How will Kings general manager Monte McNair approach NBA trade deadline?

McNair has multiple paths forward, but the clock is ticking

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Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair chose to run it back with the same basic core from the previous season. In fact, through 47 games, the three veteran additions to the club; Chris Duarte (461), Sasha Vezenkov (419) and JaVale McGee (295), have combined to play just 1,175 minutes. 

For comparison, those three players have combined to play a few more minutes than Malik Monk (1,167) and Kevin Huerter (1,124), who rank fifth and sixth on the team in minutes played this season. The eight players that led the Kings in minutes played last season, lead the team this year as well, although the order is slightly jumbled.

The idea of running it back isn’t just a clever catch phrase. It is literally what has happened this season in Sacramento.

While the core is intact, the look and feel of the team is different. The offensive numbers are down from last season’s record setting performance. The Kings posted an incredible 118.6 offensive rating per during the 2022-23 campaign and that has dropped to 116.7 this season, despite league numbers being up across the board.

On the defensive end, the team has stagnated. Their 115.8 defensive rating looks very similar to the 116 rating they posted last season, although with offensive numbers around the NBA, the Kings have jumped from 24th last year to 17th this season.

Outside of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis getting snubbed from the All-Star game, the team is extremely similar to last year’s squad, even if the way they have arrived to this exact spot in the season feels very different. After 47 games, Sacramento has a record of 28-19. After 47 games last year, they were at 27-20.

It should be noted that the Kings are attempting to go 10 games over .500 Saturday night in Chicago. They didn’t get to this mark until February 26th last year, when they improved to 35-25 at the 60 game mark. 

Be it the weight of expectations or the way the team has performed in many of their losses, there isn’t the same excitement surrounding this group. They’ve amassed a 4-1 record on the current season-long seven game trip, but even that hasn’t eased some of the question marks surrounding this squad. 

Same team. Same basic record. Same needs. Very different vibe. 

McNair now has a decision to make. He has until the NBA’s February 8 deadline to either make an monumental adjustment to his roster, stand pat or perhaps make a smaller move to improve the overall depth of his squad. 

There is no clear path forward for the Kings and each of these choices comes with their own set of positives and negatives. That’s why McNair makes the big bucks. 

Should the Kings mix things up?

Outside of Monk, the core of eight players - Huerter, Fox, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray, Sabonis, Trey Lyles and Davion Mitchell, are all under contract at least through next season. Monk signed a two-year contract in the summer of 2022 and is an unrestricted free agent this season. The Kings have “Early Bird” rights to him, but they are limited in what they can offer in an extension this summer.

One of the keys to running it back was continuity. While we can compare offensive rating and defensive rating from one year to the next, there is a certain amount of growth that has taken place, it just doesn’t show up every game. There is potential for this team to go on a similar run like they did last season and end up with a better record heading into the postseason.

So why tinker now? 

There have been plenty of times over the last 14 years of covering this team that I, as a beat writer, would have advocated for making a trade, just to make a trade. By the deadline, most of the rosters I’ve covered had grown stale by February and had already proven they weren’t good enough to compete for a playoff spot. 

That isn’t the case this year. If McNair makes a trade, it should be because he has come to the conclusion that this version of the Kings is good enough to reach a certain level, but that level is below the ultimate goal of winning a championship. 

This is a tightrope walk. One misstep and this team could tumble down the standings. The delicate balance of chemistry and culture is important and as of right now, this group is close. They enjoy playing together and have built tight bonds.

All of this should be considered when making a move, but so should the reality of the situation. As currently constructed, the Kings have at least one glaring weakness. They don’t have the length and athleticism to compete with some of the teams they will face in the postseason and this issue has persisted for a while.

If this team is to take another step, they have to find a way to defend Western Conference teams like the Pelicans, Clippers and Timberwolves, who all have multiple long and athletic forwards that play at a high level. 

Sacramento is 1-7 against these three teams and they are all around the Kings in the standings. This isn’t even considering Eastern Conference giants like the Celtics, 76ers, Bucks and Cavs. The modern NBA is filled with 6-foot-8 and up forwards with 7-foot-plus wingspans. The Kings just don’t have enough of them.

One player won’t fix the Kings’ defense, but there should be hope that the right addition, in conjunction with the development of Murray as a defender, could impact winning, especially in the playoffs. 

Again, you don’t make a trade to make a trade. You make a trade because you need to get better. This isn’t a dig at any single player. It is the reality of where the Kings are as a team floating around the middle of the pack in the Western Conference standings.

Should the Kings stand pat?

This question is probably the most complicated of all. The argument could be made that this group deserves one more shot to prove that they are capable of not only making the playoffs, but advancing at least to the second round.

They have an interesting mixture of talent and if Huerter and Barnes have in fact found a way to regain and sustain their previous level of play, this group could continue their organic growth for the next 35 games.

There is another reason why the Kings could wait this thing out and see where it leads. If Sacramento doesn’t make a trade now, but they make the postseason, their 2024 first round pick goes to the Atlanta Hawks as part of the Huerter trade.

Due to the Stepien Rule, the team currently has access to their first round picks beginning in 2026, but even that selection, along with the 2027, comes with an asterisk. They can trade the 2026 first rounder, but there has to be a stipulation written into the trade that the team only gets the selection if the 2024 is relayed. 

That means that any team willing to make a trade does so with the understanding that they may not get a pick in 2026 or even 2027. They may have to wait until 2028. If a second future first round pick is involved, a team could have to wait until 2030 for that pick to relay if the Kings somehow fall out of playoff contention this year and next. 

This can be complicated, but there is a way to simplify all of it. If the Kings make the postseason this year, then they have honored their commitment to the Hawks. The Stepien Rule doesn’t allow a team to trade back-to-back first round selections in advance, but once the 2024 NBA Draft takes place, the Kings’ ledger is cleared moving forward.

What that means is that if the Kings lose their pick in 2024, the day after the draft they regain access to all of their future first round selections, including 2025. NBA rules don’t allow teams to trade picks beyond seven years, so a trade this coming summer could include up to four first round picks from 2025 to 2031, as long as they aren’t in consecutive years.

Things change quickly in the NBA. Waiting until the summer could open the door for a few players who are not currently available to become so. It also gives the Kings a ton of ammunition to work with, especially when some of their current contracts shift from two-year deals to potential expiring contracts for trade purposes. 

The downfall to this idea is that the Kings would potentially waste a season of their window while they have an obvious need to fill. The right trade partner might not materialize between now and February 8, but all options should be explored. 

What happens next?

McNair has been working the phones for months trying to improve the overall talent of his squad. The team at least had conversations regarding the availability of OG Anunoby and they were close to trading for Pascal Siakam before stepping back and watching him take his talents to Indiana. 

According to league sources, the Kings have interest in Portland’s Jerami Grant, but neither the Blazers, nor Grant are all that anxious for a move. The team has had interest in Kyle Kuzma on multiple occasions in the past. They almost traded for him a few years back when he was with the Lakers, and reports of the Wizards’ asking price coming back to a more realistic swap has to at least intrigue Sacramento again.

Both of these players could require the Kings to break up at least part of their rotation, although there is a way in which either could be acquired without including the main core of the team. It would come at the expense of the team’s depth and draft capital would have to be spent, which would come with the stipulations discussed above.

Maybe McNair plays on the fringe of his rotation and looks for an improvement without going all in. Maybe a player who hasn’t been mentioned in one of the many trade rumors is quietly being shopped by a team. 

There are plenty of paths forward for the Kings, but none of them are extremely clear at this point. Expect to hear Sacramento brought up plenty of times over the next five days as we approach the deadline, but whether that noise amounts to an actual trade taking place is a complete unknown at this point. 

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