Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Divac’s free-agent debut already hot and heavy

Kings executive Vlade Divac, shown on May 29, cleared cap space in a controversial trade, then added Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli.
Kings executive Vlade Divac, shown on May 29, cleared cap space in a controversial trade, then added Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Vlade Divac began the weekend with $10 million in available salary cap space, in pursuit of another frontcourt player and pretty much getting roasted by some combination of NBA experts, agents, bloggers, tweeters, assorted others.

Yeah, it’s hot. That welcome home party didn’t last long.

Depending upon the hour, the series of maneuvers orchestrated by the Kings’ rookie executive were either (1) the worst moves in the history of mankind, (2) the worst moves in recent NBA memory or (3) the worst moves the organization has made since firing Michael Malone last Dec. 14.

But Divac wanted the job, and he is more familiar than most with the perils – and unpredictability – of free agency. The Kings’ transformative summer of 1998 not only featured the trade for Chris Webber and the arrival of Peja Stojakovic, Jason Williams and coach Rick Adelman, it included the first significant free-agent signing in the Kings’ Sacramento era: Divac.

It was brutally hot that summer, too, by the way. Kings fans vented exhaustively about the merits of acquiring Divac, the former Laker, or journeyman center and Northern California native Isaac Austin. And we know how that all turned out. Austin barely had a career, and Divac became an icon.

In other words, chill. Take a few deep breaths. Get a massage.

Undoubtedly, there are elements of the recent moves that are risky and worthy of ongoing scrutiny, furthering the argument for the addition of an attorney/salary cap expert in the Kings’ recently (and hastily) reconfigured front office. Conventional wisdom, for instance, holds the club would have benefited from signing Rajon Rondo to a two-year deal, with a team option for Year 2. If he plays well, he is yours for another season. If he flames out, he is just another high-priced one-year rental.

The swap with the Philadelphia 76ers is more complicated. While shedding $25 million in the unwanted salaries of Jason Thompson and Carl Landry, thereby securing an additional $16 million in cap space, the Kings not only gave up second-year guard Nik Stauskas, they surrendered a 2018 first-round draft pick that is top-10 protected. They also agreed to swap first-round selections (in 2016 and 2017) with an opponent that fully expects to stink for the next several seasons.

While that sounds like a mouthful – and it is – the question that really matters at this point is this: Have the Kings improved the product?

Talent-wise, this is unquestionably a better team than a year ago. George Karl is a proven commodity, a future Hall of Fame coach. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein provides rim protection, length and athleticism. Veteran guard Marco Belinelli, who agreed to a three-year, $19 million deal, is a deep-shooting threat and a mature presence. And Rondo has been an elite playmaker and defender on an NBA championship team.

Rondo is the wild card here, of course. He arrives with a boatload of baggage. Besides engaging in heated disputes with Dallas coach Rick Carlisle and disrupting the locker room with his dark moods, he is a curious fit for Karl. While Karl doesn’t call as many plays as Carlisle – Rondo’s main gripe – his offense is based on spacing, movement, passing, shooting. Particularly since tearing his right ACL in 2013, the 6-foot-1 point guard plays at a controlled pace and tends to dominate the ball. Career-wise, he also has converted only 26.3 percent of his threes and 60.9 percent of his free throws.

His ability to mesh with Darren Collison, who signed with the Kings a year ago because of the opportunity to start, is another potential issue. Assuming Collison fully recovers from his hip/abdominal surgery in time for training camp, he will have no intention of ceding the starting job.

So about those fireworks. DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Rondo wanting the ball. No Thompson, Derrick Williams or possibly Omri Casspi around to patrol the locker room. Talk about a culture change. Yes, the talent has been upgraded. Yes, Divac is still attempting to add a power forward/backup center. But about the Kings becoming a better team? Check back in October.

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