Checking In on NBA's Top 2023 Free Agents and the Teams That Might Chase Them

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IJanuary 16, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 14: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on before a game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Arena on January 14, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Halfway through January, the NBA has given us just one in-season trade, and it was a snooze-of-a-money deal with the Boston Celtics saving a few dollars of luxury tax via the San Antonio Spurs.

As the February 9 trade deadline inches closer and closer, many hopeful buyers are still waiting for sellers to step forward.

"It'll happen. Things will pick up in February," one Eastern Conference executive said. "It's quiet now, but someone is going to step up and be the first to cash out."

Identifying which teams may give up on the play-in tournament starts with the list of pending free agents in July. Who are the serious flight risks, and which franchises project to have enough money to pry them away? Who will decide it's better to get value back now before losing talent for nothing this summer?

While the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) have yet to lock in a new collective bargaining agreement, the following assumes a deal will be reached ahead of July that doesn't materially change the existing system.

Will the Rebuilders Spend?

Jakob Poeltl (left).
Jakob Poeltl (left).Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Some of those questions are easy to answer.

The Philadelphia 76ers aren't giving up on their playoff quest just because James Harden can decline his $35.6 million player option to explore a return to the Houston Rockets, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN wrote as a consideration. The Rockets could reach $60 million in cap space if motivated, which is why, in part, Eric Gordon is on the trade block ($20.9 million non-guaranteed for 2023-24).

The real spending power in July is in the hands of the rebuilding teams like the Orlando Magic ($62.9 million), San Antonio Spurs ($61.7 million), Detroit Pistons ($45.6 million) and Rockets. Those numbers shrink if various free agents or players with options or non-guaranteed salaries are retained (like Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Mo Bamba, Jakob Poeltl, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, etc.).

Outside the Rockets with Harden, rebuilding teams may not chase older, expensive veteran free agents like Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Nikola Vučević, Khris Middleton or Draymond Green. They may target younger players, but some of the top potential names like Kyle Kuzma, Fred VanVleet, Jerami Grant, Myles Turner, Dillon Brooks, D'Angelo Russell, Cam Johnson (restricted), Kristaps Porziņģis, Christian Wood, Kelly Oubre Jr., Josh Hart and Poeltl aren't exactly young by NBA standards in the 27-29 age bracket before the start of next season.

It's going to be on a case-by-case basis. The Pistons could be enamored by Kuzma as the hometown kid from Flint. The Magic might benefit from the steady leadership of VanVleet. But is either player eager to join a team near the bottom of the standings?

Instead, the teams may skew for even younger players like Gary Trent Jr., Jalen McDaniels, Lonnie Walker IV, Naz Reid or restricted free agents P.J. Washington, Austin Reaves or Cam Reddish.

Not all the names listed will get to free agency. Turner and the Indiana Pacers have discussed an extension. Grant may choose to stick with the Portland Trail Blazers before July.

Generally speaking, teams need to understand what it would take to retain their players. If the gap is too broad, trading ahead of the deadline could be the answer.

Better (or Worse) Than Expected

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 14: Jordan Clarkson #00 of the Utah Jazz shoots over Montrezl Harrell #5 of the Philadelphia 76ers during the first half of a game at Vivint Arena on January 14, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Utah could get to more cap space than any team in the league (nearly $66 million), but the Jazz have defied expectations by competing at a reasonably high level (instead of bottoming out following the trades of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert).

The team is exploring an extension with Jordan Clarkson and could choose to keep players like Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt—eschewing cap space entirely. Not all of the decision-power is in Utah's hands, as Talen Horton-Tucker, Rudy Gay and Clarkson are armed with player options.

"I think Utah may be a seller at the deadline or a buyer," the executive said, reflecting widespread confusion and curiosity in NBA circles on the Jazz. "They won't trade Lauri [Markkanen], but they have a lot of vets they could part with."

Given their success, the Jazz could take more of a win-now approach (relative to the rebuilders). Kuzma played college in Utah, VanVleet might be a nice Conley replacement, and a run at Reaves could test the Los Angeles Lakers' resolve.

Similarly, the Pacers have been a tough competitor all season. With almost $53 million in potential cap space, the franchise could look to add pieces in free agency alongside emerging star Tyrese Haliburton. The Pacers tend to look for longer-term high-quality value contracts, but if Turner extends, that could cut that spending power almost in half.

The Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are both struggling enough that other teams are hoping they look to trade off veterans. The Raptors could near $37 million in space without Thaddeus Young (mostly non-guaranteed), VanVleet and Trent. With Otto Porter Jr. out for the season with a foot injury, he's all but a lock to pick up his $6.3 million play option, which would cut into that spending power. But if Toronto wanted to trade off pieces, perhaps including Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, it would get a massive haul to start a rebuild around Scottie Barnes.

Per executives with other teams, the Bulls haven't shown a willingness to shop veterans like Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Vučević despite the squad's unimpressive season. Even if Chicago loses Vučević in free agency, the franchise may only have $15.6 million to spend—just above the projected non-taxpayer mid-level exception (NTMLE) of $11.4 million for teams that don't drop under the cap at all.

"The Bulls are in a tough spot," a Western Conference executive said. "I don't know what they're going to do [to fix it]."

Below Max, But May Have Money to Spend?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 08: Mason Plumlee #24 of the Charlotte Hornets is seen during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 8, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Lakers could reach nearly $33 million in cap space, which may be enough to chase a bottom-tier max player (with fewer than seven years of experience), but the team probably can't get close to the money for more experienced players in the $40-$47 million max range. Still, that might be enough to go after players like Irving, Turner or Kuzma

The Charlotte Hornets are one of the worst teams in the league, but the notable room (up to $32 million) assumes Mason Plumlee, Oubre and Washington move on. Complicating matters, Charlotte also has the rights to restricted free agent Miles Bridges, who the team may choose to bring back. But even unsigned, he takes up a sizable chunk of cap space. It's unclear what the Hornets will do next, but of all the teams on the list, they're the one that should be selling.

The Oklahoma City Thunder may have about $28 million but have been a reluctant spender through the rebuilding process. Is it time to make the plunge? Whatever the answer, the Thunder have all the ammunition to make blockbuster trade(s) with a treasure trove of future draft picks.

The Sacramento Kings ($24 million) and Minnesota Timberwolves ($21 million) can get to a reasonable amount of money, but that's without Harrison Barnes and D'Angelo Russell. Barnes is still a valued veteran with the Kings, while Russell's status in Minnesota is a bit murkier.

Already Invested

Several teams invested heavily heading into free agency, including the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat and New Orleans Pelicans. Add the Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and 76ers if they keep Middleton, Grant and Harden—and none project to have notable cap space if they lose their respective vets. Most will only have the taxpayer mid-level exception (TMLE) in the $7 million range to chase the leftovers after the teams with actual money have their pick of the best free agents.

Others more likely to stay over the cap (and could have either the TMLE or NTMLE, depending on who they retain) include the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.

Regardless, it's important to remember that everything is fluid. The Knicks didn't have the cap space last summer to sign Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein but got there through a series of trades. Those with cap room might take on unwanted salary for draft considerations instead of spending on free agency. That shift could open possibilities for those on the "already invested" list.

And some of those shifts may go down in the next few weeks. Some buyers may be looking to bolster a playoff run, but they need a few sellers to embrace what may be inevitable. If there's a time to cash out, rather than lose a free agent without recompense, there's just under a month to get it done.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.