Dark-Horse Destinations for NBA's Top Free Agents

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2017

Dark-Horse Destinations for NBA's Top Free Agents

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    Every NBA free agent worth a darn enters the summer with a defined subset of suitors. His preferred destination may be unknown, but the list of teams pleading for his services is almost entirely spelled out by the time July 1 rolls around.


    Don't get this twisted: NBA free agency is dope, squared, multiplied by infinity. Stars actually switch teams in this league while still in their primes. The Association's free agency captivates in a way that's often unmatched by all other major North American sports.

    But spur-of-the-moment developments infuse the summertime festivities with so much intrigue. Teams come out of nowhere with unpredictable offers. Sometimes, these surprises are ugly. (Timofey Mozgov getting a four-year, $64 million deal from the Los Angeles Lakers, anyone?) On other occasions, they're ridiculously entertaining—like when the Phoenix Suns were one of the finalists for LaMarcus Aldridge's services in 2015.

    This year's proceedings might churn out even more bombshells. The salary cap is set to rise once again, by around $7 million, but fewer teams will be armed with significant spending money. Bake in the inevitable overreactions from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors facing off in the NBA Finals for a third consecutive time, and the number of double whammies stand to skyrocket.

    Who might the dark-horse suitors be for this year's top flight risks among the 15 best free agents, as plucked from this big board? Cap situations, roster needs and player priorities can help us stray off the beaten path without going off the reservation.

Honorable Mentions: Non-Flight Risks

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    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons (restricted)

    Quality restricted free agents are nigh impossible to poach. Rivals can try to overpay them in hopes the incumbent team won't match, but that only works if the player has an undefined market value.

    In this case, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's price tag is set: He's getting a max contract. And the Detroit Pistons, per the Detroit Free PressVince Ellis, are ready to foot the bill. We needn't suss out dark-horse suitors for a player who doesn't control his own fate.

    Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (player option)

    Not only is Kevin Durant staying with the Warriors, but according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes and Ramona Shelburne, he's willing to return on a discounted deal that lets the team retain Bird rights to Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

    What a guy.

    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    The only way we need a dark-horse destination for Stephen Curry is if the Warriors ask him to accept less than a max deal after playing the last four years on one of the best value contracts in NBA history.

    Ipso facto, we don't need a dark-horse destination. Sorry, Charlotte.

    Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (early termination option)

    Chris Paul might leave the Los Angeles Clippers. Seriously, it may happen. But the San Antonio Spurs profile as the main team he'll consider latching onto, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.

    Assuming Cleveland gets pink slipped in the NBA Finals, the Kyrie Irving-for-Chris Paul scenarios write themselves. Except, the Cavaliers will be miles past the luxury-tax apron next season, so they can't acquire a sign-and-trade player without first cutting a boatload of salary. That leaves the Spurs and Clippers—a pair of "Well, duh" suitors if there ever was one.


    Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards (restricted)

    Just as the Pistons won't let Caldwell-Pope escape, the Washington Wizards will match any offer sheet Otto Porter Jr. receives. If you're still looking for a less-than-obvious suitor that would tie up cap space for 48 hours on a player it won't get, feel free to create a desperation meter for the Indiana Pacers.

Danilo Gallinari: Brooklyn Nets

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    Leaving the Denver Nuggets will be hard for Danilo Gallinari. He called Denver his "favorite city" during a Facebook live session in February—the place "where I'm going to live when I'm done playing basketball."

    Prying him away from the Nuggets is going to take the right situation and most likely an above-market offer. The Brooklyn Nets can promise both.

    Gallinari spent the better part of his first three years in the NBA playing for the New York Knicks. Rejoining them holds zero appeal since they're a disaster zone, but the Big Apple remains a part of his life; he is the co-owner of the Italian restaurant Pagani on Bleecker Street.

    Familiarity alone won't lure him back to the Empire State, and the Nets are years away from competing for anything special. But they will have more than $20 million in cap room without lifting a finger and can easily manufacture more.

    Carve out an offer close to Gallinari's max—$30.3 million in Year 1—and Brooklyn gains an inherent edge. Most teams don't have the incentive to fork over cornerstone money for non-stars. The Nets don't have to worry about that. They're able to overpay free agents for the next three or four years while letting their prospects and projects marinate.

    Oh, and they need a small forward. General manager Sean Marks declared as much on YES Network's Nets Magazine, per the New York Post's Brian Lewis. Caris LeVert is set to soak up more time at shooting guard, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's busted jumper is easier to hide at the 4 spot.

    Adding Gallinari to the mix gives the Nets one helluva perimeter rotation. Head coach Kenny Atkinson will drum up minutes for him at the 4, and he'll have a field day launching threes, driving to the basket and flinging passes off the bounce in Brooklyn's motion offense.

    The Nets' top priority will be to absorb bad contracts that come attached to first-round pot-sweeteners. But if the incentive isn't there for them to become a dumping ground, Gallinari fills a hole while bringing more name power to a squad with very little.

Blake Griffin: Denver Nuggets

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    Although the Denver Nuggets are no strangers to small-ball combinations that surround Nikola Jokic with four shooters, they're determined to pair their Serbian superstructure with another big. And the search for that frontcourt ally is ongoing.

    Jusuf Nurkic didn't pan out, so Denver shipped him to the Portland Trail Blazers. Kenneth Faried is an awkward fit next to Jokic on both ends and is best served as a super-sub. 

    Mason Plumlee has thus far been the best option. The defensive dynamic between him and Jokic isn't ideal, but the two gained momentum toward the end of the regular season. They logged 69 minutes in their final seven appearances together, during which time the Nuggets outgunned opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions.

    Yet, it's hard to read too much into stretch-run samples. And the duo's offensive rating through their seven-game hot streak (113.4) was barely better than Denver's overall mark after permanently inserting Jokic into the starting lineup (113.3).

    Blake Griffin provides the Nuggets with a 'roided-up version of this frontcourt model. He is the superior passer, an actual post-up threat and far more likely to rain down three-pointers off passes from Jokic. The floor balance with both bigs in the game would be unfair.

    What Griffin lacks as a defender, he'll offset by headlining bench-heavy units when Jokic takes a breather. Neither Faried nor Plumlee has the offensive chops to survive solo time or take pressure off Denver's young playmakers. Griffin lets the team continue grooming Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray without giving into the temptation to spend on another floor general.

    Plus, the Nuggets need established star power. While they'll have the money to go headliner-hunting if they renounce Gallinari, poaching All-NBA talent is hard. Sources indicated to ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz they could see Griffin fleeing the Clippers—an opening the star-starved Nuggets must try to exploit, if only because it's so rare.

Gordon Hayward: San Antonio Spurs

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    Gordon Hayward's free agency is unofficially considered a two-team affair between the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz. He was loosely linked to the Miami Heat in March, according to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, but his list of options won't get much more extensive—which makes sense.

    When your incumbent team is coming off 51 wins and a second-round playoff berth, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better situation. You have to be picky. And San Antonio meets the requirements of the most selective mercenaries.

    No, nothing has changed about the Spurs' financial outlook. They don't have max cap space. Should they chisel out superstar money, most expect it to be in the name of Chris Paul. But Hayward's first-year salary ($30.3 million) will run about $5 million less than Paul's ($35.4 million), and upgrading the frontcourt is a smarter move when looking at the collateral damage it'll take to afford another star.

    Tony Parker's $15.5 million salary isn't getting wiped from the ledger in any scenario. The Spurs are too loyal to trade or waive him, and he has no intention of retiring after his left quad injury. 

    Two of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Danny Green will get jilted instead. San Antonio comes reasonably close to max money by trading Gasol into someone's cap space and getting rid anyone who isn't a core piece. That might be enough to land Hayward without dumping Green or turning Aldridge into a combination of cheaper contributors.

    Whatever the cost, Hayward allows the Spurs to play smaller without cramping Kawhi Leonard's style. A majority of his minutes came at power forward during Utah's playoff run, and he can split ball-handling duties with Leonard, ensuring the offense doesn't miss a beat while Parker rehabs his quad and Dejounte Murray learns more of the ropes.

    Keep Green instead of Aldridge, and the Spurs will have a formidable, interchangeable 2-3-4 troika. Green, Hayward and Leonard can anchor a top-three defense with a bargain-bin big behind them, and the offense would be better equipped to tussle with the Warriors and Cavaliers of the world.

    The cost of affording another superstar shouldn't be taken lightly. But Aldridge (player option) and Gasol could both be free agents in 2018. They may leave in one year's time anyway. Going nuclear now isn't blasphemous, and the Spurs shouldn't hamstring themselves to Paul alone if they do—not when they'll still have a few point guards on the roster. 

George Hill: Philadelphia 76ers

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    At 31, with a robust free-agent market in front of him, George Hill isn't an obvious fit for the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Money talks, though.

    Utah is already preparing for Hill to field lucrative offers. General manager Dennis Lindsey point-blank said he addressed the issue with the point guard, per KSL.com's Andy Larsen. The underlying message: Offer him enough money, and the Jazz won't be able to match.

    No team in the NBA projects to have more cap space than the Sixers. Renouncing the rights to Sergio Rodriguez gives them more than $50 million in spending power. Waiving Gerald Henderson's non-guaranteed deal catapults them past $60 million. 

    Divergent timelines aren't an issue with that much money laying around. The Sixers can max out Hill and still dredge up enough coin to bankroll a second max deal for anyone with under 10 years of experience.

    Besides, if they're interested in a 31-year-old Kyle Lowry, as sources indicated to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Hill should absolutely be in play. He isn't a Philly native like Lowry, but he checks all of the necessary boxes.

    Capable of directing the offense? Check. Good enough shooter to play off Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons when they orchestrate the action? Check. (He buried 40.7 percent of his spot-up threes in Utah). Active enough on defense to hang with point guards and some shooting guards? Check.

    Someone who will help keep the kiddies in line and engaged whether they're contending for a postseason appearance or stuck in lottery purgatory? Check.

    A good enough fit for the Sixers to view as a Plan B to Lowry and any younger free agents they have on their radar? Time will tell.

Jrue Holiday: Los Angeles Lakers

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    On one hand, Jrue Holiday may not be a flight risk since the New Orleans Pelicans, as of February, were planning to give him max or near-max money, according to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler.

    On the other hand, his role within the offense may be marginalized next to DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis after New Orleans added Chris Finch to its coaching staff. As The Bird Writes' Oleh Kosel explained:

    "The Pelicans newest assistant coach is most famous for crafting an exciting offense that revolves around a non-traditional big man rather than a point guard. Nikola Jokic and Cousins both possess an extraordinary amount of playmaking skill for their size. And above all else, this nuance remains perfectly in line with Alvin Gentry’s ideology centered around pace, space and movement as evidenced by the style of play in Denver this past season. The Nuggets offense proved it could score with the best of them, all without a traditional point guard running the show."

    Max money over the next four or five years won't necessarily offset the concessions Holiday must make to coexist with New Orleans' All-NBA bigs. Point guards are supposed to be featured options as facilitators or scorers, but the Pelicans might try to turn him into Gary Harris.

    Would Holiday's hometown Los Angeles Lakers come calling if they don't draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2? Team president Magic Johnson isn't looking to spend big bucks in free agency until 2018, when Paul George (player option) gets to act on his affinity for wearing purple and gold. But what if he has to spend in order to guarantee George's arrival?

    One league executive told Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus that "the current task for the Lakers in their pursuit of George is to acquire another player—the type of player who would make defecting more desirable for George." Holiday doesn't rank inside the top 10 at his own position, but he could develop into such a player.

    If the Lakers believe D'Angelo Russell can play alongside Ball, they'll feel the same way about partnering him with Holiday. And if they also believe they'll have the goodies to offload Luol Deng and/or Timofey Mozgov before next July, they'll have the cap flexibility to pay Holiday market value.

Serge Ibaka: Boston Celtics

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    Serge Ibaka won't be the Boston Celtics' first choice, which is fine. They're not his top option, either. He has an unofficial agreement in place to remain with the Toronto Raptors, according to Kyler.

    But the situation up north is very fluid. Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker are also free agents, and the Raptors cannot afford to re-sign everyone. It would run them almost $200 million (or more) after taxes to keep the band together.

    Cap-sheet casualties are unavoidable. Even if they let Patterson and Tucker walk, the Raptors may still decide to dump salary after re-signing Ibaka and Lowry. Lose Lowry, and everything changes. At that point, they'd have to consider an impromptu rebuild, and paying $20 million per year for Ibaka would likely tumble down their list of priorities.

    Point being: Enough uncertainty exists in Toronto for Ibaka to shop around. He'll have scores of suitors, even though he's no longer an anomaly at his position. There is always a market for bigs who shoot above-average clips from three-point range and can be counted on, for the most part, to send away looks at the rim.

    That brings us to the Celtics. They were sniffing around Ibaka at the trade deadline but weren't willing to send Terry Rozier to the Orlando Magic, according to Celtics Blog's Jared Weiss. It'll be easy for them to rekindle interest when cap space is the only asset they're handing over.

    Al Horford's defensive adaptability makes this addition possible. He switches the pick-and-rolls Ibaka can't, so the latter could focus exclusively on rim protection. And with so many other drivers on offense including Horford, Boston doesn't need Ibaka to do anything other than pull defenders outside the lane and stroke threes off the catch.

    There's no question Hayward, Paul Millsap or even JaMychal Green would be a better fit on defense. But Ibaka comes cheaper than a full-blown superstar, is more established than Green and might reach another level under head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics should have no qualms about giving him a look if their primary targets fall through.

James Johnson: Atlanta Hawks

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    Paul Millsap wrapped the season by stating his desire to remain with the Atlanta Hawks. And since they have no reason not to pay him, there's a better-than-great chance he gets his wish.

    Let one All-Star in Al Horford leave without capitalizing on his exit? Shame on you. Allow another to walk out the door for nothing when you had the opportunity to move him at the trade deadline? You're the reason the NBA needs a system that allows for relegation—or at least fines due to glaring incompetence.

    The Hawks shouldn't have trouble staying out of their own way this year. New general manager Travis Schlenk wants to re-sign Millsap, and they don't have the money to spend on someone who plays his position, as they did to Horford with Dwight Howard.

    Losing Millsap to a more attractive situation is the bigger threat. He may want to stay with the Hawks now, but they're not getting out of the second round anytime soon. They won't have more than the mid-level exception to improve the roster, and it's possible they begin next year with more than $100 million allocated to a five-player core of him, Howard, Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr. (restricted) and Dennis Schroder.

    Most teams would plunge into a rebuild following the exit of a superstar from a one-star outfit. Small-markets like Atlanta don't always have that luxury. With nearly $56 million tied up in Bazemore, Howard and Schroder, the Hawks are more likely to try treading water in the middle. 

    Emergency options don't get better than James Johnson. The Hawks can iron out more than $20 million in cap space if Millsap's $30.1 million hold comes off the books, and signing Johnson should only eat into a fraction of that. He won't replace Millsap in full, but he can defend power forwards and centers, lead fast breaks, initiate half-court sets, create off the bounce and drain some threes.

    Get him, and the Hawks make the best of a cruddy situation: a chance to remain on a treadmill of early postseason exits—which, frankly, is where they may stay with Millsap.

Kyle Lowry: Dallas Mavericks

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    LeBron James has created a window of opportunity for every team in the Western Conference with cap space and an opening at point guard.

    "They've got LeBron James," Lowry told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski after the Cavaliers swept his Raptors. "Nobody's closing the gap on him. I mean, that's it right there: They've got LeBron James and nobody's closing the gap on him."

    Lo and behold, if Lowry leaves Toronto, he will "give legit thought" to joining the Western Conference ranks, according to Stein

    Someone should explain to Lowry it's not all peachy keen beyond the Mississippi River, seeing as the Spurs and Warriors exist. But, hey, to each their own. And the Dallas Mavericks certainly shouldn't be complaining about Lowry's take on the NBA's competitive landscape. It could be their gain.

    The Mavericks need a point guard, as the combination of J.J. Barea, Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell isn't going anywhere. Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina might fall to them at No. 9 in this year's draft, but talk of a rebuild is overstated. The Mavericks are paying big money to Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and, possibly, Dirk Nowitzki (team option) right now. Relying upon a rookie floor general won't enable them to get the most out of a win-now nucleus.

    Barging into the Lowry sweepstakes will take some A-plus salary-cap finagling. The Mavericks must decline Nowitzki's team option, re-sign him for the bare minimum, waive Devin Harris and find a new home for Dwight Powell to forge around $30 million in room—about $5 million short of Lowry's max.

    From there, the phrase "slight discount" enters the conversation, or Dallas could offload Barea and another small contract to open up a $35.4 million max slot. 

    Should the Mavericks go this far? Not at all. But they're risk-takers, and Lowry is a phenomenal fit for an offense that demands the point guard play off Barnes and Nowitzki. They should be linked to him, along with every other big-time playmaker, until he's off the board.

Paul Millsap: Miami Heat

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    For the first time in what feels like forever, Heat president Pat Riley isn't placing stock in superstar free-agent pursuits, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson.

    Or so he says.

    It's difficult to see Riley sitting out this offseason when the Heat have almost $40 million in cap space, with a clear path toward more, and an ideal addition like Millsap floating around on the open market. They have an everyday opening at power forward, and the ceiling on a Millsap-Hassan Whiteside dyad jibes with the team's devotion to disarming defensive stands.

    Granted, the dollars and cents complicate things. Millsap's max starts at $35.4 million in 2017-18. Miami can afford it, but his arrival spells the departure of James Johnson and Dion Waiters, both of whom must be re-signed using cap space.

    Losing Waiters is collateral damage the Heat can reconcile, even after his career year. Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and a healthy Josh Richardson should render him expendable. Paying Millsap over Johnson is harder to spin. Millsap is a clear upgrade, but he's two years older and, as the Palm Beach Post's Anthony Chiang pointed out, he costs twice as much.

    Still, the Heat are unendingly aggressive under Riley. Millsap is an All-Star. Johnson isn't. Nor is his window more open-ended. He's on the wrong side of 30 himself, and Miami cannot guarantee he rivals Millsap's steady production every year.

    Grease the wheels on a Josh McRoberts salary dump, and the Heat can try to sign Millsap for $30 million while also retaining Johnson. The two can play together in super-small units that push the pace, fire three-pointers in excess and switch almost everything on defense.

    Regardless of what happens with Johnson, Millsap is an immediate needle-nudger for a squad that finished just shy of a playoff berth. And Riley is still Riley. We can't predict he'll turn his back on such a tantalizing fit until he actually does.

Jeff Teague: Sacramento Kings

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    Few top-25 free agents must worry about their own team shoving them out the door. A quick scan of this year's free-agency pool suggests Jeff Teague is the only one, in fact. 

    Blame Paul George's uncertain future with the Indiana Pacers.

    If Indiana plays out next season trying to sell George on its long-term outlook, re-signing Teague is a no-brainer. But if it opts to trade him knowing the Lakers bugaboo isn't going anywhere, throwing nine figures at a soon-to-be 29-year-old doesn't make much sense.

    Retaining Teague no matter what happens with George isn't outside the realm of possibility. So long as his status with the Pacers remains up in the air, though, Teague is obtainable. And as luck would have it, the Sacramento Kings need a point guard. 

    Strike that. They're desperate for a point guard.

    According to ESPN.com's Chad Ford, there is "talk inside the organization about combining picks Nos. 5 and 10 to move up in the draft to secure" De'Aaron Fox. This would be a colossal mistake. The Kings aren't getting the Celtics' or Lakers' picks. They would, in essence, be using a top-10 prospect to move up one or two spots in the draft order.

    If they can pay a smaller price to leap-frog into No. 3 or No. 4, cool. If not, they have enough cap space to pay a high-end free-agent floor general like Teague. He doesn't mesh with their long-term timeline, but he's a solid game manager who won't gum up their rebuilding project. 

    And should the Kings come into a younger point guard over the next couple seasons, Teague will have enough prime years left for another team to take on his salary.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. Team salary information via Basketball Insiders.