Best Player Every Team Could Add in NBA Free Agency
Congratulations! You've found a place to indulge whatever NBA free-agency pipe dreams are near and dear to your heart.
For the most part.
This is a safe space—a pillow-soft arena to entertain the most ideal scenarios for your favorite team without feeling embarrassed or facing antagonistic push-back. Do not, however, confuse this for a place barren of logic and reason.
Reality plays into plucking out a best-possible free agent for every squad. LeBron James is a perfect addition for almost all 29 teams outside Cleveland. But most cannot afford him. And he won't grant face time to every suitor.
All of the suggested targets that follow are meant to blend optimism with feasibility. They're ambitious and ideal relative to each set of circumstances.
Cap situations, rebuilding patterns, reported rumors and common sense all matter. They'll determine whether a team's free-agency Everest features a superstar, second-tier target or bargain-bin name.
Atlanta Hawks: Aaron Gordon (Restricted)
Joining the sweepstakes for a near-max free agent runs counter to the Atlanta Hawks' stated intentions. They're looking to help unburden cash-strapped teams in exchange for asset compensation.
Chasing Aaron Gordon uses up all their unencumbered flexibility—and then some. The Hawks have easy access to more than $17 million in room. The Orlando Magic will match an offer for Gordon in that range. Atlanta must come in harder to complicate Orlando's decision.
That shouldn't be much of a problem. The Hawks can get closer to Gordon's $25.3 million max if Dewayne Dedmon and/or Mike Muscala decline their player options. They could also shave salary as part of a Kent Bazemore (two years, $37.4 million) or Dennis Schroder (three years, $46.5 million) trade.
Despite the resources expended, going all-in on Gordon is the type of gamble the Hawks should embrace. He doesn't turn 23 until September, so he aligns with their rebuilding window. And pairing him with John Collins creates the bounciest frontcourt in existence.
Atlanta could nullify this suggestion by taking Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba or Jaren Jackson Jr. with the third overall pick. Orlando probably matches any max-money overtures as well. But that's the point.
The Hawks aren't in a hurry to make a splash. They can inflate the Magic's cap sheet or poach a young combo big with in-progress playmaking off the dribble. They win either way.
Boston Celtics: Ersan Ilyasova
Adding bodies to the Boston Celtics' depth chart could end up being a no-no.
Eight of their players are under guaranteed contract for next season. They'll jump to 11 if, as expected, they hold on to deals for Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader and Daniel Theis. From there, they have key free agents in Aron Baynes, Shane Larkin, Greg Monroe and Marcus Smart (restricted). They may need to select a draft-and-stash prospect at No. 27 to make room for everyone.
Boston should find itself with at least one roster spot to go around. Larkin and Monroe are expendable with Kyrie Irving and Theis in the rotation, while Baynes or Smart could price himself out of town.
Isolating a target for the Celtics is difficult no matter what assumptions are made about their personnel. They'll be up against the luxury tax unless they let Smart walk. Even if he signs his $6.1 million qualifying offer, they'd need to cut Baynes loose to wield the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million). Otherwise, the mini MLE ($5.3 million) is their friend.
Ersan Ilyasova should fall within Boston's range so long as it's willing to shell out more than minimum contracts. Thirty-one-year-olds aren't prime ring-chasing candidates, but he'll be hard-pressed to get more than $5.3 million annually in a cap-starved market.
Signing him gives the Celtics a nice go-between in the frontcourt. He shoots threes (36.6 percent for his career), draws charges and can play the 4 or 5. He'll be especially useful if Boston punts on traditional bigs altogether and shows Baynes the door.
Ilyasova isn't a brute force, but he props up floor balance without sacrificing too much size. He's also a sneaky-hard worker on the glass when manning the middle. The Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers rated in the 77th percentile of the offensive boards during the time he spent at center this past season.
Brooklyn Nets: Jabari Parker (Restricted)
Regaining control over their first-round picks next year could lull the Brooklyn Nets into offseason inertia. They have plenty of wings and more than a few projects to groom, and even with draft-lottery reform set to take effect, their losses are about to matter.
On the flip side, this doesn't guarantee the Nets will contemplate an all-out tank or complete idleness. They have not been bystanders under general manager Sean Marks. They've been market aggressors in restricted free agency, hand-crafting hyperbolic offer sheets designed to whisk away rival players or gum up enemy ledgers.
The Portland Trail Blazers know the feeling, circa Allen Crabbe, now of the Nets, in 2016. So do the Miami Heat. Brooklyn is the source of Tyler Johnson's poison-pill deal from 2016. The Washington Wizards joined this club last summer when the Nets maxed out Otto Porter, complete with a 15 percent trade kicker.
Puffing up price tags for restricted free agents will be tougher this year. The Nets will have a little over $16 million to spare if they renounce all their free agents, including Joe Harris, and waive Isaiah Whitehead's non-guaranteed deal. That's not enough to crash the party for Aaron Gordon or Jabari Parker. It may not even be enough to yank Julius Randle off the Los Angeles Lakers.
Rehabilitating DeMarre Carroll's stock comes in handy right about now. The Nets should be able to dump his $15.4 million expiring salary or move him for a cheaper player. That gives them maxish money to work with, depending on the deal.
Parker is the guy if the Nets get to that point. They could use another 4 if they're not sold on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson beyond next year, and their frontcourt remains light on playmakers. And while the Magic are virtual locks to match any money that comes Gordon's way, the Milwaukee Bucks cannot afford to be as married to Parker.
Charlotte Hornets: Ian Clark
After winning just 36 games, the Charlotte Hornets will flirt with the luxury-tax line if they don't trim some salary. Since they're nearly devoid of the attractive trade assets required to cut costs, their best free-agent addition figures to be someone like Ian Clark.
Jump-starting a rebuild would change everything. A 27-year-old combo guard doesn't fit the mission statement for a team starting over. But the Hornets have not tipped their hand on this front. They traveled great lengths to remain mediocre in the past. The assumption should be more of the same under new general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Feel free to adjust your scope if Kemba Walker reappears on the trade block. In the meantime, Clark fills a playmaking need for a lottery squad with no money.
Charlotte spent most of last season struggling to generate offense without Walker on the court. Things began to turn after the All-Star break, but secondary table-setting remains a concern until—er, unless—Malik Monk makes a leap.
Take a look at the Hornets' season-long offensive rating when their top ball-handlers played without Walker:
Compare these marks to the team's overall offensive rating with Walker (109.7), and the Hornets have a problem. Clark isn't a panacea on his own, but his off-ball shooting rebounded during the playoffs, and he drilled 43.6 percent of his pull-up jumpers during the regular season. Most importantly: He's cheap.
Chicago Bulls: Kyle Anderson (Restricted)
The Chicago Bulls are free to think bigger than Kyle Anderson. They'll wake up July 1 with more than $20 million to spend. Superstars at the peak of their powers won't give their reclamation project a second look, but the Bulls can inject themselves into any restricted-free-agent sweepstakes they please.
That doesn't mean they should.
Adding big-money contracts at the beginning of a rebuild is taboo without insta-contention on the table. The Bulls don't have that immediate turnaround in them. Throwing money at Aaron Gordon, Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker, et al. doesn't get them over any hump, real or imagined.
Besides, they already have to pay Zach LaVine (restricted), and his next contract should terrify them. Never mind the knee injuries; he looks more like a second-unit buckets-getter than the cornerstone they valued him as in the Jimmy Butler trade. They'll keep him anyway. They're the Bulls, and letting him walk is akin to admitting fault.
Bankrolling another sizable deal begs this restart to blow up in their face. Anderson is a nice middle ground. They'll have to pay him slightly more than mid-level money to pry him from the San Antonio Spurs, but he's worth it. They need wings, and Anderson is the only non-big to close 2017-18 averaging at least seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block per 36 minutes.
Concern is always baked into poaching players the Spurs made. They're the Spurs. The Bulls are not. And Anderson's sloth-paced game may not translate to a faster system. But his cross-wing defense will, and he's an impact youngster, at 24, who won't eat through the Bulls' entire slush fund. They'll have money left over to go shopping next summer.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Luc Mbah a Moute
What a win Luc Mbah a Moute would be for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They've listened to people speculate that LeBron James could join the Houston Rockets all year (more on this later). How sweet would it be for them to not only keep James but also steal one of the Rockets' most important defenders in the process?
As you may have guessed, Cleveland's ideal free agency is being framed as if James will return. That might not happen. But this exercise lacks any meaning whatsoever when presuming his departure. The Cavaliers wouldn't be looking to spend any money. Their attentions shift to burning what's left of this year's core to the ground.
Things get interesting if James stays put. The Cavaliers won't have anything more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception to peddle, but that $5.3 million life raft will go a long way this summer. Owner Dan Gilbert will have no choice other than to use it.
James is smart enough to make that a condition of his return. He doesn't, and shouldn't, care that Cleveland's payroll will blitz past $150 million, before taxes, if he comes back.
Mbah a Moute is a no-brainer target even if he costs the Cavaliers their entire MLE. They don't have a defender who can almost seamlessly shift between defending power forwards and point guards. He guarded more pick-and-roll ball-handlers per game than Andre Roberson and placed in the 99th percentile of isolation defense.
Playing Mbah a Moute at the 4 unlocked some of the Rockets' best lineups. They outscored opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions in those situations, per Cleaning the Glass. His offense is touch-and-go, but he hits enough of his threes in the regular season—37.5 percent since 2016-17—and is a viable open-lane driver and finisher when he's not coping with a shoulder injury.
Sticking him on the Cavs would make it easier to play Kevin Love at the 5 and save James from having to defend too many top off-the-bounce scorers. Getting the Rockets to let him go could be tough, but they'll only have the mini MLE themselves. And with Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela (restricted) and Chris Paul all set to hit the open market, they may be reluctant to finance Mbah a Moute's long-overdue raise.
Dallas Mavericks: DeMarcus Cousins
Going on 28, with an Achilles injury in his rear view, DeMarcus Cousins doesn't fit the M.O. for a rebuilding team. But the Dallas Mavericks have the ability to dredge up $20 million or more in room, and Boogie's list of potential suitors has dwindled since he was deemed a max-money formality last year.
"There's just no market for DeMarcus Cousins outside Dallas, and then you have to go into sign-and-trade world. The Lakers are obviously there too. People react like, 'No, DeMarcus Cousins is a star; every team will pay him the max.' OK, who? He's a big man coming off an Achilles tear, and half the teams [that have space] don't want to spend their cap room because they're bad."
Opportunity is knocking at the Mavericks' door. Taking a flier on Cousins doesn't sit right if he costs the full monte over four years. Yours truly has advocated against this exact pursuit. But signing him at a discount or for just one to two years allows them to win the press conference.
Plus, if the Mavericks are on the prowl for a high-end frontcourt mainstay, Cousins represents their most realistic option. Giving bloated offer sheets to restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker, Jusuf Nurkic and Julius Randle doesn't guarantee their incumbent teams will pass. Cousins controls his destiny, and the New Orleans Pelicans won't up their bottom line to keep him after the success they enjoyed with Nikola Mirotic beside Anthony Davis.
Drafting Mohamed Bamba renders all of this null and void—assuming he's available when the Mavs are on the clock at No. 5. ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony projects he'll last that long in his latest mock, but Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman says he'll go third overall to the Hawks.
Denver Nuggets: Gerald Green
Nikola Jokic's contract status complicates the Denver Nuggets' salary-cap position. Declining his team option makes him a restricted free agent and ensures he won't get to survey the landscape as an unattached window-shopper next July.
Just about everyone and their imaginary friends' imaginary siblings believe the Nuggets will deal with Jokic's new contract this summer. While his cap hold will be peanuts, his max salary will run them about $25.3 million next year. That could saddle them with a payroll in excess of $140 million if Darrell Arthur (player option), Wilson Chandler (player option) and Will Barton (unrestricted) all return.
Belly-flopping into the tax to preserve a lottery team's status quo is quite the undertaking, and Denver doesn't appear willing to tackle it. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski expects the Nuggets to dangle the No. 14 pick in an attempt to offload Kenneth Faried's expiring salary (h/t Denver Stiffs' Ryan Blackburn).
Offloading this $13.8 million weight could be a ploy to dream in free agency. Scenarios exist in which the Nuggets shed money, shoot their shot for household names and go over the cap to re-sign Jokic. But this, again, would be predicated on immersing themselves in the luxury tax.
The free-agency outlet is more the Nuggets' speed until they take the measures necessary to dig up space and indicate a willingness to join the luxury-tax ranks. That removes even mid-level candidates from their purview. Broken-record style: A max deal for Jokic could vault them into the tax without touching the roster.
Gerald Green isn't going incite enthusiasm among Denver's fanbase, but he's an electric and affordable wing. He's instant offense and no stranger to effective defensive stretches. The Rockets used him primarily at the 2 and 3, but he can play some ultra-small 4. The Nuggets need that kind of versatility on the wings—particularly if Houston goes in a different direction and he remains a minimum mercenary.
Detroit Pistons: Devin Harris
Carrying free-agent holds for James Ennis and Anthony Tolliver will drag the Detroit Pistons past the $123 million luxury-tax marker. That's...not ideal. And it looks even worse when studying the context.
The Pistons are not coming off a playoff appearance. They do not have a first-round pick. They need shooting. They need reinforcements on the wings beyond Ennis, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson. They could use a dash of extra playmaking to shore up one of the NBA's most topsy-turvy floor-general rotations.
This team should not be worrying about the tax. And yet, the Pistons are. They can do some things to skirt under it, but they have next to no hope of unbolting the full mid-level exception.
Entering the offseason with the mini mid-level is fine for contenders. Once more: That money should net real talent this year. But the Pistons have holes everywhere. Splitting up the MLE won't plug them all.
Owner Tom Gores might not even let the front office try. The Pistons are in win-now mode. With Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson on the docket for a combined $74.6 million, they have to be. (Related: Yikes.) But this team objectively isn't worth paying the tax. And if Gores tightens his purse strings, Detroit may not be able to keep both Ennis and Tolliver, let alone look for outside help.
How's that for a build-up to Devin Harris?
Reeling in a 35-year-old guard doesn't warrant confetti showers, but he does a little bit of everything the Pistons need. He can run a pick-and-roll, drilled 37.9 percent of his spot-up threes and, most critically, flashed mismatch moxie while playing the 2 and 3 in Dallas.
For what the Pistons can spend, and given all they need, it doesn't get any better than this seasoned utility man.
Golden State Warriors: Marco Belinelli
It feels weird to say the Golden State Warriors need more three-point shooters. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are two of the best-ever snipers, and Kevin Durant is a deadly marksman himself—his postseason brick-laying spectacle notwithstanding.
Isn't that, like, good enough?
Not particularly. The Warriors aren't about to stop ruining basketball for people outside the Bay Area, but they need to solidify their dynastic presence with more efficient chucksters.
Yank Curry, Durant and Thompson from the equation, and Golden State canned 33.4 percent of its triples—akin to the Phoenix Suns' league-worst mark. Zoom in on the bench specifically, and the Warriors are a tick worse. Their reserves splashed in 33.3 percent of their treys, the third-lowest rate among second units.
If this doesn't pique your concern, Nick Young's logging important minutes in the playoffs should.
Golden State is emaciated on the wings and could be left even thinner by summer's end. Both Young and Patrick McCaw (restricted) are set to hit free agency. Young needs to be escorted out of town if he costs more than the minimum. McCaw is a potentially vital defensive piece, but he remains a non-shooter.
Convincing Marco Belinelli to chase another title is the Warriors' first step to shielding their offense from any weakness. He cleared a 38 percent success rate on catch-and-fire threes and finished in the 85th percentile of efficiency when coming around screens.
Adding him to this group would be unfair—and also right up the Warriors' alley. They had eyes for him when he was a buyout candidate. Their interest is unlikely to have subsided over the past few months. They need him and should consider paying whatever it takes to get him—even if it costs them most or all of their taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Houston Rockets: LeBron James (Player Option)
LeBron James-to-Houston chatter has permeated the rumor mill all year. In case you were wondering, it won't stop now.
Sources told Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko that Houston will give chase to both James and Paul George (player option) this summer. And Chris Paul may already be recruiting his co-captain of banana boats everywhere, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.
Don't go muting the phrase "Eastern Conference" in your Twitter timeline just yet. Houston has a long way to go before James Harden is teaching LeBron the secret of (regular-season) step-back threes.
Flat-out signing James is off the table. Paul needs to accept a massive discount after the Rockets clear the decks for that to make any sense. Even then, the salary-cap gymnastics aren't in their favor.
Negotiating a sign-and-trade is equally implausible. Houston would be hard-capped after the transaction, which means its payroll cannot exceed the luxury-tax apron—set for $6 million above the initial tax line. Good luck doing that while paying Harden, James, Paul and Clint Capela (restricted) market value.
Opt-in-and-trade scenarios are the Rockets' bread and butter. If James picks up his player option, which pays him a smidgeon more than his actual max salary, he can force Cleveland to make nice with Houston.
That gives way to a different set of hurdles—mainly the Rockets' sweetening the deal enough for the Cavaliers or a third-party helper to take back Ryan Anderson (two years, $41.7 million), Nene (two years, $7.5 million) and filler. But James, as always, will have the leverage necessary to wish it into existence. And if any front-office executive has the workarounds in place to get this done, it would be Houston's ever-active Daryl Morey.
Indiana Pacers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a modest best-possible addition for the Indiana Pacers when looking at the free-agency landscape.
At least two-thirds of the league will be operating over the cap. Among the 10 squads, give or take a couple, that can chisel out significant room, most won't use it. Rebuilding teams like Atlanta, Brooklyn, Dallas, etc. could holster their flexibility for 2019 and beyond or try leasing out their space for pick-and-prospect goody bags.
The Pacers, meanwhile, are carrying more than $30 million in non-guaranteed contracts. That alone, technically, leaves them flush. They'll have more breathing room if Thaddeus Young declines his player option.
General manager Kevin Pritchard could take this opportunity to double down on Indy's 48-win campaign with a bigger, more expensive name. He could drive up the price tag on restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker. Or he could test the loyalty of certain veterans from contenders. Think along the lines of Trevor Ariza and JJ Redick.
Pritchard and the Pacers can do all that. But they won't. As the Indianapolis Star's J. Michael underscored following the Pacers' exit interviews:
"Although there's a lot of built-in flexibility on the roster with two player options and two team options for next season, four players with only partial guarantees of their salaries and one with a non-guaranteed deal, the Pacers will be careful with team chemistry and not shake up everything just for the sake of doing so for name free agents. If they make significant changes, it'll be for more than talent. It'll be with fit."
Caldwell-Pope presents a nice, if slightly experimental, fit. Look past the junky pull-up twos, and he'll complement Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo. He pushes the ball after defensive rebounds, can initiate pick-and-pops and is familiar with working off the ball. He hit more than 40 percent of his spot-up threes with the Lakers.
Slotting him at the 3 costs the Pacers some size, but the frenetic energy of a Collison-Oladipo-KCP troika will do some damage in the East. Equally paramount: Caldwell-Pope shouldn't command anything near his 2017-18 salary ($17.8 million) if he signs a multiyear deal.
Los Angeles Clippers: Josh Huestis
Try to contain your enthusiasm, Los Angeles Clippers peeps. Free-agent finds don't get much splashier than Josh Huestis.
Snark time is over.
Huestis doesn't seem like a needle-mover. He certainly isn't a first-choice signing. But the Clippers' cap situation is not pretty.
Floating holds for DeAndre Jordan (player option) and Avery Bradley vaults them more than $20 million over the luxury tax. Actual operating costs should be cheaper since Jordan will command a lower annual salary if he doesn't pick up his option. But this group, when left untouched, could still spill into the tax.
All the while, the Clippers won't be giving off a discernible direction. Keeping this core intact suggests they'll chase a playoff berth, but they'll forever be on rebuild watch—especially if Jordan leaves in free agency or opts into the final year of his deal.
Combine this ambiguous trajectory with the Clippers' squeaky-clean cap sheet in 2019, and they're not fit to dole out any serious deals. They shouldn't be cycling through their entire mid-level exception to land a James Ennis or Joe Harris. They need to think cheaper.
Enter Huestis. The Clippers need more serviceable wings, and the Oklahoma City Thunder cannot pay him more than $2.2 million after declining his fourth-year option. He's ripe for the picking.
Los Angeles could look to its late-lottery selections (Nos. 12 and 13) for perimeter fliers, but Huestis is closer to an established defensive commodity. He picked up a lot of the slack in pick-and-roll coverages with Andre Roberson on the shelf. The 0.66 points per possession he allowed to ball-handlers ranked sixth among 182 players to guard 90 or more of these plays.
Los Angeles Lakers: Paul George (Player Option)
To the Lakers fans feeling jilted because LeBron James isn't here: Really?
Paul George has always been the best free agent most likely to abandon his current digs and abscond to Los Angeles. He informed the Pacers he planned on joining the Lakers before they traded him to the Thunder, for crying out loud.
Nothing has changed since. The Lakers are still considered favorites to lure George, according to Iko. He's far more likely to jump Oklahoma City's ship after one year than James is to maroon Cleveland a second time.
George would remain the Lakers' most realistic prize even if the GOAT becomes the bigger overall flight risk. He won't be as concerned about joining a rebuild entering his age-28 season. James is inching toward his age-34 campaign. If he puts on a purple and gold jersey, chance are he knows another star is already on his way.
In many ways, the Lakers should prefer George to James. His starting salary is more than $4 million cheaper, and every dollar counts as they look to flesh out the rest of the roster, render a verdict on Julius Randle's future and, possibly, try to cobble together blockbuster trade offers for available or disgruntled superstars.
Getting both George and James would be thrice as nice. And the Lakers have a path to doing it. But George has always been their guy, and he will remain so heading into July.
Memphis Grizzlies: Pat Connaughton (Restricted)
Expecting a more, um, recognizable name? Understandable.
Despite an unenviable cap sheet that will clear $100 million without breaking a sweat, the Memphis Grizzlies are sitting prettier than perhaps half the league. They should have no trouble opening up the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception while skating under that tax altogether.
We call that a win in this cap climate. Teams with the full MLE at their disposal automatically have the tools to snag a difference-maker if they're ready to spend it all in one place. Pat Connaughton is not that player.
So what gives? Memphis' inaction at the trade deadline.
Holding on to Tyreke Evans remains one of this past season's most puzzling decisions. The Grizzlies don't own his Bird rights. Nor do they have the flexibility to sign him using cap space. They must tap into—and maybe use all of—their mid-level exception to keep him.
Letting Evans walk frees them up to set their sights higher. And he could leave on his own accord. The Grizzlies won't be the only ones peddling a majority share of their MLE.
Keeping him past the deadline, though, suggests they're more interested in retaining him. Forecasting otherwise goes too far against the grain. And if he stays, the Grizzlies will be left with minimum money or, should they get lucky, slightly more.
Restricted free agents like Connaughton typically don't come that cheap. But the Blazers payroll is a mess. Re-signing Connaughton at his cap hold ($1.8 million) would cost them a boatload in tax penalties. With Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier (restricted) and Jusuf Nurkic (restricted) also hitting the market, the 25-year-old wing won't top their to-do list.
As a team that needs a 2-3 who can stroke threes and make off-ball beelines toward the basket, the Grizzlies should hope Portland's books are overwhelming enough to make Connaughton collateral damage.
Miami Heat: Seth Curry
A career fringe-roster journeyman? As the Heat's most ideal addition? After he missed all of 2017-18 with a stress fracture in his left leg? Seriously?
Projected taxpayers cannot be choosy, and Miami is—you guessed it—flirting with the luxury line. Toting Wayne Ellington's $8.2 million free-agent hold brings the team's salary obligations to a shade under $129 million—roughly $6 million above the tax touchstone.
Renouncing him pushes the Heat beneath it, but not far enough to open up the non-taxpayer's mid-level. And oh: Ellington is crucial to the offense's spacing and general functionality. He cannot be tossed aside like he doesn't matter.
Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes laid out the case for Miami to sync up with Seth Curry while predicting these same circumstances:
"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."
Potentially costing more than the minimum qualifies Curry as an ambitious target. Sure, a chunk of the taxpayer's mid-level should get him, but only if the Heat are prepared to use it. And they might not be. Owner Micky Arison blushed at paying the tax during the Big Three era. He won't react much better to breaking open his piggy bank for a 44-win faction that flamed out in the first round.
Milwaukee Bucks: Derrick Favors
Lanky size is available in abundance for the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson are skyscrapers with arms that go on forever—or close to it.
New head coach Mike Budenholzer can work with this setup. He's pieced together stonewalling defenses in the past that don't include beefcakes at the 5. He'll make this work. Antetokounmpo-at-center lineups should, at long last, live up to their potential without belching out crappy defensive ratings. (Milwaukee allowed more than 116 points per 100 possessions with him at center, according to Cleaning the Glass.)
Still, the Bucks could stand to add some brute force. No team struggled to keep opponents away from the rim more than them, and they placed 29th in defensive rebounding rate. They need a bigger, burlier, capable body, and Tyler Zeller (non-guaranteed) won't cut it.
Derrick Favors tilts toward the overly ambitious side of Milwaukee's free-agent spectrum. Someone like Kyle O'Quinn (player option) or Aron Baynes will be more affordable.
But the Bucks should have the full mid-level in their war chest if they handle Jabari Parker's contract negotiations with a semblance of responsibility. That allows them to dream a little bigger. With the Utah Jazz in need of shot creation, a dual sign-and-trade involving Parker and Favors is worth consideration from all parties.
Granted, the latter is a career power forward with so-so rebounding rates. That shouldn't scare off the Bucks. Favors spent more than 60 percent of his possessions at the 5 this past season, per Cleaning the Glass. And his glass-crashing numbers are inherently deflated whenever he plays beside Rudy Gobert.
Utah grabbed 78.3 percent of opponents' misses with Favors jumping center, a mark that would equate to stark improvement for Milwaukee. His defense around the rim figures to have the same effect. Favors held opponents to 53.1 percent shooting at the iron—the sixth-best return among everyone who contested more than four point-blank looks per game.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Avery Bradley
On the heels of the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round playoff exit, coach-president Tom Thibodeau said "adding wings who can shoot threes and guard multiple positions" will be his team's top offseason priority, per The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski.
Oh sure, this agenda is an obvious one. The Timberwolves wrapped 2017-18 dead last in three-point rate and, with the exception of a monthlong stretch between December and January, struggled to field a competitive defense. They finished 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions, and only the Nuggets, Pistons, Thunder and New York Knicks surrendered corner three-pointers with more frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Anyone with the faintest trace of good sense knows Minnesota needs to upgrade the perimeter rotation. But Thibs' comments verge on refreshing revelation, because you never know with him. He assembled the roster in the image of clunky spacing. He could have started the offseason oblivious to his flaws and instead focused on the importance of retaining Derrick Rose.
Acquiring serviceable help on the wing is within the Timberwolves' power. They don't have cap space after last summer's spending spree—which, remember, included offering Andrew Wiggins a five-year, $146.5 million extension that kicks in next season. But they'll have the full mid-level if they waive Cole Aldrich's partially guaranteed pact and renounce some incumbent free agents.
Avery Bradley would be too expensive for the Timberwolves in any other summer. He might be too pricey now. But he's not getting the $20 million annual salary Wojnarowski referenced in January. Not in this market. Not after posting a lower true shooting percentage than Wiggins. And most certainly not after losing almost half of 2017-18 to injury.
None of which should give the Timberwolves pause. Bradley is shooting 37 percent from deep since 2013-14, and his on-ball defense, though marginally overrated, stands up to point guards, shooting guards and a good number of small forwards. If his stock has plummeted to MLE territory, Minnesota should pounce.
New Orleans Pelicans: James Ennis
Bidding farewell to DeMarcus Cousins would allow the Pelicans to expand their free-agent horizons. They won't have cap space if he leaves, but they'll gain access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Re-sign Cousins, and the mini MLE becomes their primary carrot. It doesn't matter that he's no longer a max-contract afterthought. He would need to accept a deal worth under $15 million annually for them to use the larger version without straining themselves to abide by the hard cap.
New Orleans has contemplated offering Cousins a two- or three-year contract for less than max money, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, but sub-$15 million per year is pushing it. He'd be taking a pay cut from his 2017-18 salary ($18.1 million)—a far-fetched outcome even factoring in his Achilles injury and a crummy market.
Limiting the scope of the Pelicans' search to taxpayer-MLE candidates is the safest play, and this still might be a stretch. They must be willing to pay the tax depending on how much Cousins fetches, and part of this $5.2 million trust could find its way to Rajon Rondo.
James Ennis is an option if, and only if, the Pelicans are open to funneling their entire mid-level into one player. For him, they should be. He fits what they need like a glove.
Ennis can switch across every wing position and has the size, at 6'7", to line up against some small-ball 4s. He's a seamless plug-and-play asset at the other end too. Over 78 percent of his made buckets came off assists while splitting time with Detroit and Memphis, and his 35.3 percent drop-in rate on catch-and-shoot threes will jump amid better spacing.
Outbidding the Pistons for Ennis is a non-option. They own his Early Bird rights. But they have tax concerns themselves, along with more roster leaks to caulk. Shrewd spending on their part creates a window of opportunity for the Pelicans.
New York Knicks: Mario Hezonja
Mario Hezonja doesn't have to be the Knicks' offseason mountaintop. They could aim higher. Or they may need to aim lower.
Everything depends on Enes Kanter. And Kyle O'Quinn. But mostly Kanter.
The Knicks approach $15 million in summertime allowance if he declines his $18.6 million player option, as he hinted at doing after their regular-season finale. If O'Quinn follows suit, it would gift them closer to $19 million in spending money. They could eke out even more room from there by waiving Joakim Noah via the stretch provision or shipping out Courtney Lee's reasonable deal (two years, $25.1 million).
Bigger-time names are within the Knicks' reach. But they'll function as an over-the-cap team if Kanter plays out his contract, consigning them to mid-level-exception targets. That's fine—encouraged, even.
Chasing expensive additions is pointless for a squad that might see Kristaps Porzingis' recovery from a left ACL injury take up all of 2018-19. For what it's worth, the Knicks appear to be thinking along these same lines.
"They don't want to spend too much since the plan is to maintain as much cap room and flexibility for the 2019 free-agent class," Newsday's Al Iannazzone wrote. "They may have to be creative and lucky."
Rolling the dice on Hezonja fits the "creative and lucky" motif. Top-five prospects in their early 20s shouldn't be affordable short-termers, but the Magic depressed his value by declining his fourth-year option. This summer's sad-sack market will take care of the rest.
Hezonja won't come in and reinvent the Knicks. But he's a wing who can play the 2, 3 and 4 while pouring in buckets from all angles. He shot 44.4 percent on pull-up jumpers after Jan. 1 and should see his three-point clip climb closer to league average in head coach David Fizdale's spacier system.
No one is signing Hezonja for lockdown defense, but the Knicks need someone to spare Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr. from harassing bigger wings. Lance Thomas gives them one option. The No. 9 pick in this year's draft could yield another. But they can never have too many wings, and Hezonja comes with the added benefit of not torpedoing next summer's cap sheet.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Joe Harris
Regardless of how Paul George's foray into free agency turns out, Oklahoma City has one job this offseason: Hope LeBron James convinces Carmelo Anthony to exercise his early termination option and join him in Houston Add complementary shooters on the cheap.
Retaining George would make this a more complicated task. Footing his max-contract bill slingshots them more than $25 million above the luxury tax without any monster salary dumps. Ownership could get pocket-shy at that point and resist tapping into the mini mid-level exception.
Then again, without getting rid of Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder may shoot past the tax if George flees. And if they must come to grips with an expensive roster no matter what, they might as well assemble one worth its price tag.
Joe Harris would be a stud acquisition if he doesn't cost more than the mini MLE. He is everything the Thunder don't have around their stars—an accessory scorer who neither needs nor demands the ball and doesn't debilitate your defense.
More than half of Harris' looks came as spot-up threes last season, on which he shot 41.7 percent. Getting him to move away from the action won't be like pulling teeth. He's a willing, albeit oft-uninspiring, off-ball slasher, and he averaged more points per possession than George when coming around screens.
Harris has even worked in some situational off-the-dribble pizzazz. He's not an aspiring one-on-one slayer, but he's comfortable pump-faking into straight-line attacks. He shot a blistering 62.7 percent on drives—tops among 167 players to churn through at least four of these possessions per game.
To say Harris strengthens the Thunder's defense would be a stretch. But the Nets took no issue sticking him on some larger wings. He is, by far, less of a liability than Anthony and does more on the glamorous end than Alex Abrines. Oklahoma City would be lucky to have him.
Orlando Magic: Fred VanVleet (Restricted)
Twenty-five-win teams without a sure-thing star on the roster usually get to find solace in cap space. Not the Magic. Their ledger is peppered with unflattering deals that don't allow for much wiggle room.
Leaving Aaron Gordon's cap hold on the books will have the Magic functioning as an over-the-cap buyer. They can do some things to slink under the $101 million pole—waiving Shelvin Mack's non-guaranteed deal, for instance. But they're not looking at more than the $8.6 million mid-level without orchestrating a substantive salary dump.
Inflexibility in the face of rebuilding stings. Orlando would rather be in Atlanta's spot with money to burn on free agents or bad-contract ingestion. But this constrictive position isn't the end of the world. Not this summer. The full MLE can help address the biggest needs. Or rather: the biggest need.
Flipping Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline for a second-round pick left the Magic without a starting-caliber floor general. They have Mack and D.J. Augustin. That's it. Evan Fournier and Jonathon Simmons can pitch in with ball-handling duties, but they're not point guards.
Orlando needs to make sure next year doesn't end like this one: with the saddest congratulatory tweet of all time.
Gambling on Oklahoma's Trae Young with the No. 6 pick almost feels like a given at this stage. But the Magic's playmaking search shouldn't end with him. Fred VanVleet proved his mettle this year with the Toronto Raptors, shimmying between an on- and off-ball role while displaying plenty of defensive spunk.
Grabbing his career 41 percent clip from downtown is a huge win unto itself. Orlando remains starved for assassins, and VanVleet can stretch defenses on Fournier isos, Gordon drives and Nikola Vucevic post-ups. He put down 44.5 percent of his spot-up threes, which accounted for more than one-third of his total shots.
Offering the full mid-level is the Magic's only hope of stealing VanVleet from the Raptors. He's too important to them. They leaned on him to close games beside DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and his pick-and-roll prevention was pivotal to their defensive livelihood. But they're up against one of the league's worst cap situations. Paying more than $8 million per year for a 24-year-old backup point guard may not be in the cards.
Philadelphia 76ers: LeBron James (Player Option)
Let the record show I'm against LeBron James steering into the twilight of his career with the 76ers. The fit is weird. Too many ball-dominant talents at different stages of their professional tenures.
Please let the record also show James has to be the choice. Sources told The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor the Sixers are on his short list of preferred destinations. And knowing James has no business ditching his auto-Finals bid to play in the Western Conference, it has-to-has-to-has-to be this way.
Unlike the enduring pipe dream in Houston, the logistics behind this hypothetical union are pretty straightforward. The Sixers don't need to cross their fingers for James to opt in and force a trade. They can afford him free and clear with minimal roster casualties.
Philly begins the summer with more than $25 million in space—$10 million and change short of James' $35.4 million max salary. Attaching a buffer to Jerryd Bayless' expiring contract makes up the difference. Stretching him and lopping off some non-guarantees and movable chess pieces shoots the gap as well.
Selling James on the opportunity to play in Philly is the bigger issue.
Dancing around the tactical warts is relatively easy if he's comfortable doing more work off the ball and believes in the career arcs of Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons. Figuring out how to bring back JJ Redick and outlining blockbuster-trade proposals that land another A-lister will also catch his attention.
That brings us to the half-dozenish fake identities in the room: team president Bryan Colangelo's alleged link to multiple Twitter accounts—burners that authored pro-him rants at the expense of Sixers players, former general manager Sam Hinkie and Raptors president Masai Ujiri and, potentially, divulged confidential information about failed trades and Jahlil Okafor's health.
All the nitty-gritty details on this so-2018 scandal can be found in Ben Detrick's fascinating report for The Ringer. Though Colangelo's involvement and fate with the organization remain in limbo, league sources told Lowe and Wojnarowski "franchise ownership is seriously considering Colangelo's dismissal."
Whether this should impact James' possible interest is up for debate. But the optics are bad. It certainly doesn't help the Sixers' case—unless, maybe, they view former Cavs general manager David Griffin as a could-be Colangelo successor.
Phoenix Suns: Clint Capela (Restricted)
Back in November, Daryl Morey told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon that Clint Capela "couldn't price himself out" of Houston. It seems Phoenix is willing to put his sentiments to the test.
Sources told Iko the Suns "have kept tabs on him throughout the season and have reportedly become 'enamored' with him. They have plans to offer Capela a max or near-max contract once free agency begins."
Maxing out Capela will take $25.3 million in cap space, and the Suns must jump through some hoops to get there. Letting Elfrid Payton (restricted) walk and waiving Alan Williams' non-guaranteed pact gets them past the $15 million threshold. They'll need to reroute expiring salaries for Tyson Chandler ($13.6 million) or Jared Dudley ($9.5 million) to come up with the rest.
Then, and only then, the Suns may have the juice to apply pressure on the Rockets. Houston could—and likely will—match any offer Capela receives. But a near-max for Chris Paul will leave the Rockets comfortably above the $100 million plateau when accounting for their guaranteed contracts. That's without a new deal for Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute.
Faced with a payroll poised to blow past $150 million before taxes, the Rockets could fold. Probably not, but they could.
And hey, if you're the Suns and you haven't turned the No. 1 pick into Deandre Ayton, Capela is worth this stab in the dark.
Portland Trail Blazers: Omri Casspi
Stirring the pot with a marquee addition isn't in the Blazers' immediate future. Their ledger remains muddied from 2016's shopping binge, and they have no obvious way out from under heaping salary obligations.
Incumbent free agency is going to take precedence over pitching outside names. General manager Neil Olshey must reconcile a roster that would still cost more than $115 million if Portland renounces all of its own mercenaries. Let's face it: That's not happening.
Pushing out Pat Connaughton (restricted), Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier (restricted) and Jusuf Nurkic (restricted) is a great way to squander the goodwill built with this year's third-seeded playoff berth. The Blazers won't have the coin to replace all four of their free agents. They'll open up the full mid-level at best—which, when split up, might get them a cheap big and clearance-rack shooter.
Cannonballing into the tax is an inexorable reality. Maybe the Blazers will let two of their own head elsewhere, but re-signing the others will ferry them beyond the $123 million measuring stick. Keeping Nurkic alone does the same.
Portland has the mini mid-level exception to fall back on—assuming ownership green-lights its use. Maybe Paul Allen is willing to dip into the tax after Olshey fudged this season's cap commitments enough to dive under it. But that would be an awful lot to ask any owner following a first-round sweep and no appreciable upgrades.
Failing serious salary-shedding maneuvers, the Blazers should be consigned to surfing the minimum-contract market. Finding gems on a beggar's dime is a matter of luck and proximity to the NBA Finals, but Omri Casspi's unsuccessful tenure with Golden State presents a unique opportunity.
Another team could offer him more, perhaps knifing into their mid-level or bi-annual exceptions. But Casspi's bizarre aversion to threes on the Warriors hurts him. He needs to recapture his sweet-shooting form.
The Blazers should be more than excited to bet small on his redemption. Casspi is just two years removed from swishing 40.9 percent of his threes on 5.2 attempts per 36 minutes, and he remains a good cutter with fair-weather handles and the chops to tussle with small-ball 4s.
Sacramento Kings: Rodney Hood (Restricted)
Rodney Hood's stock has plumbed rock bottom since arriving in Cleveland. The Sacramento Kings have cap space. They need wings. They won't care about winning too many games with their 2019 first-rounder headed to Boston (via Philly).
You see where this is going.
Suggesting the Kings spend money on a 25-year-old wing who plays smaller than he stands (6'7") is not another run-of-the-mill troll job. If they draft Luka Doncic with the No. 2 pick, they're encouraged to pass on Hood. But they're not expected to select him.
Neither they nor the Hawks are inclined to guarantee the 19-year-old whiz kid a spot in the top three if he drops past the Suns at No. 1, according to Givony. Both he and Wasserman have the Kings rolling with Marvin Bagley III in their latest mocks.
Unless the people in charge are incredibly high on Justin Jackson or plan on beta-testing a Bogdan Bogdanovic-Buddy Hield 2-3 combo, Sacramento needs to scour the market for another wing.
Mario Hezonja is apparently in play, according to the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. He should fall on the cheaper end and allow the Kings to save much of their $17 million-plus in cap space for 2019 or bad-contract collection.
But Hood has a higher ceiling, if only because he's had more success from beyond the arc and, even with an unimpressive wingspan, profiles as a rangier defender. His no-show during the postseason (so far) works in the Kings' favor.
Cleveland isn't paying to keep him around if LeBron James signs elsewhere. Ponying up an eight-figure salary could even be too steep if James stays. The Cavaliers are on the fast track toward a payroll north of $150 million in that scenario—before repeater taxes. And Hood has spent most of the playoffs ceding minutes to Jordan Clarkson. Now would be the time for prospective admirers to buy low.
San Antonio Spurs: Will Barton
Will Barton turned down a four-year, $42 million extension from the Nuggets last summer. The Spurs cannot match that without ditching a bunch of salary. Their most direct route to a comparable offer demands Rudy Gay and Danny Green decline player options and that they renounce Kyle Anderson (restricted).
But Barton, like so many others, could be in for a rude awakening. Most of the league won't have $10 million or $12 million annually waiting for him. If the Nuggets play hardball as they grapple with their ballooning bottom line, he could find himself accepting a deal worth the non-taxpayer's mid-level.
Plenty of teams will give him that much. And again: He could get more. Dallas, Denver and Philly all loom as nice fits. The Spurs have a shot at breaking ground if Barton's market is crippled by league-wide stinginess. When the money is equal, they always do.
In this case specifically, they can offer Barton what he covets most aside from dollar signs.
"If I would be able to know I would be a starter coming into next season, that would push me in the offseason," Barton said, per the Denver Post's Gina Mizell. "It's something that I've never been before or done before. That's what makes me who I am and what makes me better every year. That will definitely be a goal of mine."
Starting Barton wouldn't be a problem if Green leaves. Really, it shouldn't be an issue if he stays. The Spurs could use an athletic playmaker to simplify Dejounte Murray's learning curve, and a Barton-Green-Kawhi Leonard threesome at the 2, 3 and 4 would wreck lives.
Toronto Raptors: Vince Carter
Can the Raptors just reunite with Vince Carter already? Because he's totally down for a homecoming.
"It'll happen, I'm sure," he told reporters in December. "Somehow, whether it's one day or something, it'll happen. It's supposed to happen, I think."
Frankly, the Raptors almost need this to happen. And they should want it to last longer than a ceremonial day.
Toronto is glued to a payroll that will surpass the luxury-tax line before hashing out a new deal for Fred VanVleet (restricted). Lucas Nogueira is a free agent as well (restricted).
Maybe president Masai Ujiri can pull a rabbit out of his hat on the trade market. Counterpoint: He probably won't. The Raptors aren't blessed with desirable contracts.
Teams won't form a disorderly queue to take on Serga Ibaka's (two years, $44.9 million) and Jonas Valanciunas' (two years, $34.2 million) money. With three years and $83.2 million left on his deal, DeMar DeRozan is in the same boat.
Cost-controlled contributors like OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright aren't worth auctioning off. Their small cap hits won't bring back a consequential return. Norman Powell is Toronto's best salary filler, and he's no steal at four years and $42 million.
That leaves the Raptors to scrape the bottom of the barrel. They could do much worse than a 41-year-old Carter—provided another team isn't about to Kings him with a one-year overpay.
Run him out between 12 and 17 minutes per game, and he'll make plays. He has buried more than 38 percent of his standstill threes in each of the past two seasons and is good for the occasional ball-on-a-string moments. He'll even make some defensive stops in the half court.
No, the Raptors cannot afford a prime-time add-on. But they have the inside track on indulging nostalgia while gaining an extra wing.
Utah Jazz: Tyreke Evans
Joe Ingles is fantabulous. Royce O'Neale has his moments. Volume-shooting Ricky Rubio is apparently a thing. Alec Burks is good for smooth-looking scoring outbursts at random. Jae Crowder sometimes fancies himself a pull-up artist.
Donovan Mitchell is the real deal.
Utah needs another shot creator anyway.
That's what this team missed the most—and still pines for—following Gordon Hayward's departure: from-scratch shot creation. Head coach Quin Snyder's egalitarian offense masks much of the absence, but the Jazz placed 21st in field-goal percentage on drives and 29th in efficiency when using three to six dribbles.
Mitchell incites chaos on his assaults from above the break. Defenses fear what he's capable of doing on the move, even though he converted just 34.6 percent of his pull-up jumpers. That only gets the Jazz so far. They need another weapon, of a similar ilk, to put more pressure on defenses and make running pick-and-rolls and flinging kick-outs even easier.
Ingles could be that guy if he had a selfish gene in his body. He doesn't. O'Neale might be that player someday, but he's not now. Rubio's next-level aggression isn't enough. Crowder will never get there. Burks is too erratic. Dante Exum is a mystery.
Fortunately for the Jazz, their comfy cap sheet allows for some realignment. Tyreke Evans shouldn't fetch more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level, which they have at the ready. They can browse glitzier names if they wish, but they shouldn't. They need to renounce Exum (restricted), Derrick Favors and Raul Neto (restricted) while waiving Jonas Jerebko, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh to approach $20 million in space.
Settling for Evans is smart. It preserves the heart of their flexibility for 2019, depending on how much Exum and Favors cost in their new deals. Oh, and signing Evans isn't really settling at all. He shot 48.2 percent on drives and 53.4 percent when using three to six dribbles—the sixth-best mark among 57 players to attempt three such looks per game.
Tack on his steady spot-up showing (38.9 percent on threes), and the Jazz have themselves a difference-maker—someone who helps bridge the remaining gap separating them from the small clique of firepower-flush contenders in front of them.
Washington Wizards: Noah Vonleh (Restricted)
"There's a lot that we can use. ... I think it's pretty obvious. I don't need to point it out. I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things. We don't really have an athletic big. I mean, Ian [Mahinmi] is older. [Marcin Gortat] is older. They're not athletic guys, but they do the little things that permit their game to help as much as possible."
Depth on the wings eludes the Wizards as well, but they'll have an easier time signing a big. More of them are available, and centers tend to cost less these days.
Noah Vonleh could prove too expensive for a Washington team oh-so-close to the tax. Chicago has both matching rights and money to burn. But Vonleh hasn't done enough to incite a bidding war. The Bulls could pass on his qualifying offer altogether, making him an unrestricted free agent in need of a career relaunch.
Vonleh would look right at home next to the Wizards' imitation Big Three. Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter posted a better net rating in the short time they spent with Mahinmi instead of Gortat, per Cleaning the Glass. Vonleh brings that extra pop, plus some experimental three-point range.
Burning through the entire mini mid-level to get him would be reckless. The Wizards can try harder to groom Mike Scott for that bouncy, small-ball-5 role; he won't command $5 million per year. But Vonleh promises upside Washington otherwise can't afford if he's jettisoned to the Island of Misfit RFAs.