there are massive holes that need to be filled elsewhere.
Ben McLemore may come along, but is Gay really the long-term answer at small forward? What's the depth behind those players? Who is the power forward for the future next to Cousins?
Without a proper evaluation and the necessary financial breathing room under the luxury tax, the Kings could very well trade Thomas to a destination he's willing to sign with long term. Some team should and will appreciate Thomas, but it seems like there's a good chance that team will never be the Sacramento Kings.