The Kings reached the playoffs, snapped their 16-year drought and sniffed 50 wins. How can they build on this record-breaking season?
The gods punished Sisyphus, the first king of Ephyra, for being a devious tyrant who killed visitors to show off his strength. This violation of the sacred hospitality tradition greatly angered the gods.
Sisyphus was condemned to the Underworld where he was forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only for it to fall back down to the start right as he reached the peak.
The Sacramento Kings appear to have broken out of their own punishment, breaking their playoff drought of 17 years before losing in the first round to the Golden State Warriors.
They’re doing what Sisyphus could never do himself, reach the top, take a deep breath and move on with his death. In the NBA, where there isn’t just one mountain to climb, Monte McNair and the Kings have to find a way to build sustained success and make deeper playoff runs.
What are we building from
The Kings might have stumbled across a victory machine in the regular season. The core of Domantas Sabonis, De’Aaron Fox and shooters could be a top-five offence in the league for the next five seasons.
Sabonis made some enemies in the playoffs, he struggled mightily to get things going on offence and that made his defence (or lack thereof) much less excusable. It wasn’t just Steph Curry and Jordan Poole licking their lips at a backpedalling Lithuanian, even Draymond Green got involved in Game 5, finishing over him with brute force or sexy finesse.
If Sabonis’ stock dropped in the playoffs, then De’Aaron Fox’s went through the roof. Fox proved that he was more than a lower-end All-Star, he proved that he could improve his game when it mattered, lifting his scoring output to nearly 30 points a night and drilling clutch shot after clutch shot.
Outside of those two, the role players in Harrison Barnes, Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, and Davion Mitchell look like the right pieces to surround the Fox and the Ox for years to come.
When factoring in improvement from the young players, that core should only get better with time. Harry Barnes is the only player on that list on the wrong side of 30, and he was hardly an essential piece, so it’s looking like they’ll be able to tread water.
As mentioned, Barnes is a free agent but it’s likely we’ll see him return to Sacramento. After joining the Kings in the 2018-19 season, he has been there through the bad times and I’m going to guess he wants to stay for many more runs.
Early in the season, Sacramento took him off the trade market according to James Ham, ESPN 1320. At the time, the Kings were 9-6 and their situation has only improved since then.
The four-year, $85 million contract that he signed in 2019 might be a perfect facsimile for his next deal. With Barnes at age 30, you’re paying less for long-term upside but factoring in the financial growth across the league, his age-related decline might not fall as low as the market price for a 3-and-D wing.
Harry isn’t the biggest decision McNair has to make this offseason as Sabonis will be extension eligible, too. This is one of the first instances of the new CBA taking effect with the extension limit increased from 120 percent of a player’s previous salary to 140 percent.
Sabonis will be extension-eligible starting on July 7 for up to four years and a base salary of $121.7 million. The new CBA is increasing Sabonis’ maximum extension amount by $17.4 million than the previous one would’ve allowed.
Next season, he’s owed just north of $19 million and signing that extension would make him a $30 million per year player. Before the Golden State series, that seemed pretty fair for the engine that powered the best offence in the league. After that series, is it a little harder to cough up the cash?
At the end of the day, the Kings can’t afford to let him walk. If McNair wants to offer Sabonis something below his max, potentially upset Sabonis and his agent, and the big man walks a season from now, it’d be extremely embarrassing for a franchise that wants to stay in the playoff picture.
But that’s assuming he wants to lock up long-term money as soon as possible. If he waits a season and enters unrestricted free agency, Domantas could make up to $244 million across five seasons, and then the same argument about bringing this team out of the depths still stands.
That’s a lot of money for a player who struggled mightily in the playoffs. But as my podcast co-host pointed out before the series was over, we’re watching Sabonis struggle as a lead option against the worst-case defence for him, Kevon Looney and Draymond Green.
How much stock do you want to put in one playoff series? By the time the following offseason rolls around, Sabonis might have put up a monster stat line for a deeper playoff run with the Kings so it won’t matter.
Monte McNair has to sharpen his negotiation skills before free agency because either way, an extension this offseason is looking like the most team-friendly deal out there.
For the rest of the roster, the Kings did a solid job at locking this roster down. It was risky at the start of the season before we knew they were good, but with their success, it’s nice having Malik Monk signed for another season the MLE, Kevin Huerter for another three and Davion Mitchell and Keegan Murray still on rookie deals.
How can they improve?
The Kings can bring the band back and keep banging their heads against the table if they want to, but if they want to go further in the playoffs, they’ll need to do more than hope for internal improvement.
This is where the Tyrese Haliburton trade really hurts them. Yes, Sabonis was the offensive hub for the league’s best offence and powered the Kings to their first postseason appearance in 17 years, but it’s still a failure.
Monty McNair traded at least seven seasons of team control over one of the best young point guards in the world for a 26-year-old big man who’s expiring at the end of next season.
Sabonis has reached his apex. After being slowly asked to do more from the OKC Thunder to the Indiana Pacers to Sacramento, this is who he is.
On the other side of the coin, the sky really is the limit for the Pacers. Haliburton might be the best young point guard in the NBA and before injuries derailed his 2022-23 campaign, he was firmly in the All-NBA conversation.
At 23 years old, that’s not a bad piece to have.
Imagine what a defensive, shooting facilitator would look like next to Fox…
But alas, that’s enough Kings bashing, as the Greyjoys say in Game of Thrones: “what is dead may never die”. I assume they’re referring to NBA hypotheticals there but I’ll have to brush up on my knowledge.
A potential Sabonis extension would kick in the following season so if the Kings want to improve the roster, now would be the easiest time. Since they’re out of the luxury tax, they have a lot more freedom when it comes to roster moves.
Sacramento owns all of their future first-round picks apart from 2024 which is owed to Atlanta (top-14 protected) from the Huerter trade. Pair those assets with some salary (like Richaun Holmes’ two years, $24.9 million owed) and all of a sudden, the Kings have the maneuverability to bring in some legitimate players.
Time for some offseason shopping
The Kings have the scratch to make a move. They don’t have to, but there’s the ability to add established veteran talent to a solid core, throw a buy-low flier on a mismatched piece or add minor depth.
If the Kings want to go down the established route, it’s looking like Khris Middleton is on the way out with the Milwaukee Bucks. After a disappointing season following injury and what might be wholesale changes starting with Mike Buzenholzer’s departure, maybe Middleton can be signed away from Wisconsin for the right price?
While he did underperform this past season, a wing rotation of Middleton, Huerter and Monk is extremely solid. It’ll require letting Barnes walk but that would clarify Keegan Murray’s role, the presumptive starting four for the next decade.
Zach LaVine is perennially on the trade market despite Arturas Karnisovas consistently telling the media that the Chicago Bulls are trying to win games and prioritising being competitive.
The Kings wouldn’t blow the Bulls away with an offer but given LaVine’s injury history, Sacramento might have the best offer (middling firsts and matching salary) if the other up-and-coming teams aren’t interested (NO Pelicans, Utah Jazz, OKC Thunder).
Additionally, the Kings, albeit with a different front office, have expressed interest in LaVine before, signing him to an offer sheet in the 2018 offseason.
Also, as an NBA blogger writing an offseason article, I feel as though I’m obliged to mention Bradley Beal. There, I did it, nothing more to add.
On the buy-low front, how would Dillon Brooks fit with this Kings roster? And could Sacramento find a way to re-route Richaun Holmes’ money in that deal? That way, the Grizzlies keep the salary on the books if they want to re-route the player into another deal, like one for OG Anunoby.
I can hear Kings fans shaking their heads at this potential signing and I agree.
If McNair is content with the core, he’d still have the ability to trade for some of the more serviceable wings out there like Dorian Finney-Smith, Yuta Watanabe or Joe Harris.
I’m sure the Brooklyn Nets would be happy picking up a lower-end first-round pick for one of their miscast pieces, and we know Sean Marks is happy taking on hefty salaries to grease the trade wheels.
Regardless of the avenue the Kings decide to go down, there are several options on the table. Whichever path they choose, it’s looking like they’ll be a regular season juggernaut for years to come.
For the first season in my basketball-watching career, I can say that things are legitimately trending upwards in SacTown. With the flexibility to upgrade or the stability to remain consistent, we might be seeing a new staple atop the Western Conference.