Sacramento Kings

Analysis: Kings shouldn’t undervalue Thomas in free agency

In free agency, elite statistics usually lead to a big payday.

But Isaiah Thomas’ situation is a little trickier. It has always been that way for Thomas, who has spent his career proving doubters wrong.

Thomas might not be considered an All-Star talent or on the same level with players whose statistics were similar to his last season. But the Kings shouldn’t undervalue Thomas and take for granted his impact in the locker room and on the court.

Yes, Thomas could be a better, more disruptive defender. He could find more open teammates. But players who average at least 20 points and six assists, as Thomas did last season, aren’t easy to find.

Only five other players averaged at least 20 points and six assists last season: Miami’s LeBron James, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving. Harden and Westbrook are on maximum contracts, and James just opted out of his. Curry signed his current deal before becoming an All-Star and will be in line for a max deal. Irving is almost certain to be offered a max deal this summer.

When it comes to Thomas, the Kings have to measure their desire for a different kind of point guard against the production and popularity of a player who has been a leader since being the 60th and last pick in the 2011 draft.

Free agency begins at 9:01 p.m. PDT today, and the Kings top free agent is Thomas, who is restricted. That gives the Kings the right to match any offer to retain him. After Thursday’s draft, Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said the team has to be “aggressive” in dealing with Thomas in free agency.

Thomas’ steady improvement and statistics indicate he’s in for a big payday. He is due for a raise, but how much depends on how Thomas is viewed.

If a team thinks Thomas is a starting point guard, he should be paid in the same range as a Curry (average of $11 million per season).

But with Thomas, nothing is ever that simple. Despite the statistics, his 5-foot-9 frame has many pegging him as best suited as a spark off the bench.

That would cut into Thomas’ potential payday in a big way. Instead of elite money, he could be looking at a deal topping out in the $6 million-per-year range, which the Kings likely would pay for a player of Thomas’ caliber.

Thomas’ qualifying offer from the Kings guarantees him $1.1 million next season if he signs it. He will certainly wait to see what kind of multiyear offers he attracts before signing the qualifying offer.

It’s known the Kings would like to add a more traditional, pass-first point guard. They tried last season with Greivis Vasquez. They would have loved to have drafted Elfrid Payton, who ended up with Orlando.

Thomas knows this. He also knows some in the Kings’ organization would like to have him as a bench player.

All it does is upset him. And he plays better.

Jimmer Fredette. Tyreke Evans. Aaron Brooks. Vasquez. All were supposed to be the starting point guard at some point, and all were outplayed by or eventually lost that job to Thomas.

The argument against paying Thomas will be he doesn’t make his teammates better. The Kings haven’t won more than 28 games in his three seasons. That would imply Thomas is the reason the Kings have been bad. DeMarcus Cousins has been on those same teams, and the Kings gave him a four-year, $62 million extension before last season.

Why? The NBA doesn’t punish players’ checking accounts over wins and losses. It rewards talent and box office appeal.

Curry’s four-year, $44 million deal came before the Warriors were a playoff team. Irving will be paid big despite not leading a Cavaliers team in the woeful Eastern Conference to the postseason.

Thomas won’t sit back and accept the notion he shouldn’t be paid because of the Kings’ record, instead believing he’ll be a part of the reason things turn around.

And if another point guard comes in, so be it. That player had better be ready, because Thomas won’t let go of the starting job without a fight.