NBA Playoff Teams That Can Make the Biggest Splash in Free Agency
Lottery-bound NBA teams are not the only ones already thinking about next season.
Playoff squads have a responsibility to look ahead too.
Certain surviving outfits won't be as focused—or even relatively concerned—with this summer's upcoming free agency. They're legit contenders. They needn't worry about one of their top ballers abandoning ship (Golden State Warriors) or chasing any major changes (Boston Celtics).
Others would love to be prepping for the Association's offseason speed-dating round. They need help and should pounce at the opportunity to expense meaningful exploratory dinners. They just don't have the cap space or the capacity to carve out substantive wiggle room. We'll pour one or two out for the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers right here.
(Waits for the cheaper-than-milk champagne to finish foaming.)
Exceptions are inevitable. Cap space is in scant supply this summer, and playoff outfits are typically among the priciest entities. Connect-the-dots speculation is part of the territory.
Failing rumor-mill and common-sense bread crumbs, we'll default to postseason participants with actual spending power or a reasonable path toward it.
Honorable Mention: Default Free-Agency Players
The Cavaliers won't be players for many free agents, but they'll be in the running for the free agent.
Will LeBron James (player option) come back? Which trophy-thirsty veterans will latch onto Cleveland's bandwagon if he does? Will the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick be rerouted by the time he puts pen to paper?
What happens if James leaves? Will the Cavaliers be open to a sign-and-trade? Does Rodney Hood (restricted) get the boot? Do they hold an incumbent-talent yard sale?
Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City: the Cleveland of the Western Conference.
Paul George's free agency (player option) means everything here. It has yet to turn into a nonissue, because the Thunder are not NBA champions and the Los Angeles Lakers have more cap space than tampering-violation debt. (The latter is not true.)
George's decision should be the extent of the Thunder's relevance in free agency. They will still be comfortably more than $15 million over the cap if he leaves and only have an avenue to dispensable income if Carmelo Anthony exercises his $27.9 million early termination option.
New Orleans Pelicans
Another one-and-done player. Sort of.
DeMarcus Cousins' future in New Orleans is officially up in the air. He's working his way back from a serious Achilles injury, and the Anthony Davis-Nikola Mirotic combination has straight killed it. The Pelicans have to at least ponder the benefits of rolling with the Brow-plus-four-shooters model.
Keeping Cousins should remain the priority if the price is right. Showing him the door doesn't reward them with meaningful cap space.
They could, however, grind out more than $17 million in room if they stretch Alexis Ajinca and sweeten the pot enough to unload the final two years and $26.1 million on Solomon Hill's deal. And that number would creep closer to $20 million if they're done with the DeAndre Liggins and Emeka Okafor experiments.
Could-Be Major Players, Part I: Milwaukee Bucks
Any scenario in which the Milwaukee Bucks have cap space starts with Jabari Parker going bye-bye. Ridiculous, right?
"It's hard to play four minutes then sit out," Parker said after logging 25 total minutes through the Bucks' first two playoff games against the Celtics, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. "Nobody on the team can do that. Nobody, especially in my position."
"Be on my coach's good side," Parker continued when asked how he could earn more run. "Yeah. Whatever that is, just try to be on the good side."
"I might not be," he added regarding whether he's in interim head coach Joe Prunty's good graces.
Parker doesn't have the leverage to simply leave. Teams have the right to match any offer fielded by their restricted free agents. But Parker has two ACL injuries to his health bill and isn't closing games. One over-the-top offer from a desperate rival could compel Milwaukee to let him walk. (This isn't a subtext aimed at the Chicago Bulls front office. Promise.)
Cutting bait with Parker alone doesn't get the Bucks cap space. They'll still be over the $100 million benchmark until Mirza Teletovic's waived salary ($10.5 million) is potentially wiped from the ledger for medical reasons.
Suss out salary dumps for Matthew Dellavedova (two years, $19.2 million), John Henson (two years, $20.3 million) and/or Tony Snell (three years, $34.2 million), and things get interesting. The Bucks would need to include buffers, but selling off two of these deals while moving on from Parker gives them more than $10 million with which to work.
Is that enough to justify all that resulting collateral damage? Probably not. But, at the least, the Parker sign-and-trade scenarios write themselves if his playing time doesn't increase.
Could-Be Major Players, Part II: San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs will leave their mark on the offseason one way or another.
Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes are all ticketed for restricted free agency. Rudy Gay, Danny Green and Joffrey Lauvergne all own player options. Tony Parker, who will turn 36 in May, is in the last year of his deal.
And, perhaps most importantly, ESPN's Brian Windhorst believes the future of both James and Kawhi Leonard could be linked. As he said during a recent appearance on SportsNation (h/t NESN.com's Joshua Schrock):
"The Los Angeles Lakers should be having meetings right now about what trade packages they’re going to offer the Spurs the day after the Spurs' season is over, which could be shortly. Look people are paying attention to free agency, but there’s more ways to get players than just free agency, you can trade for them.
"If the Cavs get knocked out before the Finals and LeBron has six weeks to think (about) it and six weeks to get in touch with Kawhi then things could get a little crazy. But just think about Philadelphia, for example, I can construct you a way that Philadelphia could trade for Kawhi Leonard and sign LeBron James. That possibility exists."
Another possibility: The Spurs could cobble together more than $10 million if Green opts out and they renounce all their will-be free agents. That financial swag will mushroom if Gay explores the open market or they find a way to move one of Pau Gasol (two years, $16.8 million; partial guarantee in 2019-20) and Patty Mills (three years, $37.3 million).
The Spurs could chisel out real space. It could happen. It probably won't. Taking dynamite to their core for cap space's sake isn't their style, and structuring Gasol's deal as they did suggests they're not interested in joining the party until 2019.
Still, the Leonard debacle is weird. They could work things out and look to aggressively retool. Or work things out and stand pat. Or discover the relationship is too far gone and undergo an impromptu makeover.
LeBron himself could decide he wants to play for head coach Gregg Popovich and alongside Leonard, and the Spurs would find a way to eke out max room.
At this stage, given all the twists and turns and loop-de-loops San Antonio has endured, nothing should be ruled out.
Remember those exceptions from before? Well, meet the Houston Rockets, the consummate exception to the exception that was an exception from the original exception.
This inclusion rests on their potential pursuit of LeBron—which feels real. Back in early December, Sam Amick of USA Today reported the Rockets held a "strong belief" that they could pry the four-time MVP out of Cleveland. ESPN.com's Zach Lowe backed up this thinking soon after, noting that general manager Daryl Morey was "likely" to make a run at James.
Houston will not have cap space this summer. It doesn't have a feasible route to max room either. Carrying James Harden's salary along with contract holds for Clint Capela and Chris Paul brings the Rockets to $78.7 million in commitments alone. Clearing everyone else from their books (beyond unlikely) would leave them more than $20 million shy of James' max after sprinkling in roster-spot charges and dead money.
Hence the roided-out exception status.
Brokering a sign-and-trade is always a possibility if James applies maximum pressure to the Cavaliers. But the salary-cap implications and hurdles for both parties would be tedious. Neither could be left above the luxury-tax apron—about $129 million in 2018-19—as a result.
(Important aside: The Cavaliers can technically finish above the apron if their existing bottom line is lowered as a result. Yet the idea of subjecting themselves to the hard cap while losing James is difficult to fathom, even if they have plans to dump salary in the aftermath of his departure.)
A Chris Paul special makes far more sense assuming a series of enormous pay cuts are off the table. James could pick up his player option and delay a foray into free agency by one year to incentivize the Cavaliers to move him. They would still have to take on money in some form—a combination of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker—but the logistics are cleaner.
The Rockets will become pay-cut central in the event they land James. Re-signing incumbents such as Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute (and Capela) takes precedence, but LeBron is a hanger-on magnet. Ringless veterans with a little juice left in the tank would come out of the woodwork.
Whiffing on James wouldn't waste the Rockets' inclusion here. They'll remain a hot spot for championship-chasers without him, and Morey is a cap-gymnastics sorcerer unlikely to let the status quo stand if this year doesn't end in adult-beverage showers and a parade.
The Indiana Pacers need to be careful over the summer.
They won 48 games in the first year of the post-Paul George era. Victor Oladipo played—and is still playing—like a top-20 player. They forced LeBron to enter 2015 NBA Finals mode in the first round. They emote like a plucky upstart yet execute down the stretch like well-versed veterans being held to a contender's standard.
They are unequivocally good and fun and really good at being really fun.
Arming this team with any cap flexibility is dangerous—and the Pacers will enjoy tons. They'll have little to work with if Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young pick up their player options and they float 2018-19 salaries for Bojan Bogdanovic ($1.5 million guaranteed), Darren Collison ($2 million), Al Jefferson ($4 million) and Lance Stephenson (team option). But they can dredge up more than $50 million in play money if all of these situations tilt toward free agency.
Looking solely at what the Pacers can control, with the partial guarantees and Stephenson's $4.4 million club option, gives them effortless access to $30 million. They can even keep Bogdanovic and Collison while building a $20-plus million slush fund if they play their cards right.
Are the Pacers for real enough to spend that hard? The reflexive answer, in the heat of this monthslong moment, is a resounding yes. But the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns are the cautionary tale for overnight wonders. They won 48 games despite being perceived as a tanker, tried accelerating their rebuild and have not cleared .500 since.
Though Indiana accepted Oladipo as primary compensation for George to eschew a full-scale reset, fielding an almost-50-winner was never part of the plan. Accepting this year's disarming climb as fact before giving it another season to marinate could hamstring the franchise in the future.
Moral of the story: The Pacers can double down on their success with glitzy ambitions if they're feeling spunky. Cap space doesn't usually mean much in a market like Indiana, but more than two-thirds of the league won't have it.
So, this year, it will.
LeBron is not the end-all of the Philadelphia 76ers' free-agency activity.
Oh, make no mistake: He's part of it—maybe even the crux of it. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor identified the Sixers in early March as one of four teams the GOAT is expected to consider. Philadelphia has since emerged as a favorite to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and, at full strength, remains one of the two biggest roadblocks standing between James and an eighth straight NBA Finals appearance (sup, Toronto?).
Ergo, insofar as the Sixers had his attention before, they sure as heck haven't lost it now.
But Philly isn't Houston. It has cap space. Actual, significant cap space. Missing out on James will invoke splashy contingencies rather than induce relative inactivity.
Tacking on holds for their two first-round picks—No. 26 (their own) and projected No. 10 (Los Angeles Lakers)—sticks them with a hair over $26 million in make-it-rain clout after picking up team options on Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell. Using one of those selections, Justin Anderson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot or another wheels-greaser to offload Jerryd Bayless' expiring deal fast-tracks them toward more than $35 million in space.
Correct: Philly can figure out a way to afford James without touching the core of Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons. Talk about terrifying.
That money can also be spent elsewhere if James passes on the Sixers or they opt not to age up their window. They'll have the cash to assemble an embarrassment of talent. It doesn't have to be a superstar. They have two of those, and this summer's market is thin on gettable marquee non-bigs. They could instead angle for a handful of impact signings.
Leaving the roster untouched should still give them the money to sign two of Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, JJ Redick (expiring contract) and almost any other complementary wing they please. And from there, with the pot-sweetening base intact, they could enter the hunt for the next disgruntled superstar (Leonard), potentially irreconcilable situation (Leonard) or any soon-to-be free-agent flight risks (Leonard).
Staying the course is an option too. The Sixers have designs on a conference finals bid now. They could let this exact band develop through next season and see where they lie in 2019. But top-down restraint feels unlikely. They're too good. Taking up bystander duty would be a waste of their flexibility and mounting proximity to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Derrick Favors isn't making this easy. His stretch-run play beside Rudy Gobert—and during the first round of the playoffs—could end with the Utah Jazz putting all their chips in the sustain-and-maintain basket.
This would have seemed wild not too long ago. Favors felt like a goner even when the team didn't deal him at the Feb. 8 trade deadline. That didn't change in the weeks to come with Jae Crowder now on the roster and closing games at power forward.
That small-ball look could still push Favors out the door. He's seen gut-check minutes against Oklahoma City, but many of Utah's most effective regular-season lineups included a spacier option at the 4.
Non-shooting bigs shouldn't command a lot of money in this year's market, and the Jazz could look to retain Favors no matter the price point. Maybe they have faith that he'll eventually hit those corner threes. Maybe he's open to signing a short-term deal.
Or maybe they're resigned to bringing back Dante Exum (restricted), guaranteeing deals for Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and skirting the hoops they must jump through to summon more than mid-level-exception money. Paying Favors sounds a whole lot better than making less consequential moves on the margins.
But the Jazz at least have to test other waters. Renouncing Exum, Favors and Raul Neto (restricted) while ditching Jerebko, Sefolosha and Udoh creates more than $20 million in space. Stretching or trading the final year of Alec Burks' contract drags them closer to $30 million or, potentially, keeps them at the $20 million mark without sacrificing Exum.
Utah is not a team known for manipulating its books to this degree. Denting the nucleus to enter the running for higher-upside 4s (Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker), wings (Kyle Anderson, Tyreke Evans) or a combination of the two is not without great risk. This summer's talent pool doesn't necessarily warrant large-scale gambles.
If the Jazz are at all interested in party-crashing free agency, though, this offseason would be the time do it. The competition from rivals won't be as fierce, and they'll be working off a feel-good performance that allows them to pitch players on a brighter future.