The One 2016 Free Agent Each NBA Team Should Already Be Eyeing
NBA superstars are always in short supply, but that will especially be the case in July. The vast majority of teams will be flush with cap space to suit at least one max salary, courtesy of the league's new TV deal with ESPN and Turner Sports (which owns Bleacher Report).
Unfortunately for those squads, only a handful of players truly deserve that kind of money.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Andre Drummond may be the only no-brainers on the market. Beyond those three, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Bradley Beal, Mike Conley, Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside could command some serious scratch, with Harrison Barnes, Dwyane Wade, Chandler Parsons, Ryan Anderson and Nicolas Batum angling to get in on the action.
Still, that's just over a baker's dozen of top-shelf types to fill what could be upwards of 25 slots around the league. Like a game of reversed musical chairs, there are bound to be plenty of teams left without a new occupant once the tune stops.
That doesn't mean everyone can't go home happy this summer. If they're smart, the league's 30 squads can expand their search to include the free agents of all tiers that we've suggested based on team need and likely availability.
Atlanta Hawks: Dwight Howard, C
Before the trade deadline, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley bemoaned the possibility of the Atlanta Hawks swapping Al Horford for Dwight Howard:
Howard doesn’t pass very well. He can’t shoot beyond 10 feet. He doesn’t space the floor. He’s a low-post center in a league that now encourages big men to hoist 3-pointers. The Magic reached the 2009 NBA finals by ringing Howard with shooters and daring defenses to double-team him. (Mike Woodson, alas, always took the bait.) Nobody needs to double-team Howard anymore. He’s not going to score 50 points.
The Hawks ultimately held steady, but if Horford skips town this summer, they could do worse than replace him with Howard.
Atlanta has established itself as an elite defensive squad (No. 2 in the league in defensive efficiency) without a true rim protector, but it still struggles to clean the glass (No. 28 in rebounding percentage). In Howard, the Hawks would have a natural center rather than a power forward masquerading as a pivot, to patrol the paint and collect caroms (he's No. 3 in rebounding).
The concerns about Howard's limited offensive game are legitimate, but the Atlanta native remains a fantastic finisher in the pick-and-roll (1.09 points per possession). The Hawks, for their part, have had the roll man complete their possessions 8.5 percent of the time this season—the fifth-highest mark in the NBA.
Put Howard through the paces with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder, with Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap spotting up on the perimeter, and watch the Hawks soar from pleasant story to bona fide Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Boston Celtics: Al Horford, C
Should Al Horford fly Atlanta's coop, he could find comfortable climes with the Boston Celtics. According to CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely, the C's sniffed around Horford ahead of the February trade deadline. At the time, such a swap made sense to MassLive.com's Jay King:
The Celtics have not hidden their desire to add star talent; their collection of draft picks and young players will put them in the mix for any top player who hits the market. Horford, 29, could potentially be available during his fourth All-Star season; his size, two-way talent and versatility would make him a great fit in Boston, though his age could cause a bit of concern because he is expected to want a long contract this summer.
The Celtics could have upwards of $50 million in cap space to play with this summer, depending on how they handle the contracts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, both of whom aren't guaranteed for next season, along with new deals for Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller.
Horford would be a substantial upgrade over any and all current members of Gang Green. The four-time All-Star, a savvy passer for his position (2.7 assists per game for his career), has molded himself into a bona fide three-point threat (35.4 percent on three attempts per game) now nine years into his pro career.
With Horford at center, the C's could plant five guys around the perimeter on offense without giving up anything on defense. That might not be enough to put Boston back on top of the East, but Horford's wide-ranging skills, veteran smarts and locker room rapport could push the Celtics another rung closer to ending LeBron James' reign over the conference.
Brooklyn Nets: Jeremy Lin, PG
Whatever hopes the Brooklyn Nets had of luring Mike Conley to the boroughs probably went out the window once Lionel Hollins, Conley's former coach with the Memphis Grizzlies, got the boot. The losing probably won't help, either. Neither will Brooklyn's bleak, first-round-pick-less outlook.
Beyond Conley, the pickings at point guard, where the Nets are leaning on Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan while Jarrett Jack recovers from an ACL tear, are slim.
Jeremy Lin's work on Charlotte's second unit with Al Jefferson would serve him well next to another low-post behemoth like Brook Lopez. And though Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov may no longer be trying to overshadow the New York Knicks quite so blatantly anymore, bringing Linsanity to Brooklyn would give the Russian oligarch an opportunity to get in another jab while incrementally improving his team.
The Madison Square sensation-turned-career backup has carved out a nice niche for himself as the Charlotte Hornets' third guard this season. He's turned the ball over at a career-low rate (14.5 percent) and shot well as a spot-up option from the corners (42.9 percent).
Charlotte Hornets: Nicolas Batum, SF
General manager Rich Cho's summer gamble on Nicolas Batum in exchange for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh has paid off for the Charlotte Hornets. While Henderson has performed decently and Vonleh has languished with the Portland Trail Blazers, Batum has become a key cog for one of the East's best teams.
The 27-year-old Frenchman has had a landmark year in the Queen City, posting career highs in points (15.3) and assists (5.8). With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffering through shoulder problems for most of the season, Batum has ably stepped in as the Hornets' ace perimeter defender. The team has been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor compared to when he's on the bench, per NBA.com.
Batum's standout work should earn him a substantial raise in July, assuming team owner Michael Jordan is willing to pony up. With Courtney Lee, another unrestricted free agent, potentially on his way out, the Hornets could use a player of Batum's talents to flank Kemba Walker. Not that Batum is at all consumed by his first true foray into the market.
"I’ve been around teams where people think about their contract and their personal situation. I can’t understand that," Batum told the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "With this team, we know if we do great as a team, if we all do our jobs, everything will work out."
It could work out handsomely for the Hornets, too. If Kidd-Gilchrist returns with his shoulder intact, Batum could help Charlotte trot out arguably the NBA's most impenetrable perimeter defensive duo.
Chicago Bulls: Harrison Barnes, SF
As the No. 1 recruit in his high school class, Harrison Barnes insisted that he "wanted to be 6'6" my whole life" because that's how tall Michael Jordan was, per Jon Yates of the Chicago Tribune. Barnes' desire to "be like Mike" seems to have subsided substantially since he left North Carolina for the NBA, if his touchy relationship with Jordan and his shoes in college was any indication.
Those Jordan comparisons could come rushing back if Barnes, now a gifted role player for the Golden State Warriors were to sign with the Chicago Bulls as a restricted free agent. He has some distinct ties to the Bulls, playing high school ball with Doug McDermott, who's found his groove this season under Fred Hoiberg, the former coach at the same university (Iowa State) where Barnes' mother worked.
Basketball-wise, Chicago could use a talented wing like Barnes, especially if Jimmy Butler gets the boot this summer. Barnes flashed a formidable post game as a rookie and has since molded himself into an effective three-point shooter (37 percent for his career) and versatile defender in Golden State.
He won't likely get to spread his wings fully with the Warriors, who've rightfully cast their lot with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. At 23, Barnes still has plenty of room for growth in his own game and could find the room he needs to expand in the Windy City.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James, F
You were expecting someone else?
LeBron James has meant everything to the Cleveland Cavaliers, whether he's been there or not, since the early 2000s. With him, the Cavs have been to two Finals and held their own among the East's elites. Without him, they've languished toward the bottom and cracked the top of the draft lottery three times—four, if you include the No. 1 pick that kept James in northeast Ohio in 2003.
It's no wonder, then, that folks in Cleveland—including some in the Cavs organization, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe—are so concerned about his every mood and move, on social media and elsewhere. If the Cavaliers fall short of another Eastern Conference crown, James' eyes could wander elsewhere—perhaps some place where he can join forces with his banana boat buddies.
But, says ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, never fear: "In the end, this is all that will matter. When the season is on the line and James is carrying the heaviest burden, all the other noise from the dog days of the season will have long since turned into vapor."
Cleveland can only hope that includes any thought of James spurning his home state a second time.
Dallas Mavericks: Pau Gasol, C
The Dallas Mavericks have been hot after Dwight Howard for years, but if they balk at his asking price—which they might, if USA Today's Sam Amick's report from February still holds true—Pau Gasol could be their next-best option to fill in at center. According to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, the Bulls are no longer so set on keeping Gasol as they once were.
Offensively, watching Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki would be a delight. The two aging Europeans would make each other's lives easier. Just picture Nowitzki spacing the floor with his shot to open up the middle for Gasol, who draws double-teams down low and kicks the ball back out to the giant German on the perimeter.
With Chandler Parsons having the option to move on, the Mavs could need another playmaker of Gasol's caliber to keep Rick Carlisle's offense up to snuff and share the burden that Nowitzki, at 37, can no longer on his own.
There will almost certainly be issues defensively with this duo. Neither can comfortably or competently chase today's smaller, quicker power forwards around. Gasol, though, has been an excellent interior deterrent, limiting opponents to 46.2 percent shooting at the hoop.
That could come in handy for a Dallas squad that ranks among the bottom 10 in rim protection, even if it means making Nowitzki run more.
Denver Nuggets: Kent Bazemore, SF
For a team eyeing its third straight trip to the draft lottery, the Denver Nuggets don't have many holes to fill on their roster.
Their backcourt of the future is in place, with Emmanuel Mudiay next to Gary Harris and Jameer Nelson as the veteran mentor off the bench. They have more quality, young European bigs than you could shake a stick at, from rookie sensation Nikola Jokic to Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic, the trash-talking titan.
And that's not to mention Kenneth Faried, who's still a glass-cleaning, slam-dunking double-double machine.
The soft spot for this rebuilding squad is on the wing. If Danilo Gallinari's injuries weren't such a constant concern, the Nuggets would already have a reliable star at that spot.
With Kent Bazemore, the team could add a sturdy perimeter player who can guard multiple positions and shoot the three-ball (35.5 percent) at or above a league-average rate. If the Hawks balk at paying Bazemore an eight-figure salary, don't be shocked if he takes his talents to the Mile High City. He would join a promising rebuild led by Michael Malone, who coached Bazemore when the two were with the Golden State Warriors during the 2012-13 season.
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond, C
The Detroit Pistons have but one item they must address this summer: re-signing Andre Drummond, a restricted free agent, as soon as possible for as long and as much money as the collective bargaining agreement will allow.
According to MLive.com's David Mayo, Drummond agreed to table extension talks until after the 2015-16 season to free up more cap space for Stan Van Gundy and his front office to play with. Rather than save that flexibility for the summer, the Pistons essentially spent it during the campaign when they traded for Tobias Harris in February.
That should all but take Detroit out of the market in July, assuming the team maxes out Drummond on the spot.
And why wouldn't it? He is due to lead the league in rebounds and double-doubles while playing in his first All-Star Game, putting the Pistons back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and, perhaps, earning his first All-NBA nod at the tender age of 22.
Whatever it costs Detroit to keep him there and happy will be well worth it for this proud franchise.
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant, F
Back in February, the NBA was abuzz with word, broken by The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, that Kevin Durant would consider signing with the Golden State Warriors. Clearing space for Durant would come at a steep cost to the core of a Dubs squad that may be back-to-back champs by then, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe:
Signing Durant with cap room would cost Golden State Harrison Barnes, and at least two of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut and [Festus] Ezeli. The Warriors would have to offload two of those guys into someone else's cap space, and they are privately worried they might have to attach one or even two future first-round picks to grease the wheels.
Of course, adding a former MVP and current top-five talent to a historically great team isn't supposed to be easy. But, as Lowe concluded, if Golden State has the opportunity to do so—and turn its championship window into a stained-glass facade—it would make too much sense not to bring Durant aboard:
In the end, though, the fit would be as clean as we've ever seen with a super-team. There is just so much passing, shooting, versatility and unselfishness in that four-man core. If they have a chance in July, the Warriors should probably do almost whatever it takes to sign Durant.
Houston Rockets: David West, PF
The Houston Rockets need not fret if Dwight Howard continues his NBA tour this summer. They already have a capable replacement in Clint Capela. What the Rockets will really need is a sturdy stand-in at power forward.
Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, both of whom have long been touted as full-time 4s, will be restricted free agents this summer. Neither has done much to merit a major investment on Houston's part, with injuries and illnesses perpetually plaguing them both and delaying their respective development timetables.
The Rockets might still commit to one, the other or both, but they'd also do well to explore more reliable alternatives.
One such option: David West. The former All-Star has shot a career-best 55 percent with solid per-36-minute stats (14.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.5 combined steals and blocks) while anchoring the San Antonio Spurs' second unit. Beyond his production, West would be just the sort of locker room leader this drama-filled Houston team needs.
Whether he'd be willing to leave the Alamo City for less certain climes is tough to tell. West left an eight-figure salary on the table in Indiana to chase a championship with San Antonio. The Rockets would have to sell West on being the final piece of what seems to be a complicated puzzle if they're going to lure him from one Texas outpost to another.
Indiana Pacers: Ryan Anderson, PF
Paul George at power forward proved to be a short-lived experiment for the Indiana Pacers. By late January, Frank Vogel was back to fielding lineups with two towers up front.
Granted, Ian Mahinmi and rookie Myles Turner are more mobile and athletic than Roy Hibbert and David West ever were, but neither is about to stretch the floor with a three-point stroke. With Mahinmi coming off the books this summer, the Pacers could move a giant step closer to realizing Larry Bird's vision for a fast-paced, explosive offense by bringing Ryan Anderson into the fold.
The 27-year-old is as close to the prototype stretch 4 as you'll find outside of Cleveland or Dallas. At 6'10", Anderson can threaten defenses with his three-point shot (37.7 percent for his career) and use his big body to bang with fellow power forwards.
Anderson won't come cheaply, but with more than $30 million in cap room to spend, the Pacers can probably afford whatever price tag he and his agent come up with.
Los Angeles Clippers: Luol Deng, SF
Let's say the Los Angeles Clippers don't break up their core this summer and decide not to bring back Jeff Green. That would leave them with the same yawning hole at small forward that Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and (before he was traded) Lance Stephenson failed to fill this season.
Getting Kevin Durant to step in at that spot would require Doc Rivers to dump one of his Big Three—not to mention Durant's own consent to leave Oklahoma City. Short of that pipe dream, the Clippers could clear $10-12 million in total cap space for a reliable veteran such as Luol Deng.
Granted, the 30-year-old may be better suited to play the 4 at this point in his career, as he told USA Today's Sam Amick:
My strength comes in cutting, moving, running into screens, coming off pindowns – it’s just how I play basketball. And now that I’m playing at the 4, I have the opportunity to run into screens. I can run the floor. I can be in the top of the key. I don’t always just find myself right in the corner and waiting for the action to happen. I’m actually initiating a lot of action, so really I’m having a lot of fun but I’m definitely in my comfort zone. That’s really – it’s what I know best.
Deng would get to do all that and more when the Clippers downsize, with Blake Griffin at the 5 or DeAndre Jordan manning the middle on his own. When L.A. stays big, Deng could stretch the floor with his shooting (34.4 percent from three this season) or attack the middle off a quick pass.
Either way, so long as Deng doesn't mind defending 3s and 4s, he'd be the best frontcourt complement to Griffin and Jordan that the Clippers have found since the Chris Paul era began.
Los Angeles Lakers: DeMar DeRozan, SG
Sorry to break it to you, Los Angeles Lakers fans, but Kevin Durant won't be wearing purple and gold next season—not with the team in turmoil.
DeMar DeRozan might be a long shot, too. He has a good thing going with the Toronto Raptors, who've wrapped up their third straight Atlantic Division crown. He's played in two All-Star Games, including this year's edition in Toronto, and has built a bona fide bromance with his backcourt buddy, Kyle Lowry.
But what happens if the Raptors' playoff run ends in the blink of an eye for the third year running? And what happens, then, if his hometown team comes calling with a max contract starting around $25 million per year, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe?
Can an L.A. native who grew up watching Kobe Bryant—and whose slashing, free throw-heavy game resembles the Mamba's—turn down the opportunity to try to fill his idol's shoes?
Come July, he and the Lakers will find out.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley Jr.
When the Memphis Grizzlies signed Marc Gasol to a five-year contract last summer, they all but committed themselves to bringing back Mike Conley Jr. this July.
Without him in the backcourt, the Grizzlies will be hard-pressed to make the most of Gasol's remaining prime. Memphis isn't exactly a draw for free agents, and this year's market is particularly thin at point guard. As Sporting News' Danny Leroux explained, that confluence of factors could work in Conley's favor:
Conley will command a massive contract in both years and salary. He will turn 29 before the start of next season, and smaller guards generally do not age particularly well. Whoever signs Conley should be focusing on getting the most out of his ability the first few seasons with the later ones serving as the cost of securing him for 2016-17 and 2017-18.
If not for Gasol and Zach Randolph, Memphis might have the political will to rebuild. As much success as the Grizzlies have enjoyed in recent years, their best days with that core might already be behind them.
Gasol's foot injury and the uncertainty that attends a fractured navicular could test Conley's loyalties and lead him to look elsewhere. The Grizzlies, though, don't have that same luxury to look around.
Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade, SG
Pat Riley has plenty on his plate this summer. Only five members of the Miami Heat's current roster are under contract for next season—which means Riles will spend the month of July locked into negotiations.
None of those will be more crucial or contentious than the ones he conducts with Dwyane Wade's representatives. Wade re-upped with the Heat for one year at $20 million last summer, but only after pushing for a longer contract. Chances are that the 34-year-old will try to lock up some semblance of security with a multiyear deal in July.
That is, if he and LeBron James don't find a way to reach their #squadgoals with Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.
In some respects, Wade's departure would make things easier for Riley and the Heat. They'd have plenty of cash to splash at top-tier free agents, from their own (Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng) to those on the outside (Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan).
Were Wade to leave, the Heat would lose not only a player still capable of popping off 20-plus points on any given night but also an all-time great who's been key to their identity since he came into the league in 2003. It's better to keep that.
MIlwaukee Bucks: Evan Fournier, SG/SF
The Milwaukee Bucks have already committed to Giannis Antetokounmpo at the point.
"We're going to go forward with him (Antetokounmpo) handling the ball," head coach Jason Kidd said, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner. "You can call him point guard, point forward, point center, however you want to look at it. With him having the ball and the pressure he puts on the defense and his ability to find guys, it has been a plus for us."
To make it work with Antetokounmpo up top and Jabari Parker and Greg Monroe in the middle, Milwaukee would do well to load up on shooting however and wherever it can.
Beyond Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, the best the Bucks will find is Evan Fournier. The 6'7" Frenchman is a career 39.1 percent three-point shooter and has blossomed into a multifaceted wing with the Orlando Magic this season (14.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals).
Fournier will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and at 23, he fits both the timeline and skill profile of the Bucks' burgeoning core.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jared Dudley, F
The Minnesota Timberwolves already have the makings of a complete team, albeit one that won't be ready to contend for another couple of years. What they need now are more veteran voices to shepherd youngsters like Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and whoever the T-Wolves draft in 2016.
The late Flip Saunders brought in several of those before the 2015-16 season. But Andre Miller is gone, Tayshaun Prince will be a free agent, and Kevin Garnett hasn't played since January.
There may be no one better to step in than Jared Dudley. The nine-year journeyman was integral to Milwaukee's shocking turnaround last season and has been one of the Washington Wizards' few healthy pillars in 2015-16. Skill-wise, Minnesota could use Dudley's ace shooting (41.9 percent from three) to spread the floor for Wiggins and Ricky Rubio on one end and his ability to hang with shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards on the other.
Whoever is coaching the T-Wolves next season, be it Sam Mitchell or one of a handful of highly qualified candidates, will need an old hand like Dudley to spread the gospel in the locker room.
New Orleans Pelicans: Courtney Lee, SG
Eric Gordon's impending free agency leaves the New Orleans Pelicans with not so much a hole as a clear opportunity to better fit what Alvin Gentry wants to do with Anthony Davis. They won't need another ball-dominant perimeter, not with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans already entrenched.
Instead, speed and shooting will be the names of the game, both of which fit the description for Courtney Lee. The well-traveled wing has caught fire since joining the Hornets this season, knocking down 44.8 percent of his threes in Charlotte. For his career, Lee has drained 38.6 percent of his treys.
He's hardly the sexiest option on the market this summer, and the Pelicans will have enough money to talk shop with bigger names. But New Orleans would be wise not to tether too much of its flexibility to a single overpay. In Lee, the Pels would add a smart, skilled shooter who will command a number much friendlier to their cap.
New York Knicks: Mike Conley Jr., PG
New York Knicks president Phil Jackson recently insisted he won't spend the summer focusing on floor generals.
"Chasing a point guard, where it becomes just an obsession, isn't necessary. It's not necessary," Jackson said, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley. "We can play the game without that."
In a past era? With a team perfectly tailored to run the triangle? Sure.
But in today's NBA, where point guards reign supreme, that's a tougher sell. Jackson's Knicks aren't the best team to make that case, what with Jose Calderon, Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant comprising the worst collection of 1s in the league.
Mike Conley Jr. has the skills to succeed in the triangle. He's a smart passer (6.1 assists per game this season) who can knock down threes (37.3 percent for his career). More importantly, he's one of the best defenders at his position.
Convincing Conley to come to New York would have been difficult enough without the Zen Master pooh-poohing his ilk. There's no doubt, though, that the Knicks would be a much better team with an upgrade like Conley in their backcourt.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant, F
The Oklahoma City Thunder need no reminders of what's at stake with Kevin Durant this summer. They've been flooded with questions and speculation pertaining to his free agency all season long.
They also know full well how their game changes without him. OKC missed the playoffs last season while KD struggled with foot injuries and is 3-5 in 2015-16 when he hasn't played.
There's no replacing a generational talent and all-around exemplary citizen like Durant. He's been a boon to the OKC community while entertaining locals with his ability to score (28 points per game), shoot (38.5 percent from three) and pass (five assists) at nearly 7'0".
The Thunder have already taken steps to tilt their team toward Russell Westbrook, who will be a free agent in 2017. He led the league in scoring while Durant was down in 2014-15 and has paced the team in usage (31.8 percent) this time around.
But as great as Westbrook is on his own, having one of the NBA's elite on the floor makes his life easier and elevates the Thunder into the league's upper echelon year in and year out.
Orlando Magic: Chandler Parsons, SF
As ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon reported in March, Chandler Parsons is no lock to stick with the Mavericks this summer: "Those close to the situation consider his hometown Magic to be the biggest threat to steal Parsons from the Mavs. With its pre-deadline dealing, Orlando cleared enough cap space to sign two players to max contracts. Sources anticipate that the Magic will aggressively pursue Parsons."
The Magic would be smart to do so, even in light of Parsons' latest knee operation. The 27-year-old is just the sort of shooter (41.6 percent from three this season) and playmaker (2.8 assists) Orlando could use to grease the offense for Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon up front, then Elfrid Payton Jr. and Victor Oladipo on the perimeter.
Off the court, Parsons could be the kind of recruiter the Magic need to make a massive splash on the market after falling short in their pursuit of Paul Millsap last offseason. Parsons played pivotal roles in Dwight Howard signing with Houston and DeAndre Jordan's near move to Dallas.
The Magic could deploy the local boy to draw in another big fish—like, say, fellow University of Florida product Al Horford—to fuel the leap from promising rebuild to Eastern Conference contender.
Philadelphia 76ers: Eric Gordon, SG
In truth, the Philadelphia 76ers should seek out any and every free agent who will take their calls.
They've practically sat out free agency since Sam Hinkie took over the front office and only started seriously courting players who weren't rookies and/or undrafted once Jerry Colangelo came aboard this season.
Adding someone like Eric Gordon would seem to suit both Hinkie and Colangelo all at once. For the latter, the 27-year-old sharpshooter would be just the sort of impact player the Sixers desperately need to move in the right direction and avoid alienating their fans.
For the former, his three-point shot (38.3 percent for his career) would open the floor for Philly's young bigs, His injury history wouldn't be any harder to stomach than the medical rap sheets attached to the team's most promising prospects.
That spotty health record could also render Gordon a relative bargain—something that will be both rare on this summer's wild market and appealing to Hinkie's fiscal sensibilities.
Phoenix Suns: Mirza Teletovic, F
You know what the Phoenix Suns could use? A sharpshooting forward who can spread the floor on one end and stay in front of forwards on the other.
Come to think of it, they already have one of those: Mirza Teletovic. The 30-year-old Balkan big man should get a raise this summer after knocking down 39.5 percent of his threes in Phoenix.
Frankly, the Suns should be the ones to give it to him.
Whether they stay big up front with Alex Len and Tyson Chandler or go small with the guard trio of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Devin Booker, they'll need Teletovic's hot hand to spread the floor for the starters or light up the scoreboard from the bench.
Portland Trail Blazers: Joakim Noah, C
The Portland Trail Blazers already have their foundation in place, thanks to the standout play of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Now comes the hard part: finding the right players to complement that high-scoring backcourt.
With this year's free-agent class so thin on wings, the Blazers would do well to mine the market for big men to tutor young bigs like Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh.
Who better to fill both roles than Joakim Noah? The former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year is probably done in Chicago and might not be quite as coveted around the league due to his age (31) and injury history. He could be another smart bet on the part of Blazers general manager Neil Olshey. When healthy, Noah could be just the sort of frontcourt facilitator to ease the playmaking burden that Lillard and McCollum share.
Portland's history with banged-up bigs is ignominious, littered with names like Bill Walton, LaRue Martin, Sam Bowie and Greg Oden. Adding Noah, then, might not be the most popular idea.
But free agents don't often choose to move to the Pacific Northwest. If Noah is comfortable relocating and can get his shoulder back in playing shape, he could be just the veteran voice and all-around impact player the Blazers need to ensure their surprise season doesn't look like a fluke come 2016-17.
Sacramento Kings: Mario Chalmers, PG
If chemists could play basketball, the Sacramento Kings should find one as fast as they can and throw all of their money that way. Otherwise, point guard is probably the biggest priority in California's capital.
Unfortunately for the Kings, this year's class is paper-thin at that position. Unless they bring back Rajon Rondo, they're not likely to find a better floor general who's willing to wade into Sacramento's basketball swamp.
Not that the Kings need a better point guard—just one who fits what they're trying to do on the floor.
Mario Chalmers could be that guy if his recovery from a ruptured Achilles proceeds smoothly. The 29-year-old was a key cog in two championship runs with the Heat and found a nice niche for himself as a second-unit scorer and defensive specialist in Memphis this season. Sacramento could take a flier on Chalmers whether or not it brings Rondo back.
San Antonio Spurs: Zaza Pachulia, C
The San Antonio Spurs' approach to free agency will depend largely on what Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili decide. If those two stalwarts want to give it another go, the Spurs can run it back with the same group that's put them on a franchise-record pace this season.
If not, San Antonio will have to retool without the benefit of quite the same cap windfall that's coming to its competitors.
There will still be solid options for the Spurs to pursue, including Zaza Pachulia. The Georgian giant has strengthened his stock considerably this season. He's averaged nearly a double-double (8.9 points, 9.7 rebounds) for the Mavericks while doing all of the little things, as SB Nation's Mike Prada wrote in praise:
Pachulia shows there's still value in the dirty work, provided a player actually has the intelligence and craftsmanship to pull it off. In Dallas, a collection of one-dimensional scorers suddenly looks whole. In Milwaukee, a swarm of lanky jumping jacks suddenly looks disorganized. A career seven-point, six-rebound player really does make that big of a difference.
That kind of savvy would suit Pachulia under coach Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. And if Timmy retires, the Spurs will need someone of Pachulia's repute to play center so LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't have to.
Toronto Raptors: Ryan Anderson, PF
The easy answer is to say the Toronto Raptors should move heaven and earth to keep DeMar DeRozan. But the Canadians might have a quality replacement ready in rookie Norman Powell, who's drained 43.6 percent of his threes since settling into the starting lineup during mid-March.
With or without DeRozan, the Raptors will be thinnest at power forward. They've managed to patch things together with Luis Scola (a free agent-to-be) and Patrick Patterson but will be hard-pressed to contend in the East absent an upgrade.
General manager Masai Ujiri might have the same idea. According to the Detroit Free Press' Vincent Ellis, the Raptors sniffed around Ryan Anderson ahead of the February trade deadline.
Ujiri won't have to worry about sacrificing assets for an Anderson rental this summer. If DeRozan goes, Toronto can commit a sizable chunk of its remaining cap space to a more permanent solution at the 4.
Utah Jazz: Brandon Jennings, PG
The Utah Jazz have most of the pieces to be a burgeoning contender out West. All they need now is another point guard, be it a true starter or someone to create depth at the position.
Brandon Jennings can fill either role. He's always been a potent playmaker, though his shooting, long a weakness, has regressed (37.0 percent from field, 32.4 percent from three) in the wake of his Achilles tear.
The Jazz can afford to take a chance on Jennings. Next season, they'll welcome back Dante Exum, who'd been pegged as their point guard of the future, from an ACL tear suffered while playing for the Australian national team. Exum aside, Utah can squeeze a significant share of the shot creation it needs out of Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood.
It wouldn't hurt, though, to have Jennings waiting in the wings once he's found his pre-injury self.
Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal, SG
I'll tell Washington Wizards fans what I told Lakers Nation earlier: Kevin Durant isn't walking through that door—certainly not to join this dysfunctional bunch. As Bradley Beal said after a 120-111 loss to the Kings in Sacramento on March 30, per CSN's J. Michael:
We bark too much. We say what we need to do. We scream at one another. We can even try to blame Witt if we want to but at the end of the day we still the ones playing. We still beat ourselves. We do dumb stuff on the floor like just not having a man in transition or not knowing where a guy is at half court or not knowing personnel. We just do dumb mental lapses that just mess up the game and end up hurting us in the long run. Everybody is a grown ass man, you either want to play or you don’t.
The silver lining here is that Beal, who is "usually low key," per J. Michael, is speaking his mind and including himself in the criticism, like any developing leader should. His game has grown as well, posting career highs in points (17.5) and field-goal percentage (45.1 percent) while improving his mid-range game.
Normally, these upticks would portend a max contract in restricted free agency. But his annual spate of leg injuries figures to cut his earning power this summer. That is, unless another team gets involved and drives up the bidding. Either way, the Wizards should do whatever it takes to preserve one of the few, fleeting bright spots from their dark, disastrous season.