Ideal Landing Spots for LeBron James and the NBA's Top 10 Free Agents

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2018

Ideal Landing Spots for LeBron James and the NBA's Top 10 Free Agents

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    If you think about it, life in the NBA is really one long search for the right position.

    We recognize that in the micro sense. Wrestling for a spot in the lane for a rebound, floating to open space for a clean look at a three-pointer or rotating correctly on defense—all are about positioning. Get to the right spot, and most of the work is done.

    The same thinking applies to free agency.

    Players have to consider potential role, salary, team trajectory and a million other factors that contribute to quality of basketball (and personal) life when deciding where to play. Find the right mix, and success is bound to follow.

    Matchmaking for the top 10 free agents is especially tricky this year. Few teams have cap space at all, and among that group, the ones with realistic chances to make the playoffs are even harder to find. If you're a marquee name on the market this year, you have more to weigh than you would under normal circumstances.

    We're here to help.

10. Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

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    FA Type: Restricted

    Ideal Landing Spot: Chicago Bulls

           

    We're forcing the Bulls to spend a year earlier than they want to (Chicago general manager John Paxson intimated they'd keep the powder dry until the more robust 2019 offseason), but this is a marriage that could work.

    Lauri Markkanen will have to develop into a viable option at center—not a problem at all on offense but a challenge on the other end. The guy is a legitimate 7-footer, though, and Markkanen's tools—good mobility, a competitive streak and a frame that'll support more bulk—suggest it's not unreasonable to view him as a future full-time 5. If that happens, imagine the synergy between Randle's attack-mode playmaking and Markkanen's floor-spacing gravity.

    The Bulls could play genuine five-out offense, giving defenses migraines with liberal use of a 4-5 pick-and-pop between Randle and Markkanen.

    Randle's suspect jumper makes him a tough fit for a lot of teams, but not so with the Bulls. Markkanen unlocks endless possibilities.

    If Chicago can capitalize on the Los Angeles Lakers' prioritization of max cap space, maybe it can even snag Randle on a below-market offer sheet.

9. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

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    FA Type: Player Option

    Ideal Landing Spot: Los Angeles Clippers

            

    DeAndre Jordan will turn 30 on July 21. If he can find a team willing to give him what'll almost certainly be the last big-money contract of his career, that team will be his best landing spot.

    But with the desire for conventional centers disappearing (and several younger, better options in this year's class), Jordan is going to have a hard time securing a lucrative multiyear deal. There just aren't many teams in need of what he offers.

    That means Jordan will be best served by opting into the final year and $24.1 million of his current deal with the Clippers. There's no way he can recoup that annual value on the market, and taking the assured money now will make it more financially sensible to absorb the pay cut that'll likely still be in the offing next summer.

    Think of it this way: Jordan can take his $24.1 million now and sign a two-year, $30 million contract in 2019. Barring injury, that's better than taking something in the range of three years and $48 million now—on the off chance anyone would even consider offering that much.

    The added bonus of opting in could come in the form of a midseason trade. Perhaps a suitor in win-now mode would view Jordan and his expiring salary as a worthwhile rental. If DJ wants future flexibility, a fat locked-in salary for this season and the chance to land with a winner for a couple of months, opting in is the way to go.

8. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

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    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Ideal Landing Spot: Dallas Mavericks

            

    The best outcome feels like Cousins returning to the New Orleans Pelicans on a short-term deal (absolutely no longer than three years) for substantially less than the max. New Orleans has to keep Anthony Davis happy, and if AD intimates he wants Boogie back, it'll be hard for the organization to defy its best player's wishes.

    Add to that the fact that the Pels don't have cap space to replace Cousins, and preserving the status quo seems defensible.

    This wouldn't be a good result for Cousins or the Pels, though. Cousins should seek the biggest payday possible in light of his uncertain future/performance/health. And New Orleans should move on without a player who doesn't improve the team enough to justify a cornerstone salary.

    That's where the Mavs, ever bold, come in.

    Dallas has already gambled on one achilles-tear survivor in Wesley Matthews, and it always gets into the free-agency mix. Cousins, if healthy, could fit nicely alongside or ahead of Dirk Nowitzki as a starting center, and he'd give Dennis Smith Jr. a useful pick-and-pop partner.

    The Mavs could play in a heavily spaced offense with Cousins or Nowitzki at the 5. Defense would be difficult with either or both on the floor, but Dallas has worked around suspect personnel on that end for as long as Rick Carlisle has been in charge. The Mavericks tend to figure that stuff out.

    If Dallas puts forth a four-year deal worth $80 million, Cousins should leap at it. And New Orleans should quickly and quietly walk away, happy to have dodged a bullet.

7. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

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    FA Type: Restricted

    Ideal Landing Spot: Indiana Pacers

           

    We tried to get Aaron Gordon to the Brooklyn Nets last month, hoping to land the dynamic forward someplace fun. We're tweaking the suggestion this time, in light of what we saw from about Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers in the postseason.

    Gordon in Indy would not only be exciting, but it'd also give him a better chance to play in meaningful games for the first time in his career. Brooklyn is cool and all, but the Nets will be lucky to sniff the playoffs anytime soon.

    The Pacers profile as a postseason mainstay for the next several seasons. Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are a fine young core, and the organization has been smart about spending appropriately on supporting veterans. There are no crippling contracts on Indiana's books.

    Maybe the Gordon-Oladipo partnership doesn't wow you. Gordon spent his first two years as Oladipo's teammate in Orlando without accomplishing much. But neither of them is the same player now. Oladipo is a lock for most improved honors, and Gordon added three-point marksmanship and vastly improved shot creation to his repertoire this year.

    He could still become a dynamite multiposition defender, too.

    Thaddeus Young has a player option to consider this summer, and the Pacers have partial guarantees for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Al Jefferson to weigh. The path to enough cash for Gordon's market-rate offer sheet isn't certain.

    But if we're trafficking in ideal destinations rather than wholly practical ones, Gordon to Indiana is hard to beat. 

6. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    FA Type: Restricted

    Ideal Landing Spot: Houston Rockets

           

    Sorry if we're keeping yet another free agent on his incumbent team, but go ahead and try to explain where Clint Capela would have it any better than Houston.

    I'll wait.

    The Rockets center is an integral cog to a switch-heavy defensive scheme—one of just a few legitimate centers who can credibly contain guards on the perimeter. And offensively, Capela's chemistry with James Harden and general lob-catching nastiness makes him an ideal fit.

    Note, too, that Capela is only entering his age-24 season. He just posted averages of 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on a league-best 65.2 percent shooting from the field. He's only just begun what should be a long prime.

    It's going to cost Houston to keep Capela, who'll draw more free-agent interest than any center on the market (Nikola Jokic would give him a run for his money, but the Joker is not leaving Denver). Capela's game would work anywhere, but given the undeniable synergy between his specific skills and the demands of Houston's schemes, there's no place that better maximizes him than the one he's already in.

    Bonus: No other potential suitor has Hakeem Olajuwon, Capela's tutor/sage/guru/greatness-unlocker, on retainer.

    "[Olajuwon] comes to me every day at practice, saying, 'You should try this, try that,'" Capela told Shaun Powell of NBA.com. "He really believes I can do this. When a guy like that comes to practice every day and is constantly telling you how good you can be, you start believing it."

    The Rockets should match any offer sheet without blinking, extending a perfect partnership for as long as possible.

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    FA Type: Restricted (probably)

    Ideal Landing Spot: Denver Nuggets

           

    Briefly, on the mechanics of Jokic's free agency: Denver could pick up its team option on Jokic for the 2018-19 season and pay him just $1.6 million—an awfully nice bargain for a guy who led all NBA centers in ESPN's real plus-minus last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

    Jokic's early-career excellence is the reason Denver shouldn't mess around with the unrestricted free agency that would result from picking up that option. The better course is to decline it, make Jokic a restricted free agent this summer and retain control of his future.

    Denver can and should offer Jokic a max deal starting at around $25 million per season. Short-term savings aren't worth upsetting the best player in the organization.

    As far as on-court fit, Jokic's productivity to this point says it all. He's been the best offensive center in the NBA since assuming full-time starter duties, and he's only going to get better as he develops chemistry with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris—two terrific young guards who also project to improve.

    With those two zipping around off the ball, Jokic can conduct a symphony of distribution.

    Jokic and the Nuggets should keep this going for at least another half-decade.

4. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

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    FA Type: Unrestricted

    Ideal Landing Spot: Houston Rockets

           

    It's not that Chris Paul and James Harden overcame the preseason worries about how two ball-dominant guards would mesh. It's that they fit together so quickly and seamlessly that the issues never even arose in the first place.

    Paul's first season with the Rockets couldn't have gone better.

    He took threes more frequently than ever before, which contributed to the second-highest true shooting percentage of his Hall of Fame career. He led Houston to a plus-12.3 net rating when he took the floor without Harden. When the two played together, that figure rose to plus-12.5.

    Everything worked, and as a result, Paul made it deeper into the playoffs than ever before (not that that's saying much).

    No team with cash to spend is anywhere near the Rockets' status as no-questions-asked title contenders, so if Paul looked elsewhere, he'd either have to consider a steep discount in salary or a step backward in his pursuit of a title. Or both.

    The Rockets can pay Paul as much as $205 million over five years on his next deal. While it'd be a mistake to spend that much on a 33-year-old, Houston should still be incentivized to outbid any suitor.

3. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    FA Type: Player Option

    Ideal Landing Spot: Los Angeles Lakers

           

    Welcome to the realm of foregone conclusions!

    Foregone Conclusion the First: Paul George is 1 billion percent opting out of the final year of his deal. Rather than making his scheduled $20.7 million next season, he can sign a new multiyear deal that starts at $30.3 million. The math here is not complicated.

    Foregone Conclusion the Second: George is going to sign with the Lakers upon opting out. He's basically been telegraphing that eventuality for the last two years.

    You could absolutely make the case that George would fit better and win more games if he signed with the Sixers, who don't have the space to pay him a full max but who could also move some things around if landing George went from pipe dream to possible. But what's the use?

    George is bound by fate for L.A., and the fit there will be excellent in its own right.

    Best off the ball, George will find it much easier to score with a point guard in Lonzo Ball who'll actually look for him once in a while. And while Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma have a long way to go defensively, they profile as fun complements to George in a switching scheme. Even Ball can handle a few small forwards, so the Lakers could run out some versatile defensive personnel combos.

    Though they're harder to measure, we might as well throw in the homecoming, big market and face-of-the-franchise angles George seems to want. He'll get all three in Los Angeles.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    FA Type: Player Option

    Ideal Landing Spot: Golden State Warriors

           

    This pairing works, as Durant's shot creation gives Golden State a high-floor bailout option when it can't generate the kinds of looks it wants on offense. When all else fails, the Dubs can dump it to KD at the elbow and know they're getting a decent look. In a playoff atmosphere, which is the only one that matters for a championship-focused group like this, the kinds of shots Durant can generate are even more vital.

    No other team can pay Durant more than the Warriors, who don't have his full Bird Rights but who do own his early Bird Rights. That means they can give him a four-year max deal that starts at 35 percent of the cap (about $35.3 million) with 8 percent annual raises.

    You could make the case Houston or wherever LeBron James winds up would offer title shots on equal footing with Golden State, but KD doesn't seem interested in trying his luck elsewhere. He responded affirmatively when The Athletic's Anthony Slater asked if he was 100 percent certain he'd stay with the Warriors.

    We've bumped up against this idea several times throughout this exercise, but it's worth pointing out explicitly here: The player's happiness is a huge factor in determining an ideal landing spot. If Durant is satisfied enough in Golden State to prematurely write off the chance of leaving, that matters. That's not to say compensation and all the other stuff we've highlighted are irrelevant; they factor into the happiness angle.

    But it's hard to overstate the importance of simple contentment.

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    FA Type: Player Option

    Ideal Landing Spot: Philadelphia 76ers

            

    Nobody's saying James will go to the Sixers, but it seems fair to say Philly's roster (James aside) is better than Cleveland's. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons produced higher box plus-minus and RPM win totals than Kevin Love, and between Robert Covington, Dario Saric, T.J. McConnell and even Markelle Fultz, the Sixers have more depth and upside.

    In fact, the Cavs, a win-now outfit that had James healthy for all 82 games, notched two fewer regular-season victories than the Sixers—and that was with Embiid missing 19 contests. So if you're James and you're only looking at the talent breakdown, there's no justifiable case for choosing the Cavs over the Sixers.

    Don't discount James' personal relationship with Simmons, either. Simmons is a Klutch Sports client—one James has been close with since at least 2015.

    Elements of loyalty, legacy and even civic responsibility make James' decision more complicated and weighty than that of any other free agent. It's unclear what leaving Cleveland again would do to James' reputation. His delivery of a title in 2016 should entitle him to criticism-free decisions (and Decisions), but it's hard to imagine everyone would be fine with him bouncing again.

    Of the teams that can afford James without completely gutting the roster, Philadelphia is easily the one best positioned to win, and it'd be fascinating to see just how physically dominant a team with him, Simmons and Embiid could be.

    The Cavs are barely holding things together, and only because of LeBron. Philadelphia, meanwhile, is on the rise. If emotions weren't a factor, James to the Sixers would be a no-brainer.

           

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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