5 Dark-Horse Destinations for NBA's Top Free Agents

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2018

5 Dark-Horse Destinations for NBA's Top Free Agents

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Memo to all fans of the NBA's upcoming silly season: Free agency will be about more than the usual suspects.

    Certain teams are always mentioned among the league's most prominent buyers. The best players are expected to sign with them because they meet some combination of blanketed criteria: They play in a desirable market; have cap space or the trade assets to supersede inflexibility; tout an effective or ambitious front office; and employ stars or prospects who appeal to marquee mercenaries.

    You already know where these cliche landing spots lie: with the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and, more recently, Philadelphia 76ers. The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks belong here as well; their markets demand it.

    Free agency won't be so cut and dried this year. Top names looking to fly the coop will have to journey off the beaten path. Many of the typical destinations don't boast cap space. The few that do will have their sights set on an exclusive clique of stars.

    That invariably paves the way for some uncustomary suitors to leave their mark on the offseason. Whereas they wouldn't have secured authentic consideration from most top-25 free agents in the past, a dearth of cap space around the league sets them up to pitch, and perhaps poach, a household name now. 

Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Copious amounts of cap space will not coax the Atlanta Hawks into a free-agent binge. General manager Travis Schlenk tilted toward just the opposite during an interview on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta (via Hawks.com's KL Chouinard):

    "We're going to continue to develop our young core. We're going to continue to look to gather assets and use our cap flexibility. As you guys are probably aware, this summer is going to be really tight summer financially in the NBA. We're projecting as many as 16 teams could be looking at the luxury tax. We're going to be one of those seven teams that has any real significant cap space. We're going to look to use that cap space to relieve some of the financial troubles that other teams might be having to continue to gather assets."

    Operating solely as a salary sponge would remove the Hawks from the free-agent festivities altogether. But this year's available pool of talent is regrettably thin after the top seven or 10 guys. Teams will not be tripping over themselves to pay the premiums attached to contract dumps.

    Mortgaging picks and prospects is a gambit best made with more marquee names up for grabs. The Hawks will find that leasing out cap space isn't a lucrative business—not this year. And while they could rent out wiggle room at a discount, the lack of genuine market competitors creates an opportunity they won't necessarily enjoy next summer.

    Atlanta will begin the offseason with a little more than $17 million in spending power. Only the Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers start off with that much no-strings-attached money. Various non-guaranteed deals afford the Hawks easy access to more than $20 million, and that number will climb past $25 million if either Dewayne Dedmon ($6.3 million) or Mike Muscala ($5 million) declines his player option.

    That money doesn't need to be burned on mid-prime stars and role players. Carving out $25 million amounts to max money for restricted free agents. The Hawks can dangle over-the-top offer sheets knowing their overbids, if successful, net them a player who aligns with the rebuilding timeline.

    Again: Atlanta is not a viable alternative for superstars. Nor will it offer refuge for veterans looking to rehabilitate their stock on a one-year deal. But with three picks in this year's draft, DeAndre' Bembry, John Collins and Taurean Prince, this team has the open-ended depth chart to lay out the red carpet for just about any young, high-ceiling dice roll—particularly if Luka Doncic falls to No. 3 and the frontcourt is still left begging for a 4 or 5.

    Free agents to watch: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Clint Capela (restricted); Aaron Gordon (restricted); Julius Randle (restricted); Jabari Parker (restricted)

Brooklyn Nets

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Figuring out how the Brooklyn Nets will function this offseason is newly difficult. 

    Since general manager Sean Marks took the reins, they have been a hotbed for salary dumps and overpays and a safe haven for veterans looking to beef up their value. That could change leading into next season. 

    Brooklyn finally regains control over all its first-round picks after this draft. Even with the lottery system changing for the 2019 prospect pageant, the pull to win as much as possible needn't be so dire. The Nets can at long last be rewarded for their loss column.

    A full-blown tank job isn't out of the question, but it might as well be. Any cellar-dwelling the Nets do will be organic. They need a better feel for what they have in Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and D'Angelo Russell—three of whom will be up for new deals next summer (Dinwiddie, RHJ, Russell). Growing pains are unavoidable.

    Whether this will impact their activity in free agency remains unclear. They've been in talent-acquisition mode for roughly three years. Going cold turkey now would be weird, effects on their lottery position be damned.

    Copycatting the Hawks' should-be mission statement makes the most sense: 25-year-old restricted free agents or bust. The Nets will wake up with more than $13 million on July 1 and can stretch that to almost $17 million by renouncing Joe Harris and waiving Isaiah Whitehead. Rerouting DeMarre Carroll's expiring salary to a team more vested in winning now would position them to chase whoever they please.

    Parlaying his $15.4 million take-home into a cheaper player shouldn't be too hard after his welcome-back effort this past season. The right squad might even be willing to absorb him outright. (Looking at you, Dallas, Philly and Indiana.)

    Jump through enough of these hoops, and the Nets will once again be able to surf the restricted free-agent market with unbiased enthusiasm. Their offer sheets won't always turn into assets; they learned that with Otto Porter Jr. last year, and with Allen Crabbe (now on the team) and Tyler Johnson in 2016. But they do have the organizational appeal to convince players they're worth using as leverage.

    Head coach Kenny Atkinson has installed a freewheeling offense and culture that inflates numbers and incentivizes effort. The Nets ranked sixth in pace this season, and only the Houston Rockets launched more threes per 100 possessions. It won't take much for restricted free agents worth a darn to envision themselves leveling up in this system.

    Free agents to watch: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Aaron Gordon (restricted); Rodney Hood (restricted); Julius Randle (restricted)

Indiana Pacers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Indiana Pacers could end up being this summer's ultimate party-crashers.

    Winning 48 games without Paul George on the back of Victor Oladipo's All-NBA performance dragged them ever so slightly into the national conscious. Their seven-game slugfest with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs boosted their status even further, punctuating a point they already made but many casual fans did not hear:

    They're not rebuilding. They're looking to win now. More importantly: They're capable of winning now.

    Reading too much into a one-year blip is an ever-present danger around these parts. Teams constantly have to measure unexpected success against its potential sustainability. Deciphering the continual from the anomalies is maddening and difficult.

    Place too much stock in an insta-rise, and poof! You're the post-2014 Phoenix Suns or post-2016 Portland Trail Blazers.

    Indiana doesn't have to worry as much about making the wrong call. The ledger is both barren of players up for raises right now and long-term contracts. Oladipo is the only player on a guaranteed deal beyond next season. The Pacers can let this group marinate and re-evaluate their position in 2019.

    Monitoring the market is a must, though. Two-thirds of the league won't have money. A not-insignificant share of squads that do won't be looking to spend it. The Pacers, meanwhile, have an open invitation to top-three cap space. They can wipe more than $30 million from their books by capitalizing on non-guaranteed pacts and will gain even more breathing room if Thaddeus Young declines his $13.8 million player option.

    Squeezing every last penny out of the bottom line would be a gross misread on the Pacers' behalf. Darren Collison is on one of their partially guaranteed deals ($2 million guaranteed). Playing alongside him, and his league-leading three-point stroke, is part of Indy's draw. (Note: Deals for Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic become fully guaranteed by July 1).

    Toeing the line between decimation and idleness, while erring closer to the latter, is encouraged. If a B-list wing wants to join the cause, the Pacers should make room. If restricted free agency starts to favor prospective poaches, they should join the fun. And if they want to stand relatively pat, preferring to save their assortment of expiring salaries for the trade deadline, they should do that, too. 

    (Fires up Toy Story meme): Options. Options everywhere. The Pacers have them. And now that Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner profile as one of the NBA's better in-progress cores, they'd be wise to enter the offseason with an open mind.

    Free agents to watch: Will Barton; Avery Bradley; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Tyreke Evans; Aaron Gordon (restricted)

Phoenix Suns

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    A clear-cut No. 1 scorer? Check.

    The first overall pick in this year's draft? Check again. Another first-rounder just outside the lottery? Also check (16th overall).

    Incumbent youthful base? Only if we count Dragan Bender, Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren as a decent foundation. Which we should. So, check.

    Feasible path to $20 million or more in cap space? Chuh-eck. 

    Joining the Suns won't pique the attention of every window-shopping free agent. Booker has validated his status as an alpha option and viable pick-and-roll ball-handler and Jackson perked up toward the end of his rookie crusade, but the team has made sparing progress on a macro scale. 

    Phoenix finished dead last in offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season. The defensive development of its youngsters verges on nonexistent, and the roster doesn't have the shooters to prop up acceptable three-point volume.

    One offseason won't be enough to reverse fortunes, but the Suns are going to change. New head coach Igor Kokoskov will put an egalitarian spin on the offense, and defensive accountability on rotations, fouls, close-outs, et al. is about to become a thing.

    Having him on the sidelines alone will make the Suns better. Adding two first-round prospects, one of which will be Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic, will considerably deepen their rotation. It will also lengthen their learning curve, but that's fine. Their outlook will be better, and a willingness to spend whatever cap space they chisel out is a sales pitch unto itself in a scrimpy market.

    Renouncing Alex Len and Elfrid Payton while waiving Alan Williams' non-guaranteed salary brings the Suns past the $15 million marker, with an unimpeded route to $20 million. Assuming they push those buttons, they'll have the opportunity to eke out even more room by gauging the market for Tyson Chandler's and Jared Dudley's expiring contracts.

    Drafting Ayton would also make one or both of Bender and Chriss expendable. With this year's No. 16 selection, all their own first-rounders, Milwaukee's pick in 2019 (protected) and the Miami Heat's top choice in 2021, the Suns can build some interesting trade packages. That roll-with-the-punches fluidity frees them up to chase free agents from all walks of experience—established stars, second-tier veterans prioritizing paydays over rings, high-ceiling youngsters, you name it.

    Free Agents to watch: Trevor Ariza; Will Barton; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Clint Capela (restricted); DeMarcus Cousins

Utah Jazz

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Flocking to Salt Lake City would be atypical behavior for the NBA's best free agents, but that should probably change. Strike that: It should definitely change. 

    Few teams are fast tracked for contention like the Utah Jazz. They nearly nabbed home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs after losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics, and yet their 48-win campaign doesn't do their status quo justice. 

    Think about where the Jazz could have finished the year if Rudy Gobert didn't battle injuries for the first leg of the season. Or if Ricky Rubio didn't forget how to play basketball for a good few weeks. Or if Joe Ingles took it upon himself to throw up at least 15 shots more than a half-dozen times. 

    Yes, Utah caught some lucky breaks—most notably Donovan Mitchell's transition from promising No. 13 pick to "Is Ben Simmons even a rookie?" superstar in training. Pawning off the ghost of Rodney Hood onto the Cavaliers in exchange for Jae Crowder (and, of course, Derrick Rose) also qualifies as a fortunate swing.

    But the Jazz suffered more than their fair share of bad beats, too. Injury bugs weren't kind to them at all—not even in the playoffs. Ricky Rubio might've helped them against the Rockets in Round 2, and people forget Thabo Sefolosha was flourishing as a small-ball 4 before undergoing right knee surgery. 

    Flip the script on a few of those developments, and the Jazz are sitting on 50-plus wins. Their outlook should be measured accordingly, because as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote, they have a lot to offer: 

    "Aside from relative quiet, the Jazz boast one of the league's best coaches in Quin Snyder, stars on both ends (Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will be cornerstones for a long time) and an egalitarian style that keeps everyone involved. Utah was the West's third-best team this past season, as measured by net rating. After the All-Star break, nobody was better."

    Drawing interest from free agents shouldn't be a problem. Affording the top names will be. The Jazz have one of the league's more pliable cap sheets, but the collateral damage they must withstand to maximize their clout is steep. To even sniff $20 million of room, they'll have to renounce Dante Exum, Derrick Favors and Raul Neto while waiving Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko, David Stockton and Ekpe Udoh.

    Stretching Alex Burks' salary—or greasing the wheels of a contract dump—dredges up extra space. But the Jazz are currently slotted for more than $45 million in spending power next July. Though that number will fall with each multiyear deal they hand out this summer, they'll have an easier time summoning more money. 

    Still, opportunity abounds for them now. The financial landscape is weak, so bidding wars will be scant. Receiving a wink-wink commitment from a wing or stretchy 4 could coax the Jazz into action.

    Free agents to watch: Trevor Ariza; Tyreke Evans; Aaron Gordon (restricted); Jabari Parker (restricted); JJ Redick


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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