Kings' DeMar DeRozan trade adds up, but don't expect rings soon

I’m struggling to decide if this was the most ambitious trade of the summer or the least ambitious. Either way, the San Antonio Spurs–Sacramento Kings–Chicago Bulls deal first reported late Saturday definitely needs a minute to make sense of, for all three sides.

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

I have some conflicting thoughts on the Kings that I’ll get to in a minute, but in terms of the raw price, I’m not sure they paid a ridiculous one. In a vacuum, a pick swap 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 received much more for DeRozan had they not waited until he became a free agent, or if they had positioned themselves to receive toxic money themselves instead of having the Spurs get paid to do it. Alas, the chase for the elusive eighth seed proved too magnetic for them to resist. Chicago missed its moment to max out the return on its veterans and now must settle for scraps.

At least give the Bulls credit for their belated pivot to a youth movement, having moved on from DeRozan and Alex Caruso. Surely Nikola Vučević and Zach LaVine will be next the instant another team signifies any willingness whatsoever to take on their contracts without being paid in draft picks to do it.

Chicago’s roster now has youth up and down: 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, this shift let the Bulls greatly increase their chances of keeping a top-10 protected 2025 first-round pick that is 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 will receive two seconds for eating the $5.8 million left on Duarte’s deal and will generate an exception worth the difference between DeRozan’s salary and Duarte’s — likely about $17.7 million. One pedantic side note: Chicago could have included Torrey Craig in this trade and increased its trade exception by another $5.8 million; in the Bulls’ situation, that would strike me as more valuable than another season of Craig, so I’m a bit bewildered they didn’t do it.

As for the Spurs, they had to include a second-round pick in a separate trade with Charlotte just to pull this off, dumping Devonte’ Graham’s partial guarantee so they could fit Barnes into their cap sheet. San Antonio received a potentially valuable swap in 2031, but it’s six years away and might end up not worth anything. For the Spurs, this is basically a bet on Victor Wembanyama being both awesome and healthy, and the Kings being the Kangz.

The Spurs also smartly parked this swap in 2031 — they already have two swaps in 2030, an unfortunate circumstance of Minnesota having nothing else to trade them on draft night, and additional swaps have diminishing value because you can only swap your own draft pick once.

San Antonio may also be able to double-dip on this trade later if it can get a good year out of Barnes, who tailed off in 2023-24 but is 32 and shoots 37.9 percent career from 3. (This is notable since the Spurs actually started attempting 3s last year; they just couldn’t make any.) Twelve months from now, one season of Barnes at $19 million (if he waives his trade kicker) might look like a different value proposition.

Still, taking on a pick swap to take on undesired money is one way to play the cap room game … but the Spurs also could have signed a player into that room. Even if it was a veteran, the Spurs could potentially have reaped much more than a pick swap by signing a player and trading him later.

Of course, that route is filled with unknowns, and the Barnes trade is a known. Other teams in their position have had trouble using cap space effectively this summer (witness the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz); the Spurs, if nothing else, gave themselves home-run upside with the unprotected swap.

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

Cap-wise, the trade also had the opportunity cost of eliminating the Kings’ nontaxpayer midlevel exception; if not technically then at least practically. Sacramento will be able to sign two more players for the veteran minimum and stay below the luxury tax, and that’s probably a wrap. Having already re-signed Malik Monk (oh, and Alex Len) and drafted one of my faves in Devin Carter, one can argue they’ve done enough.

At the same time, it feels like this trade 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-headed nucleus of shot-creation and minutes-sponging, and it’s hard to see a combination like that failing to at least be average in the regular season. All three have shortcomings that get exposed against elite teams but can reliably churn out quality (and wins) against the lesser lights.

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

Sure, this may all collapse like a house of cards in the playoffs and probably doesn’t get them into the top five in the Western Conference even in the regular season. You’re not taking the league by storm 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 helmed by Fox and Sabonis, so they’re waaaaay too good to tank, and they were bad for too long before those two came to even consider it.

And this is where NBA Ringz culture can get in the way sometimes: The fact Sacramento probably won’t win a championship doesn’t mean it should nuke the team or stop trying. Improving a mid-tier team and getting Fox to ink an extension is a reasonable shorter-term goal, especially for a team with draft-pick cards left to play.

Dreamers might have preferred they go further all-in chasing a Lauri Markkanen, but that had real risk (he’s about to be a free agent!) plus impending tax complications that the money on DeRozan’s deal doesn’t bring. Next year the Kings can, potentially, access four first-round picks for that kind of blockbuster. (But unless it’s for somebody 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 advancing the ball a bit from the 45-win team of a year ago. They don’t need to win 60 games or make the NBA Finals to justify this trade, not when they haven’t won a playoff round since 2004. They might not this year either, but they’re at least in the fight.

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

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