Next Man Up: Who Fills the Void If Top NBA Free Agents Leave?
Replacing a star is never easy. The NBA teams rostering this year's best potential free agents hope they won't have to do so, but there's always a chance each could lose one major player.
Should they depart, they'll need to be replaced.
Their former squads will have to comb through their incumbent options for a replacement and then look externally to see if they can pick up a key contributor either in the draft or free agency. It will inevitably be a difficult, but necessary, process.
Please note that while we're laying out the options for replacing each of 2017's 10 best free agents (presented in alphabetical order), we're excluding those who are locks to return to their current organizations. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant aren't leaving the Golden State Warriors, while the Washington Wizards will surely match any and all offers for Otto Porter Jr.
Danilo Gallinari, SF, Denver Nuggets
If Danilo Gallinari turns down his $16.1 million player option and seeks a new home, the Denver Nuggets can afford to let him walk and replace him internally.
No player on the roster can do as much on the offensive end, but they have different skills and/or upside that would allow them to assume major minutes while handing more scoring responsibility to other positions.
Wilson Chandler is still on the roster for another year, and his two-way versatility makes him a solid fit next to Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and the team's other youngsters. Denver could also test Malik Beasley at the 3, and it still views Juancho Hernangomez as a long-term combo forward or small forward, rather than just a pure power forward.
Plus, the team can go small.
Lineups with Harris or Will Barton sliding up to the 3 make even more sense as Jamal Murray continues to gain comfort in the NBA. He'll be spending plenty of time alongside either Jameer Nelson or Emmanuel Mudiay, and head coach Mike Malone shouldn't hesitate to run out undersized lineups with even more scoring prowess on the court.
Gallinari opting out and the Nuggets renouncing his rights would create nearly $34 million in cap space—enough to reasonably pursue any player on the open market.
But due to the wealth of internal options, that money would more likely be allocated toward chasing a superstar point guard (Chris Paul or Kyle Lowry) or power forward (Blake Griffin).
It could also be used to absorb salary in a trade for a bona fide stud such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George, though moving for either of those men would involve dealing plenty of draft picks and prospects.
Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward aren't coming to Denver. The same is true of Andre Iguodala and Otto Porter Jr., though the franchise could use its cap space to overpay a shooting threat such as C.J. Miles (assuming he opts out of his $4,583,450 contract with the Indiana Pacers).
If Denver does need to replace Gallinari externally, it'll either do so with a blockbuster trade or a low-level signing meant to fit the roster rather than warp it to his preferred style.
Most Likely Outcome
Denver will pursue big trades to acquire a superstar wing but will end up holding tight and spending its money to shore up other positions. If the Nuggets address small forward, they'll do so by selecting a high-upside wing at No. 13 in the 2017 NBA draft.
Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
It's tempting to just leave this space blank. After all, Blake Griffin turning down his $21,373,950 deal with an early-termination option and seeking a new contract outside Tinseltown would leave the Los Angeles Clippers without any immediate replacements.
Brice Johnson isn't ready to be a starter during his sophomore season. Luc Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights can both play the 4, but only if they accept minuscule salaries ($2,203,000 and $1,403,611, respectively) rather than opting out and pursuing more money.
Beyond those three, the Clippers would be looking to pigeonhole Wesley Johnson in at the 4 after he produced such mediocre results in that role throughout the 2016-17 campaign.
Essentially, this can't be the plan if Griffin leaves.
So much depends on what Los Angeles' other free agents do. If Chris Paul, Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick all depart, the team could have nearly $40 million to spend this summer. If they re-sign all those players, they could be capped out before even thinking about a Griffin replacement.
In the former situation, Paul Millsap could draw some interest, but it's unlikely he would look to sign with a team that's clearly rebuilding and losing its star players.
Serge Ibaka, Taj Gibson and Zach Randolph could be potential Clippers targets, but if they have the cap space to land them, they likely won't want to start building around veterans with that much experience under their belts.
The most likely scenario, if Griffin departs, involves finding a stopgap option. Los Angeles could pursue a mid-level free agent such as Patrick Patterson, Amir Johnson or Ersan Ilyasova, and then wait to add upside in 2018.
Most Likely Outcome
Get ready to see someone like Patterson or Johnson starting at the 4 if Griffin leaves and the Clippers are forced to take dynamite to their core.
Gordon Hayward, SF, Utah Jazz
If Gordon Hayward departs, there's no way the Utah Jazz are also letting Joe Ingles walk.
The backup small forward put together an impressive two-way performance during the playoffs, and he was one of the league's hidden gems throughout the regular season. According to NBA Math's total points added metric, he was one of just 17 players to add at least 30 points on offense and save no fewer than 60 on defense.
Fortunately for the Jazz, Ingles is now a restricted free agent. Even if his price tag rises higher than expected, they can exercise their rights of first refusal, match any deal and refuse to lose both of their positive contributors at the 3.
Throw in Joe Johnson's enduring presence and ability to play multiple positions, and Utah should still have a solid group of wings even if it loses its marquee player.
"Ingles is rapidly transforming into one of the NBA's worst-kept secrets," Dan Favale wrote for Bleacher Report. "His three-point shooting, on-ball playmaking and switchability on defense should garner offers worth in excess of $12 million."
So much of the Jazz's offseason plan is still mired in uncertainty: Will Hayward leave? What about George Hill? How high will Ingles' price rise?
The answers to those questions could alter their strategy drastically, as they could sit anywhere from a capped-out position to clearing nearly $40 million in cap space by renouncing the aforementioned players and cutting ties with the non-guaranteed salaries of Boris Diaw and Raul Neto. In either scenario, though, they're probably not looking to external options at the 3.
Perhaps they could address a hole with one of their two selections late in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft. That's a far more likely scenario than looking to spend heaps of cash on the position when doing so isn't truly necessary.
If they're going to pony up, it'll be for one of the incumbents, both of whom already fit well with the current roster.
Most Likely Outcome
Even if Hayward leaves, don't expect the Jazz to do much trying to replace him. Limiting themselves to paying Ingles is a perfectly acceptable strategy.
George Hill, PG, Utah Jazz
Shelvin Mack is an unrestricted free agent, but it's not like he curried too much favor with head coach Quin Snyder.
Raul Neto and Dante Exum are still on the roster, but a team hoping to take further steps toward competing for a title might not be keen to hand over the reins—not entirely, at least—to those point guards. Though Exum has tremendous potential, you don't want him leading a championship charge at this stage of his career.
Overall, the situation is less than ideal.
Should George Hill depart, Utah could get by with what it already has in place. Obviously, the Jazz would prefer not to, making it even more imperative that they offer the 2016-17 starter a big contract or pursue a high-quality external option.
The Jazz could go after other top-tier point guards. They could pursue Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday and Chris Paul, only to see their offers firmly rebuffed because they don't have quite enough to spend.
Unless they're allowing plenty of key players to walk (e.g. Gordon Hayward), offering a max deal to a floor general is a non-starter.
It's more likely they will look at players a class below.
If Hill is gone, expect them to have meetings with Patty Mills and Darren Collison. They might flirt with a Deron Williams reunion, or they may even look overseas for a high-upside play. That last idea is actually already in progress.
"Several NBA GMs and scouts are eyeballing the Serbian wizard floor general [Milos Teodosic]," David Pick reported for Eurobasket. "With ex-CSKA assistant Quin Snyder leading Utah into the second round of the playoffs with loads of international flavor, sources tell me the Jazz are bound to shoot Teodosic an offer-sheet...people close to Teodosic estimate that he'll push for a deal in three years, $25-30 million range."
Though defense will be problematic for Teodosic, his offensive acumen and pedigree as a lead guard make him an intriguing upside play in a price range Utah can afford.
Most Likely Outcome
If Hill isn't the starter in 2016-17, Teodosic should be the favorite to take over his job. There's too big a drop-off from the position's available studs, and giving the Serb a reasonable deal makes more sense than overpaying Mills or handing the reins to Exum.
Jrue Holiday, PG, New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans have a few options if Jrue Holiday leaves, but none of them are even remotely intriguing.
Especially now that the organization has traded for DeMarcus Cousins and seems intent on winning before the superstar center can depart as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018, it can't be content throwing out an uninspiring option at the point.
Unfortunately, "uninspiring" is an appropriate way to describe the incumbents.
Quinn Cook could stick around, but the Pelicans could also cut him and his $1,312,611 non-guaranteed salary. The undrafted free-agent signee played nine games for New Orleans after a failed stint with the Dallas Mavericks, and his hot-shooting ways (which are bound to regress in a larger sample) couldn't negate his lack of distributing talent and defensive deficiencies.
That leaves Tim Frazier, who's a capable backup but wholly overmatched as a starting 1. For all the quality work he can do as a pass-first player, his floor-spacing limitations and lack of upside would not send the right message to Cousins and Anthony Davis.
And that's it; seriously.
Finding a replacement is absolutely necessary.
The Pelicans can't quite offer an incoming free agent a max deal, and that's problematic.
With $84,755,298 in guaranteed salaries, Jordan Crawford's non-guaranteed deal on the books ($1,709,538) and free-agent holds on Dante Cunningham and Holiday, New Orleans falls just short of the necessary money to make max pitches to Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.
The Pelicans could, however, hope Jeff Teague and George Hill are willing to take a bit less money. Either veteran would be a strong fit next to the "fire and ice" pairing in the frontcourt, and New Orleans could win them over by offering a long-term deal and the luxury of becoming a legitimate part of a surging Big Three.
That's still more of a pipe dream than a realistic quest, though.
"Even the next level of Jeff Teague and George Hill would likely cost more [than New Orleans has after letting Holiday go]. The Pelicans are also tied up on the front line with last year's free-agent signing, Solomon Hill ($12 million), underachieving and Omer Asik continuing in his role as franchise anchor with more than $34 million owed through 2020," Fran Blinebury wrote for NBA.com.
"That means New Orleans will be shopping for help in the offseason in the discount racks, hoping that perhaps a reclamation project or two with their own flaws might take a chance that they can rehabilitate themselves along with the fiery molten center in the middle of the lineup."
Maybe that's Patty Mills or Darren Collison. Perhaps it's Ty Lawson, Michael Carter-Williams or Raymond Felton. The options are limited, but New Orleans will have to take a flier if it's priced out of the top of the market.
Most Likely Outcome
If Holiday leaves, New Orleans won't have too many options. It's not ideal, but it'll probably be left overpaying for a third-tier point guard and hoping for the best, and then scavenging through trade options throughout the 2017-18 campaign.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors
After dealing Terrence Ross to the Orlando Magic and getting Serge Ibaka back in return, the Toronto Raptors had plenty of frontcourt depth.
In addition to Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira at center, all of whom are still under contract for 2017-18, the team boasted the services of Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and Pascal Siakam.
Now, the situation doesn't look so appealing.
The Raptors tested the Valanciunas-Nogueira pairing, and it worked. But can the duo maintain a 10.8 net rating in a sample larger than 171 total minutes, especially after head coach Dwane Casey had so little confidence in it that he used it for zero playoff minutes?
Then again, Casey also granted Siakam just 10 minutes over the course of two postseason appearances, so he didn't have much faith in that option, either.
Without Ibaka, the Raptors will have to try something. But whether they go with an oversized lineup or the sophomore who started 38 games as a first-year contributor is still up for debate.
Scenario No. 1: Both Ibaka and Kyle Lowry escape, leaving the Raptors with nearly $30 million in cap space. That number shrinks if the team pursues P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson, as well as if it guarantees salaries for Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet.
Scenario No. 2: Ibaka leaves, but Lowry is re-signed. Assuming the point guard is getting a max or near-max deal, Toronto will already be so close to the cap that it can only pursue low-level free agents to replace Ibaka and Patterson.
There's no in-between scenario for the Raptors.
If both big-name players are gone, they can chase after anyone. Even Blake Griffin would be in play, assuming he exercises his early-termination option with the Los Angeles Clippers. And if he refuses to show interest in playing north of the border, they can pursue Paul Millsap before resigning themselves to seeking lower-level players such as JaMychal Green.
But, if Lowry re-signs, the Raptors won't have the money to pursue most of the notable options. In this scenario, they could hope Ersan Ilyasova, David West, Josh McRoberts or some other player of a similar caliber wants to play for a competitive team on a cheap deal.
Most Likely Outcome
Until we know what Lowry is doing, no one has any idea.
Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
"I've done a lot of starting throughout my career, even in San Antonio," Cory Joseph said in early May, per Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.
"If Tony [Parker] got hurt for a while, a couple of months, I started there and we won games. As a starter here, I think I proved I can be one because you know the winning record is what you mostly look at. You see if this guy starts, can the team still be good and can they still win, and I think I proved that."
Joseph obviously isn't Kyle Lowry, but his presence should give the Toronto Raptors much more comfort. They still posted a 2.0 net rating while he was on the floor in 2016-17, even if that mark lagged behind what Toronto could accomplish with the All-Star he typically replaced.
But let's say Joseph never develops into the player he once looked likely to become while still with the San Antonio Spurs. Even in that situation, the Raptors should feel good about their situation, since Delon Wright is still on the roster, only two years removed from being a first-round pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
Plus, the organization could guarantee Fred VanVleet's contract ($1,312,611) and retain plenty of depth at the 1.
As was the case with Serge Ibaka and the team's dependency on Lowry's decision, the replacement options for Lowry are wholly dependent on Ibaka's choices.
The Raptors could either have the money to replace their All-Star with a contributor like Jeff Teague or George Hill, or they could be left scraping for options at the bottom of the free-agency barrel.
Of course, the costly nature of this roster and the impending extensions for key youngsters such as Nogueira and Norman Powell could also push the Raptors to limit their spending even if Ibaka and Lowry both flee. They could chase shooting in the form of Patty Mills or dig even deeper for backups who could let Joseph start and mitigate Wright's responsibilities as his development continues.
Almost everyone is on the table in some way, with only the true elites of the position serving as exceptions.
Most Likely Outcome
If Lowry walks, look for the Raptors to either blow up the entire roster or stay the course with Joseph, Wright and VanVleet serving as the 1s.
Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks
Paul Millsap has been the heart and soul of the Atlanta Hawks for the past few seasons.
In 2016-17, the team improved by 6.6 points per 100 possessions offensively when he was on the floor, and the defense allowed 0.4 fewer points over the same typical span. Even that might sell his impact short, since his versatility and ability to work with any lineup combination was invaluable.
But that's not why he can't be replaced by any incumbent options; it's simpler than that.
The Hawks might not have a single power forward on the roster if he turns down his player option and tries to play elsewhere.
Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries are all unrestricted free agents this summer. Ryan Kelly, who was playing just 6.9 minutes per game in his 16 appearances for Atlanta, has a non-guaranteed deal. And that's it, unless head coach Mike Budenholzer expects DeAndre' Bembry, Kent Bazemore or Taurean Prince to slide way out of position.
There just aren't any options.
If the lack of incumbent help is the bad news, the cap space helps negate some of the concern.
Operating under the assumption that Millsap follows in Al Horford's footsteps and walks after the team refused to deal him at the previous trade deadline, Atlanta could re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha to deals worth $15 million annually and still have upward of $10 million to spend at power forward.
Given the frontcourt market, that may be the preferred route. Atlanta obviously hopes it can retain its wings on cheaper deals, but it should prioritize those positions over power forward.
Blake Griffin is never coming to the Peach State, and it's highly unlikely Serge Ibaka would consider playing for the middling Hawks. Filling in the hole through free agency involves looking at the Patrick Patterson tier, and that shouldn't be too pricey.
But Atlanta does have one more option.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has the Hawks selecting OG Anunoby and Ivan Rabb at Nos. 19 and 31 in the 2017 NBA draft. Given the depth of talent in this class, Atlanta could easily land a key contributor at the 4 with one (or both) of those selections, likely picking between the two mentioned prospects, John Collins, Isaiah Hartenstein, T.J. Leaf, D.J. Wilson and others.
Most Likely Outcome
If Millsap is gone, the Hawks have to accept the fact they'll be rebuilding. Fixing the power forward hole through the draft is the best course of action, though it wouldn't be surprising to see them attempt to re-sign Ilyasova or Muscala as a stopgap option.
Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers finished their latest disappointing playoff performance with three point guards on the roster.
Now, for the purpose of this exercise, Chris Paul is already gone. Maybe he's signed with the San Antonio Spurs, ready to finally get the postseason monkey off his back alongside Kawhi Leonard. But Raymond Felton is also an unrestricted free agent, which leaves Austin Rivers as the only option.
Unless you're Doc Rivers, you probably have some concerns about that.
The younger Rivers averaged 12.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists during the 2016-17 campaign while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from downtown. It was easily the best year of his NBA tenure, but he still graded out as a below-average option by player efficiency rating (PER), ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM), box plus/minus (BPM) and NBA Math's total points added (TPA), which had him as a negative on both ends.
Going into a season with Rivers as an unquestioned starter would be disastrous, even for a team that could be plunged firmly into a rebuild after losing Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick.
Replacing Paul is a hopeless endeavor.
The future Hall of Famer may not have made it to the conference finals at any point in his career, but he'll unquestionably retire as one of the greatest point guards to lace up his sneakers on an NBA court. And even though he's 32 years old, he remains one of the deadliest threats at his position.
Unless the Clippers can land Stephen Curry (ha!) or Kyle Lowry, they won't come close to replicating his value.
But why would Lowry sign with the team when he'd likely need a pay cut to suit up alongside the current core? It's a conundrum, since re-signing Griffin and Redick would be necessary to lure him to town, but doing so would eat up too much of the available cap space to bring Lowry aboard. The same may hold true for George Hill, Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday.
It's far more feasible that the Clippers are left poring through the mid-level options in free agency, evaluating players such as Darren Collison—reunion, anyone?—for their fit alongside DeAndre Jordan.
Most Likely Outcome
Should Paul depart, it's time to start a full rebuild. Don't bother trying to preserve the present level of success by overpaying an aging but established point guard. Instead, find a holdover who can keep you competent until better opportunities and a more favorable cap situation present themselves.
Jeff Teague, PG, Indiana Pacers
Count the Indiana Pacers as another team that would have an immensely difficult time replacing a star with incumbent options if he departed in free agency.
Jeff Teague was backed up by Aaron Brooks and Joseph Young during his first season in blue and gold, but the former joins him in unrestricted free agency, while the latter has a non-guaranteed contract.
Even if the Pacers do choose to offer Young the entirety of his $1,471,382 deal for 2017-18 rather than clearing up a bit more cap space, they won't be left with much. The 24-year-old Oregon product played in only 33 games during his sophomore season and averaged just 4.1 minutes.
Handing him the featured job shouldn't be an option, but Indiana wouldn't have any choice if all its free-agent 1-guards departed.
Cap space will not be an issue for the Pacers.
Even if they retain free-agent cap holds for all non-Teague members of the 2016-17 roster, guarantee all non-guaranteed salaries and retain their first-round pick, they'll have about $27 million in cap space—enough to chase after any point guard on the open market.
It's highly unlikely they'll have a chance at securing Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, but can we really rule out a return from George Hill or the acquisition of Jrue Holiday?
One year after he was traded for Teague, Hill returning to Indianapolis would be unlikely but not impossible. Nor is signing Kyle Lowry, so long as they're willing to cut the cord with a few non-essential players.
"Should George settle down in the Circle City for a while longer, though, the Pacers would do well to add Lowry to the mix," Josh Martin wrote for Bleacher Report. "He would be not only a clear positional upgrade over Teague, but a legitimate co-star for [Paul] George, who's been crying out for just the kind of help that Toronto's All-Star can provide."
The Pacers do have appeal with Paul George remaining on the roster, and they have upside in the form of Myles Turner. They have depth at many positions, and they're set up well to continue competing for playoff berths throughout the foreseeable future.
Most Likely Outcome
Don't bet on Teague leaving. If he does, though, Indiana will heavily pursue the top-level free agents and attempt to replace him with a similarly skilled floor general.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.