Sunday Musings: Can the Sacramento Kings afford to let Isaiah Thomas go?

Isaiah Thomas communicates with teammates during free throws against the Golden State Warriors. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Rookie second-round draft pick Ray McCallum has been a revelation for the Sacramento Kings.  If you listen to longtime television color commentator Jerry Reynolds, he will tell you that McCallum should have been a lottery pick in the less-than-stellar 2013 NBA Draft.  Given the opportunity, the 23-year-old guard has been that good.

McCallum is the soup du jour.  He is the belle of the ball that has made the last 10 games palatable for fans and media alike.  So much that we brought his father on the Cowbell Kingdom podcast earlier this week.

“I really keep it simple,” Ray McCallum Sr. said of the advice he gives his son.  “Playing hard, being a hustle guy, being a worker, making good decisions and doing things that give your team a chance to win.  It’s all about winning (and) making winning plays.  And I think that’s what he’s trying to do.”

In all honesty, McCallum has shown potential, but he is no Isaiah Thomas.  Not yet at least, and that fact has been lost on plenty of folks.

Can McCallum develop further?  Absolutely.  Does he have a higher ceiling than the 5-foot-9-inch former Husky star?  I’m not sure.  But the real question that people should be asking isn’t an either-or; it is how do the Kings keep them both and build from here.

For now, Thomas is the better player and should enter the 2014-15 season as the starter.  He may be a placeholder for McCallum and then again, he may continue to improve and become the All-Star-caliber player that his numbers indicate that he is.

McCallum can continue to develop, while playing both guard positions.  For now, McCallum has answered a major question for the Kings next season.  He is the backup point guard with potential to be much more.

In two seasons, he may be ready to steal away the starting job and enjoy a huge payday of his own. But keep in mind that his value will be tempered by the fact that he will never have a breakout statistical season with Thomas in tow.

If the moment happens where McCallum forces his way into the starting position, then the Kings will relegate Thomas to a super-sixth man, the position that many believe he is better suited to play.

It’s a win-win situation that should probably be answered two or three years down the road and not this early in the process.

Keeping McCallum is easy for the Kings.  Pete D’Alessandro made a spectacular decision when he tied up the former Detroit Mercy star with a three-year deal.  Geoff Petrie made the same decision with Thomas in 2011, and the return on investment has been astronomical.

McCallum will make less than $2 million over the next two seasons combined.  When his contract ends, he will enter the summer of 2016 as a restricted free agent.  Kings fans can be rest assured that McCallum will not only be a King for the next two seasons, but he will make NBA pennies in doing so.

Thomas, on the other hand, is going to cost some major cash to retain – money the new management group may not be able to come up with and money D’Alessandro and his group may not be willing to hand over.

But it is a mistake.  The decision shouldn’t be one or the other; it should be both.  Thomas and McCallum should be the long-term future of the Kings at the point guard position, and McCallum’s salary even helps make that possible.

There is no one better on the open market, even if Sacramento was able to bring someone in.  Kyle Lowry is intriguing, but I’m not sure that he is an improvement.  We have already seen that Greivis Vasquez, another free agent possibility, is not in the same league as Thomas. Maybe a bigger question would be whether either of these players would be interested in playing for the Kings.

Thomas has already answered that question.  He wants to be a King.  He wants to put this team back on the map, but he has also played well beyond his current contract.  He will test the free-agent waters, because that is how the process works.

What is Thomas worth?  That is for someone else to answer.  He is worth what someone is willing to pay.  And that may not work for Sacramento.

If Rudy Gay opts into the final year of his contract and eats up $19.3 million of cap space, the Kings are in trouble.  They will need to somehow find a new home for one of Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Jason Terry or Derrick Williams.  If not, they will dance with the NBA’s luxury tax if they hope to retain Thomas.

Over the next couple of months, there will be a great debate over who and what Thomas is as a player.  There is no question that he is worth more as a starter, but even if that is the temporary plan, there is a precedent for what a player like that is worth.

If McCallum eventually becomes the starter and Thomas is relegated to a scoring-guard-off-the-bench role, he has already shown that he can thrive in that position.  Thrive in a way Terry did in Dallas or Jamal Crawford has done for countless teams.

Over the course of his career, Terry made $7.5 million or more eight times, including a maximum of $11.1 million for the 2011-12 seasons.  Crawford has made over $7 million in a season five times in his career and broken the $10 million mark twice.  This might be the range for a scorer that can both start or play at an elite level as a reserve.

Your gut reaction may be to focus on the height of Thomas versus these two players.  But I think we can all agree that where that issue really comes into play is on the defensive end.  And quite honestly, neither Terry nor Crawford has ever played defense at the level that Thomas does.

The Kings are faced with a difficult decision this summer:  Do they pay Isaiah Thomas or do they hope that Ray McCallum develops quickly enough to make him a starter next season?  As long as Thomas’ contract is within reason, it shouldn’t be a debate.

Sacramento has a player that wants to be here.  He has performed at a high level and both the fans and his teammates love him.  He is a leader and maybe more importantly, he is versatile.

This shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.  There is room for both of these players.  The Sacramento Kings are better with both of these players.

comments

Tags

About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary film "Small Market, Big Heart".