Kings’ DeMar DeRozan trade yields cash, but don’t expect rings anytime soon

I’m struggling to decide whether this was the most ambitious deal of the summer or the least ambitious. Either way, the San Antonio Spurs–Sacramento Kings–Chicago Bulls deal that was first reported Saturday night absolutely takes a minute to digest, for all three parties.

Let’s start at the top: To acquire DeRozan in a sign-and-trade, the Kings would send two secondaries and reserve guard Chris Durante to the Bulls, Harrison Barnes and, according to ESPN, an unprotected 2031 pick swap to the Spurs. I’ve yet to see the money reported the same thing in two different places, but based on the expiring contracts and the Kings’ tax situation, it appears DeRozan will make about $24 million in 2024-25 on a three-year deal that’s only partially guaranteed in the third year.

I have some conflicting thoughts about the Kings that I’ll get to in a moment, but in terms of pure value, I’m not sure they paid a ridiculous price. In a vacuum, a pick trade and two seconds to turn Barnes into DeRozan isn’t unreasonable, even at DeRozan’s age (he turns 35 next month).

For Chicago, this is too little, too late. The Bulls could have gotten a lot more for DeRozan if they hadn’t waited until he became a free agent, or if they had positioned themselves to receive toxic cash instead of making the Spurs pay for it. Unfortunately, the hunt for the elusive eighth seed proved too magnetic to resist. Chicago missed the opportunity to get the most out of its veterans and is now forced to settle for scraps.

At least give the Bulls credit for their late turn to a youth movement, now that they’ve moved on from DeRozan and Alex Caruso. Nikola Vučević and Zach LaVine will undoubtedly be next if another team is even remotely willing to take on their contracts without being paid in draft picks.

Chicago’s roster now features a mix of youth: Coby White, Josh Giddey, Ayo Dosunmu, a re-signed Patrick Williams (yay?), free-agent pickup Jalen Smith and rookie lottery pick Matas Buzelis. Perhaps more importantly, the shift significantly increases the Bulls’ chances of retaining a top-10 protected 2025 first-round pick otherwise owed to the Spurs, with a commensurate increase in their odds of landing one of the top spots in a highly anticipated 2025 lottery featuring a loaded draft class.

Chicago gets two seconds to eat the $5.8 million left on Duarte’s deal and generates an exception worth the difference between DeRozan’s salary and Duarte’s — likely around $17.7 million. As a pedantic aside, Chicago could have included Torrey Craig in this deal and increased his exception by another $5.8 million; in the Bulls’ situation, that would seem more valuable to me than another season of Craig, so I’m a little baffled they didn’t.

As for the Spurs, they had to include a second-round pick in a separate trade with Charlotte to pull this off, dumping Devonte’ Graham’s partial guarantee so they could fit Barnes into their salary cap. San Antonio received a potentially valuable trade in 2031, but that’s still six years away and could end up being worthless. For the Spurs, this is essentially a bet on Victor Wembanyama being great and healthy, and the Kings being the Kangz.

The Spurs also smartly parked this trade in 2031: they’ve already made two trades in 2030, an unfortunate circumstance because Minnesota has nothing else to trade them with on draft night, and additional trades have less value because you can only trade your own draft pick once.

San Antonio might be able to pull this deal off again later if it can get a big year out of Barnes. Barnes had a bit of a downturn in 2023-24, but now, at 32, he’s shooting 37.9 percent from 3-point range. (This is notable given that the Spurs actually started attempting 3s last year; they just couldn’t make them.) Twelve months from now, a $19 million Barnes season (if he forgoes his trade upside) could look a lot different.

Still, taking a pick swap to get unwanted cash is one way to play the cap room game… but the Spurs could have signed a player in that room. Even if it was a veteran, the Spurs could have potentially reaped a lot more than a pick swap by signing a player and then trading him later.

Of course, that route is full of unknowns, and the Barnes trade is a familiar one. Other teams in his position have struggled to use cap space effectively this summer (witness the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz); the Spurs, if nothing else, gave themselves a home run upside with the unprotected trade.

So…back to Sacramento. On the one hand, giving up an unprotected trade to pay a market-rate contract to a player in his mid-30s feels a little ambitious, especially when the Kings aren’t exactly in “one player gone” territory.

Capital-wise, the trade also had the opportunity cost of eliminating the Kings’ non-taxpaying midlevel exception; if not technically, then practically. Sacramento can sign two more players at the veteran minimum and stay under the luxury tax, and that’s probably a wrap. Having already re-signed Malik Monk (oh, and Alex Len) and drafted one of my favorites in Devin Carter, it’s fair to say they’ve done enough.

At the same time, it feels like this deal is driven more by the opposite ambition. Call them “Team Floor.” Pairing DeRozan with Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox gives the Kings an unquestioned three-man core of shot creation and minutes-sponging, and it’s hard to see such a combination failing to be at least average in the regular season. All three have shortcomings that are exposed against elite teams, but can reliably produce quality (and wins) against the lesser lights.

That’s especially true since the moves of Monk and Carter, the growth of Keegan Murray and a renaissance of Kevin Huerter (right?) should give them enough shooting power to survive when Sabonis and DeRozan play together.

Of course, this could all come crashing down in the playoffs and probably won’t land them in the top five of the Western Conference, even in the regular season. You don’t conquer the league with the 19th, 25th, and 34th best players in the league or whatever they are. There’s a realistic limit to how all-in you want to go with this cast.

On the other hand… what else did you want them to do? The Kings have a team led by Fox and Sabonis, so they’re waaaaay too good to fail, and they were bad for too long before those two even thought about it.

And here’s where the NBA’s Ringz culture can sometimes get in the way: Just because Sacramento probably won’t win a championship doesn’t mean the team should be destroyed or stop trying. Improving a mid-tier team and getting Fox to sign an extension is a reasonable short-term goal, especially for a team with draft-pick cards yet to be played.

The Dreamers might have preferred to go all in and pursue a Lauri Markkanen , but that came with real risk (he’s about to become a free agent!) plus looming tax complications that the money from DeRozan’s deal doesn’t come with. Next year, the Kings could potentially get access to four first-round picks for that kind of blockbuster. (But unless it’s for someone better than Fox and Sabonis, they shouldn’t.)

More realistically, this feels less like a chips-in move — even with the unprotected pick swap — and more like the Kings methodically moving the ball a little bit forward from the 45-win team of a year ago. They don’t need to win 60 games or reach the NBA Finals to justify this trade, not when they haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. Maybe not this year, but at least they’re in contention.

(Photo of De’Aaron Fox, DeMar DeRozan and Domantas Sabonis: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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