Willie Cauley-Stein and the Kings are in a weird place with free agency fast approaching.
Roger Montgomery, Cauley-Stein’s agent with Roc Nation Sports, told The Sacramento Bee Cauley-Stein wants out after spending his first four seasons in Sacramento. Montgomery is acting in the best interests of his client but the Kings have their own interests to consider as the clock turns toward the start of free agency at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Cauley-Stein is a borderline NBA starter with potential for excellence, a record of inconsistency and a stated desire to “get paid” this summer. Montgomery might have surveyed the free-agent market, spotted the smoke signals out of Sacramento and decided Cauley-Stein should hit the highway to find the most lucrative path forward in his career.
“I really think Willie needs a fresh start,” Montgomery said. “Based on how things have gone for him there in Sacramento, I just think it’s time for Willie to move on and we’d really like him to move on.”
The Kings responded by saying Cauley-Stein is a “great player who has shown he can fit our style of play.” General manager Vlade Divac previously said: “We would like to keep Willie in terms of his talent potential, but he still needs to show us the consistency that we are looking for.”
The possibility of Cauley-Stein and the Kings parting ways this summer comes as no surprise. Many felt it was a foregone conclusion the Kings would upgrade at center as part of their effort to end the NBA’s longest playoff drought after 13 consecutive losing seasons. The idea of Cauley-Stein wanting out while the Kings think they might, maybe, possibly, kind of, sort of want to keep him was unforeseen, but it’s starting to make sense.
The Kings have until Sunday to extend a qualifying offer to Cauley-Stein. The offer must be for one year at 125 percent of his previous salary, which amounts to just under $6.3 million. If Cauley-Stein accepts the offer, he will stay with the Kings in 2019-20 and become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
If Cauley-Stein doesn’t accept the qualifying offer, he will immediately become a restricted free agent. The Kings would have the right to match any offer he receives from another team.
Montgomery has asked the Kings not to extend the qualifying offer but that would be foolish. The Kings will likely extend the offer and Cauley-Stein will probably reject it, which leads us to restricted free agency and some potentially sobering realities for both sides.
Cauley-Stein averaged 11.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 81 games last season. He has improved each year since the Kings selected him with the sixth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but he hasn’t played his way into an upper tier of free-agent centers that features Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez.
It remains to be seen what the free-agent market will offer Cauley-Stein. The Kings will wish him well with his new team if someone offers anything approaching $12 million a year, but if the offer is in the range of $8 million to $10 million, they would have to consider bringing him back.
The Kings are third in the NBA with about $59 million in salary cap space, according to Spotrac. They could re-sign small forward Harrison Barnes for $20 million, keep Cauley-Stein for $10 million and still have enough money to sign Vucevic for $25 million.
That would make Cauley-Stein a backup. Cauley-Stein addressed that kind of scenario in a March interview with The Bee, saying hypothetically he would be open to coming off the bench under certain circumstances.
“Awe, yeah, I mean, that’s hard,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s hard to say. It just depends on how things move and how we’re playing, whatever’s better for the team. Are we winning games? Because, if we’re not, hell no, but if we’re winning games, f--- yeah.”
Imagine a lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Barnes, Marvin Bagley III and Vucevic – or a different topflight center – with guys like Yogi Ferrell, Frank Mason III, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Harry Giles III and Cauley-Stein coming off the bench.
The Kings have been linked to Vucevic for months, although there have been conflicting reports in recent weeks as to whether they will pursue him. Vucevic has been seen palling around with Bogdanovic in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean Vucevic is coming to Sacramento.
The Kings could go after a cheaper free-agent center like Dewayne Dedmon while preserving cap space to sign quality backups at the point guard and wing positions. They could use Cauley-Stein in a sign-and-trade deal to acquire someone like Steven Adams or Clint Capela from cash-strapped teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. Or they could keep Cauley-Stein and continue to start him until they find out if Giles is ready to assume that role.
Neither side wants Cauley-Stein to be held against his will, but the sobering reality for Sacramento is the Kings have no assurances they will be able to sign one of the few available big men who fit the team’s run-and-gun system. The Kings have options if they extend the qualifying offer to Cauley-Stein. They could have problems if they don’t.