Ranking NBA's Least Attractive Free-Agent Destinations
Not every NBA team deserves the consideration of quality free agents.
Market size and appeal is often used to begin this kind of discussion. We're throwing it out the window. No, you can't wander around shirtless in Minnesota during the middle of January, but players would be foolish to think syncing up with Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins is a bad basketball decision.
And this is the focus here: squads that don't offer much basketball value in the short or long term—or both.
Some of these teams will have cap space no matter what. Spending power for others is predicated on secondary roster decisions and moves. Each inclusion will be evaluated against their probable free-agent pursuits—superstars, pricey role players or ring-chasing vets willing to sign below-market deals.
For a variety of reasons, these teams are no-fly zones. They don't have enough talent, failed to put the right people in power, are headed for an unavoidable nosedive or sport unsightly track records that cannot yet be purged from the record.
Unless they're being overpaid for their services, players in their target audience would do well to stay away.
On the Cusp...
Cap Situation: Yikes
Primary Deterrent: LeBron James' free agency in 2018
Ring-chasers who care not for money can punch a ticket to the NBA Finals next season by joining the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beyond that, they're not even promised a playoff berth.
Some people around the NBA believe LeBron James will leave Cleveland as a free agent in 2018, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski (via NBC Sports). This noise feels real. James has left once before, he's forever endeared himself to the franchise by winning a title, and the Cavaliers did nothing to keep David Griffin, the architect of a championship supporting cast who had the four-time MVP in his corner.
It's telling that, as of now, Chauncey Billups hasn't accepted a job offer to run the team, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge. This is a tough job to have with James. Lose him, and the Cavaliers enter 2018-19 with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the last year of their deals, no young assets and their first-rounder (top-10 protected) headed to Atlanta. They'll have even less to build with if they trade for Paul George and then watch him follow James out the door.
There is value in accepting a pay cut to compete for a title, but the allure plummets when the primary draw (James) is a flight risk and the Cavaliers don't have the inside track on upsetting the Golden State Warriors.
Cap Situation: Not great, Bob
Primary Deterrent: Too many uncertainties for a potential taxpayer
There is zero chance the Detroit Pistons duck the luxury tax if they re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (restricted) and keep the heart of the roster together. And that might be fine with them for now. Head coach and president Stan Van Gundy may want to see what this core can be with a healthy Reggie Jackson.
Still, the Pistons won just 37 games last season and could have $80.6 million committed to a core of Caldwell-Pope, Jackson, Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris for 2017-18. Can a single player in that bunch be the alpha on a contender? How about a quasi-contender?
Big-time free agents won't flock toward teams peddling part of the mid-level exception when their ceiling is maybe fifth in the conference. Any substantial adjustments the Pistons make must come via trade—an ambitious undertaking unto itself with the market values of Drummond and Jackson in flux.
Portland Trail Blazers
Cap Situation: Stuck
Primary Deterrent: Lack of roster spots
Money clearly comes into play here. The Portland Trails Blazers won't sidestep the luxury tax without unloading a long-term contract or two.
But let's say the taxpayer's mid-level exception calls to someone like Thabo Sefolosha or another veteran wing interested in teaming up with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Where will the Blazers put them?
Assuming they waive Festus Ezeli's non-guaranteed salary, they'll have 16 players on the roster. They need to waive at least one of Pat Connaughton and Tim Quarterman to create room, and even then, they're looking at a personnel crunch.
So no, the Blazers aren't an attractive landing spot. Luckily for them, though, they aren't trying to be.
5. Sacramento Kings
Cap Situation: Ready to make it rain
Primary Deterrent: They're, like, the Kings
The Sacramento Kings almost didn't make this list, and that, right there, for them, is a monstrous accomplishment.
It's highly uncomfortable being kind of, sort of, pretty mostly maybe content with their direction. They traded DeMarcus Cousin for a lukewarm return, but they're finally rebuilding (we think) and had a damn good draft.
De'Aaron Fox (No. 5) has the makings of a franchise point guard, Justin Jackson (No. 15) is a legitimate three-and-D prospect who could end up being a steal outside the lottery, and Frank Mason (No. 34) is proof good floor generals sometimes come in small, fearless, fiercely competitive 5'11" packages. Adding the injury-prone Harry Giles (No. 20) to the jam-packed frontcourt is the lone decision worth quibbling over, but even there, Sacramento used a late first-rounder on someone who once profiled as a top-five talent.
These are all good things. And they're made better by the $50-plus million in cap space the Kings will have after they bring over Bogdan Bogdanovic if they renounce all their own free agents
Or are they made worse?
It's still possible the Kings, after this solid draft, will "follow through on plans to chase big-money veteran free agents," according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. This is not what you want from a team that has one year to tank before its 2019 first-rounder gets sent to the Philadelphia 76ers (who might send it to the Boston Celtics).
Spending some money is fine. Overpaying one strong locker-room presence to keep the kiddies in line is even OK. But free agents shouldn't be jumping at the opportunity to land in Sactown when the Kings have yet to show restraint in contract negotiations or prove they have the means and patience to nurture young talent.
Players who join rebuilding squads should want some idea of what they're getting into. Is this a long-term thing? A short-term play? Is the goal to build a powerhouse? Or to end an 11-year playoff drought with an eighth-place finish in the Western Conference? With the Kings, you never know. They need to exhibit at least one year of unified direction before their cap space translates to curb appeal.
4. Indiana Pacers
Cap Situation: Flexible
Primary Deterrent: Paul George's exit
The Indiana Pacers can manufacture more than $25 million in cap space if they decline Lavoy Allen's team option and renounce the rights to free agents CJ Miles and Jeff Teague—enough money to sign a marquee name.
Except, that hypothetical addition comes after turning two of their three most important players, Miles and Teague, into collateral damage. And they only get rid of both if Paul George is gone, which defeats the purpose of signing with them in the first place.
Even if the Pacers have George play out the season, they're an unattractive landing spot. Dumping one of Monta Ellis or Al Jefferson gets them more than $15 million in cap space while carrying holds for Miles and Teague, but this would be among the most futile roster revamps ever.
George has told Indiana he's leaving in free agency next summer, according to Wojnarowski. Free agents would be latching onto a sinking ship. There's no clear path back to relevancy from here.
Myles Turner and, maybe, T.J. Leaf are the Pacers' sole building blocks. They have all their own picks, but Thaddeus Young would be their best trade asset without George. They'll have cap space, but it might not matter. They aren't known for poaching free agents. David West might be the biggest signing in franchise history.
Inbound talent won't see silver linings in George's departure, either. He could still be on the roster by the time they sign, so they won't know what his exit yields Indiana. If he is gone, it's unlikely the Pacers start their rebuild from a position of strength. The market for one-season superstar rentals is competitive, but not at all lucrative.
Worst of all: Everyone, including prospective free agents, knows it didn't have to be like this. Pacers president Kevin Pritchard told reporters George's one-year notice was a "gut punch," but USA Today's Sam Amick reported in February the All-Star forward was "hell-bent" on getting to Hollywood. The writing was on the wall, and the Pacers ignored it. How can new players trust them to rebuild a foundation they didn't see crumbling before their eyes?
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Cap Situation: Woof
Primary Deterrent: Low basement, low ceiling
Teams working off six straight seasons of winning at least 60 percent of their games shouldn't be this unappealing.
Behind Door No. 1, we have a Los Angeles Clippers squad with cap space, looking to make a splash in free agency. The thing is, they only have this cap space because Blake Griffin and Chris Paul left. And if they're gone, you best believe JJ Redick is, too.
Open Door No. 2, and we have a Clippers squad fully intact, with absolutely no money to spend. They'll have the taxpayer's mid-level exception to dangle ($5.2 million), but any quality ring-chasers willing to accept a steep discount lack foresight if this is the situation they choose. Los Angeles needs more than a biggish name and some elbow grease to flirt with Golden State.
This absence of an intriguing middle ground is what dooms the Clippers. If they let Griffin, Redick and Luc Mbah a Moute walk while re-signing Paul, they still wouldn't have cap space. Both Griffin and Paul have to go. It's all or nothing.
Remove money from the equation, and the Clippers continue to be an unattractive destination. Head coach and president Doc Rivers has failed to flesh out the supporting cast with affordable gems. He can't be trusted to find veteran minimum's gold after burning through the taxpayer's mid-level. Nor can he be counted on to properly lead a reboot. Heck, if the team is thrust into a reset, there's no guarantee he sticks around to start it.
So which door is for you, NBA Free Agent Worth a Darn: Door No. 1 and its full-on, blindfolded rebuild, or Door No. 2 and its same-old wildly expensive early playoff exit, with an extra side of aging Chris Paul and a fairly injury-prone Blake Griffin on the side?
Neither? Makes sense.
2. Chicago Bulls
Cap Situation: Super flexible
Primary Deterrent: GarPax
Dwyane Wade has not disqualified the Chicago Bulls from free-agency contention by opting into the final year of his contract. They've done that all by themselves.
Waiving Rajon Rondo ($3 million guaranteed) and renouncing Michael-Carter Williams (duh) carves out more than $20 million in space. That number will climb, if explode, depending on what happens with restricted free agents Cristiano Felicio, Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Mirotic.
But does any of this matter when, fresh off trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman are in the fold? Blog a Bull's Ricky O'Donnell doesn't think so:
"Butler was just about the only thing Forman and Paxson had going for them. They could whiff on five straight draft picks and botch free agency every year but they still had Butler to drag the team up to competency. He overachieved more than any Chicago athlete I can ever remember, fulfilling 200% of his potential through his own self-will and determination. The Bulls would probably like to tell you that they made Jimmy Butler, that his ascent is a byproduct of their culture and infrastructure. The next few years are about to prove how wrong that idea is."
Good players can join teams in the infancy of rebuilds. It's not out of the question when they have money. The Brooklyn Nets are a perfect example. They ultimately may not land whales, but they've reinvented the culture enough to pique player attention. They will garner consideration from unexpected names even though their renovation is a triple-double marathon.
The Bulls don't have that luxury. Forman and Paxson ran a quality coach, in Tom Thibodeau, out of town. They hired head coach Fred Hoiberg for his pace-and-space offense, then assembled a roster unfit to play that style. And they unequivocally lost the Butler trade.
Nothing is wrong with the actual decision to move Butler. Chicago wants to rebuild. Fine. Good. But Zach LaVine is coming off an ACL injury and could be making more than Butler by 2018-19, and GarPax treated Kris Dunn as last year's No. 5 pick, not a player who ranked as one of the 15 least valuable offensive contributors in 2016-17, according to NBA Math. And if they re-sign Mirotic to a huge contract after drafting Lauri Markkanen with the seventh overall pick—which they couldn't get without sending Minnesota No. 16—the people of Chicago could riot.
Drawing in free agents is always difficult for transitioning squads. For the Bulls, it'll be impossible without overpaying them to play for one of the league's least promising rebuilds.
1. New York Knicks
Cap Situation: Unimpressive to moderately flexible
Primary Deterrent: Phil Jackson
Maybe free agents can overlook the New York Knicks' treatment of Carmelo Anthony, a player they re-signed to a deal that included a no-trade clause. Maybe they can ignore team president Phil Jackson's triangle-driven agenda. Maybe they're not worried about owner James Dolan trying to shame franchise legend and fan favorite Charles Oakley.
But the line of forgiveness must be drawn somewhere—and Kristaps Porzingis is it.
"The future, you know, what it brings," Jackson said during an interview on MSG Network ahead of the draft while admitting the Knicks weren't opposed to moving Porzingis (via ESPN.com's Ian Begley). "Does it bring us two starters and a draft pick or something that's even beyond that? [That's] something we have to look at as far as going down the road."
Um, "down the road"? As in, the future? If only the Knicks had a budding 21-year-old star to build around in the coming years so they needn't tie their well-being to the uncertainty of the draft.
Sources told Begley one of the hangups in potential Porzingis deals was Jackson's insistence Joakim Noah's pact be dumped as part of the agreement. Imagine that: The final three years of a $72.6 million contract no other team was dumb enough to offer Noah is what helped keep Porzingis, someone New York shouldn't trade, from being traded.
Plus, there's a common misconception the Knicks are flush with cap space. They aren't. Getting to $20 million in room without an epic salary dump will be a chore that costs should-be keepers like Ron Baker and Justin Holiday. Jackson will be lucky if Patty Mills or PJ Tucker grants him a face-to-face meeting.
It's no wonder "players and agents increasingly look at the Knicks as a destination of absolute last resort," according to Lowe.
They have eyes.