The Sacramento Kings have cornered the market

With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, the Kings have cornered the market as the only team with significant cap space.

The passing of the December 15th deadline (before which players signed in July of 2018 cannot be traded) signaled the beginning of the NBA's trade season. The passing of the January 7th deadline for non-guaranteed contracts means that any teams who are looking to cut their salary numbers will have to do so through the trade market if they wish to avoid eating money in a buyout negotiation:

In the aftermath of these January 7th cuts, two teams sat below the $101,869,000 salary cap for the 2018-19 season. The first of those teams, the Chicago Bulls, squeeze in just below that line with $101,237,270 in committed salary per basketball-reference. Since Jerry Reinsdorf has a history of cheaping out on the Bulls in favor of pouring his cash into the Chicago White Sox, the Bulls will probably not be willing to take on more salary for this year.

The second of those teams will have a far more interesting role in the days leading up to the trade deadline. Despite their surprisingly solid start to the season and continued playoff contention in a tightly-bunched Western Conference, the Sacramento Kings have more than $11 million in cap space at the moment per basketball-reference.

This salary cap space opens up a number of possibilities for the Kings. They can choose to rent out that cap space to teams that are desperate to duck under the luxury tax, and in return they should be looking to pick up a future first-round pick. Alternatively, the Kings could choose to take on contracts for useful but overpaid players to shore up a playoff rotation. While there is still plenty of time to make a deal, the Kings would be foolish to sit on their assets past the February 7th trade deadline without getting something from a desperate suitor.

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards are the most intriguing trade partner for Sacramento for a variety of different reasons. Washington is currently in the luxury tax, but their playoff window closed pretty definitively after John Wall's surgery that ended his season. Few teams are willing to stay over the luxury tax line if it can be avoided, and a team that may end up in the top half of the lottery would certainly prefer to avoid that fate--there's no reason to pay extra for a team that probably will not even sniff the playoffs. Thus, the Wizards will probably be the most desperate suitor in the days leading up to the deadline.

The Wizards can also offer two different paths for the Kings to take advantage of their cap space. While they have traded away their second-round picks through 2022, they still have all of their first-round picks for the immediate future. Ernie Grunfeld has been sacrificing the future for the present for the last 15 years, so why stop now? Here's one potential scenario:

Washington receives: Ben McLemore, Sacramento 2021 second-round pick

Sacramento receives: Ian Mahinmi, Washington first-round pick (lottery protected in 2021, top-10 protected in 2022, top-8 protected in 2023, converts to Washington's 2024 and 2025 second-round picks if not conveyed)

This trade would allow the Wizards to slip under the luxury tax line and dodge the next season of Mahinmi's contract, and they at least manage to salvage a second-round pick out of the deal. For Sacramento, they would acquire a chance at a late lottery pick that would give them two solid picks at the top of the second round at the absolute worst. Mahinmi would be essentially dead money, but he has the theoretical upside of being a good rebounder on a team in need of help on the glass.

Alternatively, the Kings could opt to try to use their cap space to improve this year's squad in anticipation of a playoff push. The Wizards may finally decide to blow it up after seasons of mediocrity, and Sacramento is in prime position to take advantage of that if they do. Here's how that kind of deal might play out:

Washington receives: Zach Randolph, Ben McLemore, Justin Jackson, Sacramento 2020 second-round pick

Sacramento receives: Otto Porter Jr.

The Kings have 2020 second-round picks coming from Detroit and Miami, so they can afford to toss one into this deal to upgrade their weakest position. Porter fits in perfectly as a 3-and-D wing who can knock down transition 3's on one end while helping Sacramento's struggling perimeter defense on the other end. The Wizards might value Porter more highly than this, but his contract makes him a negative value for a team that is over the luxury tax line without any realistic chance at making the playoffs. Since neither of those issues affect the Kings, Porter's contract is much easier to stomach. Both Randolph and McLemore have expiring contracts, so Washington would duck the tax this year AND have more flexibility going forward. Jackson was the 15th pick in 2017 and has looked much better this year than in his rookie year, but his role would be severely diminished with Porter in the fold.

Other Options

While the Washington Wizards make the most sense as a trade partner for the Kings, the Wizards are not the only team with pending luxury tax issues. The Miami Heat have the largest salary commitment of any team for the 2018-19 season, and they are the only tax team besides the Wizards that don’t appear to be locks for a playoff spot. However, their recent surge and makes it seem like they won’t be looking to shed salary just to lower their tax bill-especially since it would be all but impossible for them to get below the tax line completely. Their options are limited, but Miami might want to ask about a deal like this one:

Miami receives: Ben McLemore

Sacramento receives: James Johnson, 2022 Miami second-round pick

The 2022 second is the only one that Miami has between now and 2025, which might be enough reason for them to avoid making this kind of salary-shedding deal. Still, they would avoid overpaying Johnson for the next two seasons and shed some of his salary obligations for this year. In return, the Kings would get a defensive-minded combo forward who is a below-average but willing three-point shooter. Johnson can play in transition and crash the glass well enough to fit into the Kings’ system even if he would be overpaid for his presumptive role. That being said, both of the theoretical deals with Washington would be a better fit.

The Sacramento Kings have an excellent opportunity to improve before this year’s trade deadline. As a young team on the rise, they’re way ahead of schedule record-wise with enough cap space in reserve to replenish their draft assets. Since Sacramento will lose their 2019 first-round pick to either the Celtics or the Sixers, they might as well go all-in for a playoff push. Even if Vlade Divac opts for a more conservative approach, he can essentially pick up an asset for free by dangling the Kings’ cap space in front of teams looking to shed salary. Fans and Divac alike will have to hope that someone is willing to bite in the days and weeks leading up to February 7th.

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