1 Realistic Target Every Contender Should Chase in 2018 NBA Free Agency
While the 2017-18 NBA season has yet to shut its doors, the burden of identifying next year's most serious championship contenders begins now.
New title hopefuls will be born over the summer. But we will not attempt to predict which squads will transition into infant Larry O'Brien Trophy stalkers. That entails too many assumptions—trades unmade and free agents not yet signed.
To that end, the Los Angeles Lakers must forgive us if they land Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins and 1988-89 Michael Jordan. For now, this discussion sticks with what we know and what we've seen.
Current contenders are grandfathered into the clubhouse. Just as franchise-altering arrivals will not be presumed, gutting departures and unlikely teardowns won't either.
New inclusions will be limited to teams that flashed undeniable moxie by the end of 2017-18 and don't have to worry about appreciable regression. Players returning from injury will also allow those that fell off this ladder to recapture their spots.
Remember: This exercise is meant to be exclusive. Teams cannot be selected willy-nilly just because they're half-competent—not in the age of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland LeBrons. Tough cuts will be made, with favor being shown to incumbents and then newcomers in the best position to add impactful free agents who can advance their place in this debate.
And finally, this process will be treated differently from our most ideal offseason acquisitions. Some targets will be the same, and fit is everything. Optimism will once again be blended with feasibility. This time, though, we'll allot a touch more ambition for the most inflexible situations.
1-Player-Away Honorable Mentions
Milwaukee Bucks: Derrick Favors
Hiring head coach Mike Budenholzer could wind up vaulting the Bucks into this discussion on its own by the start of 2019. But they underachieved relative to their top-heavy depth chart last season.
Adding beefy size in the middle would give this roster a chance at a do-over. Giannis Antetokounmpo's eventual position may be center, but in the meantime, a physical presence like the one Derrick Favors provides down low would be a welcomed commodity.
The problem: He may cost more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million), in which case the Bucks would need the Utah Jazz to entertain a sign-and-trade.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Joe Harris
File the Thunder under "LOL Bye" if George (player option) leaves in free agency. If he returns, they have a feasible, albeit not overwhelmingly likely, path into the contenders' lounge.
Targeting a stretch power forward who doesn't fancy himself a star would be nice, but Carmelo Anthony and his $27.9 million salary (early termination option) aren't going anywhere. The Thunder only have the taxpayer's mid-level to work with ($5.3 million) and cannot afford to waste it on a position already chewing through a chunk of its cap.
Besides, if Anthony doesn't get with the program, they can always allocate more power forward minutes to George, Patrick Patterson and, if he re-signs, Jerami Grant.
Collecting off-ball shooters to orbit Russell Westbrook's drives and the offense's inevitable isos is the more pressing matter. Joe Harris hit 41.7 percent of his spot-up threes and averaged more points per possession while coming off screens than George. And though he isn't someone they can stash at the 4, he has the upper-body strength to hold his own at the 3 whenever George shifts to power forward and Andre Roberson is busy chasing point guards.
Utah Jazz: Mario Hezonja
Chasing a higher-end shot creator does more for the Jazz's immediate ceiling, but they're on track for more than $40 million in space next summer if they play their cards right with Favors and Dante Exum (restricted).
Signing someone such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Tyreke Evans would compromise that flexibility. Taking a flier on Mario Hezonja would not. He delivered some encouraging offensive performances once the Orlando Magic remembered he could play; will give Utah minutes at the 2, 3 and 4; and shouldn't cost more than a portion of the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Stopgap help for Donovan Mitchell won't get much more affordable than the confident Hezonja.
Boston Celtics: Dewayne Dedmon (Player Option)
The Boston Celtics don't need a primary free-agent target.
Having a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving is like gaining two superstar add-ons after coming one victory shy of the NBA Finals without them. And they both address what ailed Boston most by the end of a seven-game slugfest with LeBron James: seasoned go-to shot creation.
Incumbent free agents should take priority over the search for outside help. A new contract for Marcus Smart (restricted) would put the Celtics up against the luxury tax, leaving the mini mid-level exception as their primary lifeline.
Non-Bird rights will be enough to re-sign Aron Baynes, so they needn't use this money on him. If he returns, they might not spend it at all.
Dewayne Dedmon is an option worth monitoring should Baynes be deemed a flight risk or unusable in next year's wing-heavy rotation. He fits the usual skyscraper description: set screens, roll toward the rim and remain active around the hoop on defense. He has snared 28.5 percent of opponent misses when on the floor since 2015-16—the 11th-best mark among all players to clear 3,500 total minutes during those three years.
In somewhat sneaky fashion, though, Dedmon is imitating the post-modern tower. He shouldn't be tasked with putting the ball on the floor, but he can defend in space for a few beats and doesn't torpedo an offense's spacing. He canned 35.5 percent of his treys with the Atlanta Hawks on about as many attempts per 36 minutes (3.3) as Al Horford (3.6). And he was even more accurate from the corners (40 percent).
Boston couldn't afford Dedmon in most summers. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only other players to clear 10 rebounds, one block and one three-pointer per 36 minutes. But this year's market won't be kind to nonstars.
Dedmon is hardly even a lock to explore free agency. His $6.3 million player option is worth more than the Celtics can pay him. And yet, if he doesn't want to roll the dice on his role in Atlanta's from-scratch rebuild, a multiyear contract at the mini MLE would guarantee him more money over a longer haul.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Luc Mbah a Moute
Obligatory disclaimer that shouldn't need to be explained but will be anyway because haters gonna hate: The Cleveland Cavaliers do not belong on this list if LeBron James leaves.
Hot-take thespians will argue they're a misnomer inclusion if he stays. That slant is...more acceptable than usual.
But James and the Cleveland Others did not fall to the Celtics. The Philadelphia 76ers are a universal-fit wing (or Ben Simmons jump shot) away from being the Eastern Conference's heir apparent. The Toronto Raptors have an ownership stake in James' success. The Bucks and Washington Wizards remain expert underachievers.
Convince James that a treadmill of NBA Finals cameos are safer resume-boosters than joining a third franchise, and the Cavaliers will remain the toast of the East. They'll need to tinker with the roster to be anything more, but that's where the No. 8 pick comes in. They can build some respectable(ish) packages around that prospect and salary filler.
Signing Luc Mbah a Moute would ever so slightly Warriors-proof the roster without taking drastic measures. He's the player Cleveland needed Jeff Green to be—that combo-forward who shoots a league-average clip from three and supercharges lineups at the 4 without flat-lining the defense.
Postseason offense has long been Mbah a Moute's Achilles' heel. His improved three-point clip hasn't carried over to the NBA's spring fling. But he drilled 37.5 percent of his treys on 3.0 attempts per 36 minutes through the past two regular-season campaigns and probably would've fared better during the Houston Rockets' latest playoff push if not for a shoulder injury.
Plus, unlike Green, the Cavaliers can justify keeping him in the game even if he's Andre Roberson-ing all over the floor. He's not the facsimile of a switchable defender; he's that exact player.
Just look at the 10 guys he spent the most time guarding in the regular season: Andrew Wiggins (76 possessions); Tyreke Evans (45); Kemba Walker (45); Mike Conley (44); Yogi Ferrell (42); Alec Burks (36); Paul George (35); Gary Harris (33); Victor Oladipo (33); and Klay Thompson (33).
No one on the Cavaliers comes close to this across-the-board workload. Mbah a Moute should cost more than the taxpayer's mid-level. But the Rockets have financial hurdles of their own to clear, and a skimpy market won't grant second- and third-tier free agents much leverage.
Golden State Warriors: Marco Belinelli
Golden State had googly eyes for Marco Belinelli before he joined the Sixers on the buyout wire in February. That interest won't be rekindled—but only because it, in all likelihood, never flamed out.
Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are, ultraconservatively, three of the 10 best shooters to ever walk this Earth. And no team splashed in three-pointers at a higher clip than the Warriors. They're not starved for spacing heading into next season—particularly if you believe Draymond Green (30.1 percent) and Andre Iguodala (28.2 percent) will boost their freezing-cold success rates from beyond the arc.
Still, the bench could use another chuckster. Golden State's second-stringers finished 28th in long-range accuracy, with Nick Young as the floor-spacing anchor.
Never, in a million-zillion years, should a contender be the least bit dependent on Young. The Warriors had no choice, especially following Omri Casspi's underwhelming performance and subsequent departure. They shouldn't let themselves be in that spot again.
Locking down Quinn Cook was a start, but Belinelli fills the larger void as a 2-3 option. And he won't hesitate to fire on a superpower, something with which both Casspi and Young initially struggled. He played with no pause while on the San Antonio Spurs—more so in 2014-15—and showed sub-zero restraint on the Sixers.
Sure, the Warriors will be subjected to the more-than-occasional pull-up fadeaway 19-footer. They'll live with it. Belinelli drained 38.2 percent of his spot-up threes in Atlanta and Philly while notching a 64.4 effective field-goal percentage when coming around screens—seventh among 86 players with 50 or more such possessions.
Assuming the 32-year-old marksman doesn't fetch noticeably more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception, he's readymade for Golden State's dynasty.
Houston Rockets: LeBron James (Player Option)
LeBron James is simultaneously the Rockets' most ambitious and realistic free-agent focus.
On one hand, the logistics are complicated—oh, holy friggin' moly, are they complicated. Houston doesn't have a path to afford his max salary ($35.4 million) without clearing the decks and getting Capela and Paul to accept monster discounts.
Sign-and-trade scenarios are only slightly less implausible. Other roadblocks aside, this pipe dream subjects the Rockets' books to the hard cap—$6 million above the $123 million luxury-tax line. Good luck slinking below that pole while paying max or near-max money to James and Paul, market value for Capela and $30.4 million to James Harden.
Opt-in-and-trade possibilities are the Rockets' best shot at completing this coup, and even those are flimsy. James' player option is worth more than his 2018-19 max salary, so selling him on a delayed payday shouldn't be difficult. Houston must then sweeten prospective packages enough to engage Cleveland and lop off the two years and $41.7 million left on Ryan Anderson's contract.
Calls for the Rockets to abandon James (and Paul George) pursuits are understandable. They arguably finished one hamstring injury away from dethroning the Warriors, and the mini mid-level will nab a nice enough player in this summer's landscape.
Then again, maybe not. Mbah a Moute is a non-Bird free agent coming off a minimum contract. He could eat up most or all of the mini MLE. Running it back is fine, but any interest in keeping Mbah a Moute basically consigns the Rockets to free agency's dregs or LeBron-in-Houston fantasies.
General manager Daryl Morey said it best, per ESPN.com's Stefano Fusaro:
"With our winning and the stories around the league about our locker room, our players and our coaches, we are going to have our pick of plenty of free agents out there. Whether they are the high-end ones, or they are the Luc Mbah a Moutes or Gerald Greens from this year, that can come in and be real key competitors. We do feel we are very well-positioned to win the free-agency battle to get us over the last hump."
Combine this with Morey's obsessive desire to unseat the Warriors, and James isn't just a defensible answer. He's the only answer.
Philadelphia 76ers: LeBron James (Player Option)
Full disclosure: Me, myself and Isla Fisher are against a LeBron James-Sixers union. This has nothing to do with the legacy implications. And it only partially factors in a deep-seated fondness for the annual monthslong dramedy that airs 24/7 in Cleveland.
This comes down to fit, and the awkward, if un-fun, transition that awaits James, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rest of Philly's esteemed kiddies. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote:
"At this stage of his career, Simmons is useless if he doesn't have the ball, which makes it tricky to figure out what he'd do with James running the offense. Embiid's stagnating post game would also pose a problem, and it's been years since James played with a dump-it-in-and-watch big man like the Sixers center.
With this much talent, it'd only be a matter of time before things sorted themselves out. But it's very much worth wondering whether the Sixers want to mess with this team's trajectory by adding such a transformative player—one who'd only come aboard on a short contract and whose presence would cause the evaporation of this summer's cap space plus the loss of several free-agent rotation players."
Sentiments like this matter. At least, they should. But even the most devout overthinkers must submit to life's golden rule: If you can get the GOAT-candidate version of LeBron, you do it and figure out the rest later.
For their part, the Sixers have the perfect pitch to James: Their youthful base, which they needn't gut to afford him, will be ready to carry him through his twilight.
That trounces every other vision he will be peddled in the coming weeks. The Rockets would be built to take down the Warriors with James. They'd also be old. The Lakers have a nice young infrastructure in place, but they're not nearly as polished. James, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle aren't touching the Warriors. Tossing in Paul George gets you the same result.
Philly's appeal is even more airtight following the departure of team president Bryan Colangelo. According to the Associated Press, he agreed to part ways with the organization after his wife, Barbara Bottini, was identified as the source behind burner Twitter accounts that were critical of Sixers players and former Colangelo colleagues.
Putting distance between the franchise and this soap opera is huge. James has endured enough theatre in Cleveland. And not to be overlooked, the Sixers may not have a Colangelo successor in place before July free agency, per NBA.com's David Aldridge. That, in turn, allows them to build a presentation around James' having a say in who gets hired or how much it would matter if they give former Cavaliers general manger David Griffin a look.
San Antonio Spurs: Tyreke Evans
The San Antonio Spurs' place in the contenders clique hinges on Kawhi Leonard: Keep him, and they belong here. Trade him, and they're gone.
Reconciling the relationship (and ensuring his right quad is healed) remains the most likely outcome. Head coach Gregg Popovich plans to sit down with Leonard before the June 21 draft, according to Woj (via Def Pen Hoops' Rob Lopez), and he's worked magic with disgruntled players and flight risks in the past. (See: LaMarcus Aldridge).
Any additions the Spurs pursue after making nice with Leonard figure to be minimal. The non-taxpayer's mid-level exception will be their primary tool unless they cut ties with Kyle Anderson (restricted), Rudy Gay (player option) and Danny Green (player option)—and maybe others.
Tacking on long-term money could be a turnoff, but the Spurs don't have much of a choice. Keeping Leonard essentially guarantees they'll offer him the designated veteran extension, which would monopolize their cap space.
Spending now, before his salary explodes next season, is the only play. And San Antonio could use another shot creator like Tyreke Evans.
Curry, Harden, James and Damian Lillard were the only players (minimum 1,500 minutes) to match his per-minute scoring and assist output while shooting at least 36 percent from deep. Evans dropped in 40.8 percent of his pull-up threes amid volume comparable to Irving's and nailed a solid 48.2 percent of his looks on drives.
San Antonio doesn't need a number-for-number encore. Evans would spend more time playing off Aldridge, Leonard and Dejounte Murray—a hybrid role for which he's suited after swishing 38.9 percent of his spot-up triples.
Looking at Avery Bradley and his on-ball defense is tempting here. Ditto for Will Barton, his extra offensive pop and his cleaner health bill. But both could cost more than MLE money. Evans' history of knee and ankle issues increases the likelihood his career year won't price him off the Spurs' wish list.
Toronto Raptors: James Ennis
Treating the Toronto Raptors as 2018-19's seventh and final contender lock will invariably be met with resistance.
They fired their head coach! You're writing this before they hire a new one! Woj said no one on their roster is untouchable! Does that sound like championship material to you?!? And have you seen their cap sheet?!? And they're supposed to add talent?!? They'll be lucky to keep Fred VanVleet from joining the Magic!
These points are fair. And the Raptors' four-game choke job against the Cavaliers isn't doing them any favors. But they won 59 games en route to securing the East's No. 1 seed. Even standing pat won't banish them from top-seven consideration.
Building upon this year's finish will be tricky, though. Toronto won't have more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception without shedding salary, and ownership must be open to using it. The good news? Spending it should go a long way during a summer in which nonstars will scramble for premium deals.
Although a market light on wings could drive up James Ennis' price tag, the mini MLE should at least grant the Raptors an invitation to the party. More than half the league will be worried about paying the tax, and being among the handful of teams open to paying is an edge.
Ennis can functionally line up against 2s, 3s and small-ball 4s, and his shot profile fits right into Toronto's revamped offensive identify. Almost 75 percent of his looks came at the rim or from behind the three-point line, and he doesn't hijack possessions with on-ball freelancing.
OG Anunoby is the only other Raptor who fits this description. The 6'6" CJ Miles is undersized at the defensive end. Ditto for the 6'4" Norman Powell, who spent most of 2017-18 riding the bench. Pascal Siakam will be this player, or someone close to it, if he ever hits his corner threes.
Toronto needs this kind of talent infusion to remain competitive with the league's superpowers—or to even keep pace with the East's budding giants in Boston and Philly. The Detroit Pistons will have a say in Ennis' future, as owners of his "Early Bird" rights, but they have tax concerns of their own. And no one's offering him the full MLE.
Dangling the entire taxpayer's mid-level exception, then, could position the Raptors to steal Ennis—who would, in no uncertain terms, be a huge get for them.