A Dark-Horse Destination for Each High-Profile NBA Free Agent

D.J. FosterContributor IJuly 1, 2014

A Dark-Horse Destination for Each High-Profile NBA Free Agent

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    At this point in the offseason, we have a fairly decent idea of which teams will be the big players for the marquee free agents. Only a certain amount of teams have actual cap space to play with, and a few can be safely ruled out based on their roster, market size and other factors.

    That being said, you never know when a surprise candidate could sneak in and steal an elite player. Last offseason, it was the Charlotte Bobcats that made waves by signing Al Jefferson when no one really considered that a likely destination.

    Chances are, we'll see at least one "dark-horse" team snatch up a key free agent this year as well. While it's important to remember the odds are firmly against most of the teams you'll see listed here, the destinations may not be as improbable as you might think.

    For the sake of this exercise, we've taken the top unrestricted free agents.

    Why not include restricted free agents? It's just easier to believe a dark-horse candidate can land a star player when his original team doesn't have the option to match.

    Dirk Nowitzki also won't be listed here, as he sounds close to signing a deal that will keep him with the Dallas Mavericks, as Marc Stein of ESPN.com reports here:

    But the Mavs and Nowitzki, sources said, ultimately decided to wait until after July 1 to maintain maximum flexibility for free-agent pursuits.

    Nowitzki, 36, has said countless times this season that he's prepared to take a significant pay cut from last season's $22.7 million in hopes of giving ample salary-cap space for the Mavericks  to upgrade the roster around him.

    "Cubes (Mavs owner Mark Cuban) knows I don't want to go anywhere and he doesn't want me to go anywhere," Nowitzki recently told ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM. "We're guessing that will be over pretty quick and then we can focus on making this franchise even better.

    Nowitzki probably won't be the only player to stay put with his original team, but let's look at the dark-horse contenders for the best unrestricted free agents of the 2014 NBA offseason.

LeBron James

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Phoenix Suns

    Again, it's incredibly unlikely. LeBron James can stay in Miami with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and find ways to add talent elsewhere. Jumping to a much smaller market, moving the family and joining an organization that didn't make the playoffs last year would be hard to justify.

    Still, even despite all of the logic pointing against it, Phoenix would be a fascinating landing spot for a few reasons. Here's Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports with more:

    Armed with an offer that no else in the NBA can make – a chance to partner with Carmelo Anthony on an instant championship contender – the Phoenix Suns are planning an aggressive pursuit ofLeBron James on Tuesday, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

    Suns officials understand the bid will be something of a long shot, but are determined to get a meeting with James to convince him how the possibilities of two full max contracts, a roster stocked with talented, young players and the chance to pick the superstar free-agent partner of his choice ought to make Phoenix one of his most appealing suitors.

    Phoenix would need to shed about $10 million in additional cap holds and salary commitments for LeBron James and another max player like Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to join him.

    Still, Phoenix would be able to keep Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe (who shares the same agent with LeBron), which is one of the best young backcourts in all of basketball. With multiple young players on cheap rookie deals, Phoenix could remain deep and have one of the most dynamic starting lineups in all of basketball. It's important to remember that veterans would instantly flock there on minimum-salary deals, as well.

    Phoenix also has all of their draft picks going forward and a potentially juicy 2015 first-round choice via the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The cupboard is more loaded in Phoenix than it is in Miami, but there are questions as to whether ownership would be willing to pay the luxury tax every year and if leaving a Finals team in a weak Eastern Conference would be too much of a risk.

    For what it's worth, the Suns will have a meeting with LeBron's agent, Rich Paul, according to Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

    This is incredibly unlikely, but from a pure asset standpoint, Phoenix could absolutely trot out a better final product than Miami if LeBron was willing to make the move.

Carmelo Anthony

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Atlanta Hawks

    While the Atlanta Hawks might not have any stars in the traditional sense, they're a well-rounded team built on the same principles of three-point shooting and ball movement that led Anthony's Knicks to their best seasons.

    With a solid frontcourt of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, Anthony could slide in at the 3 without any issues thanks to Millsap's versatility and ability to stretch the floor when Anthony goes to the block. This is a team that would be a handful offensively, especially with Jeff Teague operating in the pick-and-roll and Kyle Korver bombing away from deep.

    Atlanta would need to shed a little more salary to fully compensate Anthony, but it's nothing unreasonable. The Hawks were a playoff team last year despite losing Al Horford for most of the year, so the addition of Anthony and Horford would almost certainly lift them to contender status in a weak Eastern Conference.

    It's important to note Millsap is also on an expiring deal, so the Hawks could trade him for an established piece or take the savings and plan on getting another star in the 2015 offseason. Anthony is going to burn one of the last years of his prime by having to be patient if he re-signs with the Knicks, so perhaps he'd be willing to play the long game with the Hawks as well.

    Going from one of the most passionate fanbases to one of the least passionate would be interesting, but many NBA players live in Atlanta, and it's still a major market and city. This is a smart organization with lots of ties to the San Antonio Spurs, so there'd be some faith that things would be handled properly going forward.

    Many teams will look to lure Anthony, but the Hawks are a sneaky candidate featuring established veteran talent in a winnable conference.

Chris Bosh

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Houston Rockets

    If Chris Bosh wants to return to his home state, still compete for championships and be protected on the defensive end, the Houston Rockets can offer him all that and more.

    While it may be a little crazy to willingly leave LeBron James' side, Bosh could find a good home in Houston rather easily next to Dwight Howard and James Harden.

    Having already given up much of his offense the past few years, Bosh would be a perfect fit as a lower usage star who could space the floor offensively and help the Rockets much more defensively than Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony could.

    In fact, it's quite possible that Bosh would be the preferred option for Houston should things go south with the Big Three. He's an absolutely perfect fit for what the Rockets want to do on both ends, and you'd have to imagine that a core of Howard, Harden and Bosh with reinforcements like Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley would make Houston an instant favorite. 

    All Houston would have to do is find a trade for Jeremy Lin in order to create enough cap space, so it's certainly a realistic option should James bolt elsewhere and choose new teammates to pair up with. 

    The odds are heavily in favor of Bosh playing wherever LeBron does next season, but Houston can make an awfully compelling argument to snatch Bosh away, especially if Miami asks him to take a massive pay cut that he's not fully comfortable with.

    Bosh would get to be a part of a new and perhaps more sustainable dynasty in Houston, so they're certainly a contender for his services.

Dwyane Wade

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Chicago Bulls

    If LeBron James and Chris Bosh both suddenly decided to leave, what would Dwyane Wade do? 

    Yes, it's an unlikely scenario, but would Wade finish his career with the Heat or leave to try to win a few more rings before retiring?

    It's hard to imagine Wade ever leaving, of course, as he's been with the Heat his entire career and is basically the king of Miami. An awful lot would have to happen to give him incentive to go elsewhere, and with only a few years left in the tank, he might not leave even if the rest of the Big Three abandoned him.

    The only real logical destination other than Miami would be his hometown Chicago Bulls, who could desperately use some wing scoring. Chicago's defense under Tom Thibodeau could help protect Wade, although it's terrifying to think about all of the minutes Thibodeau would unnecessarily play him.

    Still, by using the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, Chicago could sign Wade outright and keep the rest of their talent intact. Health would be a major concern, but if Derrick Rose, Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah could somehow survive 82 games and be at full strength for a playoff run? That's a title team, particularly if Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott shoot like they're expected to.

    Even if Chicago makes for an interesting fit, this is still incredibly unlikely. Wade is a fixture in Miami, and disaster would have to strike for him to even think about leaving at this point.

Kyle Lowry

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Milwaukee Bucks

    Kyle Lowry should be hotly recruited by a number of teams, including contenders. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported after free agency opened that, "The Heat have targeted Kyle Lowry and are seeking a meeting with him today."

    So the question is, why would Lowry pass up playing for a contender or a playoff team like the Toronto Raptors to join the Milwaukee Bucks?

    Money.

    That might be the only real reasoning for Lowry, but we've seen players take the best offer before and run. Despite having the worst record in the league last year, Milwaukee has a lot of young talent and a former point guard at coach in Jason Kidd.

    Incumbent point guard Brandon Knight can easily shift to a sixth man role, which is more in line with his skills, and the Bucks could feasibly offer Lowry a deal that starts around $13 or 14 million, which might be quite a bit more than other teams would be willing to pay given the depth of the position around the league and Lowry's inconsistent past.

    Milwaukee is going to have a hard time attracting free agents, so the prospect of overpaying for a talent like Lowry should definitely be considered.

    A core of Lowry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, John Henson and Larry Sanders would definitely have potential, and with the right moves, Milwaukee could be back in the playoff hunt rather quickly. 

    It definitely seems unlikely, but if Lowry decides he wants to take the biggest payday possible, Milwaukee can offer that.

Luol Deng

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Charlotte Hornets

    While just about every contender will want Luol Deng at a discount, it's important to remember Deng's recent contract negotiations with the Bulls. Here's Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports from earlier this year:

    Within days of the Chicago Bulls unloading Luol Deng for salary-cap relief and a first-round draft pick, the All-Star forward rejected a three-year, $30 million contact extension, a league source told Yahoo Sports.

    If Deng truly rejected $10 million a year to play on a highly competitive team, it seems unlikely he'll take much less than that to do the same this summer. Teams dreaming of nabbing him with the mid-level exception can probably forget about it.

    With that in mind, Deng might look for the biggest payday possible, and the Charlotte Hornets showed last offseason that they aren't afraid to spend big for veteran talent. 

    Charlotte has max cap space this offseason, and while it's unlikely Deng would get quite that much, something right below it at around $13 million a season might do the trick. The Hornets have a huge hole to fill at small forward, as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hasn't proven to be worthy of a starting job quite yet.

    By joining Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and a slew of enticing young prospects, Deng could elevate Charlotte into a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and get paid big money at the same time. Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive guru, and Deng would help on that end and offensively as high-IQ player.

    Better teams will likely make offers to Deng, but few can offer Deng the amount of money and touches he'd receive in Charlotte. This could be a great fit.

Paul Pierce

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    Dark-Horse Destination: Los Angeles Clippers

    Most probably expect Paul Pierce to stay with the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Garnett, who is still on contract for one more year. Given how the Jason Kidd coaching trade played out, and Brooklyn's limited ceiling, perhaps Pierce will feel the need to spend his last few seasons on a team with more potential.

    The Los Angeles Clippers can certainly offer that. With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan's continued improvement and the presence of Chris Paul, the Clippers are a legitimate contender in need of some help at the small forward spot. So long as his minutes are managed, Pierce could be that player.

    Don't forget the Doc Rivers factor, either. Pierce won his only ring with Rivers as a member of the Boston Celtics, so there's almost certainly a fondness between player and coach. With Rivers handling much of the front office duties for the Clippers, there'd be an implied trust that Pierce would be safe from being dealt to a losing team that he might not get elsewhere.

    Unfortunately, the Clippers only have up to the mid-level exception to offer Pierce, which might not be quite enough to keep him from other teams. That being said, Pierce would probably take less money annually for more years given his age, and the lack of bad contracts on the books for the Clippers would probably allow for that.

    If Pierce does decide to leave Brooklyn and head elsewhere, the Clippers are one of the few teams where he could find familiarity, substantial minutes and a chance at a championship. Of course, Los Angeles isn't a bad place to live, either, and that's where Pierce was born and raised. This would be a fitting last stop in a great career, even if the lack of available funds and being in the Western Conference put the odds against Pierce landing with the Clips.

Lance Stephenson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Atlanta Hawks

    Would they dare? The Hawks have built around solid team players and high-character guys, and there are questions about Lance Stephenson in both of those areas.

    Still, even teams like the San Antonio Spurs take risks on elite talents every now and then (Stephen Jackson, anyone?), even if it's at a lower price than what Stephenson will likely cost.

    Atlanta has done well to clear cap space this offseason, but there's a decent chance they'll be left without a seat in free-agency musical chairs. They can clear up to about $17.9 million in free agency, which is certainly enough to do some damage, but it's unclear if there are enough good players to go around. Atlanta doesn't need frontcourt help, so wings are the only real position of need.

    Stephenson is talented, even if he might hold the ball a little too much and play outside of the offense. Regardless, he'd provide Atlanta with a strong defender on the wing when motivated and a great pick-and-roll threat, which would take some of the pressure off of Jeff Teague to create.

    Stephenson is an underrated three-point shooter as well, which is undoubtedly important to what Atlanta wants to do. With all of that cap space, outbidding Indiana for the unrestricted free agent might not be tough, especially if the Pacers want to remain under the luxury tax moving forward.

    For Stephenson, Atlanta would present him with a fresh start, a big salary (even if it was short-term) and a contending Eastern Conference team to play with. For as good as Indiana is, Atlanta has the potential to be better should everyone stay healthy, especially if other pieces were added along with Stephenson.

    He's a big risk, but Atlanta might try to grab one of the best young talents available on the wing if they think they can make it work.

Pau Gasol

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Phoenix Suns

    Pau Gasol definitely won't be short on suitors in free agency, as he's still one of the most skilled big men in the NBA. It's tough to peg down what his price will be due to his injury struggles and advanced age, but a team like Phoenix may be looking to contend and could have cap room to burn if they miss out on the big players in free agency. 

    Because Goran Dragic will be eligible for free agency next year and Marcus and Markieff Morris will likely be on bigger contracts, the Suns' window for spending may close rather quickly, especially if Dragic keeps up this level of play.

    That might entice Phoenix to use their available cap this year, and with a need for a big body in the paint, Gasol could fit in rather well, especially because he's such an excellent passer and can help stretch the floor for the "Slash Brothers," Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

    Gasol doesn't fit the age bracket Phoenix is currently rolling with, but getting a veteran and good locker-room presence might not be a bad idea for a team looking primed to make the leap.

    On Gasol's side of things, the Suns training staff is probably the best in the league, so pairing up with them at this point in his career after battling injuries might be a smart decision. Phoenix is one of the rare teams who can offer much more than the mid-level exception as well, so this could be a nice fit for Gasol seeing as this might be his last significant contract.

Trevor Ariza

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dark-Horse Destination: Los Angeles Lakers

    The Los Angeles Lakers are in a weird spot in regards to free agency, but bringing in a former teammate of Kobe Bryant's that also would fill a big need defensively on the wing makes sense. Ariza could be a part of the present and future, and his role would likely remain unchanged regardless of who is around him.

    Even though there's some fear of Ariza getting overpaid after a statistical outlier of a season last year, he may be willing to give the Lakers a West Coast discount in free agency if he wants to return to his former team.

    Here's David Aldridge of NBA.com with thoughts from earlier in the year on Ariza's free agency:

    But they [Washington] can't pay Ariza, who also pines to return to the West coast, what he'll likely ask for as a free agent. Ariza recently hired Rob Pelinka as his agent, a man not known for taking 70 cents on the dollar. 

    The Lakers have plenty of cap space to use on Ariza even if he won't come cheap in free agency.

    He has plenty of experience playing with ball-dominant guards, and although it will be an uphill battle to return to the postseason in the next few years, the Lakers always seem to find a way to pull it out in the end. This is a good personnel fit, even if Ariza doesn't keep playing at the level he did last year.

    If it's all about location, location, location (and a little bit of money), Ariza going back to Los Angeles could be a nice match for both parties.