NBA Teams That Are Low-Key Free-Agent Destinations
Do not let LeBron James' impending free agency prevent you from wandering outside the NBA's list of usual suspects.
Offseason speculation is so often limited to an exclusive subset of teams. That club only becomes harder to crack whenever James is facing his next decision.
We know the Houston Rockets always have their ear to the ground. The Los Angeles Lakers live for offseason fantasies. The Boston Celtics have staged coups in each of the past two summers. The Golden State Warriors are mentioned in every impactful discussion despite the complete absence of cap space. The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks play in storied markets, so they routinely get love, even when they're bad or don't have money.
Recycling the same clique of juggernauts and big-market pipe-dreamers is getting old. And for this offseason specifically, it figures to verge on meaninglessness.
Cap space is harder to come by as the market continues to suffer from the contracts handed out during the windfall of 2016. Any team with spending power or the means to dredge up some is more of an imminent threat. It doesn't matter which market it hails from or whether it's in the early stages of a rebuild.
This still doesn't warp the landscape for superstar free agents. The obvious, finite list of suitors still applies to James, Paul George, Chris Paul, etc. But the landing spots for players in lower tiers are less predictable.
Consider this a primer for the summer's top curveball destinations. They're presented in order of increasing appeal, as determined by accounting for current performance, future outlook, accessibility of cap space and willingness to use it.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Despite going 7-23 with a bottom-three defense over their last 30 games, the Brooklyn Nets deserve to be here.
General manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson have revamped the team's culture. The Nets champion a player-friendly style punctuated by three-point volume, higher-octane speeds (depending on the lineup) and a near indiscriminate pecking order.
In doing so, they've become a polestar for second chances and career revivals, rehabilitating the value of castoffs like DeMarre Carroll, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. And they've done this amid frequent roster turnover and without developing the detached stigma typically attached to franchises in limbo—hence their edging the Phoenix Suns for this spot.
Little things, such as a players' family lounge, resonate around the league. The Nets do not have a discernible hold on their long-term foundation, but they're not operating with the distant indifference of the Sam Hinkie-era Philadelphia 76ers either.
Cultivating that behind-the-scenes goodwill helps offset the absence of wins. It doesn't always manifest in the form of instant success, but it incites more subtle victories. Something as ostensibly innocuous as getting Otto Porter Jr. to sign their max offer sheet over the summer—rather than another team's—matters. He isn't Allen Crabbe or Tyler Johnson. He had other options.
Brooklyn will once again enter the offseason with more flexibility than most. It won't have the breathing room to sling max offer sheets to whomever it pleases, but it'll enjoy more than $15 million in spending power by renouncing all its free agents.
Floating Harris' early Bird rights while ditching everyone else would still leave it within striking distance of $14 million. Carroll's expiring contract should be a primo trade asset with this year's market short on wings. Flipping him for a cheaper salary or sending him into another team's cap space would open the door for a jump to $25 million of wiggle room.
Either way, the Nets will be armed with deeper pockets than more than two-thirds of the league. They'll get face time with impact names if they want it. But...will they want it?
Brooklyn regains control of all its first-round picks heading into 2018-19. Marks may not opt for a deliberate tank with so much sweat equity already invested in the team's nucleus, but he shouldn't be in a rush to add marquee talent.
Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (restricted) and D'Angelo Russell (restricted) will all be due for raises after next season. Caris LeVert will be extension-eligible that summer as well. So while the Nets will have both the resources and audience to leave a dent in free agency, they need to figure out what they're working with on the home front first.
4. Denver Nuggets
This offseason shouldn't be so important to the Denver Nuggets. They're supposed to be closer to a finished project than not.
Instead, they're spending the final weeks of the regular season fighting for their playoff lives. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers have underachieved by more substantive measures.
Injuries haven't helped. Paul Millsap missed most of the season with a wrist injury. Gary Harris has right knee soreness. And the roster lacks a certain balance. The Nuggets are bogged down by big men and thin on the wings. They don't have the requisite switchability to be more than a bottom-10 defense—not even with a healthy Millsap.
To be sure, Denver isn't doomed. Jamal Murray is playing like a soft-pedal Damian Lillard. Nikola Jokic remains an advanced stats darling; he leads all centers in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. Harris is still a moderate-usage All-Star.
But the Nuggets need more. They have not been impressive enough at full strength to decline Jokic's team option, retain him through restricted free agency, make some tweaks on the margins and call it an offseason. They'll have to be more inventive than that—particularly if they miss the playoffs.
Jokic's next-to-nothing cap hold ($1.6 million) grants Denver a certain amount of maneuverability. It'll amble its way into July over the cap if Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million) and Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) pick up their player options. Carrying Will Barton's free-agent hold ($6.7 million) only puts more distance between it and ample financial clout.
Still, the Nuggets don't have an immovable contract on their ledger. Dangling Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles and their first-round pick as sweeteners should be enough to jettison some combination of Arthur, Kenneth Faried's expiring pact and Mason Plumlee.
Say Chandler opts to explore free agency (not unthinkable). Denver could get north of $20 million in cap room by greasing the wheels of Arthur and Faried salary dumps—all while carting holds for Jokic and Barton.
Lopping off salary would be tough in this market, but again, the Nuggets have the sugary additives to make it work. And they won't get another opportunity like this again. Jokic's cap hold will remain low if they punt on re-signing him this year, but he'll be an unrestricted free agent and have control over his destination.
The Nuggets have already shown their cap space can mean something in a more competitive free-agent pool. They flexed their muscles over the summer with the addition of Millsap. Having money in 2018 is even more valuable. They'll just have to reconcile the idea of cannonballing into the luxury tax pool to safeguard themselves against another disappointing regular season.
3. Indiana Pacers
Cap space isn't supposed to mean much for the Indiana Pacers. Players have not traditionally pounced at the opportunity to join their small-market cause. Their approach to the post-Paul George era unfolded like a monthslong nod to their lackluster transaction history.
The Pacers aligned themselves with Victor Oladipo—and his four-year, $84 million contract—rather than a mixture of cap flexibility and unconveyed picks. They spent their money on short-term agreements for Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison. The implication: A more extreme approach to rebuilding was out of the question. They didn't have the luxury of tanking for a future star or the pull to parlay a lean ledger into A-list free agents.
Perhaps this perception would persist during a normal summer. But this isn't shaping up to be a normal offseason. Money is in short supply—especially for projected playoff squads.
That makes the Pacers unique. They can sleepwalk their way to more than $30 million in cap room by cutting the cord on non-guarantees for Bogdanovic, Collison and Al Jefferson and team options on Lance Stephenson and Joe Young. They'll have an effortless path to $50-plus million in space if Cory Joseph ($7.9 million) and Thaddeus Young ($13.9 million) decline their player options.
This kind of tractability defaults to outside interest. The Indiana roster takes care of the rest.
Oladipo is laying out an All-NBA case. Myles Turner is a stone's throw from stardom. The Pacers rank inside the top 12 of offensive and defensive efficiency. They rank fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions over their past 25 games. They've been hell to deal with in close games all season; they're outscoring opponents by more than 15.1 points per 100 possessions during crunch time—the fourth-best mark in the Association—to go along with a first-place defense and stout 21-16 record.
Convincing high-end talent to take their money shouldn't be too hard. The Pacers have the coin to poach even worthwhile restricted free agents, and they plan to use it, according to Sporting News' Sean Deveney.
At the same time, they could decide to stand pat. Their non-guaranteed contracts will be invaluable bargaining chips next season, and holding out for disgruntled stars on the trade market carries a certain appeal given their lack of precedent for wooing big-time free agents.
2. Utah Jazz
Not even the Utah Jazz saw themselves in this position following the offseason departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
As head coach Quin Snyder said, per the Salt Lake Tribune's Tony Jones:
"When we got together in September, I don't think anyone anticipated the situation we are in right now. We were focused on improving and being present. We obviously cared about results, but we were focused on understanding the situation we were in. We had an emphasis on the long term, and we had a hunger to get better."
So much for that.
Though it looked for a while like the Jazz would wilt in the face of injuries to Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio's inconsistency and Derrick Favors' awkward fit in the frontcourt, they've put the most pressing concerns to bed.
Gobert is healthy and anchoring the NBA's second-best defense. Rubio has firmed up his pick-and-roll chemistry with Gobert (fewer bounce passes!) and is shooting 36.0 percent from deep while averaging 3.0 attempts over his last 25 games. Utah is blasting opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions in the time its Favors-Gobert-Rubio troika has spent on the floor since The Stifle Tower returned from a sprained left knee.
Oh, and by the way: Donovan Mitchell is still making Ben Simmons sweat it out for Rookie of the Year. Jae Crowder has recaptured much of his defensive know-how since arriving from Cleveland. (His jumper remains mostly MIA.) Royce O'Neale continues to tackle some tough defensive assignments, even as he lays bricks at the other end. Joe Ingles is one of the NBA's best third wheels.
The Jazz are fifth in point differential per 100 possessions. Not since Gobert's return, but for the entire season. (They're second following Gobert's injury, with a 22-4 record.) They've gone from potential tankers to postseason locks, and they may yet have another level. They own the Western Conference's No. 5 seed and are within two games of the fourth-place Oklahoma City Thunder.
This midseason about-face puts the Jazz on the free-agency map. Waiving non-guarantees on Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh while renouncing Favors and Dante Exum would open up nearly $20 million in room. They're the rare fringe contender with the dollar-sign juice to get appreciably better.
Whether they play up that leverage is an entirely different matter. Losing Favors would be tough to stomach even with Crowder diversifying their defense at the 4, and Exum remains a tantalizing question mark. They could try offloading Alec Burks' expiring deal in lieu of abandoning Favors, but that could cost them their first-round pick.
Utah should still have the headroom to work mid-end targets. The non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million) alone would be a useful tool. It won't net the Jazz a star, but they're playing well enough to pique the attention of free agents who are angling for deep playoff runs but don't want to accept a hanger-on's salary.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Can the Sixers really be considered a low-key landing spot when The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported they're one of four teams LeBron James is expected to look at in free agency?
When their offseason appeal has been monopolized by the four-time MVP's potential prerogatives, then yes, they absolutely qualify as an under-the-radar destination.
Rookie Markelle Fultz, last year's No. 1 pick, has essentially missed the entire season. The bench has been middle of the road even after the additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Simmons has only recently started headlining effective lineups that don't include Joel Embiid.
Through it all, the Sixers are contending for a top-four seed in the East. They're deconstructing opponents when Embiid, Simmons and Robert Covington share the court. Their starting lineup is lightning in a five-pack. Among 64 units to clear 150 minutes of playing time, the Covington-Embiid-Simmons-JJ Redick-Dario Saric quintet ranks fifth in net rating.
Philly has more wins against teams with records of .500 or better than the Bucks, Pacers and Cavaliers. It owns a top-five defense. Only the Rockets, Warriors, Jazz and Toronto Raptors have a better net rating since Jan. 1.
Striking out in the James sweepstakes would hurt the Sixers less than it would any other team outside Houston. Arming them with actual cap space is almost unfair.
Yet, even after accounting for two first-round selections, they're on the fast track to more than $25 million in room. And that number will blow past $35 million if they use a pick or prospect to pawn the final year on Jerryd Bayless' deal.
Indeed, Philly is a team that should have James' ear. But its contingency scenarios are equally dangerous. What if it's able to retain Redick while reeling in one or both of Avery Bradley and Danny Green? What if it adds Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and another wing?
Those viewing the offseason in LeBron-or-bust terms are selling the Sixers short. They have the money and trajectory—and thus the influence—to strong-arm the field for pretty much anyone else their heart so desires.