1 Realistic Free-Agent Target for Each Eliminated NBA Playoff Team
The NBA playoffs take the guesswork out of roster building. If you got eliminated, you weren't good enough.
There are levels of "good," of course. Getting bounced in the conference semifinals usually suggests you have less work to do on the personnel front than a team that falls in first round. But the principle remains the same: Come up short of a ring, and you have to find ways to improve.
It will quickly become clear that reaching the playoffs comes at a cost. Most of the clubs we will hit only have roster exceptions and minimum salaries to utilize on the free-agent market because they spent what it took to reach modest levels of success. Postseason trips and meaningful cap space don't pair up often.
Twelve teams that reached the playoffs are done. Whom should they realistically target to shore up the weaknesses that led to a postseason exit, and how much can they spend to do it?
Indiana Pacers: Aaron Gordon
We might as well start out with a fun one, which we can only do because the Indiana Pacers are one of a scant number of eliminated playoff participants with money to spend.
The exact figure is unsettled. Spotrac's practical estimates say Indy will have $8.2 million, but The Athletic's Danny Leroux pegs the likely figure at $23 million. The discrepancy is a result of Indy's uncertain commitments for 2018-19: Al Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison's contracts are only partially guaranteed, and Thaddeus Young has a player option.
If the Pacers want to be bold, they can, and firing off a fat offer sheet to Aaron Gordon, a restricted free agent, would qualify.
Gordon improved his handle, decision-making and three-point shot in 2017-18, and he still has the physical profile of a multiposition defensive stopper. He's not there yet, but Gordon has a decent chance to become an ideal power forward in today's modern, positionally ambiguous game.
Indiana put on a spirited run in the first round, outscoring the Cleveland Cavaliers by a remarkable 40 points in a seven-game loss that was a few breaks from being a five-game win. Victor Oladipo's breakout season made him a target, and when the rest of the Pacers couldn't deliver as Cleveland focused most of its attention on the star guard, it became clear the offense needed a more dynamic second option.
The version of Gordon we saw last year, though improved, might not have been enough to get the Pacers over the hump against the Cavs. This is a bet that his upward trajectory has only just begun, which feels reasonable to assume for a 22-year-old who has already made strides.
Miami Heat: Seth Curry
The Miami Heat are uncomfortably close to the luxury-tax line, and they will likely zip past it if they decide to retain restricted free agent Wayne Ellington at anything close to last year's $6.3 million rate.
That limits their options to roster exceptions and the minimum, though spending their MLE (whether it ends up being the full or taxpayer variety) might not even be worth it because of the tax hit—particularly when it's unlikely whomever they'd get with that exception would elevate them beyond mediocrity.
If we assume Ellington winds up elsewhere, the Heat should look to replace his shooting on the cheap. In a league that prizes long-range gunners more than ever, cheap shooting is basically an oxymoron.
To get Seth Curry for the minimum, the Heat would need the rest of the league to freak out about the tibial stress reaction that cost the 27-year-old his entire 2017-18 season. That's a long shot because several other squads will view Curry's career 43.2 percent accuracy rate from three-point range as well worth the risk.
Chances are, the Heat will have to spend some portion of their mid-level exception to have any shot at landing Curry.
If this seems like an underwhelming suggestion for Miami's target, well...it is. But that's what happens when you gridlock your balance sheets by matching $50 million offer sheets for Tyler Johnson, spending $52 million on Dion Waiters and (this is the true mortal sin for the Heat) maxing out Hassan Whiteside.
The Heat made their capped-out bed, and now they get to lie in it.
Milwaukee Bucks: Tyreke Evans
The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the most challenging teams to evaluate form a "roster need" perspective because the success inhibitor last year had less to do with the team's talent level than it did with how that talent was organized and deployed.
"Bad coaching" is the simpler shorthand.
Who's to say the team's next coach couldn't take the same roster and wring another 10 wins out of it, plus a deeper playoff run? It certainly seems possible.
The Bucks are largely stuck with this roster anyway, so we may get to find out how much a coaching change matters. With nine guaranteed contracts, Jabari Parker's cap hold, Malcolm Brogdon's non-guaranteed salary (which the Bucks will absolutely pay) and the cap hold for an incoming first-rounder, Milwaukee is already over $105 million in projected salary. Filling out the rest of the roster and potentially keeping Parker could push the numbers into tax territory.
If ownership is willing to pay the tax, one possible solution to Milwaukee's crummy reserve performance (the Bucks got outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo sat) would be spending the MLE on Tyreke Evans.
He averaged 19.4 points points and posted a career high in effective field-goal percentage in 52 games for the Memphis Grizzlies last season. Those numbers might regress, but even a diminished Evans would be an upgrade over last year's second-unit leaders in Milwaukee. The Bucks' bench ranked 25th in per-game point differential.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Avery Bradley
The easy suggestion for the Minnesota Timberwolves (yet another team stuck operating over the cap this summer) is more three-point shooting. Nobody took fewer treys than the T-Wolves last season, so that's clearly the area to address in free agency.
Minnesota shot 35.7 percent from distance, a mere five-tenths of a percent below the league-average hit rate of 36.2 percent. That's fine, and it's also worth noting that the Wolves offense ranked fourth in the league—despite losing the "three is more than two" math battle on a nightly basis.
Jamal Crawford declined his player option, and who knows what'll happen with unrestricted free agent Derrick Rose. Chances are, the Wolves will need another backcourt option off the bench alongside the underrated Tyus Jones. For the minimum, there's not much out there.
Avery Bradley's defensive reputation makes him feel like a Tom Thibodeau guy, and though he's missed 63 games over the past two years, he has the potential to juice the Wolves' point-of-attack defense. Spending the full mid-level would further bloat an already swollen cap sheet for Minnesota, and it might not even be enough to land Bradley.
But he's the kind of guard a team that ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency should be targeting, and you have to like the idea of Bradley closing games with Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns—or even playing ahead of Teague in a switchier scheme with Butler as the primary ball-handler.
New Orleans Pelicans: Danny Green
Teams with hopes of contending in the West have no choice but to make their decisions through a narrow lens; they must build a roster designed to compete with the Golden State Warriors.
That's what the Rockets did, and it's what the New Orleans Pelicans didn't do—as evidenced by the parade of undersized guards trying hopelessly to pass as wings in the Pels' second-round loss to the Dubs.
New Orleans needs better options on the perimeter. Nobody's getting into Kevin Durant's airpspace, but the Pelicans need real wings who won't be constant post-up victims and can at least compete against players with Klay Thompson's size.
Danny Green fits the bill and might consider signing a multiyear deal for the full MLE of around $8.6 million annually. He could easily pick up his $10 million option and return to the San Antonio Spurs, but the allure of more guaranteed cash on a team that lasted longer in the postseason could persuade him to make the jump.
Green will be 31 next year, but with Anthony Davis just two years from free agency, the Pels' time is now. At 6'6", the nine-year vet remains one of the top wing stoppers in the league. That career three-point percentage of 39.5 percent isn't so bad either.
Paying Green would likely push the Pels into the tax, particularly if they bring back DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Trevor Ariza
The Oklahoma City Thunder were thin on the wing when they had Paul George, which means they will be, what, invisible at the position if PG is gone?
Alex Abrines is the shooting specialist who doesn't defend, and Andre Roberson (if he returns to form following patellar tendon surgery) is his complete opposite. Josh Huestis is a free agent, which means Terrence Ferguson is the only locked-in returnee who logged minutes at the position last year.
OKC is in danger of paying the repeater tax in 2018-19 if it keeps most of this core together. George's return would be particularly costly, boosting payroll to $150 million with an astronomical tax bill of $123 million on top, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks.
Suffice it to say, every dollar the Thunder spend to address their wing depth counts.
It's a long shot, but maybe the mini mid-level exception would be enough to land unrestricted free agent Trevor Ariza. He could hit a standstill three, defend a couple of positions and give OKC some veteran experience at the position.
It seems likely Ariza, 32, will stick with the Houston Rockets. They could pay him more and will offer a better chance to win as he enters the final few years of his career. Still, he's the type of talent the Thunder should pursue.
Philadelphia 76ers: LeBron James
There's no reason to beat around the bush: If the Philadelphia 76ers have any shot at LeBron James in free agency, they have to take it.
And they know it.
"For the first time since I've been here, there is tremendous clarity on what we have," head coach Brett Brown told reporters after the Sixers were eliminated in the second round. "We don't have to turn this into calculus—it's quite clear [what type of player the club should pursue]."
Philly can easily clear over $30 million in space, and it would only need to make another tweak or two to reach the magic mark of $35.35 million, which would be the max for a player of James' experience.
The Sixers arrived early this past season, as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid developed into stars ahead of schedule. It's possible those two will be good enough (with quality role players around them) to get Philadelphia into perennial title contention. But this is the era of overkill, of wildly ambitious, greedy roster building. If you're competing against superteams, you'd better soup up yours when you can.
Paul George is a terrific fallback, and the Sixers have the luxury of chasing the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley as Plan C. Or, they could wait a year and try to snatch up Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard in 2019.
But LeBron's LeBron. If it's even whispered you have a chance to land him, hesitation is ridiculous.
Portland Trail Blazers: Brook Lopez
The only way the Portland Trail Blazers' offseason gets interesting (short of a blockbuster breakup of their backcourt) is if Jusuf Nurkic draws a big offer in restricted free agency. If the contract is substantial enough, it should force Portland to consider letting him walk.
"If Nurkic gets a $15 million-18 million per year offer elsewhere, there's no way the Blazers can match," Sporting News' Sean Deveney explains. "That vaults them deep into luxury-tax territory and costs them exponentially more than the value of the deal."
Assuming Nurkic is gone and the Blazers don't want to turn the position over to Zach Collins just yet, Brook Lopez is an intriguing potential replacement. Lopez would offer Portland a new offensive dimension, as the current core has never played with a reliable outside threat at the center spot. Mason Plumlee preceded Nurkic, and neither had range beyond the restricted area.
Lopez, an unrestricted free agent who probably doesn't figure into the Los Angeles Lakers' future plans, abruptly became a long-range threat in 2016-17. He converted 34.6 percent of a whopping 387 attempts that year. He hit 34.5 percent of his 325 attempts this past season in L.A.
The league is totally out on lumbering centers who don't defend the rim at an elite level or stretch the floor. But there's still room for the ones who can hit threes.
Defensively limited and liable to get played off the floor against smaller, more versatile opponents, Lopez is still an offensive weapon who should open up more room for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. If he's willing to take the taxpayer's MLE, Lopez is a fine fit.
San Antonio Spurs: Mario Hezonja
Likely to operate over the cap this summer, the San Antonio Spurs need to find ways to add athleticism and shot-creation to their offense.
After having his fourth-year option declined before the 2017-18 season, Mario Hezonja appeared to be on his way out of the league. But he showed the briefest of glimpses last year with the Orlando Magic, using his 6'8" frame and outside stroke to remind observers he wasn't the fifth overall pick in 2015 for nothing.
This would be a pure reclamation effort by the Spurs. Hezonja only averaged 9.6 points per game in what felt like a breakout season last year. But where better to rehabilitate damaged goods than San Antonio?
Hezonja has a wing's offensive game but proved he could play plenty of power forward last season. Only 23, it's possible Hezonja has much more to give after a rough initial stint in the Magic's losing environment.
Long shot? Sure. But the Spurs have to add some dynamism, confidence and scoring to a pedestrian attack. Hezonja might be able to do that relatively cheaply.
Toronto Raptors: Vince Carter
Know what would distract from the narrative of a mostly stagnant roster coming off yet another crushing playoff disappointment?
The return of an icon.
"It's just one of those things," Vince Carter told reporters when asked whether he would play for the Raptors again. "It'll happen for sure. Somehow, whether it's a one-day or something, it'll happen. It's supposed to happen, I think, I can say that now. I've had a lot of people say it's supposed to happen, so now I guess I have to believe."
Carter's exit from Toronto in 2004 was messy, but the fans there have gotten over the hurt. The 41-year-old now gets standing ovations when he returns. So if the Raptors want to inject a more celebratory tone as they try to get over the hump next season, hosting a farewell tour for the 41-year-old that put the franchise on the map almost 20 years ago would be a pretty good option.
Carter can't play heavy minutes, and there's no guarantee he'll return for a 21st season at all. But it's not easy to make personnel suggestions for a 59-win team that had the deepest bench in the league. The Raptors aren't short on talent, and they're cap-strapped anyway.
Carter's presence could be a welcome distraction, and if he can provide veteran guidance to some of the young Raptors, all the better.
That's worth a roster spot and a minimum salary.
Utah Jazz: Nemanja Bjelica
If the Utah Jazz decide they would rather just run it back with the same rotation, they could retain key free agents Dante Exum and Derrick Favors and call it good.
Even then, they'd have roster exceptions to use, though. And the mid-level should be more than enough to bolster their frontcourt shooting.
Nemanja Bjelica never really got his game in gear with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he shot 41.5 percent from deep last year and proved he could attack closeouts and make something happen off the dribble. Bjelica isn't going to slither around three defenders and finish acrobatically, but he can make a decision in space and trigger defensive rotations that produce opportunities for the offense.
He's already 30, which should suppress his price.
If the Jazz can add him, it'll free Jae Crowder from spending much time as a small-ball 4 while also providing key spacing for an offense that should center around Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert pick-and-rolls.
Washington Wizards: Kevon Looney
We conclude with the Washington Wizards, yet another taxpaying team that needs plenty of roster help but can't get it without paying a painful financial penalty.
The Wizards' best tool will be the mini mid-level, which figures to be around $5.3 million.
John Wall wants help on the wing and an athletic big, but getting both seems unrealistic given the team's financial constraints. If there are bargains to be had, they are probably on the center market.
Nerlens Noel is an interesting name, but a risky one. He'll likely be looking for a bigger payout after playing last season on a $4.2 million qualifying offer.
How about Kevon Looney, a three-year veteran who worked his way into the Golden State Warriors' playoff rotation by flashing defensive versatility and a nose for the ball. He's not a high flier by any stretch, but Looney can handle guards on switches, hit the offensive glass and make decent decisions on the short roll.
He's far more dynamic than either Marcin Gortat or Ian Mahinmi, and he'll come cheap. Still only 22 and just now regaining his athleticism after losing most of his first two seasons to hip surgeries, Looney has upside.
The Warriors probably wish they hadn't declined his fourth-year option before the season, but Washington could capitalize by offering the unrestricted free agent a multiyear deal for a portion of its MLE or even lowballing him with a two-year minimum offer for around $3.1 million.