1 Free Agent Every NBA Team Should Already Be Thinking About
Cap space figures to be a scarce resource in NBA free agency this summer, which both makes offseason happenings stupid-difficult to project while arming us with the latitude to get weird as we try.
So, let's get weird.
Each team's provided free-agent target is based on need, salary-cap outlooks, direction and what the suggested player should cost relative to a wonky market. Pre-existing reports will help shape the list, but consensus targets and popular pipe dreams are not the end-all.
This space has the authority to rage against popular opinion. The endorsed free agents shouldn't even necessarily be every squad's first call. In many cases, these stamps of approval are less about the player and more about the money—or absence thereof—at the team's disposal.
Pie-in-the-sky scenarios will be pandered to on occasion. But the evidence or mechanics behind them must be ironclad. Not every squad can go chasing waterfalls superstars.
Similarly, the absurd won't be assumed. The Los Angeles Lakers will not trade Luol Deng and filler for Kawhi Leonard and then sign Paul George and LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers will not shed enough salary to get face-time with DeMarcus Cousins. We will not forecast franchise-altering departures.
Finally, to keep things fresh, incumbent free agents are being stripped of their selection eligibility. We know the Cavaliers will place a premium on re-signing James. That needn't be riffed about for the zillionth time.
Atlanta Hawks: Jabari Parker (Restricted)
Marquee names aren't typically attracted to The Peach State unless they were born there and are past their primes. (Shouts to Dwight Howard.) The Atlanta Hawks shouldn't run into that issue this summer. They have plenty of cap space. Other teams do not.
General manager Travis Schlenk appears to recognize as much. The Hawks brokered buyouts with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova rather than moving them at the trade deadline, intimating an unwillingness to take on salary in exchange for draft-pick compensation. And that, in turn, suggests they're hoping to be movers and shakers over the summer.
Teams grinding through early stages of a rebuild cannot shell out stacks of cash to household faces just because. They need to prioritize youngsters who fit their timeline, which lends itself to a unique dependence on the restricted free-agent market, where most pre-prime options lie.
Jabari Parker is that player for the Hawks. He's working his way back from a second ACL injury, and even with restricted free agents expected to get squeezed, the Milwaukee Bucks will struggle to keep him while avoiding the luxury tax.
Parker's cap hold alone ($20.3 million) vaults them beyond the projected $123 million threshold. He might sign for less, but they don't have a ton of breathing room below the tax without shedding salary elsewhere and have to think about new deals for Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) in 2019.
Factoring in a conservative $9 million for the Hawks' three first-round draft picks still gives them a clear path to more than $18 million of spending power. That number will blow past the $25 million mark if they renounce Malcolm Delaney and one of Dewayne Dedmon or Mike Muscala declines his player option, giving them the juice to sling an ambitious short- or long-term offer.
Fielding a league-average defense while playing both Parker and John Collins up front would be tough, but the Hawks have the perimeter self-starters in Kent Bazemore, DeAndre' Bembry and Taurean Prince to make it work. Plus, their offensive ceiling would be, to build off Michael Jordan's famous words, through the roof.
Boston Celtics: Ed Davis
Floating Marcus Smart's free-agent hold ($13.6 million) carries the Boston Celtics dangerously close to the tax if they guarantee contracts for Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis. They'll inch even closer if they keep their own first-round pick and breeze past it should the Lakers' pick convey (unlikely).
Getting Smart at a cheaper rate—or letting him walk altogether—doesn't grant the Celtics much more flexibility. The taxpayer's mid-level exception, worth roughly $5.3 million, will be their greatest tool. And that's fine.
Disgruntled superstars are officially the Celtics' business following the additions of Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. They have the assets to capitalize on trade requests and crumbling marriages, as they did with Kyrie Irving last summer. They'll be content to wait out slippery slopes in Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo), New Orleans (Anthony Davis) and San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard) while leaving a sizable dent in the Eastern Conference Finals conversation.
Ed Davis is the perfect addition under these circumstances.
Another face-up scorer to complement Irving would be nice, but the Celtics aren't getting someone like that with a taxpayer's purse. Davis fills a more immediate need anyway. Hayward's return from a dislocated left ankle and fractured tibia next season takes care of their offensive warts, and Boston has enough brawn up front with Ojeleye, Theis and Al Horford.
Signing Davis makes more sense than holding onto Aron Baynes. Davis doesn't sport the same range on his jumper, but the Celtics, again, have Ojeleye, Theis and Horford to use as standstill shooters. He is the lanky pick-and-roll diver they don't currently employ—a legitimate lob-finisher who doesn't receive nearly enough credit for his screen-setting and work on the defensive glass.
Among 300-plus players who have logged at least 500 minutes this season, Davis ranks fifth in screen assists and first in box-outs per 36 minutes. He would command more than some form of the mid-level exception in most years, but fortunately for the Celtics, this isn't most years.
Brooklyn Nets: Jerami Grant
Footing the bill for last summer's unwanted-contract binge won't prevent the Brooklyn Nets from enjoying meaningful cap space. They'll have more than $15 million to spend after renouncing Nik Stauskas (restricted), using the Toronto Raptors' first-round pick and guaranteeing the contracts for Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead.
Having this much money is never a bad thing, but the Nets must be wary of how they use it. They've spent the past few seasons subsisting on fliers and pot sweeteners, studiously waiting out draft-selection obligations to the Celtics. They had no regard for chasing losses and improving their lottery odds.
Well, they matter now. The Nets regain control over all their own first-round picks starting next year. Now isn't the time for them to unnecessarily buoy their status in the Eastern Conference. They're finally free to contemplate losing in the name of a better pick, even with lottery reform on the horizon.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D'Angelo Russell are both extension-eligible as well. Ditto for Dinwiddie. Brooklyn suddenly has to worry about its core costing market value without the promise of playoff contention.
Hunting higher-end talent makes for a rickety outlook. Mirroring the model from years past and taking stabs at restricted free agents doesn't sit right. They can chisel out the money necessary to pitch Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, et al., but improving too fast, too soon, is a real and ever-present danger.
Emphasizing cheaper hybrids is a safer play. Jerami Grant fits Brooklyn's usual archetype. He switches across multiple positions on the defensive end—predominantly at the 2, 3 and 4, but head coach Kenny Atkinson would find use for him as a spot-5. He's not a great shooter, but he has three-point range. And there remains an unplumbed off-the-dribble element to his skill set the Nets have the flexibility to explore.
Charlotte Hornets: Fred VanVleet (Restricted)
Crystal-balling the Charlotte Hornets' offseason approach is ridiculously difficult. Their entire trajectory might pivot on a whim.
Are they ready to rebuild? Will they trade Kemba Walker? Is owner Michael Jordan still bent on investing in middle-of-the-Eastern-Conference timeshares?
Refusing to renew the contract of general manager Rich Cho provides little clarity. The Hornets might be paving the way for a new regime with a fresh vision. They could also be tweaking what they have the power to change.
Charlotte will close in on the luxury tax without touching its roster this summer and isn't blessed with many trade assets. Overhauling the front office—and perhaps coaching staff—is among the few impactful measures this team can take without giving up on Walker.
Targeting Fred VanVleet is a nice hedge against all possible directions. The Hornets are getting slaughtered when Walker isn't on the floor, so they need a competent backup floor general who helps them achieve relevance now. They also have to plan for a potential reset.
VanVleet fits both molds. He has gained ample experience piloting effective star-less lineups with Delon Wright this season and is young enough, at 24, to be part of the big picture for a non-contender.
Restricted free agents worth a damn are nearly impossible to poach—infinitely so for teams, like the Hornets, sniffing the tax. But the Toronto Raptors will be up against the luxury line themselves before re-signing VanVleet and have Wright at rookie-scale money for another year. VanVleet stands to become collateral damage of mushrooming salary commitments if they don't offload an expensive contract or two.
Dangling a chunk of their mid-level exception puts the Hornets in play to force the Raptors' hand. The full MLE is worth $8.6 million, but the taxpayer's version ($5.3 million) could still get the job done if Jordan Incorporated is willing to dig deep into its pockets.
Chicago Bulls: Glenn Robinson III
The Chicago Bulls have the tools to do something special in free agency. They're one of the few squads with a wide-open path to more than $20 million in play money.
That doesn't change when baking in holds for Zach LaVine ($9.6 million) and their two first-round picks. Paying Noah Vonleh beyond this season stings projections, but only a teensy bit. He shouldn't command anywhere near his cap hold ($10.5 million); his qualifying offer alone ($4.7 million) is an overpay.
Whatever the outcome on Vonleh, along with David Nwaba (restricted) and Paul Zipser (non-guaranteed), the same point stands: Chicago can afford just about anyone it pleases. And this gives way to an important question: Why in the world is Glenn Robinson III here?
This inquiry is a fair one. Robinson is an anticlimactic choice for any team with real money to burn. But he's more representative of what the Bulls need to do: acquire upside without torching their financial flexibility.
Chicago needs wings. More specifically, it needs upper-echelon wings who align with a long-term window. That player isn't available. This year's pool of talent doesn't have an Otto Porter Jr.—that under-25 restricted free agent you max out to see whether his incumbent team balks.
Aaron Gordon might end up being this summer's equivalent, but he's more of a dice roll. And paying him with both Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis on the docket is overkill. Overpaying Rodney Hood doesn't move the needle, and older, mid-end options like Will Barton, Avery Bradley and Tyreke Evans don't put the Bulls on the fast track to anywhere.
Bankrolling LaVine's next deal will cost a pretty penny when all's said and done. That's enough gambling for one summer. The Bulls are better off allocating the rest of their cap space to unwanted contracts attached to draft picks.
Robinson, at 24, gives them a young swingman to monitor in the meantime. The Indiana Pacers have tried his 6'7" frame at small forward before, and he shouldn't cost too much since he missed most of this season with a left ankle injury.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Ersan Ilyasova
With all due respect to chaos enthusiasts, the Cavaliers' approach to free agency must be molded under the assumption LeBron James won't be leaving for Los Angeles...or Houston or Philadelphia or anywhere else.
Different players will catch the bulk of their affections if James bolts. They still won't have a ton of money to spend; they're at more than $100 million in guaranteed commitments for next season without including new deals for their four-time MVP or Rodney Hood. But they will shift attention toward younger, rebuilding-friendly names if they're once again treated to a superstar heel turn.
Successfully keeping James leaves the Cavaliers in talent-acquisition mode. They won't have much to offer, but unlike other taxed-out teams, they wouldn't shy away from using part or all of their mid-level exception. Owner Dan Gilbert hasn't yet blinked at a repeater-tax bill, and exhausting every available resource would no doubt be part and parcel of James' return.
Ersan Ilyasova fits in quite nicely with the Cavaliers. He's like the souped-up version of Channing Frye. They could steal stretches with him at center, and he's a better team defender. He's a career 36.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc and canning 37.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples this season—respectable efficiency that would balloon beside James.
Landing Ilyasova also works as a contingency to any Kevin Love trade. This shouldn't be the impetus on which the Cavaliers' interest is founded, but Ilyasova could step in as their primary floor-spacing big if they're able to flip Love for an A-list wing.
Cost will be an obstacle. Ilyasova will turn 31 in May. He's not at the prototypical ring-chasing age. But, as is the rallying cry of this entire exercise, the league's free-agency landscape will be funky. Ilyasova couldn't extract more than $6 million on a one-season deal last summer. He won't command more than that now—not if he's seeking a multiyear agreement.
Dallas Mavericks: Aaron Gordon (Restricted)
League sources told Sporting News' Sean Deveney the Dallas Mavericks are expected to court Aaron Gordon this summer because they're "eager to find a budding star to fill in alongside Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr., softening the blow of Dirk Nowitzki's retirement, which could come in just months."
DeMarcus Cousins initially seemed like the best option here. Unrestricted free agents are easier to lure away, he doesn't turn 28 until August, and the Mavericks have long held a soft spot for star big men ultimately out of reach.
Cousins' season-ending Achilles injury kiboshes this idea. The New Orleans Pelicans have to think twice—and then a third time—about bringing him back, so he's never been more gettable. But the Mavericks already funneled a bunch of money into one Achilles recovery, a la Wesley Matthews. Financing another one begs for trouble.
Besides which, Cousins is better-suited for insta-turnaround hopefuls. The Mavericks aren't that. They might fancy Barnes a cornerstone, but he's a tick better than a replacement-level player. Pairing him with Cousins and Smith wouldn't get them past the second round and would create this unspectacular window of opportunity through which they'd neither be rebuilding nor contending—Charlotte Hornets of the West, if you will.
Going after Gordon jibes with a more gradual rebuild. He turns 23 in September and hasn't yet reached his prime. And he has a much higher defensive ceiling than post-injury Cousins.
Gordon isn't a finished product. Far from it. His numbers this season are still reaping the benefits of a hot start. He's slashing 41.2/29.9/71.9 since the Orlando Magic's 8-4 facade. But he's one of the scant few could-be cornerstones up for grabs.
If the Mavericks are going to flex the $20-plus million in cap room they have the ability to dredge up, it might as well be for a high-reward kiddie with the physical tools of a big and the developing offensive game of a wing.
Denver Nuggets: Tyreke Evans
Just a wee bit of cheating is at play here.
Nikola Jokic will become a restricted free agent if, as expected, the Denver Nuggets decline his team option. Maxing him out takes them well above the luxury tax if Darrell Arthur and Wilson Chandler exercised their player options. Their commitments will explode past the $140 million mark should they re-sign Will Barton.
Futzing with the roster is an inevitability. The Nuggets aren't paying deep into the tax to keep this exact nucleus together. But Jokic's next-to-nothing cap hold ($1.6 million) arms them with some nifty maneuverability. They can actually carve out space by dumping the right contracts.
If, for example, Chandler opts out (not impossible), the Nuggets could use Juan Hernangomez and their own first-round pick as sweeteners in separate deals that purge the books of Arthur's and Kenneth Faried's expiring deals. That would give them more than $20 million in room. They can then get north of $25 million by renouncing Barton.
Indulging this perfect storm of events is beyond unlikely. But the Nuggets have the sugary additives to pawn off nonessential money, enabling them to, at the very least, focus on mid-tier free agents.
Tyreke Evans is almost too perfect for the Nuggets. They no longer need a point guard thanks to the swift and potent rise of Jamal Murray, but they could use another crafty ball-handler who hits spot-up threes even if Barton returns.
Evans works as both a backup quarterback and complementary wing punch off the bench. The Memphis Grizzlies have given him free reign for much of this season, but he's shooting 38.5 percent on catch-and-fire treys and would see his stock as an off-ball cutter swell next to Jokic and Paul Millsap.
Unloading salary, prospects and picks for Evans amounts to a steep cost. But the Nuggets, in theory, could keep Barton and Chandler, sign Evans and re-up Jokic while adhering to the hard cap if they find takers for Arthur and Faried. Dipping into the tax for a season would be worth that end product.
Detroit Pistons: Omri Casspi
Bringing in Blake Griffin and his five-year, $171.2 million deal will force the Detroit Pistons to think small on the free-agency market until further notice.
Merely avoiding the luxury tax will be a chore unto itself—and most likely out of the question by 2019. The Pistons get within $6 million of the $123 million pole if they guarantee deals for Reggie Bullock, Dwight Buycks and Eric Moreland. That might leave them enough wiggle room under the tax to bring back one of James Ennis and Anthony Tolliver.
Everything else the Pistons do must entail pillaging through the bargain bin. And Omri Casspi should catch their attention.
He's already earning the minimum with the Golden State Warriors and hasn't, beyond a shadow of a doubt, played his way to a substantially larger payday. He has basically stopped shooting threes and instead gets his fill as a cutter and, somewhat surprisingly, foul-drawer.
Detroit could promise a more expansive role, particularly if Ennis or Tolliver hits the bricks. He'd soak up minutes at the 3 and 4, see more looks from beyond the arc and get to test his mettle as a playmaker and shot-taker in some dribble handoffs.
Diving into the luxury territory shouldn't scare the Pistons from looking at Casspi. Owner Tom Gores doesn't let coach-president Stan Van Gundy make the Griffin trade if he wasn't at least open to the idea of fleshing out the roster beyond an Ennis return. That mandates using part or all of the taxpayer mid-level exception.
Casspi isn't worth the whole thing, but he would give the offense a spacier, more versatile feel. Another minimum deal probably wouldn't cut it. If the Pistons were that concerned with evading the tax, they could always see what it'll take to clear out Langston Galloway or Jon Leuer—or even the two years and $35.1 million left on Reggie Jackson's contract.
Golden State Warriors: Trevor Booker
Trevor Booker? He's...not LeBron James. Sorry, conspiracy-theory subscribers. It just makes more sense to operate on solid ground.
Aside: Should the Warriors, like, even want James? In no way would he make them worse. He's the GOAT. But he's not a seamless off-ball option. He's a strong cutter, but he's not an everyday spot-up shooter who flies around screens like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. And knowing his arrival would cost Thompson, among other names, Golden State should be more enamored with fit over flash.
Anyway, the Warriors are undergoing something of a transition at center. Head coach Steve Kerr has, for the time being, removed Zaza Pachulia from the starting lineup. JaVale McGee is opening games in the middle now, but let's face it: He's keeping the seat warm for rookie Jordan Bell.
Both Pachulia and McGee are free agents this summer. Neither is assured of a return. Pachulia is old (34), and McGee (sort of) spent time on the chopping block before the Feb. 8 deadline, per The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II. NBA.com's David Aldridge reported David West intends to retire. Kevon Looney's minutes at the 5 continue to dwindle.
The Warriors should consider injecting some new blood into the center rotation for 2018-19. Bell and Draymond Green—with a little Durant sprinkled in between—aren't enough. They need someone else to sponge up minutes at the 5, if only to inoculate Bell and Green against too many beatings down low.
Aron Baynes, Amir Johnson and perhaps even Brook Lopez would all be tantalizing fits. But the Warriors must prey on those who won't cost more than minimum. They'll have the taxpayer's mid-level exception at their disposal, but that should be spent on another wing if Patrick McCaw doesn't prove himself by season's end, and owner Joe Lacob might get pocket conscious after taking stock of his latest luxury-tax bill.
Trevor Booker is more likely to join up for the veteran's minimum. He won't turn 31 until the middle of next season, but the big-man market is oversaturated, and he's not playing a prominent role with the Philadelphia 76ers. He isn't in line for a lucrative pact unless a team needs its own ceremonial Johnson—a slightly overpriced short-term placeholder.
Offering Booker a lion's share of second-string minutes at the 5 may hold his attention. He's no stranger to playing in a fast-paced offense after spending time with the Nets, and his mobility in space and hustle on the boards—he averages more box-outs per 36 minutes than DeAndre Jordan—would align with everything the Warriors need from their 5s.
Houston Rockets: LeBron James (Player Option)
The Houston Rockets cannot afford LeBron James outright. Paying James Harden and allocating max money for Chris Paul takes them out of the running alone. Seriously: They could dump everyone else, without taking back any salary in return, and still fall short of James' $35.4 million price tag.
Speculation persists anyway.
Sam Amick of USA Today reported in December the Rockets held a "strong belief" they could land James. NBA.com's David Aldridge went as far as guessing the four-time MVP ends up with Houston during a January appearance on the Tony Kornheiser Show (h/t The Big Lead's Bobby Burack).
Paul "liked" an Instagram post of a custom-made LeBron James Rockets jersey. Legend has it the NBA's 2016 salary-cap boon had nothing to do with a TV-money windfall or player opposition to smoothing-out procedures but was the direct result of general manager Daryl Morey hacking the NBA's servers using only his TI-84 plus calculator and about a half-dozen chewing-gum wrappers.
Make of all this what you will. Houston would be a sensible spot for James to set up shop. The Rockets have established themselves as the league's foremost threat to the Warriors, employ one of his BFFLs (Paul), roster a top-10 superstar on the right side of 30 (Harden), come complete with a 23-year-old rim-running DeAndre Jordan-Dewayne Dedmon hybrid (Clint Capela), and play within walking distance of superb Creole eateries.
Getting to Houston dictates that James followed in Paul's footsteps. He would have to opt into the final season of his contract, delaying his foray into free agency another year, and force a trade. He should absolutely do this, hands down. It allows the Rockets to retain much of their supporting cast, including Capela, and his Bird rights would transfer over with him.
Yes, this makes James another cheat target. You caught me. Sorry, not sorry. Embrace it. These pipe-dream scenarios are free agency's junk-food binges. They're necessary deviations from our regular-scheduled diet.
Indiana Pacers: Rodney Hood (Restricted)
The Pacers are expected to "investigate" restricted free agents this summer, according to Sporting News' Sean Deveney. The implication is they could join the Mavericks and Phoenix Suns in the running for Aaron Gordon, but that squanders the correct train of thought on the wrong player.
Signing a power forward—who should moonlight as a small-ball 5—misses the mark for this roster. Gordon diminishes the Pacers' dependence on TJ Leaf and, to a smaller extent, Al Jefferson (non-guaranteed). He also creates an awkward tricycle dynamic with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, the latter of whom is extension-eligible this summer.
Overbidding for Gordon becomes even more irresponsible if Thaddeus Young picks up his $13.8 million player option. Almost all of his minutes this season have come at the 4, just like Gordon, according to Cleaning The Glass. Forcing one of them to log more time at the 3 would be disingenuous to the offense's floor balance, and trading Young for the right to pay Gordon enough money to make the Magic vomit would be peak recklessness.
Shifting attentions to a bigger wing does more for the Pacers' immediate and long-term orbits. Bojan Bogdanovic plays more Candy Land than defense, and Glenn Robinson III, at 6'6", shouldn't be tasked with guarding 3s unless he's beside another alpha swingman.
Rodney Hood isn't some All-Defense superhero. He doesn't play like he's 6'7" or 6'8". But he's a sturdier matchup against star wings. The Utah Jazz rolled out Hood at power forward for just 17 possessions, and the Cavaliers have yet to test this theory, per Cleaning The Glass, but Indiana could roll him out at the 4 for abbreviated stretches.
Worst-case scenario: Hood elevates the Pacers' defensive apex ever so slightly while diversifying their pleasantly punchy offense. He has the pull-up chops of Bogdanovic, with the added benefit of being able to initiate more pick-and-rolls in the half court.
Los Angeles Clippers: James Ennis
Jettisoning Blake Griffin barely six months after signing him to a five-year deal did not portend a Los Angeles Clippers teardown. They tipped their hand ahead of the trade deadline by extending Lou Williams and keeping Avery Bradley and DeAndre Jordan. They're not prepared to pull the plug on this merry band of role players.
Things may change over the summer. The Clippers can easily U-turn into a rebuild. They contemplated as much prior to the deadline. Jordan was very much available in talks with the Cavaliers, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. And Williams' three-year, $24 million extension, with a non-guarantee in the final season, morphs into a valuable bargaining chip once his trade restriction expires in August.
But the Clippers aren't about to let Jordan (player option) walk for nothing. Retaining him through this season is a tacit commitment to his next contract. Any reconstruction is on hold until the middle of 2018-19 at the earliest.
Assuming the Clippers don't renounce him or Bradley, they'll be capped out through the moon, on the verge of cannonballing into the luxury tax. This changes if Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers or Milos Teodosic decline their player options, but that ain't happening.
Los Angeles will be functioning as a playoff hopeful over the summer. And with no money to spare, the front office will have to seek out defensive go-getters on the cheap.
James Ennis is the ceiling with these constraints in place. The Pistons own his Early Bird rights, and the Clippers don't have the breathing room to partake in a bidding war. But with Detroit combating its own muddied books, the taxpayer's mid-level exception—or, if Los Angeles sheds salary, part of the full MLE—may assure his relocation. And the Clippers would be lucky to have him.
Ennis can switch across every wing position and has the size, at 6'7", to line up against certain small-ball 4s. His offensive role is almost exclusively off-ball. Nearly three-quarters of his made buckets come on assists, and he's finding nylon on just over 38 percent of his spot-up threebies—an attendant shot distribution that makes him an ideal fit alongside Los Angeles' cluster of ball-handlers.
Los Angeles Lakers: Paul George (Player Option)
Let's not overcomplicate the Lakers' offseason approach.
They were fined $500,000 in August for violating the league's anti-tampering measures with Paul George.
They open-sesamed their way to two max-contract slots by deep-sixing Jordan Clarkson's deal at the trade deadline.
Team President Magic Johnson openly—and tactlessly—wished he could have dealt the final two years and $36.8 million remaining on Luol Deng's agreement.
The Lakers are coming for George.
Talk of adjusting their free-agent scope to emphasize the 2019 class, as first reported by ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, is not unsubstantiated. It is, however, premature.
Every sign points to the Lakers wining and dining superstars over the summer. And George remains their most realistic success story. He hails from Palmdale, California, and indicated he preferred to join the Lakers upon first requesting a trade from the Pacers last June. This mutual infatuation doesn't just go away—unless, of course, you believe Russell Westbrook.
"That's out," Westbrook said when asked about Lakers fans chanting "We want Paul!" during the team's Jan. 17 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, per the Oklahoman's Erik Horne. "Paul ain't going nowhere. It's over for that."
Maybe so. But the Lakers have to try. They've come too far, they've done too much, not to.
Memphis Grizzlies: Josh Huestis
Miles below .500, with a combined $78.8 million owed to Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons next season, Memphis is in rare form: a bottom-five-record chaser absent any salary-cap plasticity whatsoever in the coming summer.
On the glass-half-full side, the Grizzlies aren't in imminent peril of blitzing past the luxury tax. They'll be comfortably below the taboo $123 million yard stick even after caking in the salary for a top-five pick.
On the Captain Buzzkill side, they've recused themselves from making any significant additions by holding onto Tyreke Evans. Letting him walk is not an option. They had the chance to get something, anything, for his departure. They have to at least try re-signing him now.
Since they don't own his Bird Rights, the Grizzlies must dangle their full mid-level exception to keep him in town. They can spend that $8.6 million elsewhere if another suitor guarantees him more per year, but that presumes their nightmare scenario. Banking on his return leaves them to rifle through the clearance rack.
Budding performers under 27 don't usually come with thrift-store sticker prices. But, once more, this summer won't be kind to non-max formalities. Capped-out teams like the Grizzlies can exploit taxed-out rivals like the Thunder, who will be more inclined to let someone of value walk rather than add to their punitive bill.
Josh Huestis would be a great spark plug for Memphis' puddle-deep wing rotation. His three-point percentage has plunged below 30 percent for 2017-18, but he has outside range and is a decent cutter and screen-setter. He instantly becomes Memphis' switchiest defender as well. Oklahoma City is now starting to realize he's its best replacement for the injured Andre Roberson.
Slinging minimum money won't get Huestis to budge, and the Grizzlies don't have the biannual exception this year after giving it to Evans last summer. They'll have to hope the latter costs something less than the full MLE, or that the Thunder decide Terrance Ferguson is their guy—which, as far as offseason fantasies go, is pretty reasonable.
Miami Heat: Nik Stauskas (Restricted)
Summer won't feel like summer without Miami Heat President Pat Riley wooing the crap out of marquee free agents.
Perhaps he susses out supplicants for one of the team's many burdensome contracts. More likely than not, though, the Heat are too far gone for even his voodoo to work. They'll glide across the luxury-tax line just by shouldering Wayne Ellington's Early Bird cap hold—an unequivocal must.
Party-crashing the trade market remains a distinct possibility. Other teams can talk themselves into acquiring James Johnson (three years, $44.1 million after this one), Kelly Olynyk (three years, $35 million) and maybe Hassan Whiteside (two years, $46.5 million). But Tyler Johnson (two years, $38.5 million) and Dion Waiters (three years, $36.3 million) are patently immovable without primo buffers, and Goran Dragic (two years, $37.3 million) is too integral to sustaining relevance.
That brings us back to the too-far-gone trope. The Heat must follow the lead of squads like the Pistons and Thunder and think small—ultramicroscopic, even.
Hello, Nik Stauskas.
Restricted free agents seldom pop up on the radar of potential taxpayers, but the 24-year-old is far from a hot commodity. It would be borderline shocking if the Nets pick up his $5.1 million qualifying offer. He could find himself among the unrestricted free-agent ranks, looking for a place to recapture the flare that drove the Sacramento Kings to draft him eighth overall in 2014.
Miami is that place. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is a whiz at incorporating anyone who fancies himself a shooter, and Stauskas is jacking more three-pointers per 36 minutes than JR Smith—and hitting them at a 38.5 percent clip.
Picking him up on the cheap is a great in-case-of-emergency play. Ellington could price himself out of town, while Rodney McGruder and Justise Winslow are slated for restricted free agency in 2019. The Heat need cost-controlled perimeter talent, and Stauskas shouldn't fetch anything consequential. Who knows, they might be able to groom him as the straight-to-DVD version of Ellington.
Milwaukee Bucks: Kyle O'Quinn (Player Option)
Kyle O'Quinn could turn out to be an overambitious target for the Bucks.
Carrying Jabari Parker's free-agent hold alone slingshots them into the luxury tax. They will duck it if he signs for around $15 million a year, and they always have the option of trading or stretching Mirza Teletovic's expiring deal. But they're not looking at anything more than a piece of the mid-level exception without taking wholesale salary-scrapping measures.
Fortunately for the Bucks, big men aren't in high demand, and O'Quinn shouldn't be that expensive. He's sitting on a $4.3 million player option. Getting that much, or something close to it, over a few more years becomes the goal if he enters free agency.
Milwaukee can pick up that tab even if its plan is to skirt the tax later on. And the team expressed interest in snagging his services at the trade deadline, per The Athletic's Michael Scotto—rightfully so, too.
The Bucks desperately need a brute force in the paint. They own one of the NBA's five worst defensive rebounding rates, and relying on a steady dose of John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller isn't going to noticeably reverse their fortunes.
O'Quinn's own rebounding percentage (18.7) would rank second on the Bucks, ceding status only to Marshall Plumlee, who has appeared in just seven games. O'Quinn is an understated passer and stationary rim protector to boot, and he has outside range the New York Knicks elect not to use.
Adding him gives the Bucks one of the league's best backup behemoths, but he's not so high-usage they would feel guilty about cutting into his minutes if Maker plays well enough to warrant more extensive looks. Basically, O'Quinn is a dream signing for any size-starved team operating over the cap.
Milwaukee should give him another look.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Joe Harris
Collecting bench shooters must take precedent for the Minnesota Timberwolves over the offseason. They're flush with off-the-dribble maestros but don't have the quick-fire personnel to come around picks and pull the trigger on the catch.
Incidentally, they're 29th in three-point-attempt rate and dead last in offensive possessions finished off screens. They don't have room to tinker with this distribution in the starting lineup. Neither Jimmy Butler nor Andrew Wiggins has the release to channel his inner Klay Thompson; Taj Gibson is only just beginning to dabble in corner threes; and 7-footers carting 250 pounds in body weight like Karl-Anthony Towns aren't the type to curl around screens.
Plenty of openings exist deeper down their depth chart. Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng are the only indispensable bodies. The Timberwolves have minutes to spare. They just don't have the money to fill them.
Waiving Cole Aldrich ($2.1 million guaranteed) and renouncing Marcus Georges-Hunt (restricted) gets the Timberwolves below the luxury tax, but not far enough for them to brandish the full mid-level exception. They'll have to renounce Nemanja Bjelica (restricted) or hope he signs for less than his $7.5 million cap hold to access it.
Joe Harris fits within the Timberwolves' limitations. The Nets won't pay him much more than the $1.5 million he's making now as they reconcile imminent raises for more prominent building blocks, and he's not someone who will enchant teams with cap space. He's a contender's target, and the Timberwolves need him.
Harris is swishing more than 40 percent of his spot-up threes and averages more points per possession coming off screens than Bradley Beal. He's even leveraged his outside touch into a disarming pump-and-peel game. He's shooting 57.4 percent on drives—second-best mark among more than 150 players averaging at least four downhill attacks per game, behind only...LeBron James.
New Orleans Pelicans: Gerald Green
New Orleans has no discernible passageway to cap room.
DeMarcus Cousins' Achilles injury changes the complexion of his free agency, but the Pelicans will be hard-pressed to shirk the luxury tax after re-signing him. And cutting ties with him doesn't do anything. They're right up against the $101 million cap before considering what it'll cost to keep the All-Star big man.
Failing a series of salary dumps, the Pelicans will frolic among the free-agency leftovers. And while we could focus on those worth some slice of whatever mid-level exception they're working with, they need to flesh out multiple roster spots.
Minimum-contract and partial-exception options will be their bread and butter—doubly so if they're bent on retaining Cousins and dodging the tax. Finding diamonds among the dregs is impractical, but teams sometimes get lucky.
Reeling in Gerald Green would be most serendipitous against these terms. He went unemployed for much too long this year before the Rockets scooped him up. He's unlikely to begin next season without a contract again.
Green is averaging over 20 minutes per game for Houston. He has traces of a chucker in him, but he's shooting better than 38 percent from behind the rainbow. He isn't a lockdown defender, but he has the size and athleticism to match up with bigger wings and live to the tell the tale.
The Pelicans don't have this player on their roster—unless Solomon Hill turned into a lights-out shooter while recovering from a torn hamstring. DeAndre Liggins doesn't have the jumper. E'Twaun Moore doesn't have the size. Darius Miller too often gets railroaded at the defensive end.
Green isn't a panacea. But he would, as of now, rank as New Orleans' most dynamic wing.
New York Knicks: Kyle Anderson (Restricted)
Disclaimer: New York, at this moment, is not on course to have cap space.
Ron Baker and Enes Kanter are going to exercise their player options, and it would be foolish not to keep Trey Burke's $1.8 million salary on the books. In the event Kyle O'Quinn decides to test the market next summer, the Knicks will have around $103 million committed to 13 players after peppering in a top-10 pick's salary.
Joakim Noah's future is the wrench in these projections. He's owed $37.8 million over the next two seasons, and the Knicks have thus far resisted the temptation to waive him. They're instead hoping he gives back money as part of a buyout agreement, according to the New York Post's Marc Berman. Barring that, they're prepared to turn over other stones before stretching his remaining salary over the next five years.
Patient franchises would wait out Noah's deal rather than pay him $7.6 million each season for the next half-decade. But the Knicks are not known for restraint, and they're bound to feel the pressure with Kristaps Porzingis scheduled for a wage increase in 2019-20.
They could hammer out an extension agreement with him this summer or float a $17.1 million restricted free-agent hold next year. Either way, it will be easier to dig up space this year by stretching Noah.
Again: The Knicks should stand pat. Porzingis isn't expected back from his ACL injury until next Christmas at the earliest. They are under no obligation to express urgency this offseason. But if they opt to jimmy up some cap space, they should be window shopping for youthful defensive-minded wings.
Kyle Anderson is among the most fundamentally sound players on the market this year, bar none. He's not super athletic, but he has the length and smarts to pester 2s, 3s and 4s. He makes up for a shaky three-point shot with polished decision-making in traffic and a burgeoning mid-range game.
Stretching Noah grants the Knicks a little under $13 million to play with if O'Quinn gauges the free-agent market. That should be enough coin to outbid the San Antonio Spurs. They subsidized an uncharacteristic spending surge last summer and have to worry about new deals for Danny Green this July (player option) and Kawhi Leonard (player option) in 2019.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Marco Belinelli
Depending on where LeBron James takes his talents (slightly sorry) and how Kevin Durant's free agency plays out (another pay cut?), the Thunder could enter next season with the NBA's highest payroll.
Maxing out Paul George will leave them with more than $147 million committed to 10 players should Carmelo Anthony rebuff his early-termination option (which, duh). They're staring down a top-three cap sheet at the bare minimum.
This should not rattle them. Keeping George and signing Russell Westbrook to the designated player extension was the point of last summer's wheeling and dealing. The Thunder knew their roster could cost them an arm and a leg through 2018-19. Anthony's free agency in 2019—again, assuming he stays put—is their light at the end of the tunnel.
Oklahoma City can and will kick around cost-crimping moves if their preferred scenario plays out. Rerouting Alex Abrines and sweetening a trade enough to cast off Kyle Singler saves a boatload in tax payments.
Except, Jerami Grant and Josh Huestis are free agents themselves. The Thunder cannot go into next season with Anthony, George, a recuperating Roberson and Terrance Ferguson as their only wings. They'll need another playable body on the perimeter even if Abrines isn't used as a salary-cap tribute.
Marco Belinelli is right up their alley. Another team could fork over more than the vet's minimum for his career 37.6 percent accuracy from long range. But he'll be old enough, at 32, for ring-chasing watch in what's expected to be a stingy market.
Heck, with the way he still shoots, he may be a better fit for the Thunder than—protracted gasp—Anthony. Belinelli is hitting almost 37 percent of his spot-up treys and nearly 39 percent of his pull-up triples, compared to Anthony's marks of 37.5 and 27.9 percent, respectively.
Regardless, Belinelli would be a great find for a Thunder squad bogged down by superstar salaries.
Orlando Magic: Yogi Ferrell (Restricted)
Orlando may be forced to spend this summer operating as a capped-out team. Correct: Owners of a bottom-five record do not have ample money to disperse among free agents.
Ferrying Aaron Gordon's $16.5 million hold drags the Magic more than $5 million above the cap if they don't waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Khem Birch and Shelvin Mack. And ditching the latter two won't do anything. They're on the ledger for a combined $7.4 million. The Magic wouldn't drop far enough below the cap to match the value of the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Slashing salary via trade is close to off the table. The Magic aren't teeming with desirable contracts they can foist off into another team's space, and Orlando isn't an attractive enough destination to justify clearing so many hurdles.
Searching for unsung gems is their best use of time. And they have an opening at point guard after severing ties with Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline.
Soldiering on with Mack and D.J. Augustin as leading floor generals doesn't incite much confidence, and the Magic won't find an answer in the draft if they land inside the top four or five. Selecting Trae Young that early is a reach, and the next best point guard prospect, Alabama's Colin Sexton, may not go in the top 10.
Yogi Ferrell should be available for low-end money even as a restricted free agent. The Mavericks won't match any substantive offer sheets when they have Dennis Smith Jr. in tow, and Orlando is the only team that would sign him with the intention of using him as a starter.
Other options spring to mind here, but Ferrell, 24, blends the right amount of upside and affordability. Fred VanVleet should be a tick more expensive. The Magic have already tried the Shabazz Napier (restricted) thing. Good luck prying Dante Exum (restricted) from the Jazz. Shane Larkin and Raul Neto (restricted) don't beget much excitement.
Ferrell strikes a nice balance between intrigue and constancy. His 6'0" frame isn't conducive to elite finishing around the rim, but he's drilling almost 39 percent of his three-point attempts through his first two seasons and averaged about as many potential assists last year as Patrick Beverley and DeMarcus Cousins when he saw more time as the primary ball-handler.
Philadelphia 76ers: Will Barton
League executives told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt earlier this season they expect the Philadelphia 76ers to make a run at LeBron James in free agency. These sentiments, even months later, have hardly fallen on deaf ears.
Power Home Remodeling, a company based out of Chester, Pennsylvania, recently had three billboards put up in Cleveland to recruit James on the Sixers' behalf, per ESPN.com's Darren Rovell. And the soon-to-be free agent digs it.
"It is actually very flattering that I'm sitting here at 33 and in my 15th year and teams or guys—I don't want to say teams because that becomes tampering," James said, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "But people in their respective city want me to play for them. That's cool I think. That's dope."
Sixers fans must forgive the decision to not perpetuate this dopeness. Your team has cap space and one of the league's brightest futures, but James isn't leaving Cleveland, again, for promising what-ifs. The apex of a Joel Embiid-Markelle Fultz-Ben Simmons troika isn't enough of a sure thing to overshadow safer bets in Houston and San Antonio.
Chin up, though. Y'all don't really need James. Taking up the Eastern Conference mantle as he ebbs into his twilight is the endgame, and your Sixers are perfectly built to be considered next in line. Some primping here, a little preening there, and poof! You're set.
In lieu of going all-in for James, the Sixers should iron out their second-unit wrinkles. Their second-stringers are 29th in total court time, 25th in effective field-goal percentage and 30th in points scored per 100 possessions. They need an offensive anchor coming off the bench in the worst way.
Inserting a healthy Fultz into the rotation is a natural aide. But the Sixers didn't draft him to headline their backups. He'll eventually push JJ Redick or Dario Saric to the pine. They need a more permanent solution.
Will Barton is just what the doctor ordered. He needs a playmaking buffer beside him; he hasn't shown he can pilot units as a soloist. But the Nuggets are a net plus whenever he plays with one of Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray.
Philly doesn't need a lone wolf to run the tables on his own. Embiid, Fultz and Simmons are all best with the ball in their hands. A supplementary playmaker familiar with working away from the action does the trick. Barton splashes in enough of his catch-and-shoot threes (40.7 percent) and looks off cuts (78.1 percent) to be everything the Sixers need.
Phoenix Suns: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Phoenix is among the teams expected to make an aggressive play for Aaron Gordon, one of this summer's most lucrative prizes, according to Sporting News' Sean Deveney. This aligns with general manager Ryan McDonough's offseason vision.
"There are certain core pieces that are starting to solidify," he told AZCentral.com's Scott Bordow in January. "I think we'd be foolish or naive to wait forever or be overly patient. We've been, I think, relatively disciplined with contracts we've given out in terms of length and dollars, but yeah, we're planning on being one of five of six teams with a decent amount of cap space, and we'll see if we can improve the team."
McDonough is spot-on—for the most part. His team's financial situation is fluid. The Suns could technically find themselves inside $5 million of the projected $101 million cap if they grab a top-three pick, use Miami's first-rounder, guarantee 2018-19 salaries for Davon Reed, Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams and tote Elfrid Payton's free-agent hold ($10 million) into July. They'll be maxed out if they float Alex Len's $8 million hold.
At the same time, the Suns have a blink-of-an-eye path to more than $20 million in free-agency allowance. Renouncing Len and Payton while waiving Williams opens up almost $25 million in room, with the potential for truckloads more if they ship out the expiring contracts of Tyson Chandler and/or Jared Dudley.
Exhausting that flexibility on Gordon is a waste of their resources. Paying him is a deathblow to Marquese Chriss' development and limits the amount of time they can etch out at power forward for Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is more a palatable option—once you get past his ill-advised pull-up threes. He shouldn't cost anywhere near his $17.7 million salary on a long-term deal, and his one-year layover in Los Angeles has seen him sop up time at point guard, shooting guard and small forward, according to Cleaning the Glass.
His shot selection often sends bystanders into hysterics, but he's shooting a personal-best 37.6 percent from three and career-high 65.8 percent inside three feet of the hoop. His execution out of the pick-and-roll is a joke, but he's a willing passer on drives. His defensive resume holds more bloat than substance, but he's getting better—particularly against bigger wings.
Los Angeles is posting a top-two defensive rating in the nearly 300 possessions Caldwell-Pope has spent at small forward, per Cleaning the Glass. And he's one of just six players averaging at least two steals yet under three fouls per 100 possessions. He joins Kyle Anderson, Jimmy Butler, Gary Harris, Tyus Jones and Delon Wright—good-to-great defensive company that should leave Phoenix smitten.
Portland Trail Blazers: Devin Harris
The Portland Trail Blazers were smart to sidestep the luxury tax this season, because they have almost no hope of creeping under it in 2018-19.
Retaining holds for restricted free agents Shabazz Napier ($7.1 million) and Jusuf Nurkic ($8.8 million) catapult them past $123 million in guaranteed commitments. That doesn't include a new contract for the ever-underrated Ed Davis.
General manager Neil Olshey is facing some impossible, perhaps job-defining decisions. The Blazers cannot bring back everyone. They might not bring back anyone. They're less likely to pay the tax than other fringe contenders.
Whereas teams like the Bucks and Washington Wizards can talk themselves into being a LeBron James injury away from the NBA Finals, the Blazers are stuck in purgatory, firmly entrenched behind multiple superpowers (Rockets, Spurs, Warriors).
Napier forecasts as the biggest flight risk of all. The Blazers are still in the market for a building block up front, but they're decked out in the backcourt. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will take home a combined $53.8 million next year, $57.4 million in 2019-20 and $61 million in 2020-21.
Otherwise modest offers could be deemed too lucrative for Portland to match. A team more open to paying the tax could even whisk him away with a bulk of its mid-level exception.
Anything more than minimum money may be too rich for the Blazers. Luring Devin Harris would be a victory with what they can feasibly offer. He's a below-board outside shooter at age 35, but he boasts a respectable floater, fairish finishing around the rim and serviceable vision off the dribble.
Pretty much all of Harris' playing time came at the 2 and 3 before Dallas traded him to Denver, per Cleaning the Glass. He's more than a point guard safety net. And with a shallow well of wings at its behest, Portland should both appreciate and poke around that versatility—provided Harris can be had for a beggar's dime.
Sacramento Kings: Julius Randle (Restricted)
The Kings need to be careful about how they handle this offseason. Handing out larger contracts should, for the most part, be a no-no. They cannot afford a repeat of last summer, when they invested in veteran names. The temptation will be there once more, since they don't control their own first-round pick in 2019. But they should, they must, defy it.
Parlaying what should be more than $20 million of spending power—regardless of where they place in the draft lottery—into more picks is paramount. Some offseason buyers will inevitably want to rent out cap space. Sacramento is one of the few teams equipped to set the market for leasing out flexibility.
All of this in mind, the Kings shouldn't entirely remove themselves from the free-agent fray. Their available funds will spike if one or more of Kosta Koufos (eh), Iman Shumpert (probably not) and Garrett Temple (maybe) decline their player options. And even if their space doesn't exceed initial projections, they should remain on the lookout for the right opportunity.
Julius Randle is one such case study. Dumping Jordan Clarkson prevents the Lakers from having to renounce him for a second max-contract spot, but if presented with the chance to sign two stars, they still need to choose between turning him loose and stretching Luol Deng's salary over five years.
Paying someone $7.4 million per season for a half-decade will never be the most appealing option. Dead money becomes even more detrimental when trying to round out the roster around multiple star salaries.
Whiffing on their free-agent initiative doesn't even guarantee the Lakers will keep Randle. His next contract eats into their flexibility in 2019, when All-NBA talents like Jimmy Butler (player option), Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Klay Thompson reach the open market. He may be available for the taking, at a reasonable cost, no matter what. That almost never happens with 23-year-olds who aren't written off as draft busts.
Randle clashes with the Kings' extensive assortment of bigs, but he's shown more of an offensive edge than anyone they have up front. His shooting percentages crater outside five feet, but he makes up for it will contrived chaos off the dribble. He can orchestrate fast breaks off defensive rebounds and initiate pick-and-rolls in the half court. And his individual defense has come a long way. He ranks in the 61st percentile of isolation and 87th percentile of post-up prevention.
Taking a number on Randle wouldn't make much sense if Skal Labissiere were delivering an adequate encore to last year's stretch-run dominance. He's not. And since neither Harry Giles nor Willie Cauley-Stein projects as an independent offensive hub, it doesn't hurt the Kings to monitor Randle's price tag. Investigating a potential opportunity is different from marrying an attempt to force the Lakers' hand.
San Antonio Spurs: Avery Bradley
Before Avery Bradley was traded to the Clippers, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the 27-year-old swingman "could command an annual salary in the $20 million range."
Yeah, no. Bradley isn't getting that much. Not after having a nightmarish contract year.
His offensive efficiency has imploded. Among the 104 players notching a usage rate north of 20 or higher, his true shooting percentage ranks 100th. He still hoists too many long twos, and his accuracy around the rim is at its lowest point since 2013-14.
Bradley no longer engenders heaps of defensive praise. He can be a hawk on the ball and sees spin against some of the toughest assignments, but his execution within team schemes leaves much to be desired.
Stir in a recurring groin injury that's caused him to miss significant time, and Bradley's stock is threatening to probe rock bottom. He'll be lucky to net half the aforementioned asking price on a multiyear deal.
Enter the Spurs.
Their financial outlook is messy. Carrying holds for their own free agents—including Kyle Anderson (restricted) and Danny Green (player option), but not Tony Parker—takes them around $15 million beyond the cap. They'll have more flexibility if they renounce everyone and Rudy Gay declines his player option, but they won't haphazardly torch bridges with their incumbents. LeBron James would need to be in play for them to overturn their books.
Some form of the mid-level exception will be the Spurs' best weapon. Though the version they'll have—taxpayer or non-taxpayer—depends on the futures of Anderson and Green, they should be able to keep both while preserving access to the full MLE.
That puts them in the vicinity of Bradley's market value. They'll be displaced from the discussion if he gets a larger annual salary, but his down season works in the Spurs' favor. And what team could be better suited to rehabilitate his shot selection and hone his defensive stands than them?
Toronto Raptors: Luc Mbah a Moute
Luc Mbah a Moute is an obligatory inclusion. The Raptors, in reality, won't be focused on adding talent. They may not be fixating on keeping it, either.
They'll be too busy trying to snake the luxury tax.
Picking up the check for this exact roster is untenable beyond 2017-18. The Raptors have more than $123 million in guaranteed salary on next season's bottom line before factoring in holds for restricted free agents Lucas Nogueira or Fred VanVleet.
Biting the bullet and paying into the tax doesn't open up their options. They'll still let one of Nogueira and VanVleet walk (likely the former) and be consigned to the minimum-level options.
Mbah a Moute won't be that much of a bargain. He shouldn't be earning that price point now. Houston is beyond fortunate to have him at under $1.5 million. He's a scrappy defender, even when manning the 4, and hitting enough of his threes (35.7 percent) to stretch floor at the other end.
But the Rockets don't own his Bird rights, and new contracts for Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Chris Paul will lug them above the luxury tax. GM Daryl Morey could have other plans for what limited financial tools will be at his command—particularly if the LeBron James fantasy becomes reality.
The Raptors, meanwhile, should expand their horizons if ownership ponders paying the tax. They don't have as much of a need for VanVleet with Delon Wright on the docket, and their surfeit of bigs has already dislodged Nogueira from the rotation.
Earmarking a slab of the taxpayer's mid-level exception for a switchable wing who drains juuust enough of his three-balls does more to advance their championship agenda. Broken-record style: This is if, and only if, the Raptors are open to being a taxpayer at all. Should they make it their life's mission to skate under the luxury line, their free-agency scope drops below bottom of the barrel.
Utah Jazz: Mario Hezonja
Utah has the flexibility to get rowdy in free agency. Waiving non-guarantees on Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh while renouncing Dante Exum and Derrick Favors opens up nearly $20 million in room.
Ergo, the Jazz aren't getting rowdy in free agency.
Jumping through so many hoops to turn up primetime cap space doesn't mean all that much in a market like Utah. And the Jazz, in this case, wouldn't have max room. A $20 million offer probably isn't enough for the Magic to pass on Aaron Gordon.
And the Jazz wouldn't be junking afterthoughts. Sefolosha was wreaking havoc on defense as a small-ball 4 before suffering a season-ending MCL injury. Favors has been a pivotal part of the team's re-entry into the Western Conference playoff discussion. Exum has yet to amass two full seasons' worth of appearances and still emanates the mystique ingrained into top-five prospects.
Scouring the market for economical prizes is more in the Jazz's wheelhouse. And currying favor with Mario Hezonja would, for them, be a low-key coup.
Hezonja is averaging 12.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals over his past 30 games while slashing 47.3/35.9/81.3. He isn't playing like someone who deserved to have his fourth-year team option declined, but the Magic marked him for unrestricted free agency in October. He's now the rare, bordering on unprecedented, impact player who controls his own destiny without having the leverage to negotiate a lucrative salary.
Orlando cannot offer him more than the $5.2 million option it declined. Hezonja shouldn't need to search high and low for that anymore, so he'll be left to choose the situation that best fits him. Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey has argued in favor of Utah being that place:
"Orlando declined Mario Hezonja's team option before the season. He's 22. He fits the international feel of the Utah Jazz. He's that kind of 6'7" [to] 6'8" positionless hybrid Utah needs. He'd put the Jazz one player closer to my dream of always playing [Rudy] Gobert with four playmakers."
Sign us up for this. What say you, Super Mario?
Washington Wizards: Shabazz Napier (Restricted)
Potential taxpayers shouldn't have a puncher's chance of roping in restricted free agents like Shabazz Napier. But, one last time, a constrictive market makes it unlikely a backup floor general elicits offers worth more than $5 million per year.
Washington isn't complaining.
Eschewing the luxury tax could become the Wizards' vocation after hitting it this year. They'll squeak past the $123 million seal without touching the roster in the overwhelmingly likely event both Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith pick up their player options—but not so much that they'll resign to paying it yet again.
Might the Wizards consider stretching the remaining $31.4 million on Ian Mahinmi's deal across the next five seasons? Will they look to move a few smaller contracts (Meeks, Smith, Markieff Morris, etc.) or one bigger pact (Marcin Gortat)? Could they just relent and push forward as a taxpayer?
We can't be sure. So much depends on how they finish the season. A convincing playoff push could sell the Wizards on using the taxpayer's mid-level exception. A premature exit could prompt them to play it safe. They could also spend deep into the MLE and reconcile their tax situation later, when they have a better grasp on where they sit next season.
Solidifying the offense during the time Bradley Beal and John Wall spend on the bench together tops the Wizards' to-do list no matter how they approach the offseason. Look at the net ratings of Washington's notable supporting ball-handlers when playing without both stars:
- Tim Frazier (331 minutes): minus-8.5
- Jodie Meeks (588 minutes): minus-4.8
- Markieff Morris (21 minutes): minus-30.7
- Kelly Oubre (548 minutes): minus-2.6
- Otto Porter (132 minutes): plus-7.8
- Tomas Satoransky (346 minutes): minus-5.5
Satoransky has improved as a standalone understudy since Wall took to the shelf with a knee injury, but he falls short of a concrete contingency. And Porter doesn't see enough time alone to be a second-unit lifeline.
Napier hasn't captained transcendent lineups independent of both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but he's thrived when playing next to one of them. Waiting out the market—and committing to the tax—gives the Wizards a viable shot at rostering a Napier-Satoransky partnership capable of navigating star-less minefields.