Flight-Risk Meter for NBA's Top Restricted Free Agents

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2018

Flight-Risk Meter for NBA's Top Restricted Free Agents

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The NBA's latest crop of restricted free agents is in for an awkward summer.

    Teams have been more judicious in their spending and roster-building approaches since the expensive anomaly that was the 2016 offseason. Last summer's market didn't play host to an overwhelming number of long-term pacts, while this February's trade deadline passed without many buyers or sellers agreeing to tack on additional big-picture salary. (Shoutout, Detroit Pistons.)

    Free agents are expected to be squeezed across the board this July as a result. And RFAs in particular could find themselves strapped for both leverage and life-changing money.

    Suitors tend to avoid them in the first place. Incumbent teams have the right to match any offer sheets, so restricted free agents worth a dang seldom walk anyway. Most cap-rich squads won't waste space on players they won't actually sign.

    That isn't about to change now. But the market for flight risks will.

    Marquee names are less likely to field lucrative offer sheets from prospective courters. The ones who do, though, may be less likely to have said contracts matched by current teams out of fear for what it'll do to their salary-cap outlook.

    Mid-tier RFAs find themselves on a different plane. They're not as likely to be overpaid, but market-value overtures have a better chance of resulting in fresh digs.

    Basically, this summer is going to get weird no matter what. We might as well steer into it with flight-risk tiers for the top names most impacted by the NBA offseason's wonky new world order.

Tier 1: Too Indispensable to Let Walk

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    Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

    Congratulations to Nikola Jokic on getting his own tier! As the only player among this bunch with an unequivocal best-player-on-a-title-contender ceiling, he deserves it.

    Granted, the Nuggets have the power to kick the can on Jokic's restricted free agency altogether. He only commands a raise if they decline his $1.6 million team option and ticket him for an unrestricted foray onto the open market in 2019.

    Maxing out Jokic will cost 25 percent of next year's projected $101 million cap—roughly $25.3 million. Saving around $23.7 million in raw salary will no doubt appeal to the Nuggets when they're up against the luxury tax. They'll blow past the $123 million threshold after paying Jokic if Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million) and Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) pick up their player options.

    And that doesn't account for Will Barton's next contract or this year's first-round pick. The Nuggets could feasibly find themselves shelling out $145 million before taxes to keep this core together.

    Delaying Jokic's payday safeguards them against that quandary. They can pay Barton market value without plunging into the tax and then max out their Serbian superhero next summer when Arthur, Chandler and Kenneth Faried are all guaranteed to be off the books. Paul Millsap could be wiped from the ledger as well if they decline his $30 million team option.

    Cannonballing down this rabbit hole is risky business, even if it poses a genuine temptation. The Nuggets can still pay Jokic more than any other team in 2019, but he'll have absolute power over his own destiny. He could bolt if their decision to draw out the process rubs him the wrong way.

    Skirting the tax isn't worth that chance, particularly when the Nuggets can explore other avenues of cap relief. Dangling a low-end sweetener will be enough for them to sell off Arthur, Chandler or Faried. Moving the final two years and $27 million on Mason Plumlee's contract isn't out of the question either.

    Paying Jokic this summer also builds up some additional goodwill. Perhaps the oversaturated center market allows them to offer a sub-max deal—though, with the Dallas Mavericks looming as offseason buyers, don't bet on it. Or maybe he gives them an incumbent-squad discount for re-signing him sooner than they need to.

    It doesn't matter either way. NBA Math's Total Points Added and ESPN's Real Plus-Minus each rate Jokic as one of this season's 15 most valuable contributors. The Nuggets aren't about to let the idea of paying market value prevent them from retaining their home-grown superstar. 

Tier 2: Probably Not Going Anywhere

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    Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs

    Kyle Anderson is only leaving the Spurs under one of two circumstances: Either he prices himself out of town, or they cut bait with his $6.5 million cap hold to chase free agents.

    Over-the-top offer sheets don't feel like a real threat to Anderson's return. This isn't 2016. Teams aren't doling out above-market deals willy-nilly for players working off their first taste of regular rotation minutes. 

    Free agents who hail from San Antonio are also typecast as system players. While blasphemous in some respects, Anderson's funeral-paced bag of tricks isn't universally translatable. His stop-and-start ball-handling won't appeal to uptempo offenses, even if his Joe Ingles-meets-Boris Diaw defensive stands do.

    Likewise, Anderson is unlikely to become collateral damage of grander ambitions. The Spurs are set up to make more noise during 2019 free agency, when Kawhi Leonard is up for a new deal (player option), Pau Gasol's $6.7 million partial guarantee becomes a nifty trade chip and they know Rudy Gay (player option for 2018-19) will no longer be on the books . 

                         

    Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

    "We'll have him here as long as he'll have us," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon in November of Clint Capela. "He couldn't price himself out."

    Kudos to Capela for working his way onto Morey's good side. But these sentiments say just as much, if not more, about the NBA's complicated relationship with the center position.

    Few teams are expected to have ample cap space at their disposal this summer. The ones that do won't be looking to tie up flexibility in a non-unicorn. Capela is a good defensive rebounder, stout screener, sound pick-and-roll diver and disarming switcher in space. He is not, however, garnering building-block money in a market still reeling from 2016's spending spree.

    Knowing Capela won't secure appreciably more than he's worth allows Morey to lavish him with the "untouchable" designation. Houston isn't letting him walk unless it needs to clear cap space for LeBron James.

    Yet, even then, Capela is probably safe. The Rockets cannot realistically open enough room for James without him and Chris Paul accepting substantive pay cuts. They'll need to hope the four-time MVP picks up his player option and, like Paul before him, leverages his way to a trade—of which Capela, as a free agent, isn't eligible to be part. 

                    

    Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

    Zach LaVine's restricted free agency should end up being a unique study in saving face.

    He hasn't played nearly well enough since returning from his ACL injury to chisel out a robust market. He perked up leading into the All-Star break, averaging 22.5 points while slashing 43.5/43.8/87.1 over a six-game span. Keep it up, and he'll generate more looks from rival suitors.

    But a scalding-hot finish won't erase LaVine's now-mercurial injury history or his shoddy defensive resume. He's not even a crafty enough playmaker to bill himself as a combo guard. Another team will have to be drunk on his shooting and recovering bounce to levy an offer that makes Chicago think twice. And, by that point, the price tag may not matter.

    Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen have yielded promising returns, but LaVine remains a centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade. The Bulls front office is more likely to match whatever offer comes his way than concede that acquiring an athleticism-dependent guard coming off an ACL tear as key compensation for its All-NBA cornerstone probably wasn't the smartest idea.

                             

    Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

    Jabari Parker's stock is even tougher to forecast than LaVine's market. He's in the early stages of a return from his second ACL injury, and his onset performance hasn't done anything to assuage the risk baked into his next contract.

    Parker's accuracy around the rim and from beyond the arc have thus far plummeted, and the Bucks are getting creamed by 12.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. A six-game sample is nothing, but the same will likely be said of his entire season.

    If he's lucky, Parker will have more than 25 appearances under his belt by year's end. That doesn't give him enough time to play his way into lucrative long-term offer sheets. The Bucks shouldn't face much competition for his services. And if they do, their track record as non-factors in free agency should convince them to pony up whatever it takes to retain him, even if it means dumping other salary to duck the luxury tax.

Tier 3: Likely Cheap Enough to Stay Put

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    Davis Bertans, San Antonio Spurs

    Davis Bertans should reap some interest around the league. He's basically a small-burst version of Ryan Anderson with better court vision and an actual roll-man ceiling. San Antonio can, and has, stolen the occasional stretch with him at center.

    Except Bertans, like Anderson, plays in the image of floor-spacing bigs from yesteryear. The Spurs don't turn to him for off-the-bounce playmaking or to diversity their defensive portfolio. He isn't going to solicit overtures that put a dent in their wallet. Having his Early Bird rights should be enough to keep him around unless they're inspired to pursue marquee names.

                        

    Dante Exum, Utah Jazz

    Do the Jazz have to worry about enemy courters outbidding them for a backup point guard who will have missed roughly 55 percent of the regular-season games in which he's been eligible to play since entering the NBA?

    No. No, they do not.

    Dante Exum $6.6 million qualifying offer is overpriced after missing two full years due to ACL and shoulder injuries. And given its second-string point guard situation, Utah will have more of an incentive than most to continue bankrolling his development.

                           

    Patrick McCaw, Golden State Warriors

    Patrick McCaw has not played himself out of the Warriors' future.

    Slicing into Shaun Livingston's court time has not culminated in a more polished outside touch or better defense. The fractured left wrist he recently suffered also doesn't do anything for McCaw's curb appeal.

    Maybe the Warriors' luxury-tax situation forces their hand, but they have his Early Bird rights, and the market at large won't be conducive to cringe-worthy offer sheets for unfinished projects.

                           

    Elfrid Payton, Phoenix Suns

    Elfrid Payton has balled out in his first three cameos for the Suns, who scooped him up for a second-round pick from the Magic at the trade deadline. He won't go off for 20 points and eight assists forever, but we should be talking about him as a respectable low-volume three-point shooter.

    We should also talk about his time in Phoenix being more than a months-long layover. The Suns need a point guard, and general manager Ryan McDonough has said they want to be active in free agency. Payton doesn't qualify as a major prize, irrespective of how well he plays, but Phoenix needn't treat him like one.

    Name a team that might pay him like a starter. See? You can't. Not a single, solitary, surefire option emerges. The Suns don't have to fret over competing offers. This relationship is built to last.

    Payton should want the starter's role they'll offer, and with Devin Booker extension-eligible and Brandon Knight clogging the financial pipeline through 2019-20, they need a floor general who doesn't break the bank.

Tier 4: It Could Go Either Way

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    Rodney Hood, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Rodney Hood's next contract becomes a non-issue for the Cavaliers if LeBron James doesn't flee a second time. He won't make much more than $12 million per year should Cleveland wait out the cash-light market, and owner Dan Gilbert shies away from paying general managers, not footing extravagant luxury-tax bills.

    Things get dicey if the nightmare scenario plays out. The Cavaliers have more than $100 million committed to next season's bottom line before factoring in salaries for Hood and James. They could lose a four-time MVP and still sniff luxury-tax territory by re-signing Hood.

    Jettisoning veterans like George Hill and Kevin Love on the heels of James' departure would help cut costs. But the Cavaliers must then decide whether a soon-to-be 26-year-old Hood is worth retaining as a long-term building block or cheap enough to be viewed as a down-the-line trade chip.

                              

    Doug McDermott, Dallas Mavericks

    Doug McDermott's three-point touch has disappeared since arriving in Dallas, but he's a 39.1 percent shooter from downtown for his career and, bless his little heart, busts his butt to no end and often no gains on defense. His next contract figures to fall somewhere between a no-brainer bargain and pricey dice roll.

    Teams will pay for sweet-shooting complements, and McDermott's trajectory improves if deployed as a full-time power forward. He doesn't fit the quintessential mold for rebuilding squads, but the Mavericks are insta-turnaround hunters and need ancillary devices to drizzle treys around Dennis Smith Jr. drives and Harrison Barnes isolations. 

    At the same time, they are a stone's throw from carving out max cap space and have a long history of inserting themselves into the conversation for superstar free agents. As one of few teams in desirable markets with cap space, they could hit the peace-out button should they encounter the faintest outside competition.

                           

    Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

    Bringing back Marcus Smart makes so much sense for the Celtics. Sure, they put him on the chopping block ahead of the trade deadline, but they asked for a first-round pick in return, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. They clearly value his ability to defend every type of wing, size be damned, and general scrappiness. 

    Plus, the Celtics could use additional salary filler. Jayson Tatum remains on track to be their fourth-highest-paid player next season, and he'll be in the second year of his rookie-scale contract. Team president Danny Ainge needs some pricier throw-ins if he wants to wait out the trade market for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis without cobbling together too many top prospects to make the salaries work.

    Then again, paying someone just to maybe, possibly, if you're super lucky, flip them as filler for a top-10 player later is hardly foolproof business. The Celtics will be up against the luxury tax if they give Smart an eight-figure salary, and funding a short- or long-term deal for a point guard puts them in an awkward spot when Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier (restricted) are up for raises in 2019.

Tier 5: Red-Alert Flight Risks

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    Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic 

    "You look at a guy like that and say, 'He's one of those guys as you move forward with, that you got to have,'" Magic general manager John Hammond told ESPN.com's Nick Friedell in November of Aaron Gordon. "And we feel that way."

    Plunging down the Eastern Conference standings in the months since has most definitely softened this honeymoon stance. Orlando listened to offers for its pending restricted free agent leading up to the Feb. 8 trade deadline, according to The Athletic's Michael Scotto.

    Holding onto him might suggest an enduring loyalty, or, at the very least, a persisting inclination to re-sign him. It could also mean the right deal just wasn't on the table. 

    Whatever the case, Gordon's future with the Magic is far from secure. He's the closest thing they have to a foundational star, but he's not there yet. He's shooting under 41.4 percent overall and 29 percent from deep since the team's 8-4 start and still struggling to grind out a defensive identity. 

    Is he best served switching onto wings? Should he be groomed as a roving rim protector? Can he excel as either of those things? Or be the primal linchpin for an average defense? The Magic don't know. 

    Nor will they know by the end of this season. It doesn't matter how much of the schedule is left when he returns from a strained left hip flexor. The NBA is entering the heart of its tankstakes. The Magic won't be trying to win games while playing other teams not trying to win games.

    Anything Gordon does or fails to do can be written off as circumstantial noise. And yet, Orlando may soon have to pay him like a worthwhile backbone.

    The market for restricted free agents won't be unforgiving, but if one player is going to ink a ceremonially overblown offer sheet, it'll be the 6'9" 22-year-old with the physical gifts of a big and trace offensive faculties of a wing. And it would be irresponsible to say money is no object for a Magic franchise with muddied books and a front office that didn't draft the could-be, might-not-be cornerstone it's now tasked with paying.

                             

    Shabazz Napier, Portland Trail Blazers

    Shabazz Napier has been a delight for the Blazers all season. He's banging in more than 40 percent of his threes, shooting a career-high percentage inside three feet and effectively co-piloting bench-heavy units that pit him beside one of Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum.

    Portland doesn't have to worry about an admirer awarding Napier a starting spot or the payday that comes with it. That gig and team isn't out there. But Lillard and McCollum make a combined $53.8 million next year, $57.4 million in 2019-20 and $61 million in 2020-21.

    Allocating anything more than minimumish money to another guard doesn't sit right—especially when Evan Turner has two years and $36.5 million left on his deal and the Blazers will need a minor miracle (or Jusuf Nurkic exit) to evade the luxury tax.

    League executives told Sporting News' Sean Deveney that McCollum will be a popular trade target over the offseason. Offloading his contract opens up time and money for Napier. But the Blazers have resisted breaking up their backcourt duo thus far, and the decision-making process behind any potential pivot will likely outlast Napier's free agency.

                        

    Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

    Shipping out Jordan Clarkson prevents the Lakers from junking Julius Randle before the offseason begins. They have a clear path to more than $45 million in space while floating his $12.4 million hold and can push that purse to around $60 million by stretching Luol Deng, ditching non-guarantees and unloading the Cavaliers' first-round pick.

    If signing LeBron James and Paul George remains the endgame, Randle doesn't have a future in Los Angeles. The Lakers need roughly $65.7 million to afford both and cannot dredge up that much coin without renouncing him or finding a trade partner for Deng's contract.

    Successfully completing that coup is something more whimsical than a pipe dream. That bodes well for those who think Randle looks good in purple and gold. But the Lakers won't ever table their free-agency hopes altogether. They'll shift attentions to the summer of 2019 if 2018 leaves them empty-handed or with only one superstar.

    Randle's next deal is a long-term impediment to that contingency. He's not a star in waiting, but he's flashed a strong presence on the glass and some on-the-move playmaking and never worked harder on his individual defense. He's played well enough to nab mid-level-exception money (about $8.6 million annually)—a fair-minded price tag that would still run counter to the Lakers' free-agency ambitions.

                      

    Noah Vonleh, Chicago Bulls

    Noah Vonleh is a good partial-season flier for Chicago. Extending his stay beyond that doesn't track with their depth chart.

    Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis take up a lion's share of the stretch-big minutes. The Bulls can justify chaining Robin Lopez to the bench next season if they don't trade him, but they can't spin giving up on Cristiano Felicio after signing him to a four-year, $32 million deal last summer. And depending on where their two first-round picks fall this June, they may yet add another big to the fold.

    Preserving flexibility in advance of salary-dumping season is worth more to Chicago than exercising Vonleh's $4.7 million qualifying offer.

Tier 6: He (Probably) Gone

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    Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks

    Will the Mavericks eat into their precious cap space to re-sign Yogi Ferrell (Early Bird rights) when they have Dennis Smith Jr. at the helm?

    And when J.J. Barea is under contract for another season?

    And when Seth Curry (Early Bird rights) should be cheaper after missing all of 2017-18?

    Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps. But probably not. 

                   

    Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors

    Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas will cost the Raptors $38.2 million in 2018-19. Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam each have two years left on their rookie deals. Lucas Nogueira could wind up being the second- or third-best player among this bunch, but it doesn't matter. The Raptors have enough bigs.

    Besides, team president Masai Ujiri must trim salary to dip the luxury tax even if he leaves the roster alone. Financing Nogueira's new deal, however cheap, isn't in the cards so long as both Ibaka and Valanciunas are on the docket.

                        

    Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

    Jusuf Nurkic is not here, among the he-probably-gones, because he's played his way into a massive offer sheet from other teams. He's here because he's not worth paying the luxury tax to keep.

    The Blazers land within $10 million of that dreaded threshold before poring over new contracts for Nurkic and Napier. Signing Nurkic alone, even at a relatively reasonable rate, drags them right up to or past the expected $123 million tax.

    Another dip in the salary-cap projections would only complicate matters. And again: Nurkic isn't playing like he's worth the subsequent headaches—be it the tax itself, ensuing contract dumps or the decision to stretch Meyers Leonard.

    Nurkic post-ups have equated to wasted possessions, and he's not finishing at a high enough clip as the pick-and-roll diver or popper. He's hitting a smaller percentage of his jumpers outside 16 feet, and the Blazers have found more offensive success with Zach Collins or Ed Davis on the court.

    Collins' progress is the key to Nurkic's future in Portland, or lack thereof. He assumed a larger role prior to a six-minute outing versus the Warriors heading into the All-Star break and has, on occasion, given the Blazers a preview of what their offense could be when running out a floor-spacing 7-footer. 

    Most of the rookie's minutes have come at power forward, according to Cleaning The Glass, but center profiles as his eventual sweet spot. And if the Blazers aren't yet ready to go there, they still have more to glean from a Collins-Davis pairing.

    They're outscoring opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when those two split frontcourt duties—worlds better than the minus-14.0 they're putting up with a Davis-Nurkic dyad and the minus-20.6 turned in during Collins-Nurkic partnerships. Re-signing Davis and forking over more minutes to Collins would both be the cheaper and, as of now, better basketball decision.

                     

    Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

    Hot damn, does this one sting.

    Fred VanVleet's inclusion only takes you by surprise if you've back-burnered the Raptors. He's established himself as one of the league's best second-string point guards and, going on 24, could fetch a nice sum of cash over the offseason.

    VanVleet is converting almost 42 percent of his threebies and hitting enough of his shots around the basket to serve as a threat out of the pick-and-roll. He makes life hell on opposing floor generals, despite standing 6'0". He allows fewer points per possession to pick-and-roll ball-handlers than Marcus Smart and places sixth among all point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

    Toronto has VanVleet's Early Bird rights and, thus, the juice to keep him. But next season's guaranteed salary commitments already vault the team into luxury-tax territory. With Kyle Lowry raking in $31 million and Delon Wright under rookie-scale control for another year, VanVleet's standout 2017-18 should be considered a parting gift.

                             

    Unless otherwise cited, stats courtesy of NBA.comESPNBasketball Reference or PlayoffStatus.com and accurate leading into games on Feb. 22. Cap holds courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.