Grade the deal: Kings cap strange summer by signing Kosta Koufos
Unrestricted free agent center Kosta Koufos agreed to sign a four-year, $33 million contract with Sacramento, according to ESPN.com and the Associated Press. The deal, which kicks in for the 2015-16 season and runs through 2018-19, reportedly includes a player option on the final season.
Koufos, 26, averaged 5.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in 16.6 minutes last season for the Grizzlies, who acquired him from the Nuggets in a 2013 trade. This signing reunites Koufos with Kings coach George Karl, who coached him for two-plus seasons in Denver. The most productive season of the 7-footer's career came under Karl in 2012-13, when he started and averaged 8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 rebounds per game.
Barring a trade of Cousins, this move marks the end of Sacramento's major dealings this summer. The Kings' cap space is now just about tapped out after the the signings of point guard Rajon Rondo and wings Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi.
There is much to like and a few things to wonder about with this move. Koufos is a strong, dependable backup with a defense-first reputation. In a reduced role behind starters Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis, Koufos posted an excellent 94.8 defensive rating and a +3.3 Defensive Real Plus-Minus that ranked in the top 10 among centers. He's right in that grey area between "overqualified backup" and "less-than-ideal starter," which is pretty good news for the Kings, who need talented, live bodies in an overhauled frontcourt that underwhelmed last season. Did you know that Sacramento, which ranked No. 27 in defensive efficiency last season, hasn't had an above-average defense since 2005-06? Koufos should definitely help.
The lineup fit is tricky on both ends. Offensively, Koufos is a paint-bound commodity: 84% of his shot attempts came from 10 feet and in last season. That's not exactly an ideal partner for Cousins, arguably the most talented center in the NBA and a 24/12 player who would wreak even more havoc if Sacramento could ever truly space the court around him. Playing Cousins and Koufos together will require compromises—trading offense for defense and spacing for size—that could get painful considering Sacramento's other major pieces. Any lineup featuring Rondo, Rudy Gay, Koufos and Cousins is going to lead defenses to pack the paint in comical fashion. Cousins has the versatility to make it passable by operating from the elbow while Koufos is down low, but smart defenses will always prefer keeping the All-Star center as far from the basket area as possible.
If Karl does elect to play his two veteran bigs together, he will also be courting problems defensively, especially against spread lineups. Both Cousins and Koufos are bruisers, not gazelles, and it's asking too much of them to chase shooters around the three-point line possession after possession. Again, Karl will face compromises.
Another option is to start rookie Willie Cauley-Stein alongside Cousins, taking advantage of his defensive mobility and his little face-up jumper game. In a best-case scenario, those skills help Cousins play more comfortably while also cutting down on match-up issues. That will require Cauley-Stein to be ready to contribute on day one, no light ask. It will also require Karl to exercise patience with a 21-year-old big man, which might be asking even more.
Yet another option would be for Karl to go smaller in his starting lineup by using Gay at the four alongside Cousins for spacing purposes. Throw in a point guard and two shooters and you might be on to something. That approach would also allow Cauley-Stein and Koufos to make a nice second-unit pairing, and their skills are somewhat complementary, at least when it comes to seven-footers. If Karl does wind up going that route, it will raise a very fair question: why invest a lottery pick and $33 million on a second-unit frontline? Couldn't those resources, not to mention the picks and players dumped in trade to facilitate the Rondo and Belinelli signings, have been used in a more cohesive plan?
Even in the face of all these questions, this was a move worth making for Sacramento. Koufos's contract doesn't represent excellent value at $8.3 million per year, but his contract will be movable throughout and it will likely look pretty good after the owners go on spending sprees in 2016 and 2017. Koufos didn't directly address Sacramento's other glaring roster holes, but there weren't any obvious alternatives for Sacramento's cap space. Koufos's basketball fit doesn't totally make sense, but he's a clear upgrade on last year's options and Karl knows what he's getting. Koufos might have trouble fulfilling his full potential behind/alongside Cousins, but he can start if Cousins misses time and, perhaps more importantly, he represents a passable contingency plan if the Kings do eventually need to move Cousins.