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NBA Free Agents 2014: Isaiah Thomas interested in Pistons, Lakers, Heat

Unfortunately, the Pistons rank third on his list of preferred destinations. Fortunately, the Pistons and Kings are a match made in heaven and to understand why, you need to understand the byzantine rules of the NBA salary cap.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Just when it looked like cosmic forces from throughout the NBA were pushing Isaiah Thomas closer together, comes the first solid bit of news that is breaking them apart.

Vincent Goodwill is obviously working on this story intensely and he dropped this bit of news:

If you notice, the Pistons show up third on that list. This is despite the fact that Detroit sprinted out of the gate and reportedly were ready to offer Thomas a three-year, $24 million contract. That $8 million average trumped other reported offers by about $2 million.

So lets explore these three suitors and consider how much of a serious threat the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat are to Detroit's pursuit of Thomas.

Miami Heat

The Heat are in a catch-22. The more appealing the team, the less money there is available to offer Thomas a contract. And if reports that Lebron James is seriously considering moving to a new team are true, it opens up the requisite cap space but makes it much less appealing for a player looking to win.

Still, if the Heat bring the big three back and if Thomas is willing to take a salary of less than $8 million then the Heat are a real threat. But those are some mighty big ifs. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the lower the salary Thomas is willing to accept, the more likely it is that the Kings match the offer.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are awash in cap space and are hoping to attract some serious talent to join Kobe Bryant. Their first attempt is trying to lure Carmelo Anthony with the promise of a maximum deal. That would mean he'd make an average of $24 million for four years, and that means that it would be extremely difficult for the Lakers to have enough available cap space to offer Thomas a competitive deal. And, to reiterate, the lower the contract offer, the more likely it is that the Kings will match.

And let's say that the Lakers don't sign Carmelo. Who could they sign to entice Thomas? They'll have Bryant, who will take the ball out of Thomas' hands quite a bit, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre. The team would have about $18 million to play with, but if they don't land Carmelo, they will likely hoard cap space in an effort to sign Kevin Love next year.

The Sacramento Kings

Perhaps it is my Pistons bias showing, but I sincerely believe that Detroit represents the best landing spot for everyone involved -- the Pistons, obviously, Thomas and, crucially, Sacramento. But before we talk about why it makes so much sense for Detroit, we need to talk about why it makes so much sense for Sacramento. Why? As mentioned before, the Kings are in the driver's seat because Thomas is a restricted free agent. This means that the Kings can match any deal that Thomas receives. But not really.

Confused yet? It goes like this: as signs increasingly pointed to Thomas playing somewhere other than Sacramento, the Kings naturally needed a backup plan. That plan came in the form of Darren Collison, who the Kings signed, paying him $6 million a year for the next three years. Incidentally, the Kings allegedly told Collison he would be starting, meaning Thomas has even less motivation to return to Sacramento.

But the Sacramento Kings are over the salary cap thanks to the first year of DeMarcus Cousins' max deal kicking in. That means they had to use the full mid-level exception to offer Collison a deal starting around $6 million. Why does this matter? Because only teams above the salary cap can utilize the full mid-level exception. But these same teams cannot be $4 million above the luxury tax line or they are no longer allowed to use the full mid-level exception. This means, in essence, the Kings are operating under a hard cap.

The Kings were sitting at around $71 million in salary before signing Collison to his deal. That puts the team at around $78 million without factoring in Thomas' deal. The luxury tax for next season is $77 million. That means the Kings are hard capped at $81 million ($4 million above the luxury tax, which is referred to as the apron). They cannot exceed $81 million and still use the full mid-level exception they plan to utilize in signing Collison.

Now, the Kings have already made statements that the team would be willing to use the stretch provision to create the needed room under the hard cap in order to still have the full mid-level exception at its disposal. But that might just be an effort to maintain a good negotiating position in a future sign-and-trade for Thomas.

What's the stretch provision? It allows a team to release a player under contract and have the player's salary be paid in increments of double the years plus one. So if the team stretched the final year of Jason Terry's contract that pays him $5.8 million, the deal would count against the cap $1.93 million each year for the next three years.

What makes it an even more important managerial decision for the Kings is that because the team is over the cap and will have limited space in the future (assuming they re-sign Rudy Gay), the Kings need to get as much out of a Thomas trade as they can.

Detroit Pistons

Now, we can finally talk about the Pistons. Detroit is obviously interested as their $24 million offer shows. Thomas would represent an upgrade over incumbent Brandon Jennings, and fits better with the core of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe.

If the Pistons gave Thomas $8 million a year, the Kings would not be able to match without stretching a player because it would take them over the apron. More importantly, the Kings would be able to get more in return from the Pistons than they would from the Heat or the Lakers. Before the draft, the Kings and Pistons were reportedly in deep discussions about a trade involving Josh Smith and Jason Thompson. Detroit reportedly walked away from the deal, but it makes sense to revisit it with Thomas a primary piece.

It will take extremely delicate negotiations between the Kings, Pistons and Thomas. If a team like the Lakers or Heat manage to cobble together the biggest offer, the Kings will not be happy because they won't get anything in return for him. This would force the Kings to try and convince the Pistons to up their offer to Thomas, and in turn, the Pistons would try and force the Kings to sweeten the deal with better trade pieces.

Also an important consideration tilting in Detroit's favor is that the Pistons have approximately $6 million to $7 million remaining under the salary cap. This means that Detroit can take back a lot more money in a trade than they send back in return.

For example, the Pistons could trade Josh Smith, Will Bynum and Josh Harrellson. This represents $17.5 million in outgoing salary. The Pistons could take back Isaiah Thomas at $8 million, Derrick Williams at $6.3 million and Jason Thompson at $6 million. This represents $20.3 million. This allows the Kings to sign Collison to the full MLE and also keep the Kings under the luxury tax line.

This represents a starting opportunity on a young, growing team for Thomas, a great fit at point guard and an upgrade for the Pistons and the best possible trade return for the Kings.

What do you guys and girls think? Am I nuts?