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Kings' deal with Darren Collison casts doubt on Isaiah Thomas' future

Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Darren Collison (right) will reportedly start for the Kings next season.

The Kings have agreed to sign point guard Darren Collison to a three-year contract worth $16 million, according to the Los Angeles TimesThe deal is fully guaranteed for the mid-level exception, which Sacramento will use to sign Collison because of larger commitments putting the team well over the salary cap.

“The Kings were the most aggressive team by far in the free agency, and I respected that on all levels,” Collison told The Times. “Of course, I was trying to make it work with the Clippers and tried to re-sign with them. But I didn’t think they really made me their first priority like the Kings did.”

Collison, 26, averaged 11.4 points (on career-best shooting efficiency) and 3.7 assists for Los Angeles last season. The reserve role enabled Collison to play to his strengths while disguising his weaknesses; his defensive deficiency is less glaring when operating against second-unit guards, while Collison's ability to create off the dribble is amplified against sub-starting-caliber defenses. Sharing the ball with Jamal Crawford also helped shield Collison from overuse, allowing him to work the pick-and-roll selectively without forcing the action. Collison thrived in scoring out of the two-man game as a result, leveraging his speed to burst around a high screen and attack the basket.

Injury to Chris Paul also thrust Collison into the Clippers' starting lineup for 35 games, in which he averaged 14.8 points and 5.3 assists. Los Angeles went 26-9 in that stretch, maintaining its position in the Western Conference playoffs despite the lost of a superstar. Collison deserves some credit for that, even if he was aided significantly by the expanded ball handling and playmaking responsibilities of Blake Griffin.

Sacramento is interested in Collison as a starter, according to Yahoo Sports. That intention – as well as the financial implications of signing Collison to a mid-level deal – leaves in doubt the future of Kings restricted free agent Isaiah Thomas. At the very least, Sacramento's ability to match a potential offer sheet for Thomas is complicated by the use of the full mid-level exception. A hard cap is now functionally in place for the Kings, as the full MLE is only available to those teams whose total cap figure falls below the salary cap "apron," a line $4 million above the luxury tax threshold. The cap for the Kings, then, is projected to be around $81 million. Without accounting for Collison's deal or a potential Thomas offer sheet, Sacramento already has more than $70 million (at the least) in salary and cap holds.

The Kings have some wiggle room through small non-guaranteed deals (Quincy Acy, Willie Reed) and the potential to use the stretch provision on the unwanted Jason Terry. But one of Thomas' suitors could make him an offer the Kings would be powerless to match if their salary situation remains unchanged.

Grade: D. Even before getting into the technicalities involved in Thomas' free agency, the idea that the Kings would pay this price to a player of this caliber is distressing. Collison is not preferable to Thomas or an appealing starter. He was one of the worst defenders at his position to receive significant minutes last season, as Collison's quickness didn't translate to an ability to stay in front of ball handlers. And for all of his value as a pick-and-roll scorer, Collison's floor-reading skills leave much to be desired. He lacks the vision to see how plays might develop before they do, which in turn manifests as a relatively conservative playmaking style. He is not a pass-first point guard in the vein that a team with DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay might need, erasing any stylistic justification involved in this move.

If Sacramento manages to clear room and bring back Thomas, the damage here may be mitigated. But even then, why pay $5 million annually for an inferior player to reportedly replace a better, younger one?

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