Darren Collison is not a better overall player than Isaiah Thomas. Let’s get that right out there. But he’s different, and the Kings needed different. And he’s cheaper, and with a desire to maintain salary cap flexibility for a potential free-agent windfall in 2015, the Kings needed cheaper.
Mostly, though, the Kings needed a change, a new look, another approach. Eight losing seasons – and back-to-back years of 28 wins – tells a pretty ugly story. The chronic overdribbling, slow tempo, and lack of spacing and movement became a disease that spread with every bounce of the ball. It was as hard on the eyeballs as it was on the wooden floor.
Thomas was hardly the only culprit, but he was the primary ballhandler, the player relied upon to establish pace and facilitate an offense, while harassing opposing ballhandlers, and in that sense, he was simply miscast. He is – and we have said this before – a Vinnie Johnson or Jamal Crawford, a clever, at times explosive scorer. The cover page of his portfolio should read, “Have Ball, Will Score.”
Despite his size, the 5-foot-9 Thomas gets into the lane and creates a shot, scores off dribble drives and step-back jumpers, and eludes taller defenders with an expansive series of runners and floaters. His offense expanded in all three of his pro seasons, and on more than one occasion, he broke open the fourth quarter with a barrage of three-pointers.
In an ideal world, the former Washington Husky would be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the next decade, a coveted and dependable role player valued by every team in the league. But Thomas sees himself through another prism. He envisions himself as a lead guard deserving a starter’s salary, and ultimately, this is why the Kings and their most popular player will part ways.
The Kings were willing to offer $5 million to $6 million per year for four seasons – with the idea of Thomas as a super sub. But they were unwilling to match the $8 million to $9 million he reportedly was seeking and confident he would attract, given the four-year, $32 million contract Avery Bradley agreed to with the Boston Celtics and the three-year, $19.5 million deal Jodie Meeks reached with the Detroit Pistons.
The Lakers, Pistons, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat have expressed interest in Thomas, though to varying degrees, and with Lakers, Mavs and Heat officials awaiting word from top-tier free agents before delving more deeply into the market.
While the Kings can match any offer because Thomas is restricted, a sign-and-trade or outright release is the more probable outcome.
“We’re still having conversations with Isaiah’s agent and will continue to do so,” said Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro. “We’ll see where those conversations take us. With us, we’re looking at the big picture. So we’re putting our plan together, assessing what the best chemistry is and working toward long-term sustainability. It’s a puzzle. Every team is trying to put together the right pieces.”
Collison, 26, is not a game changer, not an elite playmaker or defender in any sense. After a promising rookie season in New Orleans, he endured two disappointing years in Indiana and Dallas, respectively, before enjoying a resurgence last year as Chris Paul’s backup with the Clippers.
His value to the Kings will be his ability to pressure opposing ballhandlers, push the pace and nudge his teammates toward a style and a system that capitalize on transition and early offense opportunities. He also excels in pick-and-rolls and is a decent, very willing passer. The ball doesn’t stick in Collison’s hands, a major plus given the ball-stopping tendencies of Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. It also should ease the adjustment of rookie Nik Stauskas, the Michigan shooting guard who was widely regarded as either the best or second-best (to Doug McDermott) shooter in the draft and erratic second-year guard Ben McLemore.
D’Alessandro, who is intent on maintaining the salary cap until the contracts of Gay (whom he hopes to extend), Jason Terry, Travis Outlaw, Reggie Evans and Quincy Acy expire and create substantial space at the end of the season, anticipates additional moves.
Attention now turns to power forward and the amount of money tied up in Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Reggie Evans and Derrick Williams. According to league sources, the Kings have been shopping several frontcourt players. In recent weeks, they have been linked to the Pistons’ Josh Smith (three years, $13 million) and declined interest in Milwaukee’s troubled, if talented Larry Sanders.
Other players thought to offer some intrigue include Charlotte Bobcats free agent Josh McRoberts, the Mavericks’ Brandan Wright (one year left at $5 million), and Nick Collison, the Oklahoma City veteran who has one year left at $2.2 million and might be available if the Thunder lands Pau Gasol.
“We had 28 wins two years in a row,” reiterated D’Alessandro. “That’s not acceptable to our fans, and it’s not acceptable to our owner. How do we get better? Our draft pick we are thrilled about. Shooting has been one of our weaknesses. People are calling me and telling me about Nik’s ability to handle the ball, pass the ball. So we look forward to seeing him in the summer league with Ray McCallum and Ben McLemore.”
The GM is precluded from discussing Darren Collison until the free agent signs on Thursday. But the unspoken message has been delivered, loudly and clearly, and it’s not revolutionary. The plan is to change an unappealing system and style from within, and as often occurs, that starts at the point.