2018 Restricted Free Agents: Predicting Contracts, Landing Spots for Top Stars

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 19, 2017

2018 Restricted Free Agents: Predicting Contracts, Landing Spots for Top Stars

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    If you're a fan of NBA restricted free agency, you're going to have a blast next summer.

    Just four members of the 2014 draft class inked rookie-scale extensions ahead of the Oct. 16 deadline. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid landed max money from their respective clubs. Gary Harris (four years, $84 million with the Denver Nuggets) and TJ Warren (four years, $50 million with the Phoenix Suns) were the other recipients.

    All the other eligible players are bound for the thorn-covered maze that is restricted free agency. It's an unpredictable place where offers can come together in minutes or take months to materialize. It doesn't often result in a change of address, but returns are never guaranteed.

    These situations can be impossible to peg—who had Tim Hardaway Jr. out-earning Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jonathon Simmons and Nerlens Noel this summer?—but we're risk-takers here. So we're examining the situations of 2018's top restricted free agents and predicting where they'll sign and for how much.

Clint Capela, C, Houston Rockets

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    Subtle doesn't suit Clint Capela very well. When you're 6'10" with a 7'5" wingspan and explosive athleticism, it's impossible to be understated.

    Capela's career has come to be defined by dramatic improvement. His scoring average has increased by more than four points per game each season he's been in the league. He added 16 percentage points to his field-goal conversion rate from his first year (48.3) to his third (64.3).

    The stage is set for yet another leap. No one stands to benefit more from the Houston Rockets' Hall of Fame backcourt.

    "James Harden was an elite facilitator in the pick-and-roll," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "But now, Chris Paul is also a member of the Houston Rockets, and he's an even more deft distributor. Almost every set should begin with Capela running to the top of the key and setting a screen, then waiting for the opportune moment to dive toward the basket."

    Only a dozen players were more active screeners than Capela last season. That number will be even smaller now, since Harden (third) and Paul (18th) finished inside the top 20 of pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions per game. All Capela needs to do is feast on his dunking chances, and he could become only the third qualified player to post a 70-plus field-goal percentage.

    He's a perfect fit in Houston, and that's where his future will be. But the Rockets will be reasonable with their spending. The 2018 center market is crowded (more on that later), and Capela, while good at what he does, is a limited contributor. Since the Rockets also need to pay or replace Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza, they'll be careful not to overcommit to Capela.

    Prediction: Three-year, $42 million deal with Houston

Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic

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    As Aaron Gordon demonstrated at the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, he throws down like an NBA Jam character. But it turns out, his dreams are even bigger than his dunks.

    "There's still no ceiling for me," Gordon said, per Magic.com's John Denton. "I'm looking to be the best in the NBA at some point in my career."

    There's nothing to suggest a future like that for Gordon. He's never averaged even 13 points or two assists, and he's yet to clear the 30 percent mark from three. His player efficiency rating has fallen below average in two of his first three seasons.

    But he's only 22 years old—not even a year older than Ben Simmons—and overdue for a break. The Orlando Magic have had four different coaches since selecting Gordon fourth in 2014. They overloaded on bigs last season, forcing their top prospect out to the wing and away from his strengths. He's also dealt with a fractured bone in his foot and a broken jaw.

    There's significantly more promise than his stat sheet shows. When Gordon returned to his natural power forward spot after the trade deadline last season, he averaged 16.4 points on 50.3 percent shooting and 6.2 rebounds. He upped the ante this preseason, posting per-36-minute marks of 27.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.7 threes on 42.9 percent shooting.

    Gordon has the athleticism and versatility of a contemporary small-ball 4. He can defend inside and out, wreak havoc above the rim and handle the basketball. If he ever finds an outside shot, he has a chance at stardom.

    There's too much intrigue here for someone not to throw him a max offer, but Orlando's revamped front office will force him to find that deal first before matching.

    Prediction: Four-year, $108 million deal matched by Orlando

Rodney Hood, SG, Utah Jazz

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    Rodney Hood couldn't have timed his contract year any better.

    Gordon Hayward's exit in free agency elevated Hood to the front of the Utah Jazz's scoring line. While inconsistency has plagued him in the past, the 6'8" southpaw has never held the offensive keys on a nightly basis. What he has done is splash threes at a 37.1 percent clip, create shots off the dribble, navigate pick-and-rolls and score over smaller wings in the post.

    Whether he can do all of the above against the best perimeter defenders on a nightly basis is unknown. Whether he'll even be available that often is iffy given his history of nagging ailments.

    The Jazz know better than anyone how great Hood's opportunity is and how much it could impact his earnings. They still chose not to extend him. That says plenty about his uncertainty.

    "Sources say the Jazz believe in Hood but want to see him stay healthy and show more consistency, especially offensively," Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote. "If he can do that, sources say the Jazz will be open to matching any offer for him next summer, even if he signs an expensive deal with another team."

    There's a scenario in which Hood blossoms into a top-30 scorer and lands multiple max offers next summer. But there are better odds he tops out a notch or two below that level. Efficiency wasn't a strength even when he had more offensive help (career 41.5 field-goal percentage). And with his 25th birthday fast approaching, he's closer to his ceiling than most of his classmates.

    Utah will pay to retain his scoring, but it won't need to break the bank.

    Prediction: Four-year, $76 million deal with Utah

Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago Bulls

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    Zach LaVine's future is somehow clearer than his present.

    The high-flyer has been grounded since tearing his left ACL in early February. While his rehab reports have been promising, it's still a mystery when he'll return to action. The Chicago Bulls have zero reasons to rush him and might prefer he takes his time to improve their odds of securing a top pick.

    Sure, the Bulls need to get some type of up-close look at him to properly set his price tag. But even that's not a high-pressure predicament, because the Bulls know he's going nowhere. Remember, he was already injured when he anchored the trade for in-prime All-Star Jimmy Butler. Chicago doesn't make that move unless it wants LaVine to play a prominent role in its next chapter.

    "He's still got a lot of room to grow," head coach Fred Hoiberg said, per CBSChicago.com's Cody Westerlund. "It's exciting when you have a guy who can get out and make highlight-level plays above the rim and also shoot the ball five feet behind the three-point line. You've got a guy that you can do a lot of things with."

    LaVine, functioning as the Minnesota Timberwolves' third option, had 22 games with 20-plus points, four of which cleared the 30-point mark. He drilled four or more triples a dozen times and shot over 38 percent from distance for the second straight season. He has upped his scoring average and trimmed his turnovers each year he's been in the league.

    If LaVine thinks he's worth the max, he'd have some basis for that belief. But the Bulls would be smart to let him go look for it. Between his injury and dreadful defense (bottom 30 in defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com), there are enough question marks here to keep Chicago or anyone else from paying top dollar.

    Prediction: Four-year, $80 million deal with Chicago

Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Timing is to NBA free agents what location is to real estate agents: everything. And it's not working in the favor of Portland Trail Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic.

    "Since few teams need centers, and since the supply of big men capable of producing at a league-average level exceeds demand, the market for centers has crashed," ESPN's Kevin Pelton wrote.

    This isn't 2016, when a cap spike rained dollars on every free agent with a pulse ($136 million on Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov alone—gross). That much was obvious this past summer, when the likes of Dewayne Dedmon (two years, $14 million), Nene (three for $11 million), Nerlens Noel ($4.1 million qualifying offer) and JaVale McGee (veteran's minimum) settled for relative scraps.

    Granted, none of those bigs are on the level of "Portland" Nurkic. His deadline deal out of Denver proved a lifesaver for him and the Blazers. His averages spiked to 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks, while their postseason hopes were salvaged by a 14-6 record with him. Nurkic's broken leg shut down the party before it really got rolling, but his impact was obvious.

    Still, that might not improve his free-agency outlook as much as you'd think. There aren't a ton of teams in the big-man market, and those that are have a multitude of options. In addition to Nurkic, the 2018 center class could include Noel, Capela, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors, Greg Monroe and Enes Kanter. Nurkic and Capela are the only restricted free agents in that group.

    If Nurkic looks outside of Portland to drive up his price, he might not find the necessary bidders. His best leverage is probably the Blazers' need for him and inability to spend big on other options given their cap constraints. A shorter deal (perhaps with an escape option) at a high annual salary would be best for both parties.

    Prediction: Three-year, $57 million deal with Portland

Jabari Parker, PF, Milwaukee Bucks

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    No one was surprised that the extension deadline came and went without a deal being reached between Jabari Parker and the Milwaukee Bucks. The 22-year-old scoring forward didn't want to undersell his talents, and the Bucks were rightfully hesitant about committing to a player with two left ACL tears in three seasons.

    When the two sides reconvene next summer, it could again produce a surprise-free outcome. As long as Parker's body cooperates, he'll sniff out a max deal somewhere. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, has found his restricted free agent clients max money in both ways—Bradley Beal directly from the Washington Wizards, Gordon Hayward in a matched offer sheet by the Utah Jazz.

    A healthy Parker is a max talent. He had the seventh-highest field-goal percentage among 20-point scorers (49.0) and set career highs in points (20.1), rebounds (6.2), assists (2.8) and three-point percentage (36.5) last season.

    Parker also blends perfectly with the Bucks' young nucleus. He has the shooting Giannis Antetokounmpo lacks and the off-the-dribble attacks Khris Middleton rarely brings. Conversely, their length and athleticism helps cover Parker's defensive deficiencies, and their presence prevents defenses from hounding Parker at every step. That's why Parker remains entrenched in the long-term plans.

    "For Jabari and the Bucks, this is not about his year," general manager Jon Horst told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "This is about a 22-year-old kid who is one of the best young talents in the league and making sure he comes back physically in the right way."

    That doesn't mean Milwaukee will hand over a blank check next summer. Not when Antetokounmpo signed on for less than the max. The Bucks will press Parker for a discount, and Bartelstein will find his max offer elsewhere. But Parker's future is in Milwaukee.

    Prediction: Four-year, $108 million deal matched by Milwaukee

Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando Magic

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    This time last year, Elfrid Payton would've been the biggest flight risk of this group—by a wide margin.

    His strengths, weaknesses and overall output seemed identical during his rookie and sophomore campaigns. His lack of a jump shoot was as concerning as ever, and he hadn't proved he brought enough else to the table to compensate.

    But the Magic held a lot of the blame for his lack of development. They hadn't given him stability in their coaching staffs and schemes. He needed an uptempo offense, and they never operated at a top-10 pace. His constant appearances in the trade rumor mill couldn't have helped his confidence.

    Everything feels different now, though. Payton is entering year two under Frank Vogel, who emboldened his point guard by entrusting him with the offense. Payton took off late last season (13.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 8.4 assists and 7.0 rebounds after the All-Star break), and that's helped him carry momentum over into this campaign.

    "He just looks so much more confident now than at this point last year and what I've watched prior to last year," Vogel said, per Denton. "He's just running the show for us. I've empowered him to call the offense and unless I want something run, he calls the plays. He's doing a really good job of creating for others."

    Strange as this would have sounded before, Payton looks like a keeper. The 23-year-old checks off the youth, length and athleticism boxes of Orlando's rebuild. His passing can make full use of the young weapons around him. He has long defended with the feistiness Vogel appreciates. And Payton has found ways to finish efficiently without an outside shot.

    There's no sense letting him walk for nothing, especially when Orlando lacks viable alternatives. But, like with Gordon, the Magic may force Payton to find his money elsewhere before matching. Don't be surprised if the Denver Nuggets—who need a better floor general for their up-tempo attack—come calling. As long as Payton continues progressing, though, Orlando won't let him go. 

    Prediction: Four-year, $52 million offer matched by Orlando

Julius Randle, PF, Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers avoided awkwardness during their first round of negotiations with Julius Randle. Their talks were "cordial," according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, "but everyone understands [the] cap-space issue."

    Due to L.A.'s (too) public plan to pursue multiple superstars next summer, the Lakers have avoided taking on any salaries beyond this season. Randle's potential extension was no different. Getting something done now would have thrown a wrench into their strategy.

    But that won't make next summer comfortable. Who knows if Randle is still a starter—or even a Laker, for that matter—by then. L.A. might find it has better options in Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma or an unnamed All-Star in shining armor. Randle could feel crunched out of the franchise's plans and covet a greater opportunity elsewhere.

    "How they value me is how they value me," Randle said, per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register. "I can't really sit here and say what they're trying to do."

    The Lakers are dreaming bigger than Randle. But even if those fall through, he might not be Plan B. He's a tricky piece to build with since he doesn't stretch the floor or block shots. And his unique combination of size (6'9", 250 lbs) and playmaking (4.5 assists per 36 minutes last season) could lose some of its luster if Lonzo Ball dominates the offensive touches.

    It seems like there should be a better fit for Randle, a team more committed to unlocking his full potential. And if the Lakers are able to invest their funds elsewhere, it wouldn't take an inflated offer to lure Randle away.

    The Indiana Pacers could make a ton of sense. They need offensive creators, and they have the spacing/rim-protecting post Randle needs alongside him in Myles Turner. With Thaddeus Young down to a $13.7 million player option after this season, they might have an opening at the 4. Despite acquiring Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Leaf, they haven't pulled in a power forward with Randle's potential.

    Prediction: Four-year, $68 million deal with Indiana

Marcus Smart, SG, Boston Celtics

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    Save for the no-brainer max players or the unmitigated busts, every restricted free-agency case feels like a puzzle.

    But Marcus Smart's situation takes that to the extreme. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor explains:

    "He finished fifth in charges taken last season and is one of the NBA's most versatile defenders. ... There simply aren't many [or any] 6'4" guards who can reliably defend anyone from [Paul] Millsap to Carmelo Anthony to Paul George to Damian Lillard.

    "But Smart is also statistically one of the worst shooters in league history. Of the 433 players to attempt at least 800 threes in their careers, only 10 have a worse three-point percentage than Smart does, per Basketball-Reference."

    Defensive versatility is right there among today's most desired attributes. But is it enough to outweigh the absence of offensive efficiency? Three-point struggles can be game-planned around. Smart's scoring issues go way beyond that. He's not a shooting threat from anywhere. Last season, he shot below 50 percent inside of three feet, sub-40 percent from everywhere else and just 35.9 percent overall.

    The Shamrocks are about to figure out the totality of Smart's contributions. Hayward's injury will put Smart under the spotlight, and his upcoming free agency will only increase the pressure.

    Boston will most likely find it can't afford to be without Smart's defense. Not after letting Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder go. And Smart's contributions as a playmaker and rebounder will prevent him from being labeled—and priced—as a specialist. But his offensive issues will scare off potential suitors, leaving the Celtics with a reasonable deal.

    Prediction: Four-year, $48 million deal with Boston


    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.