NBA Free Agency, Day 2: Sacramento’s Crazy Salary Dump and Greg Monroe’s Milwaukee MoveGary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Sacramento’s Salary Dump
Almost exactly two years ago, the Warriors shipped two future first-round picks to the Jazz as payoff for Utah swallowing $20 million of dead money attached to Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins.
Put another way: Utah paid $10 million a pop for two first-round picks. That is on the high-ish side of the pick exchange market, but it’s not out of line with what other teams — including the Warriors and then-Bobcats1 — have coughed up for picks.
Point is, the Sixers absorbing $25 million attached to Carl Landry and Jason Thompson in return for a protected first-round pick and the right to swap first-rounders with the Kings in two more drafts, is not, on the surface, some embarrassing outlier for the Kings. Philly actually paid a very high price in cash and two second-round picks of their own for an uncertain asset: a top-10-protected pick that could arrive in 2018 or 2019, once the Kings fulfill the endgame of another embarrassing trade, and becomes unprotected after that.
But context is everything. Two years ago, the Warriors knew they had Andre Iguodala in the bag if they could clear cap space for him, and they were coming off a stirring playoff run that had management convinced — correctly, it turns out — that the team’s nucleus could do special things.
The Kings are pretty damn far from that. Even if this season unfolds perfectly, they will be playing in a different universe from the best teams in the Western Conference. They already had something like $9 million in cap space before dumping money onto the ravenous Sixers, which should have been enough to make a fair offer for Rajon Rondo or Monta Ellis. And if they needed a bit more room, Sacramento could have off-loaded Nik Stauskas for free, or even used the stretch provision — that’s a clause in something called the collective bargaining agreement — to waive Thompson or Landry.
Sure, the Kings now have $25 million in space — enough to fit both Rondo, a star in decline, and Wes Matthews, a two-way killer who just kept on rising before suffering perhaps the most devastating injury that can befall a player. They could maintain their Bird rights on Derrick Williams, who has done essentially nothing over four seasons. If they get Rondo, they are sending a message to Cousins: “We are trying, so you have to try, too.” But none of that comes close to justifying the cost Sacramento paid here. Hell, even those pick swaps could come back to haunt them; ask Brooklyn about the horror of pick swaps that look harmless in the moment.
Contending teams can flip first-round picks in exchange for pieces that might put them over the top. Rebuilding teams cannot flip first-round picks in exchange for nice players who might not even push them into the race for the no. 8 seed — especially not a Kings team already out a first-round pick to Chicago, via the Cavs, that they dealt in an on-its-face terrible deal for J.J. freaking Hickson.2
It doesn’t really even matter who they sign at this point. The young Khris Middleton types and real game-changers are gone, and so is Ellis, in a tidy deal with the Pacers — a less lucrative offer than what the Kings offered, according to reports. That removes the possibility of the Rondo-Ellis package, which would have raised the prospect of Sacramento somehow surrounding the league’s preeminent post-up threat with four below-average 3-point shooters. Do you know how hard it is to win like that? Shifting Rudy Gay to power forward would have helped, but, really.
If they end up with Rondo and Matthews, the Kings will have signed a historically bad shooter and a rehabbing shooting guard right after using two straight lottery picks on shooting guards — Stauskas (Stauskas!) and Ben McLemore. And you know what? I don’t really care. Wing depth is great, Matthews is a tough MF-er who may well recover into 90 percent of the ace shooter he was in Portland, and both he and McLemore should be able to guard either wing position.
Is any of this getting you into the top six in the West over the next two seasons? Almost certainly not. Rondo and whomever else may come on short-term deals, experience the circus, and get the hell out — leaving the Kings with nothing. That’s the downside. The upside is an entertaining 8-seed to fill a new arena that seems to be the team’s priority, above all basketball sense.
That is the appeal of what Philly is doing, by the way. Like it or not, at least the Sixers know who they are: a long-term rebuild project, hoarding lottery tickets. They are the only team with cap room that has zero interest in winning this season, and that give-no-F’s policy was the key to nailing this deal. Plenty of teams could have fleeced the Kings, but they are all trying to spend their cap space on more useful NBA players. The Sixers aren’t, and they struck early — before teams with unused cap space, like the Knicks and Lakers, pivoted into the Kings’ derby.
The Kings are a disaster. The entire league is laughing at them. Sorry, Sacto fans, I’m just relaying the info coming into my email and text message inboxes. They fired the only coach who has ever gotten along with DeMarcus Cousins, messed around with Ty Corbin because he happened to be sitting there, and then swung big for George Karl — a legitimate basketball savant.
Now they are reportedly shocked that Karl wants a say in personnel matters. Do they have Google? Can they use telephonic communications to call some of Karl’s old associates? This is what he does, and most coaches have some degree of influence in the team-building process. That’s healthy. If Karl is really sneaking Cousins trade pitches behind Vivek Ranadive’s back, that’s a different sort of breach, but don’t hire Karl if you want a coach who keeps quiet.
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They hired Vlade Divac for one job, then gave him another without informing his predecessor, Pete D’Alessandro, that he was being demoted. It just feels like more bad stuff will happen before they get this right.
Maybe this will turn out better than expected. Maybe a motivated Rondo will recapture his old form after three years of continuous post-injury decline. Maybe Matthews will recover fast. Maybe the Kings will outfit Karl with a Mike Malone mask so that Cousins will play his guts out on both ends. Maybe last season’s 9-6 start really did prove Cousins can carry a league-average supporting cast to a plus-.500 record.
That’s a lot of “maybes,” and even if they all flip right, this team doesn’t appear headed for the kind of playoff run that would justify this deal.
The Bucks Sign Greg Monroe to a Three-Year, Max-Level Deal
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If you only watched the playoffs, you might think the Bucks are the most hyperaggressive defensive team since the peak LeBron-era Heat — a trapping menace that demands its big men chase ball handlers out toward midcourt on every pick-and-roll.
The Bucks are aggressive, but they amped up the frenzy for Derrick Rose, and they don’t want to be quite so active when a traditional center type — Zaza Pachulia, John Henson, and now Greg Monroe — is corralling a pick-and-roll. That’s right: Monroe should mostly play center, especially on defense, which means the Bucks will probably trade a big man from their overbooked roster sometime soon.
In general, the Bucks really only want their center coming up to the level of the pick (sometimes a few feet below it) and sliding with the ball handler while keeping an eye on the big guy rolling toward the hoop. Monroe should be able to handle that. He’s never going to be a plus defender who brings above-the-rim intimidation, but he’s improved,3 and he’s going to a coaching staff that will drill him to death. Jason Kidd and Sean Sweeney, the defensive coordinator Kidd brought from Brooklyn, will keep things simple for Monroe and iron out his bad habits — the hopeless, flat-footed reaches into passing lanes, lazy recoveries, and lurching footwork.
The rest of Milwaukee’s unusual scheme doesn’t require Monroe to be a turbo-charged leaper. The Bucks love to overload the strong side with a third defender, and there’s no reason Monroe can’t position himself like Jared Dudley does here — and then recover when the opponent swings the ball:
Last season, Milwaukee players raved about how free they felt to take an extra step into help position, knowing that the next guy in the chain had their back. This was the no. 2 defense in the league despite playing heavy minutes without a rim protector once Larry Sanders left. And any big man can at least be a mild deterrent at the basket if he lifts his arms and jumps a little.
Monroe also cinches up Milwaukee’s only defensive weakness: rebounding. The Bucks were 24th in defensive rebounding rate, as undersize guys caught in between frantic rotations scrambled to find a boxout. Monroe will stabilize things on the glass.
There will be opponents suited to exploiting Monroe’s issues on D, and on those nights, the Bucks can shift some of his minutes to Pachulia and Henson. A guy on a max contract should theoretically be able to play heavy minutes against anyone, but a max contract this summer is a unique animal — a relative bargain, even when teams reach a bit. Monroe’s deal will take up about 25 percent of this season’s cap, but when the cap leaps to about $90 million in 2016-17, Monroe’s share of it will drop to about 18.5 percent — about equivalent to the deal Ellis just signed with Indiana. That share will drop even further if Monroe exercises his option to stay in Milwaukee for 2017-18, when the league and union project the cap will reach $108 million.
He might not, since Monroe and his agent, David Falk, structured this deal so he can dip back into free agency for the cap bonanza — and potentially sign a fatter contract. That risk is fine for both sides. The Bucks were smart to spend their cap room this summer, when only about one-third of the league could realistically offer max-level contracts. As many as 27 teams might have that kind of space this season, and as fun as it was to see Milwaukee win a bidding war over the Knicks and Lakers, those wars will be bloodier a year from now.
An aside: How many free-agency bidding wars have the Lakers and Knicks ever won when they were outright bad, as they are now? The lure of a big market isn’t as powerful as it once was, but these two are still at least getting meetings with every huge star. The Bucks aren’t getting those meetings, which is why they were smart to strike fast with Monroe.
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If Monroe doesn’t work out, the Bucks can just wait the contract out or move it in a blink. They could use a little wiggle room for 2017-18 anyway. If Monroe, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Michael Carter-Williams are all on the books for big money that season, Milwaukee could nudge up toward the cap if it restocks the bench with midsize signings between now and then. Things could get really sticky the following season, 2018-19, when the league projects the cap level might fall, and Jabari Parker begins his first big deal.
And that’s the best part here: imagining how Monroe might work as a hub on offense in hybrid lineups, with Middleton and Antetokounmpo on the wing, and Parker at power forward. Those feel like younger, springier versions of the “long-ball” lineups Kidd used in Brooklyn, with Paul Pierce as a stretch power forward.
There is something very Warriors-y about how Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Parker could switch across three positions, with Carter-Williams making it a four-way dance on the right nights. Monroe doesn’t have the wheels to switch, but neither does Andrew Bogut, and the Warriors still did plenty of it around their plodding big fella.
That looks like a shooting-challenged group, and it probably will be — at least for a year or so. But Parker projects as a plus shooter at power forward, Middleton hit 40 percent from deep in back-to-back seasons, and the Bucks are thrilled with the mechanical adjustments Antetokounmpo has made to his shot this summer. And if they need an extra dose of shooting, Milwaukee can call on its funky bench guys: Jared Dudley, Jerryd Bayless, and the recently acquired Greivis Vasquez. I thought Milwaukee overpaid for Vasquez on an expiring deal, but he’s a decent long-range shooter, and he can both back up and play alongside Carter-Williams.
Monroe gives the Bucks a first option they didn’t really have — a fail-safe for an offense that ranked just 25th in points per possession last season. At some point over the last 18 months, Monroe discovered he could just beat the crap out of almost any post defender. He is a brute, and he can move damn near anyone close to the basket if he gets a little time. He has a deceptive explosiveness to his back-down game that draws double-teams, free throws, and offensive rebounds.
Monroe is an expert passer when he wants to be, from both the block and the elbows. His ability to function from 20 feet out means he can play alongside Henson and Pachulia, though Monroe is loads better defensively at center.
When I wrote in May about the alleged death of the post-up game and its potential comeback, Kidd was one of the loudest voices lamenting its decline. As I wrote then, if teams are going to get all switchy on defense, it pays to have one or two guys who can go to the block and punish defenders. That’s easier said than done; the Cavs struggled just to get the ball to Timofey Mozgov in the Finals, as the Warriors swarmed every passing lane.
The post-up can still be a weapon. To get far in the playoffs, teams need to be versatile — to have answers in their bag for anything. The Spurs needed Boris Diaw’s spacing in the starting lineup, and the Warriors soared in super-small formations with Iguodala in Bogut’s place. Monroe’s post game gives Milwaukee a stylistic answer that will come in handy against the right opponent in the right playoff series.
Monroe isn’t a franchise-altering solution. The Bucks still need shooting. They need to figure out if Carter-Williams is their long-term point guard after dealing Brandon Knight for him and choosing him over the Lakers’ 2016 draft pick — one that looks mighty good now, with the Lakers having whiffed, again, in free agency.
But Monroe helps. He’s an answer to some questions, an improving cog that unlocks a new kind of offensive versatility. This is a smart free-agency strike for a quirky group that could become known for something other than its quirkiness in short order.
This piece has been updated to correct how much salary Philadelphia is taking on in the deal for Carl Landry and Jason Thompson.