Williams is positive sign, but not Sacramento savior


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Better late than never, I always say. Walt Williams missed training camp and might not feel like a member of the Sacramento Kings' royal family until Christmas. But at least he's in the building, which is more than I can say for Billy Owens.

As someone who still wonders how Owens would have looked in a Kings uniform, I applaud the work that went into convincing Williams to sign his six-year, $13.38 million contract. But I've got to ask: What's with these rookies? Throw money at them and they act like they are doing you a favor by taking it.

A couple of weeks ago, I was ready to believe the Kings would trade the former Maryland star. It would have been a cowardly act, making a mockery of last season, when the Kings sacrificed their pride to protect their seat at the NBA lottery. Why bother to lose all those games if you're just going to trade the pick?

Now the difficult part will be lowering expectations. The temptation will be to build Williams up as a savior and chase him out of town if he fails to lead the Kings to the playoffs.

Remember, Williams is a rookie reserve who missed his first NBA training camp. Never mind how much money he's making. At this moment, he's nothing but the first swingman off the bench for a club that won 29 games.

The man who signs the paychecks -- Williams will get about $84,000 per week during the season -- knows better than to consider the rookie a savior. Owner Jim Thomas knows it will take more than one rookie to get the Kings going.

"I've been saying all along that our team is at least three players away," Thomas said recently. "Obviously, we need to get Walt here. And we need a good player in the next draft. We also need an established player through a trade or as a free agent."

It was a relief to hear Thomas speak with such candor. By admitting the Kings were three players away from being a competitive force, the owner echoed conventional wisdom. Which hasn't always been the case with management at Sacramento's Arco Arena.

Serious NBA fans -- among whom Thomas counts himself -- realize the Kings still need a point guard and a big rebounder.

Around the NBA, no one thinks the Kings are ready for the playoffs. NBA people say they "like" the Kings, which is a polite way of expressing respect for coach Garry St. Jean and a couple of his players.

But no one fears the Kings. No one worries about battling them for a playoff berth. In NBA circles, the Kings and the playoffs are mutually exclusive topics.

Thomas spent the last 20 years watching the Lakers. He knows what it means to take the playoffs for granted. He understands why the Lakers consider the regular season an extended warmup for the big show, the playoff tournament in April and May. Thomas knows the Kings have a long way to go before they can take things for granted.

Which is why Thomas must cringe at the notion of turning Williams into an instant millionaire. Here's a college kid who hasn't spent a minute in the NBA. Yet, he arrives as one of the highest-paid members of the team. And he won't even play among the first five. He'll work behind Mitch Richmond and Lionel Simmons.

Endless contract negotiations made Williams forfeit training camp. The negotiations held St. Jean hostage for most of October. The stalemate threatened to sabotage the season. Holdouts by rookies have become common in the NBA, hurting the league's balance and stability.

One solution would be a fixed salary for rookies. Forget it. Veterans fear that if they agreed to limit pay for rookies, they would open the door to limiting pay for everyone.

The best solution is to get out of the lottery. If the Kings can establish themselves as a playoff team, they won't have to demean themselves in contract wrestling matches with college kids.

Meanwhile, the Kings should welcome Williams and find a way to clear space under the salary cap for a proven free agent and next year's draft pick. That's not pessimism. That's life. If you don't believe me, ask Jim Thomas.

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