Every Team's Realistic Dream Signing in 2018 NBA Free Agency
While the 2018 NBA offseason could be constricted by a nearly leaguewide cap crunch, optimism will once again be free of charge and available in limitless supply.
Think LeBron James and Paul George are bound for L.A.? Go ahead and dream it. Have a hunch the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets will all add stars after deep playoff runs? Embrace that one, too.
We're all for free-thinking here—but we're also cognizant of reality.
Free-agency shopping lists aren't that much different than the ones we take to the grocery store. There might be a splurge item here and there, but it all depends on what the budget allows.
So, while we're dreaming about the best free-agency addition for every team here, we're doing it in a pragmatic manner. It must seem at least remotely possible to make the cut.
Atlanta Hawks: Jabari Parker (Restricted)
The Atlanta Hawks had only two of this season's top 80 scorers. And one of them was Dennis Schroder, who not only sports an underwhelming 43.4 career field-goal percentage but also might not be long for Atlanta. (The other was Taurean Prince, who is a 42 percent shooter for his career.)
Point production should be a priority this summer, and few free agents can match the scoring prowess of a healthy Jabari Parker. While Parker hasn't often been healthy—he's already torn the ACL in his left knee twice since joining the NBA—we're usually impressed when we do, as evidenced by his career 17.9 points per 36 minutes on 49 percent shooting.
Upon first glance, the 23-year-old seems untouchable heading into restricted free agency, as he was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014. But between his health problems and defensive woes along with the amount the Milwaukee Bucks are already spending on this non-contending core—they have six salaries of at least $9.6 million next season—a split seems possible. In fact, it nearly happened at the trade deadline, according to Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times.
The Hawks should put a substantial offer sheet in front of Parker as soon as the market opens. He could be their offensive focal point from opening night, and he'd fit their rebuilding timeline. Some might question the defensive viability of a Parker-John Collins tandem, but Atlanta has a small army of perimeter stoppers and could grab a rim protector like Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mohamed Bamba with the No. 3 pick.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart (Restricted)
Marcus Smart embodies how the Boston Celtics have stretched their season this far without fallen All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Smart is relentless, as defensively versatile as it gets and not the least bit concerned with the box score.
"He does anything that the team needs to win," Celtics big man Greg Monroe said, per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.
Boston's league-best defense fared 3.6 points better per 100 possessions with Smart than without. He's long, active, strong and fearless. He was a tone-setter at Oklahoma State, and he seems to have settled into a similar role in Boston.
That's why the Shamrocks should spend whatever it takes to keep him around. His market is virtually impossible to read—he's the type of defender every club needs but also the non-shooting 2-guard (career .360/.293/.756 slash line) who's on the league's endangered species list. It's hard to imagine his bidding getting out of hand, so Boston should be able to afford him.
Brooklyn Nets: Noah Vonleh (Restricted)
Noah Vonleh may not immediately spring to mind as a dream addition. And since the Brooklyn Nets are one of the few teams with ample spending power this summer, it's OK if you're feeling underwhelmed with this suggestion, especially considering how aggressive this front office has been with offer sheets in recent years.
But this needs to be the summer of restraint for the Nets. They'll finally control their own first-rounder in 2019, and given their need for more young talent, they'll want to maximize its worth.
So, shifting sights from a possible headliner to a complementary piece like Vonleh makes sense, particularly if you believe the 22-year-old has yet to approach his ceiling. The combination of his physical gifts and skills say you probably should.
Noah boasts length (7'4" wingspan) and athleticism, which allows him to handle multiple roles on defense. He could also thrive in head coach Kenny Atkinson's green-lights-all-around offense. Vonleh hasn't found his NBA range yet—he's a career 29.7 percent three-point shooter—but he's willing to launch (5.4 three-point attempts per 36 minutes in 21 games with the Bulls last season) and previously impressed scouts with his shooting.
"At Indiana, Vonleh scored primarily around the basket, but his 48.5 percent 3-point shooting and 71.6 percent accuracy from the foul line suggest he could eventually follow his best comp, Chris Bosh, to the perimeter," ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote ahead of the 2014 draft.
Charlotte Hornets: Fred VanVleet (Restricted)
Fred VanVleet could fit on the Charlotte Hornets either with or without a Kemba Walker trade.
If Walker goes, the Hornets had their offensive keys over to a 24-year-old who averaged 15.5 points on .426/.414/.832 shooting and 5.8 assists against 1.8 turnovers per 36 minutes this past season. If Walker stays, Charlotte goes from wilting without him (from a plus-3.5 net rating to a minus-7.8 mark) to now having a Sixth Man of the Year finalist to run the show.
While the on-court appeal is obvious, the financial aspect isn't as clear. Charlotte is already saddled with at least $117.9 million in guaranteed salary on next season's payroll, so adding VanVleet might hinge on either new general manager Mitch Kupchak's ability to cut costs or owner Michael Jordan's willingness to dig deep in his own pockets.
Since VanVleet is a restricted free agent, his departure depends on how much the Toronto Raptors are willing to cough up to keep him. But considering the Raptors' roster is even more expensive than Charlotte's and they still have Delon Wright on his rookie deal for another year, it might not take a ton for the Hornets to shake VanVleet loose.
Chicago Bulls: Kyle Anderson (Restricted)
The Chicago Bulls, owners of the NBA's second-most practical cap space, have the flexibility to enter the bidding for any free agent. But just because they can afford to spend major coin doesn't mean they should be the ones betting on DeMarcus Cousins returning to pre-injury form, DeAndre Jordan finding his offensive footing without Chris Paul or Jabari Parker deciding to play defense.
But the Bulls already know this. Reports out of the Windy City aren't forecasting any huge summer splashes.
"I don't see the Bulls as major players this summer in free agency," K.C. Johnson wrote for the Chicago Tribune. "Executive vice president John Paxson said at his season-ending news conference that he expects the roster to remain largely intact."
If the price is right for Kyle Anderson—the San Antonio Spurs might feel a bit strapped if Kawhi Leonard inks a supermax extension—he'd be an interesting addition to a Chicago club in need of wings. The 24-year-old (same age as Kris Dunn) not only fits the rebuilding schedule but also addresses some problem areas.
Anderson's length and smarts help him defend 2s, 3s and 4s, which means the NBA's 28th-ranked defense would gain a versatile stopper. He's a good enough decision-maker (2.7 assists against 1.3 turnovers) to serve as secondary playmaker and allow Dunn to spend more time in attack mode. Anderson's so-so shooting (career 33.8 percent outside) would even be covered up by Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Anthony Tolliver
You might be asking, "Shouldn't this be LeBron James?" Well, we're saying no—with an asterisk. Keeping the King is less of a dream than it is avoiding a(nother) nightmare.
So, Anthony Tolliver it is, a player who shouldn't interest the Cleveland Cavaliers at all if James bolts. But as long as LeBron is around, he needs shooters, and Tolliver has no qualms about restricting himself to that box.
Threes have accounted for at least 73 percent of Tolliver's field-goal attempts in four of the last five seasons. He's buried 39.5 percent of his outside looks over that stretch and hit a career-best 43.6 percent this past season. Among players 6'8" or taller, he has the 14th-most threes since 2013-14 (555) and the best conversion rate of the top 20.
He won't be hurting for suitors and might price his way out of Cleveland's budget. (Rod Beard of the Detroit News thinks Tolliver could command an annual salary of $6 million or more.) But at this point in his career, the 32-year-old Tolliver could conceivably favor team success over economic gain. He has only made three playoff trips over his 10-year career, and he has yet to travel beyond the first round.
Dallas Mavericks: Julius Randle (Restricted)
Multiple league sources told The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor the Dallas Mavericks are expected to pursue three big men this summer: DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Julius Randle. It's part of their annual attempt to plug the hole long ago created by Tyson Chandler's departure, a void interestingly enough once thought to be filled by Jordan himself.
The interest in top-shelf centers isn't surprising, but the collection has some key differences. Cousins is 27 years old and roughly four months into rehabbing a torn Achilles. Jordan is 29 and just had his worst field-goal percentage in five seasons and lowest player efficiency rating in four years. Randle is 23 and just posted personal bests in points, field-goal shooting and PER.
The Mavericks are 57-107 over the past two seasons. Randle hails from nearby Plano. And he might be more obtainable than most restricted free agents given where he seemingly ranks on the Los Angeles Lakers' priority list.
This shouldn't be a debate—Randle makes the most sense on almost every level, save perhaps for Dallas' desire to give Dirk Nowitzki one last shot at relevance. Even then, it's possible Randle has the best 2018-19 campaign of the group given Cousins' injury and Jordan's lack of self-sufficient offense. If not, Randle still fits best alongside Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and whomever Dallas grabs with the No. 5 pick.
Denver Nuggets: Tyreke Evans
The Denver Nuggets don't initially seem likely spenders. While they only have $85.6 million on their 2018-19 payroll, that number doesn't account for Nikola Jokic's potential max-level raise, player options for Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million) and Darrell Arthur or a possible new deal for Will Barton.
But Bleacher Report's Dan Favale said the right cap gymnastics could buy Denver some breathing room:
"They can actually carve out space by dumping the right contracts.
"If, for example, Chandler opts out (not impossible), the Nuggets could use Juan Hernangomez and their own first-round pick as sweeteners in separate deals that purge the books of Arthur's and Kenneth Faried's expiring deals. That would give them more than $20 million in room. They can then get north of $25 million by renouncing Barton."
Is all this movement likely? No, but it's likely enough to fit the confines of realistic dreaming.
That's how we get Tyreke Evans to the Rocky Mountains. He'd instantly increase the potency of what was already the sixth-best offense, as he was one of only nine players to average at least 19 points, five assists and two threes. The Nuggets wouldn't need him to replicate those numbers, just fill in gaps as a second-team shot-creator, spot-up splasher and off-ball cutter.
Detroit Pistons: Joe Harris
The Detroit Pistons already have at least $111.9 million committed to next season's payroll. Considering they're also without a first-round pick (traded away in the Blake Griffin blockbuster), they're confined to budget shopping—a precarious position to say the least given their needs for more shooting and better options at small forward.
Nabbing Joe Harris would help on both fronts, provided the taxpayer mid-level exception is enough to bring him onboard.
After being discarded to the waiver wire in 2016, Harris become one of the Brooklyn Nets' best reclamation projects. The 6'6" swingman connected on 1.9 threes per game at a 41.9 percent clip while also shooting a scorching 62.7 percent on drives—best among players with 200-plus attempts.
In a normal summer, that might put Harris well outside Detroit's price range. But given the cap crunch felt almost league-wide and the potential for the Nets to treat next season as a tanking developmental year, maybe he slips through the cracks. He wouldn't be the first free agent met with skepticism after producing on a 50-plus-loss squad.
Golden State Warriors: Marco Belinelli
This might ring a tad greedy, but it's true: The Golden State Warriors need more shooters. Move past the super-powered trio of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, and suddenly the spacing gets scarce. It's only Nick Young (an erratic free-agent-to-be) and Quinn Cook (a former G Leaguer who has struggled to stick in the playoff rotation).
Perhaps that desire would turn the Dubs' attention to an old friend. Marco Belinelli, a career 37.7 percent sniper, spent his first two NBA seasons in Golden State after being selected 18th overall in 2007. Things have changed a bit in the Bay Area since, but the same qualities that initially attracted the Warriors—long-range bombing and a pinch of playmaking—still reside in the 32-year-old.
Belinelli is also well-versed in the art of postseason hoops (58 career playoff appearances, one championship ring), and he's previously thrived in the ball-movement-based systems of Steve Kerr's mentor, Gregg Popovich, and fellow Pop disciple, Mike Budenholzer.
Belinelli spent this past campaign feasting on both catch-and-shoot triples (38.2 percent) and pull-ups from the perimeter (37.7). Any contender craving shooting (see: any contender) could give him a long look, but going full circle in Oakland would give him his best shot at adding to his jewelry collection.
Houston Rockets: LeBron James (Player Option)
It must be a night to remember when executives across the league dream of signing LeBron James. The fact that Daryl Morey's vision of landing LeBron qualifies as realistic doesn't seem fair, when the Houston Rockets just reeled off a league-best 65 victories without him.
Two things are to blame. The first is that the overstocked Warriors turned this league into a "weapons race," as Morey put it. The other is that James shares a deep enough bond with Chris Paul to think it's possible one or both leaves money on the table to bring their friendship to the same locker room.
Morey's creativity and expert number-crunching also increase the chances, as Sam Amick explained for USA Today:
"Morey is one of the league's renowned risk-takers, the kind of relentless executive who might already have hypothetical trades lined up for players like Ryan Anderson and others who would have to go for the Rockets to be able to sign one of the greatest players of all time in James.
"It's also seen as possible that, like Kevin Durant did last summer with the Warriors, Paul could take less money to make James' salary fit."
Sure, James would have to leave the friendly confines of the East, but outside of joining Golden State, could he find a better basketball situation?
He'd go from shouldering a colossal offensive workload to splitting duties with Paul (a nine-time All-Star) and James Harden (the MVP front-runner). This might be a lot of alphas in the same offense, but don't doubt the prospect of talent winning out—especially with Mike D'Antoni steering the ship.
Indiana Pacers: Rodney Hood (Restricted)
The Indiana Pacers should be more flexible than most playoff participants, although to what degree will hinge on Thaddeus Young's $13.7 million player option and the partially guaranteed eight-figure salaries of Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Al Jefferson.
Sporting News' Sean Deveney reports the Pacers "intend to investigate restricted free agents." While that was written as part of a larger Aaron Gordon discussion, the Circle City should hope for a different target. Gordon is an interesting player, but he's not needed on a frontcourt already featuring Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and probably Young.
If Indy wants to spend, it should invest in a small forward upgrade.
If you only knew Rodney Hood from this postseason, you'd scoff at the notion he qualifies as such. Those who've tracked him longer know he packs a mean scoring punch, can create offense on the move, provides quality and quantity from three and has the tools to develop defensively. They might even see this playoff flop as a good thing, since it might make him more affordable than most would have guessed.
The Pacers need more scoring alongside Victor Oladipo. Turner took a step backward this season, and Bogdanovic might work best as a designated shooter.
Los Angeles Clippers: Derrick Favors
It's hard to think the Los Angeles Clippers could've played much better this season given their personnel changes and perennial injury problems. It's also foolish to think surprising modest success (42-40) somehow lessens the organization's need to continue rebuilding.
This doesn't have to be a complete teardown, but L.A. should adhere closer to the timeline of Tobias Harris and Austin Rivers (both 25 years old) than the one attached to Lou Williams (31) and Danilo Gallinari (29). That's a long-winded way of saying it's OK to let DeAndre Jordan (29) walk if he declines his player option, especially when there's a younger, presumably cheaper replacement available.
Derrick Favors, who's spent a good chunk of his NBA career at the wrong frontcourt spot, just posted a player efficiency rating north of 18 for the fourth time in the last five seasons. He also provided more paint protection than Jordan, bettering him in blocks per 36 minutes (1.4 to 1.1) and opponents' shooting at the rim (53.1 percent to 63.9).
With similar length and athleticism, Favors should fit snugly in Jordan's shoes. As a bonus, Favors would offer a wider offensive arsenal. He has expanded his shooting range and displayed a more diverse post-up game than Jordan.
Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James (Player Option)
The Los Angeles Lakers' exceptionalism is one of the wonders of the hoops world. It's not enough for the purple and gold to dream about LeBron; the Lakers have long been planning to pursue James and a second star.
But the sidekick—Paul George? Kawhi Leonard?—only serves to complement the star. James shines brighter than any player in his generation and perhaps more than any from years past. He shows zero signs of slowing down at age 33 (his production this season was unprecedented) and seems to have the smarts and skills to remain relevant whenever (if ever?) Father Time catches up to him.
Inking James would be a transformational moment for the Lakers or any other franchise. Any team he touches turns into a contender, and this wouldn't be any different. L.A.'s championship chances would depend on which other players are added, but James' ability to run the offense would simplify things for Lonzo Ball. His vision would exponentially increase the potency of Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mario Hezonja
Memphis Grizzlies fans, we have bad news and worse news for you—which would you like to hear first?
The bad news is ESPN's Kevin Pelton and Bobby Marks see only three teams having a dimmer three-year future than the Grizzlies. The worse news is this lack of optimism is accompanied by a roster that costs at least $102.7 million and isn't even full yet.
There's still some leftover talent in place, although Marc Gasol seemed to age in dog years last season, and Mike Conley made just 12 appearances thanks to knee surgery. Their skill level is high enough for Memphis to consider a reasonably priced buy-now strategy, but the franchise can't lose sight of its future.
Former No. 5 pick Mario Hezonja could serve as a balancing act between pushing for the playoffs and loading up for tomorrow. If he never improves, he'd at least address some needs for athleticism, shooting and versatility. And if he ever gets on track—he's only 23 and doesn't know an NBA life outside of Orlando—he might rival Memphis' upcoming first-rounder for the highest ceiling in the franchise.
Miami Heat: Seth Curry
Perhaps blinded by their 30-11 sprint through the second half of 2016-17, the Miami Heat threw an obscene amount of money at this non-contending roster. They'll have six players making at least $11.1 million each next season, plus a seventh getting $9.3 million, and that's with both their top shooter and their No. 2 postseason scorer unsigned.
"It will be incredibly hard to keep this team together without dipping into the luxury tax," Danny Leroux wrote for The Athletic. "The Heat begin the offseason about $3.6 million below the tax line, and that does not include bringing back either Wayne Ellington or Dwyane Wade."
If Miami does any external shopping in free agency, it will be confined to sifting through the clearance section. Stumbling upon Seth Curry there would feel like a dream, even if he didn't end up there by accident.
The 27-year-old just had a season erased by surgery on his lower leg, and he only became a rotation player late in 2015-16. Through squinted eyes, though, maybe that means he offers untapped potential. If not, his three-point stroke (career 43.2 percent) would soften the blow should Ellington bolt, and Curry would extend Miami's deep collection of secondary playmakers.
Milwaukee Bucks: Jamal Crawford (Player Option)
The Milwaukee Bucks probably made their big splash for the summer when they smartly handed the coaching reins to Mike Budenholzer. That'll give this talented roster a better sense of direction, but it still needs work.
Unfortunately, there isn't much money to play with (maybe none if Jabari Parker is re-signed), which could kibosh any plans of upgrading at center. As much attention as it needs—Bucks 5s were 24th in scoring, and the team tied for 27th in rebounding percentage—the funds aren't there to fix it. If Aron Baynes is too expensive and a reclamation project like Nerlens Noel is the best option, Milwaukee must shift attention elsewhere.
The bench would be a good place to start. The Bucks had the worst second unit of any playoff team, finishing 25th overall in point differential (minus-1.8 points per game). Signing a quick-strike scorer like Jamal Crawford could help that. Save for a slight dip in three-point shooting (33.1 percent), the 38-year-old was his typical microwave self (17.9 points and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes).
Unless Parker returns as a sixth man, Milwaukee doesn't have a shot-creating sub. What it does have, though, is a versatile backcourt defender in Malcolm Brogdon, who could help prevent Crawford from being exploited. It's tough to say if Milwaukee could make the money work, but the upside and offer of a clear-cut role might make the Bucks the most attractive of his suitors.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Avery Bradley
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the NBA's 22nd-ranked defense. Tom Thibodeau is in charge of both their coaching and basketball operation.
Something's gotta give here, like maybe Minnesota giving its mid-level exception to shape-shifting backcourt stopper Avery Bradley.
He approaches the defensive end with the energy and activity levels 'Wolves fans long hoped they'd see out of Andrew Wiggins. Bradley often hounds his matchups—usually the other team's top guard—from end to end, and he's been known to pester the game's top point-producers.
"He just cuts you off one way; then you turn around back, and he's already at the next spot," John Wall said in 2013, per Baxter Holmes, then with Boston.com. "Where are you supposed to go? There's no playing with him."
A Bradley-Jimmy Butler tandem sounds exhausting for opposing wings. Bradley would also provide some relief to a Timberwolves offense that averaged the fewest threes per game. He's not quite a marksman (career 36.6 percent), but he did hit two triples per night at a 39 percent clip in 2016-17.
New Orleans Pelicans: DeMarcus Cousins
There are so many reasons to feel uncomfortable about the New Orleans Pelicans re-upping with DeMarcus Cousins:
- The rocky record of players who suffer Achilles tears
- Superior stats from the Anthony Davis-Nikola Mirotic frontcourt than the Davis-Cousins duo
- Boogie's apparent desire for a max deal
- Cousins' catastrophic tenure in Sacramento
None of that matters, because of these four words from Davis: "I want him here," via Marc Stein of the New York Times.
When Davis speaks, the Pellies have little choice but to listen. That's especially true here when losing Cousins would mean removing the most talented teammate he's had without opening the requisite cap space to replace him. New Orleans has $92.8 million on next season's books without accounting for Cousins, Rajon Rondo or Darius Miller.
It's too big a risk to let Cousins go, and it's still a substantial reward if he stays (especially if they get him below the max). He was the only player to average at least 25 points, 12 rebounds and five assists—not to mention his 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks—and he might prove even more efficient in a frontcourt featuring Davis and Mirotic.
New York Knicks: Patrick McCaw (Restricted)
The New York Knicks need more athleticism on the wing, preferably from a player who dabbles in defense and knocks down a three ball every now and then. That void has piqued their interest in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, per Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, and might drive their direction with the No. 9 pick.
But with Kristaps Porzingis on the shelf and cap flexibility a possibility for 2019, the Knicks should avoid shelling out the kind of cash likely needed for Caldwell-Pope. And even if they draft a three-and-D type, it's not like that would completely satisfy the void.
New York should think young and cheap, a tricky combination to find in the murky realm of restricted free agency. But it's possible a dice roll on Patrick McCaw delivers a decent return at a reasonable price.
Between his struggles and injuries this season and Golden State's escalating costs, it may not take much to pry him loose. His three-point shooting is a work in progress (career 29.6 percent), but if he solves that puzzle he becomes a multipositional defender with shooting range and some off-the-dribble acumen. At 22 years old, he could grow right alongside Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the top-10 pick.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George (Player Option)
First glance at the pre- and post-Paul George trade Oklahoma City Thunder shows little discernible difference. The former went 47-35 before being ousted five games into their playoff run. The latter was 48-34 and lasted six games in the postseason.
But the Thunder had elite flashes with George. They went 4-3 against the Warriors and Rockets. They were in the middle of an eight-game winning streak when Andre Roberson was lost for the season (ruptured patellar tendon). When George, Roberson, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams shared the floor, OKC blitzed opponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions.
That's plenty for George to consider, even as the Palmdale native ponders a potential homecoming with the Lakers. The Thunder can only hope they've done enough to convince him to stay. As Fred Katz wrote for the Norman Transcript, losing George would be a devastating blow:
"The Thunder need George not just because he's a five-time All-Star in the prime of his career, but also because there isn't much they can do to recover if he were to leave. They're well over the salary cap with Westbrook's, Anthony's, Adams', Roberson's, Alex Abrines', Patrick Patterson's and Kyle Singler's deals already on the books for 2018-19. This season may have been a letdown with George around. Just imagine if he weren't."
Orlando Magic: Isaiah Thomas
The Orlando Magic's current point guard rotation is tragic: D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack. Neither player averaged four assists last season. Mack never has, and Augustin last did in 2014-15. Oh, Mack's contract is also non-guaranteed, so maybe he's not even a part of this mix.
Orlando has some money to spend, but does anyone know when this team wants to compete? The 25-57 record says this is a rebuilder, but eight-figure investments in Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and Terrence Ross—all 25 and older—suggest some desire to compete.
If that's the Magic's aim, then taking a short-term flier on Isaiah Thomas makes sense. Before his hip injury, he was an MVP-caliber floor general with multiple Brinks trucks headed his way. But after his production was sliced in half (from 28.9 points to 15.2), his potential earnings might take an even bigger hit.
That's perfect for Orlando, which shouldn't invest too much in a team that might need tearing down at any minute. It's also ideal for Thomas, who'd have ample opportunity to make good on a prove-it pact. If this summer gets him anywhere close to healthy, he's probably back to being his squad's top scorer and distributor—and perhaps on his way to still cashing out at some point.
Philadelphia 76ers: Paul George (Player Option)
The Philadelphia 76ers had this season's fourth-best net efficiency rating. Now, they have this summer's third-most practical cap space. Roster-building situations get no better than this, and head coach Brett Brown hopes his front office will take advantage.
"I think another high-level free agent is required [to win a championship]," Brown said, per Derek Bodner of The Athletic. "I think we have the ability to attract one."
The Sixers have the means to chase any available standout. Trades and free agency are both viable avenues to get there, and it's even possible Philly lands more than one.
To spell that out, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James are potentially all in play. If Philly gets two of them...yikes.
Narrowing this down to a one-player dream, though, George feels like the best get, even though he's the least talented (a relative label, no doubt). Leonard would eat into Philly's trade resources, and James makes for a slightly awkward fit alongside Ben Simmons, since both are best utilized as jumbo-sized playmakers.
George is deadly from distance (40.1 percent), so he'd leave optimal spacing for Simmons' drives and Joel Embiid's post-ups. George can also carry the offense in spurts, as he's put up 21-plus points each of his last four healthy seasons.
He'd form a dynamic defensive duo with Robert Covington, who was just named first-team All-Defense. While George missed the cut, he had the most first-team votes among players not selected (22).
Phoenix Suns: Clint Capela (Restricted)
With the No. 1 draft pick and ample cap room, the Phoenix Suns have a chance to snag a difference-making center. They deserve it too, after swinging and missing on Alex Len and overpaying for Tyson Chandler's twilight.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough has said the center spot is a "slightly higher" priority than finding a point guard, per azcentral.com's Scott Bordow. It'd be natural, then, to target Clint Capela, a finalist for the Most Improved Player award. In fact, a source told Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko the Suns are "enamored" with Clint Capela and plan on offering him "a max or near-max contract."
Granted, that report surfaced before Phoenix struck lottery gold, so perhaps it has diverted from the strategy now that it can nab Arizona standout Deandre Ayton. But if the Suns are bigger fans of Luka Doncic, who played for their new head coach Igor Kokoskov on the Slovenian national team, they could get both an elite playmaker and an ideal rim-runner to pair with Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and TJ Warren.
Capela is low-maintenance on the offensive end. Five more Rockets fired off more than his 9.1 shots per game in the regular season, and his touches are mostly limited to offensive rebounds and pick-and-rolls. He also helped spur Houston's defensive ascension, as the club climbed 12 spots in efficiency (from 18th to sixth) and 18 spots in defensive rebound percentage (21st to third).
Portland Trail Blazers: Brook Lopez
Is anyone willing to bet big on Jusuf Nurkic consistently dominating in the near future? The Portland Trail Blazers shouldn't. Most of the goodwill created during his strong performance down the stretch in 2016-17 wilted during an up-and-down follow-up. His stats regressed across the board, a troubling trend ahead of what could be a costly restricted free-agency venture.
Portland might be better off finding a more economic option, as this payroll looks bloated ($110.4 million without accounting for Nurkic and several other free-agents-to-be). Given the potential for a tepid market for Brook Lopez—career low in minutes and tied for his fewest points per game this season—Portland should pounce on a likely cheaper and potentially better-fitting option.
Lopez isn't the sexiest name, but his game is intriguing. He's one of only four 7-footers to splash 100-plus threes each of the past two seasons. His unique ability to space the floor from the 5 spot should open more attack lanes for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, perhaps jolting the club's 16th-ranked offense near or even into the top 10.
While Portland will mostly be pinching pennies this summer, the mid-level exception is its one chance to (sort of) splurge. Netting Lopez at a respectable rate while avoiding an overpay on Nurkic has win-win potential.
Sacramento Kings: Aaron Gordon (Restricted)
This season's Sacramento Kings were a 55-loss team that gave 57 starts to 36-year-old Zach Randolph. They finally wised up and starting sitting their veterans late, but this frontcourt obviously needs an injection of youth at the 4 spot.
Enter Aaron Gordon.
While he's not a star now and may never become one, he is an explosive athlete with modern versatility on defense and improving perimeter skills the other way. As long as he never logs a minute along the wings again, he looks like a speedster power forward who could race alongside De'Aaron Fox (and maybe Luka Doncic, too) for the better part of the next decade.
Sactown should abandon the vet-heavy strategy that it utilized last summer. The Kings—29th in offense, 27th on defense—must view everything through one of the league's widest lenses. In other words, the potential of adding an up-and-coming prospect like Gordon far outweighs any risks in temporarily freezing cap space while the Magic decide whether to match the offer.
San Antonio Spurs: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Remember when Danny Green routinely graded out as one of the Association's premier three-and-D wings? That chapter is quickly closing. His shooting stroke is trending in the wrong direction (35.7 percent from three the past three seasons), and the 30-year-old could soon see his pesky defense threatened by Father Time.
The San Antonio Spurs must get younger and more athletic on the perimeter. Adding the 25-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope not only accomplishes that goal, but it also delivers a three-point marksman (38.3 percent) to an offense that was uncharacteristically squeezed for spacing (tied for 25th in three-point accuracy after seven straight top-six finishes).
If the Spurs keep Kawhi Leonard—it sounds like they're willing to try—they'd be a nightmare for opposing perimeter scorers. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Dejounte Murray just made the All-Defensive second team. Caldwell-Pope's former teammate, Reggie Jackson, called him "one of the best perimeter defenders in the league" in 2015, per Rod Beard of the Detroit News.
If Green opts out of his deal, San Antonio should already have his replacement in its crosshairs. The Spurs finished fourth this season in defensive efficiency. Imagine what they could do with Caldwell-Pope and a healthy Leonard added to the equation.
Toronto Raptors: Fred VanVleet (Restricted)
The ideal offseason move for the Toronto Raptors might not even involve their own roster. There's a good chance it'd be watching LeBron James head west, relieving the Raptors of the brick wall they've crashed into each of the last three postseasons.
But that isn't just a statement about LeBron, or Toronto's (and the entire East's) difficulties with him. It's also a reflection of the fact the Raptors are mostly married to this roster. They could opt to blow it up—they already axed Dwane Casey, after all—but that feels rash. While they have their flaws, they also had this season's second-best record (59-23) and third-highest net rating (plus-7.6).
The problem is running it back basically means exactly that: returning the entire group in full or something close to it. They don't have financial flexibility ($126.5 million on the books already) or even a draft pick.
They do, however, have control over what happens with restricted free agent Fred VanVleet. They can match the offer he receives, although a bloated deal would come at a heavy price. Even then, he's probably worth it. He's a Sixth Man of the Year finalist for leading the league's most efficient bench, and he's point guard insurance if Toronto ever moves Kyle Lowry as part of a total house-cleaning.
Utah Jazz: Wayne Ellington
Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder is a low-key miracle-worker. Despite starting two interior bigs and having only one volume shooter clear the league-average rate of 36.2 percent from distance, Snyder somehow guided his team to a top-half finish in offensive efficiency.
Still, shouldn't Utah see what he can do with, I don't know, multiple shooters? The Jazz are one of the only competitive teams with financial wiggle room, which should give them access to this crop's top marksmen.
Wayne Ellington is one of the best in the business. His 227 made triples tied for sixth-most overall, and he had the sixth-best percentage among the dozen players to tickle the twine at least 200 times from deep (39.2). He's also potentially looking for a new club, unless the Miami Heat want to foot a luxury-tax bill for a roster with no shot at contention.
Pair Ellington with Joe Ingles (a 44.0 percent perimeter shooter), and Utah's offense suddenly has room to breathe. That means wider lanes for Donovan Mitchell's dashes to the basket and Rudy Gobert's rim rolls. It's also potentially Utah's ticket to posting top-10 efficiency ratings at both ends, a distinction only enjoyed by the Association's elites.
Washington Wizards: Shabazz Napier (Restricted)
It's May, which means it's time for the Washington Wizards to once again try to fix their broken bench. Finding a floor general understudy seems an obvious focus given the underwhelming options they rolled out this season (Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions and Ty Lawson) and the knee problems that plagued John Wall.
While Washington has barely any money to play with ($115.8 million committed to next season's roster, not counting player options for Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks), that's a fairly common theme this summer. The more clubs that are watching their budgets, the better the Wizards' odds of sneaking Shabazz Napier to the District become.
To be clear, Napier is hardly an automatic fix. His career previously appeared on life support—he's been traded for both a top-55 protected pick and cash considerations—before finally showing a faint pulse in Portland. Even then, we're only talking 42.0 percent shooting, 8.7 points and 2.0 assists against 1.2 turnovers per game.
But Napier can control offenses in limited doses, and his outside stroke (37.4 percent the past two seasons) would allow him to play alongside Wall and Bradley Beal. And given some of the second units Washington has deployed recently, there'd have to be some excitement in seeing the offensive potential of a bench mob featuring Napier, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr. and (if he's re-signed) Mike Scott.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.