Best Landing Spots for Top Free Agents Who Didn't Make the NBA Playoffs
As the NBA playoffs roll on, it's easy to forget that more than half the league's 450 players are sitting home with nothing to do but think about next season. Some have more to consider than others.
This summer's free agents are about to hit a barren market. Few teams have cash to spend, and most of the ones that do are in the early phases of rebuilding. That means players who control their own destiny must choose wisely. And for those with restricted status attached or player options to consider, the calculus only gets trickier.
That's why in this exercise, we'll focus on the player's perspective and assign landing spots that figure to pay the best dividends for the free agent in question. Maybe that means the biggest payday, or perhaps it's about fit and opportunity to win.
Let's help this year's crop of free agents navigate a brutal landscape.
Honorable Mention: DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: New Orleans Pelicans
*DeMarcus Cousins' team made the playoffs, but his injury means he's not playing in them. His situation is intriguing enough to include on a technicality.
Cousins should be doing Anthony Davis' laundry, washing his car, leaving little positive motivational notes on his fridge...whatever it takes to endear himself to the Pelicans' gleaming megastar.
Because he's going to need AD's endorsement to assure the Pels offer him a big deal in free agency.
The cold logic of Cousins' situation says the Pelicans should avoid investing. They improved significantly when an Achilles injury knocked Cousins out of action, watched Davis reach new heights as the lone big man in a spaced-out system and now have Nikola Mirotic as a far better frontcourt partner for AD. Even if none of those factors were in play, the Pelicans still shouldn't pay Cousins—not in light of his losing track record, devastating injury and uncertain future performance.
In what world does it make sense for the Pels to commit huge dollars, possibly up to a max contract, to a player in Cousins' situation?
I'll tell you: A world where Davis says, "I like this guy, and I want him around."
New Orleans can't afford to alienate AD.
The Los Angeles Lakers are out there, possibly eyeing Cousins if they can't snag superstar wings. But nobody can pay Boogie more than New Orleans, and it's unlikely any of the other teams with cash would give him a better chance to win.
DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers
FA Type: Player Option
Landing Spot: Los Angeles Clippers...for now
If DeAndre Jordan is going to opt out of the final year and $24.1 million on his contract, he'd better be sure about a coupe of things. First, that there's a team out there willing to give him a fat multiyear deal. And second, that he'd want to commit to that club for the next several seasons.
Of the nine teams projected to have significant cap space, just two, the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, made the playoffs. If Jordan cares about winning, that's his best bet. But with Joel Embiid entrenched at the 5, the Sixers won't bother reaching out in the first place. Myles Turner blocks him in Indiana as well. That leaves a bunch of rebuilds (Phoenix, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento), the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jordan could sign for a bunch of money and endure meaningless months of lottery-bound ball, or he could see if the Mavs (no sure bet to be successful either) have forgotten about his infamous reconsideration in 2015. The Lakers have their eyes on bigger fish.
The money's just not out there. And where there are small pockets of cash available, they come with loads of losses, odd fits or lukewarm interest toward DJ.
That's why he should opt in and collect his $24.1 million from the Clips. Maybe he gets traded midseason, and maybe he doesn't. However 2018-19 shakes out, he'll hit a more robust free-agent landscape in 2019.
Forgoing a multiseason contract is a risk, but it's probably the best of Jordan's bad options.
Aaron Gordon, F, Orlando Magic
FA Type: Restricted
Best Landing Spot: Brooklyn Nets
Can we please get Aaron Gordon someplace fun?
He's too athletic, too promising as a modern undersized 4 and just too cool to wallow in the Orlando Magic's directionless rebuild. They fired Frank Vogel and have a stagnant roster full of guys making juuuuuust a little too much to have any market value. These guys aren't breaking through anytime soon.
We know the Brooklyn Nets love to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets, even if they don't have much success reeling players in. They took shots at Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe, Donatas Motiejunas and Otto Porter Jr. in the last two years.
Orlando has all the leverage in restricted free agency, and it's also important to note that the Nets will have to free up some extra cash to make Gordon an offer the Magic wouldn't instantly match. But maybe the Nets can clear another $10 million or so, shove a four-year, near-max offer toward Gordon and get something done.
Admittedly, the chances are slim. Orlando can and probably should spoil our fun by matching and retaining Gordon. But just imagine what he and his burgeoning perimeter game could do in Brooklyn's fast-paced, trey-centric offense.
Isaiah Thomas, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: Dallas Mavericks
In addition to plodding bigs, undersized guards with limited games are no longer in high demand. That's not great news for Isaiah Tomas.
If we assume nobody's going to pay much for Thomas (and therefore don't go looking for the place he'll cash in the biggest), the most logical approach is finding a team where he can sign a one-year, make-good deal. If surgery on his hip really does return him to short-list MVP form (highly unlikely), the Dallas Mavericks are a good place to prove himself ahead of free agency in 2019.
J.J. Barea keeps putting together productive seasons there, often closing games for head coach Rick Carlisle. Yogi Ferrell carved out a career for himself. Maybe small guards just work in Dallas.
Thomas can't duplicate Barea's pick-and-pop mind meld with Dirk Nowitzki, but he's four years younger. With the Mavs always looking to win games, perhaps Thomas could contribute to meaningful contests and get himself back on the radar after a lost season with the Cavaliers and Lakers.
If a club like Phoenix or Orlando came calling with big bucks and a starting role, Thomas should probably go for it. But it'll be a surprise if those offers are out there for him. Better to show what he has in a traditionally winning environment and hope buyers are interested down the road.
Tyreke Evans, G, Memphis Grizzlies
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: San Antonio Spurs
Tyreke Evans needs a place to shine. A place where he starts at shooting guard, spends some time running second units at the point and proves the 52 games he spent as the Memphis Grizzlies' best player last year were for real.
And while he's doing all that, he needs to be collecting somebody's mid-level exception—preferably the non-taxpayer $8.6 million variety.
Why not San Antonio?
Tony Parker's contract expires this summer, and Danny Green has a player option he might decline. With Dejounte Murray slated to start at the point, Evans could space the floor and operate as the secondary creator San Antonio lacked this season—all while guarding the less threatening backcourt opponent. Patty Mills is essentially an off-guard, which means Evans could also get his minutes as a lead facilitator with the reserves.
He shot over 38 percent from deep in two of his last three seasons on significant volume. His 39.9 percent conversion rate on 5.5 attempts per game last year both represented career highs. For a cramped Spurs offense confined to mid-range and post-up play in 2017-18, Evans, who took 76.6 percent of his shots either at the rim or from long range, could loosen the strictures.
And if Kawhi Leonard is playing someplace else next year, Evans is suddenly the second option on a playoff team. For a guy who's only seen four postseason contests in nine years, that has to be appealing.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: Philadelphia 76ers
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JJ Redick both signed lucrative one-year deals this past offseason, and there's a decent chance the Sixers (who paid Redick $23 million) could keep him and snag KCP for roughly the same price.
Caldwell-Pope would bring a defensive edge to the Sixers' shooting guard spot, perhaps picking up slack for Redick—who is vital to Philly's whirling, uptempo half-court offense but has to start slowing down as he moves into his mid-30s. KCP is no Redick as a shooter, but he hit 38.3 percent of his deep attempts with the Lakers this past season. That'll do, especially with Joel Embiid sucking in the defense and Ben Simmons whipping the ball all over the place.
The Sixers are going to be one of the most attractive free-agent destinations this summer, so they can aim higher than Caldwell-Pope. But from his perspective, this would be a chance to get paid at a competitive rate, grow through his prime with a young core already fit to contend and show off his two-way game on a big stage.
This is meant as a high compliment: He could be for the Sixers what Danny Green has been for the San Antonio Spurs...with significantly more offensive versatility.
Julius Randle, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
FA Type: Restricted
Best Landing Spot: Atlanta Hawks
It's easy to get excited about a frontcourt of Taurean Prince, Julius Randle and John Collins. You've got your three-and-D wing, a playmaking 4 who can attack the basket and bang with centers when needed and the rim-rocking lob threat who (hopefully) will develop into a pogo-stick paint-protector.
And the Atlanta Hawks have the cash to make it happen. That's key for Randle, who is likely to be a cap casualty for L.A. as it pursues bigger names and who might not be able to cash in to the same degree with Chicago, Phoenix, Brooklyn or Dallas.
ESPN's Bobby Marks estimates Randle's value at $12 million to $14 million a season, and the Hawks have the space to make him a four-year offer at that rate.
Employing a bullying, hyper-aggressive style, Randle averaged 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists after the break. Even if those averages are a little bloated and possibly the result of some pre-free-agency stat hunting, there's no doubt the 23-year-old can play.
"He's a matchup nightmare for teams; he's versatile," Lakers head coach Luke Walton told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com in March. "This is just me guessing, but I would imagine most teams are pretty impressed with what he's doing."
Atlanta's rebuild has a long way to go, but Randle could help it get there.
Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: Detroit Pistons
The mid-level exception might seem like a disappointing result for some free agents, but when you've spent the last three years making just $3.5 million per season while performing better off the bench than just about anyone in the league, it probably looks pretty good.
Will Barton might still want more than that. According to Chris Haynes of ESPN.com, he declined an extension with the Denver Nuggets last April that could have paid him a maximum of $39 million over four years. He won't recoup that with the MLE, but perhaps he's adopted a soberer understanding of this year's market and won't scoff at something like $26 million over three years.
If he's fine with that, Barton should try to get it from the Pistons.
Detroit has oodles of problems—Blake Griffin's ghastly deal, a worrisome dependence on Reggie Jackson and two straight lottery finishes in the East—but one of the most glaring is the lack of offensive punch from its wings.
Barton, who averaged 15.7 points and 4.1 assists (both personal bests) for the Nuggets last year, can invigorate any bench. There's a great chance he'd close games for the Pistons, who could use him to facilitate if/when Jackson gets hurt or slot him in as a slasher in smaller lineups with Jackson and Reggie Bullock.
Starting isn't at all out of the question either. With the dearth of wing scoring in Detroit, Barton would be something close to a savior. Even if he can't cash in as spectacularly as he might like, at least he can enjoy being desperately needed.
Avery Bradley, SG, Los Angeles Clippers
FA Type: Unrestricted
Best Landing Spot: Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George is probably a goner in free agency, which means the Thunder will have a void on the wing—a void Bradley could fill.
With Russell Westbrook running things again sans a quality second option (unless you consider Carmelo Anthony a quality second option), Bradley could get his fill of good looks at the 2. In the extremely unlikely event Anthony exercises his early termination option and leaves $27.9 million on the table, Bradley really would become the No. 2 scoring threat.
Plus, he and Andre Roberson could combine to become one of the most suffocating defensive wing combos in the league.
Bradley is more than a standstill shooter. He was more accurate (41.3 percent) on pull-up threes in 2016-17 than he was on the standstill variety (38.7 percent). The numbers reversed in last year's small, two-team, injury-hit sample, so we're going to write those off as the anomaly. Point being: Bradley mops the floor with OKC's other shooting guard options offensively, and he gives Westbrook a badly needed place to hide on D.
Plus, the Thunder have been interested for a while. Bradley could shine here, and the fit just works—as long as he's willing to take the taxpayer's MLE.
Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago Bulls
FA Type: Restricted
Best Landing Spot: Chicago Bulls
Sure, the Bulls represent one of the league's more promising rebuilds. Led by Kris Dunn, who looked much more worthy of his 2016 high-lottery status in a sophomore surge, and Lauri Markkanen, Chicago has some quality pieces in place.
But this is about the Bulls' apparent willingness to lavish ridiculous dollars on LaVine, a deeply flawed player.
"I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the [salary-cap] spike," Bulls GM John Paxson told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "But we obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he's a part of our future. We have great faith in his ability. But he has the opportunity to explore things."
LaVine is a high-volume, low-efficiency offensive option whose career effective field-goal percentage of 50.1 percent ranks below this past season's league average of 52.1 percent. He is also, point blank, one of the worst backcourt defenders in the NBA. His DRPM of minus-2.19 ranked 491st out of 521 players in the league this past season, and in 2016-17, he checked in at minus-2.35, good for 441st out of 468.
If you removed the name and highlight dunks from the equation, it'd be inexcusable to give a 23-year-old with that statistical profile more than the league minimum. But the Bulls gave up Jimmy Butler to get LaVine, and even if they shouldn't, they're almost certain to match whatever deal he gets in restricted free agency.
Get yours, Zach. And get it from a team that, for whatever reason, seems to value you.