Top NBA 2023 Free Agents Worth Clearing the Books For
As NBA teams prepare for trade season, they must establish short- and long-term goals. How general managers approach the Feb. 9 trade deadline may be tied to their free-agent targets in July.
Scratch one name off the list after the Boston Celtics extended Al Horford for two additional seasons at $19.5 million total. Early negotiations with players on expiring deals (for an extension or future contract) are crucial ahead of the trade deadline.
If they are too far apart in price, the team may pivot as trade season unofficially begins Dec. 15 (when most recently signed free agents are eligible to be traded). The next step is the G League Winter Showcase starting Dec. 19 in Las Vegas, a crucial time for top executives to meet in person and get a sense of which teams are buyers and sellers.
Some will do whatever they can to compete for a title this season. Others may focus on the Victor Wembanyama draft lottery and procuring enough cap room to make a run at some of the top projected free agents in July 2023.
Some of the predictions may be too early, but they are the kinds of projections teams need to make as they forecast into free agency in preparation for the trade deadline.
Harden 'Handshake' to Stay?
Philadelphia 76ers All-Star James Harden has a $35.6 million player option for 2023-24, but many around the league expect him to opt out.
"Seemed like they had a handshake deal in July. He made room for P.J. [Tucker] and [Danuel] House [Jr.]," one Western Conference executive said. "I think he'll be back next year in Philly at a higher price."
With a $134 million cap projection, Harden could re-sign with the Sixers for up to $46.9 million. While many competing teams wonder if Philadelphia works with the Joel Embiid and Harden pairing, they probably aren't likely to clear cap space to make a failed run at the veteran guard.
If you are the GM of a team looking to steal Harden away from the Sixers...don't bother.
Blazers Should Commit to Grant
The Portland Trail Blazers should have found a way to acquire Jerami Grant years ago. He fits exceptionally well as a wing defender and complementary scorer around the team's smaller scoring guards, Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons.
Initially, after his July trade from the Detroit Pistons, Grant can add on two years and $45.1 million via extension. After six months (as of Jan. 6), he can sign a full extension at $133.6 million over four. Portland needs to find a compromise within that range with Lillard under contract through 2026-27 (player option) and Simons through 2025-26.
If they don't, teams that need a 6'8" defensive scoring wing (about any veteran squad with playoff aspirations) will pursue Grant if they can establish the means. That might include the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers. That's leaving out the ones who project well above the luxury tax (Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, etc.). While only some teams listed will have the necessary cap space, Grant could be a popular target for squads planning for the future.
Does Kyrie Have a Market?
The Brooklyn Nets' marriage with Kyrie Irving seemed to be near an end in June, but he chose to opt into the final season of his contract. He has missed games because of injury, vaccination status and suspension, making his time with the Nets not as productive as the team hoped when he signed in 2019.
Irving and the team seem to have moved past his promotion of an antisemitic film and his refusal to apologize and condemn antisemitism that led to his suspension, but has the rest of the league? If the Nets don't want to reinvest, will another team offer a sizable payday? Multiple executives have termed Irving's situation "toxic" and the Nets' situation "a mess."
But the Lakers could have enough cap space to give Irving nearly $30 million (well below max). He's still an incredible offensive player, and LeBron James was vocal with his support of Irving (after the guard apologized).
If not the Lakers, it's challenging to guess where Irving will play next season and for how much. Is there a low enough price point where he's a bargain? And if he doesn't feel he's getting what he's worth, will he show up consistently?
Fair or not, these are the questions teams will have when considering spending dollar one on Irving.
Turner May Stick in Indy
The Indiana Pacers tried to move Myles Turner in years past, but that was before sending Domantas Sabonis and two other players to the Sacramento Kings for a package that included Tyrese Haliburton at last season's trade deadline. Turner, who was sidelined for the rest of the season with a foot injury, didn't get to play with Haliburton.
Now the Pacers are the surprise team in the Eastern Conference, and those that have been eying Turner, like the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Lakers, may find it was nothing more than flirtation.
"The owner of the team [Herb Simon] really loves Turner," one competing executive said. "He would have to be really blown away to let him go."
Simon is known in NBA circles as one of the governors who won't pay luxury taxes but refuses to tank. The team's front office has to work within those restrictions, but paying Turner can fit within those boundaries. He can extend for up to $96.8 million over four additional seasons or even renegotiate his contract since the Pacers are under the salary cap. Would a $7 million raise for the current season to $25 million flat over five years (his current $18 million plus $107 million in additional salary) work for both sides? Or would a shorter compromise do?
More importantly, if the Pacers don't trade, extend or restructure Turner, can the franchise risk letting him get to free agency when competitors are in pursuit? The Lakers, Jazz, Raptors, Wizards and Bulls could be suitors, to name a few.
Will VanVleet, Trent Still Be Raptors?
Several teams are paying close attention to the Toronto Raptors (11-10) this season. "I'm not quite sure what they're doing [at the deadline]," a Western Conference executive said, noting the team may need to make several critical decisions in February and July.
Two players have player options and may choose to explore free agency. Fred VanVleet ($22.8 million) and Gary Trent Jr. ($18.8 million) are coach Nick Nurse's rotation staples, but what appetite does the team have for giving VanVleet a new, long-term deal when he's about to turn 29 years old? Trent, with Klutch Sports, may not be thrilled that Nurse moved him to the second unit.
Some teams hope the Raptors will continue to hover around .500 and choose to rebuild around Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and other younger players. Others view Toronto as the team with the best assets to go after Kevin Durant if the Nets put him on the trade block.
Both could earn well above $20 million a season, and plenty of teams could use a veteran point like VanVleet or a defender who can score like Trent. The Lakers could pursue either or both (perhaps via trade). So too could the Dallas Mavericks, Jazz, Hornets, Wizards, Mavericks, Suns and several others.
Will Wizards Double Down on Kuz and Porziņģis?
The Washington Wizards (11-11) aren't winning enough to claim they have a complete roster, but the team may need to make two decisions quickly.
When healthy, Kristaps Porziņģis is one of the most talented big-man scorers in the league. Kyle Kuzma has provided the Wizards with potent, consistent play since his trade in 2021 from the Lakers.
Both can opt out of their contracts, which may be a more difficult choice for Porziņģis at $36 million. Can he find a similar price elsewhere? If he opts out, will the Wizards re-sign him to a long-term deal, perhaps at a lower annual rate?
With a $13 million option, Kuzma is widely expected by competing teams to opt out. With his ability to score, he could earn in the $20 million range on a new deal.
While the Wizards have the right to pay either player up to a maximum salary, both will be unrestricted if they opt out and may choose to move on. Kuzma, 27, could find a long list of suitors, including the Kings, Jazz, Suns, Bulls and Mavericks. Washington may want to keep him but may have to pay a premium.
Porziņģis may opt in unless a team reaches out to his representative early (which isn't technically legal but is commonplace in June before July free agency).
Centers on the Move?
The Chicago Bulls (9-12) have underperformed. The San Antonio Spurs (6-16) are rebuilding.
Will either franchise reinvest in its starting center, Nikola Vučević and Jakob Poeltl, respectively? Remember, the Bulls sent two first-round picks (and Wendell Carter Jr.) to the Magic in 2021 to acquire Vučević. The team may view him as a sunk cost.
Poeltl is more likely to relocate unless the Spurs are generous, but Vučević has no obligation to stay in Chicago as an unrestricted free agent.
Both will find suitors, likely in the $15-20 million range. The Raptors, Lakers, Hornets and Wizards may need centers, to name a few. Either could be relocated via trade to the listed teams (or additional suitors like the Warriors or Clippers) before the deadline. Poeltl (at $9.4 million) is more likely to be moved based on team situation and salary.
The Bulls must decide if they should reinvest in Vučević (currently at $22 million) to keep their core together or change course entirely. Several executives around the league believe Chicago would be better off with the latter.
Middleton Back at a Discount?
The Milwaukee Bucks have been one of the league's most potent franchises for the past few years. Khris Middleton, 31, is expected to make his season debut soon after recovering from a wrist injury, which should help bolster the team with the NBA's second-best record (15-5).
Middleton has a $40.4 million player option for 2023-24, which seems too much to turn down. And it is unless he and the team can follow a similar path to Chris Paul, who turned down a larger single-season option to re-sign with the Suns on a more lucrative deal with a lower annual rate.
Some teams may eye Middleton for free agency in July, but if he doesn't opt in, he may be back in Milwaukee, perhaps on a contract in the $30 million-a-season range. It's difficult to foresee Middleton anywhere else next year.
Draymond Opting In?
While Draymond Green may want an extension or a new, lengthier contract in July, he might find himself in a similar position as Irving last June.
If he opts out of his final season at $27.6 million, the Warriors can extend him now—but not at a starting salary below that figure. The franchise faces historic luxury taxes and may want to take a year-by-year approach.
Green could help other teams, but he may be uniquely valuable to Golden State.
"He's a champion, but I'm not sure how helpful Green is to any other team," a Western Conference executive said. "Can he find another team that needs a non-shooting, non-scoring, undersized playmaking big?"
Maybe, but that search may need to come later after he opts in (at which point the Warriors could give him a smaller extension, but one both sides are comfortable with).
Wood's Value as a Floor-Spacer
The Dallas Mavericks use Christian Wood as a high-minute reserve (26.0 per game). At 6'10", he brings valuable NBA skills—he can score (16.8 points per game) and shoot (40.6 percent from three).
Wood doesn't have a great reputation as a defender. He won't anchor a defense, but he's a player the Mavericks would probably like to retain. The franchise gave its No. 26 pick in June (Wendell Moore Jr.) for Wood, and Luka Dončić needs to be surrounded by players who can spread the floor.
But other teams will poke around in free agency at the chance to add a complementary scoring big. His salary could jump from $14.3 million to perhaps closer to $20 million a season, as teams tend to overpay scorers. Suitors could include the Jazz, Raptors, Wizards, Lakers, Kings, Sixers and Suns.
Fresh Start for Russell
Executives with other teams say the Timberwolves had previously been open to moving guard D'Angelo Russell. They expect he'll be available ahead of the deadline but may be a difficult sell for Minnesota with his $31.4 million salary.
Russell is a talented player and former All-Star, but he's "not consistent enough," said one executive.
It's unclear where Russell will land next season. It doesn't appear he has a long-term future with the Timberwolves. He may be a value get for a team at the right price in July.
Westbrook in a New Home?
While Russell Westbrook may be a polarizing player, he's a future Hall of Fame point guard. He doesn't fit well with LeBron James on the Lakers and isn't likely to return (if he makes it through the year without a trade).
Westbrook won't earn close to his current $47.1 million contract, but he could find suitors with the mid-level exception (either the higher $11.4 million non-taxpayer or $7 million taxpayer). It's not out of bounds that a team with $12-20 million in spending power takes a flier on Westbrook.
Some around the league still believe the Miami Heat have interest, should he receive a buyout if traded. Charlotte Hornets governor Michael Jordan already has a partnership with Westbrook through Jordan Brand.
Strong Class of Free Agents
Last offseason was drab compared to the solid list of potential free agents in 2023. While only a few have MVP-caliber resumes, the talent is enough for teams to plan ahead to ensure they have the money they need to improve their rosters.
Some will be restricted free agents if their teams issue qualifying offers. Cameron Johnson of the Suns may be a standout. Other interesting restricted players may include Rui Hachimura (Wizards), Jaxson Hayes (New Orleans Pelicans), Austin Reaves (Lakers), Cam Reddish (Knicks), Nick Richards (Hornets), Matisse Thybulle (76ers), P.J. Washington (Hornets), Coby White (Bulls) and Grant Williams (Celtics).
While teams have the right of first refusal with restricted players, unrestricted free agents are fair game. That list includes Harrison Barnes (Kings), Will Barton (Wizards), Dillon Brooks (Grizzlies), Jae Crowder (Suns), Seth Curry (Nets), Reggie Jackson (Clippers), Caris LeVert (Cleveland Cavaliers), Brook Lopez (Bucks), Kevin Love (Cavaliers), Jalen McDaniels (Hornets), Shake Milton (76ers), Georges Niang (Sixers), Kelly Oubre Jr. (Hornets), Mason Plumlee (Hornets), Dwight Powell (Mavericks), Josh Richardson (Spurs), Max Strus (Heat), Lonnie Walker IV (Lakers) and more.
Others have player options, including Bogdan Bogdanović (Atlanta Hawks, $18.0 million), Bruce Brown (Denver Nuggets, $6.8 million), Jevon Carter (Bucks, $2.2 million), Jordan Clarkson (Jazz, $14.3 million), Andre Drummond (Bulls, $3.4 million), Josh Hart (Trail Blazers, $13.0 million), Victor Oladipo (Heat, $9.5 million) and Otto Porter Jr. (Raptors, $6.3 million).
A few have team options, most notably Malik Beasley (Jazz, $16.5 million), Alec Burks (Pistons, $10.5 million), John Wall (Clippers, $6.8 million) and Derrick Rose (Knicks, $15.6 million).
Finally, it's worth mentioning the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association may institute a new collective bargaining agreement ahead of next season. That could lead to rule changes that may alter the free-agent landscape.