1 NBA Team Every Top Free Agent Should Already Be Thinking About

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 13, 2018

1 NBA Team Every Top Free Agent Should Already Be Thinking About

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    Players ticketed for free agency adopt some version of the same refrain during the season.

    I'm not even thinking about that right now. I'm just focusing on this year, with this team. I'm happy here. I'll let my agent worry about the future when the time comes, and at that point, I'll sit down with my family and consider my options.

    Boilerplate stuff, really.

    But now that we've actually finished the 2017-18 season and crowned a champ, those free agents can ditch the front. Instead of pretending they're not thinking about their next contracts, they can put it all out in the open. It's probably a liberating feeling—no more phonily brushing off questions about the next landing spot.

    For this exercise, we won't just pick random teams out of the blue. Everyone should be thinking about how to hitch on with the Golden State Warriors or Boston Celtics, but that's nowhere near realistic. We have to be honest about these players' options.

    There will be incumbents aplenty because this summer, there are several top free agents with little chance of going anywhere. For those, especially the restricted ones, the only team worth thinking about is the one they played for last year.

    For others, there are opportunities for change.

LeBron James: Philadelphia 76ers

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    The idea of LeBron James joining the Philadelphia 76ers always felt like fan fiction. Take the best player in the world, extricate him from a stale situation and add him to one of the most entertaining and likable up-and-coming outfits in the league.

    It just sounded too good to be true.

    When the Bryan Colangelo burner scandal arose, it made it difficult to imagine any marquee free agent (let alone the very best one) slotting into the Sixers' considerable cap space. It seemed as though the fantasy's chances of becoming reality were officially dead.

    But now that Colangelo is gone, there's hope. If David Griffin, a man James didn't want to see leave Cleveland in the first place, winds up occupying Colangelo's vacated GM position...man, the buzz is really going to build.

    James should be concerned about fit issues with Philly. Ben Simmons needs the ball to be effective and can't space the floor. Joel Embiid is a possession-eater on the block, something James hasn't dealt with in years. If Philadelphia has to clear another 10-12 million to accommodate James' max salary, there'll be depth casualties as well.

    But James just spent a postseason trying to figure out how to play the league's best teams with Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, J.R. Smith and George Hill screwing things up at every turn. He'll welcome the challenge of working the kinks out with superstar-quality teammates. It'll seem easy by comparison.

    Maybe James joining the Sixers is still unlikely. Maybe targeting Paul George makes more sense for the Sixers anyway.

    But LeBron has to be considering Philadelphia as a legitimate option.

Kevin Durant: Golden State Warriors

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    I suppose it's possible Kevin Durant could seek out a new challenge after winning his second title with the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps he'd like to answer the criticisms he's faced since signing with the Dubs two years ago by striking back out on his own and proving he can create a winner as easily as he joined one.

    He's entitled to that, even if it would feel a little silly to recalibrate career aspirations because shutting up blogboys is a priority.

    The talking heads on TV and the shrill voices shouting from dark corners of NBA Twitter will continue throwing shade at KD, but the only reasonable choice for him is the status quo. Because if the only cost of sticking with Golden State is a little bit of social media heat, the benefits are immeasurably greater.

    Durant has a chance to be a key figure in a dynasty, and he could easily surpass Stephen Curry as the team's most important player in a year or two. Curry is six months older and almost definitely won't age as well as a 6'11" wing who can create shots from a standstill against any opponent. Durant can be prime Dirk Nowitzki into his mid-30s, while Curry's smaller stature and dependence on mobility could end his prime much sooner.

    It takes a real long-range view to appreciate that possibility, but there are also a million other present perks to staying with the Warriors. There's the assured competitiveness, the high-functioning culture, the proximity to Silicon Valley (where KD is carving empire-building inroads), the glamour of a brand new San Francisco arena opening in 2019 and the luxury of playing in a system that maximizes every player's talents.

    The grass doesn't get any greener than it is in Golden State, so the Warriors are the only team Durant should be thinking about.

Chris Paul: Houston Rockets

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    The question of how Chris Paul and James Harden, two ball-dominant stars used to running things by themselves would fit together, was answered almost immediately last year. There's no chemistry issue between CP3 and Harden, which removes that obstacle from negotiations between Paul and the Rockets this summer.

    So does this, from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (h/t CBS Sports):

    "When the Rockets made that deal for Chris Paul with the Clippers, knowing they would re-sign him in free agency, I think they made a conscious decision that they were gonna have to live with $46, $47 million-a-year salary when he's not nearly the player anymore in his late 30s, but, 'We're gonna make a run at it now; we wanna win a championship now. We'll deal with it [Paul's contract] later.'"

    This means we can also remove the "Houston balks at paying Paul long past his prime" hurdle. The Rockets knew what they were getting into and must have communicated long-term commitment to Paul a year ago.

    Houston gave Golden State a far better run than anyone else this past season, and if not for Paul's hamstring injury, may have advanced to the Finals. So not only do the Rockets provide Paul the best chance to win a title, but they also have designs on adding (and paying market rates for) another huge talent.

    Maybe that'll be James. Maybe that'll be Paul George. Whatever happens, you know Houston won't simply run it back with the same roster. That's not Daryl Morey's way.

    If talks between Paul and the organization go sideways, there's really not another team out there with matching star power, a path to a title and the ability to pay the max. Plus, it's difficult to imagine another team shelling out a huge four-year deal for Paul as he moves into his mid-30s. The teams with cash this summer simply aren't competitive enough to be a good fit.

Paul George: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Paul George doesn't need to be reminded about the Los Angeles Lakers.

    He's been thinking about them for years.

    So although the Rockets might get involved in his pursuit, and although the Oklahoma City Thunder will have their chance to be heard, it'd be a mistake to think anyone's got the inside track over Los Angeles.

    There, George could either slot in as the alpha on his hometown team, basking in the attention and always-on green light, or pair up with another max-level star for a serious leap into contention. L.A. is one of the teams on James' short list this summer, league sources told B/R's Howard Beck, and if the league's best player shows up, there's a good chance the Lakers will attract role-filling vets as well.

    The Sixers are an intriguing fit for George, as they're the more fully formed team—one with cap space, flexibility and need for a secondary playmaker who can defend multiple positions. Though James is the buzzier name, you could argue George—because of age, off-ball game and defensive chops—is the better option.

    Still, all this has the feel of a foregone conclusion. It has for years. George telegraphed his intentions to play for the Lakers before he left Indiana. It's difficult to imagine that desire has diminished since L.A. cleared loads of cap space, added promising young talent through the draft and installed new front-office leadership headlined by Magic Johnson.

    Don't overthink this. And don't expect George to, either.

Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets

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    Maybe it sounds harsh, but it doesn't really matter what Nikola Jokic wants to do this summer.

    The Denver Nuggets control whether he becomes a free agent (and which type) because they have the power to either pick up a team option for 2018-19 or decline it and make Jokic a restricted free agent, which gives them matching rights on any offer sheet he signs with another team.

    Expect the Nuggets to opt for the latter course. Picking up the option would save loads of cash this year but would cost Denver all of its leverage—while probably also ticking off the franchise cornerstone. Jokic, still just 23 years old, posted the fifth-highest cumulative box plus-minus anyone has ever amassed in his first three seasons. That's not the kind of production smart teams expose to the free market if they can help it.

    So Denver is bound to decline that option and either give Jokic his full four-year max or match the figure someone else hands him. To avoid alienating one of the most productive players in the league, Denver should move quickly and sign him before another offer sheet even appears—just as a show of good faith.

    Jokic can think about other destinations all he wants, but he's not going anywhere.

Clint Capela: Houston Rockets

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    In May, sources told Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko the Phoenix Suns were "enamored" with Clint Capela and planned to give him a max or near-max offer sheet. For a while at least, that gave the Rockets' rising star an alternate scenario to consider.

    Of course, even if the Suns had shoved a max offer across the table, Houston would have had the opportunity to match and retain its developing big man. That has always been the likeliest course; the Rockets are contenders right now, and giving up one of the very best switch-and-rim-protect bigs because he got too expensive would be a surprise.

    Now, though, it seems like Phoenix might not even bother putting in a call to Capela. That's because it has another center in its sights: potential No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton. At least that's what Ayton's confidence in his draft slot suggests.

    "I know I'm going No. 1,'' Ayton told reporters after finishing his workout, the only one he planned to complete before the draft, in Phoenix.

    Capela will never have it better than he does right now in Houston. James Harden and Chris Paul steadily spoon-feed him lobs, and his defensive chops are ideal in the Rockets' system. Normally, players have to choose between money and optimal environments. In Houston, Capela gets both.

DeMarcus Cousins: Dallas Mavericks

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    You get the feeling that if the New Orleans Pelicans knew DeMarcus Cousins would return next season at pre-Achilles-tear form, they'd hand him the max, cripple their cap sheet for the next half-decade and be done with it. That'd be the wrong decision, even in that unlikely hypothetical, but with so many questions about how Cousins will perform when he returns, it won't be shocking if the Pels are far more judicious in their thinking.

    Offering Cousins a deal that runs longer than two years (ideally one plus a team option) would be foolish. Not just because of his health, but because of how New Orleans played better after Boogie went down. Anthony Davis at center, surrounded by shooters and wings, is the way forward for New Orleans. Everyone who watched the team play down the stretch has to know that now.

    So if Cousins can't expect a huge new deal from the Pelicans, where might he want to look instead?

    "Somewhere I’d be appreciated and a contender. A team that’s ready to contend," Cousins told Marc J. Spears of the Undefeated.

    The Dallas Mavericks are one of few teams that can clear significant cap room, and though they're no contender, they've always gone after big names—even risky ones. They're also quite obviously unbothered by Achilles tears, having signed Wesley Matthews to a four-year deal just a few months after he suffered his injury in 2015.

    The connection between Cousins and the Mavs is mostly speculative at this point, but it's worth noting the odds favor Boogie signing in Dallas if he doesn't return to New Orleans.

    It's far too early to think about fit issues, but it's nonetheless exciting to imagine creative sets that involve Cousins running some 5-4 pick-and-pop with Dirk Nowitzki. That'd give opponents a challenging set to navigate, and with Rick Carlisle's clipboard wizardry, it'd only be the tip of a dynamic strategic iceberg.

DeAndre Jordan: Los Angeles Clippers

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    If Cousins is going to Dallas, there's just not anywhere sensible for DeAndre Jordan to land—not if he wants to recoup the $24.1 million he'd forgo by opting out of the final year of his deal.

    Even if Cousins weren't a likelier bet to sign with the Mavs, there'd still be the whole Cold Feet Saga of 2015 for the parties to move past. It's hard to imagine Dallas would be keen to link up with Jordan after the experience of verbally agreeing with him on a four-year, $80 million deal three years ago...and then watching him back out of the bargain.

    The only logical move for Jordan is opting in and sticking with the Clippers.

    It makes no sense for the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls or Brooklyn Nets to add an over-30 center at a fat price tag. The Suns are going to draft their center. The Lakers are aiming higher. The Philadelphia 76ers don't need Jordan.

    There's just no place for DJ to go if he wants to get more than the mid-level exception, which is roughly a third of the money he'd earn by opting in.

    Jordan's best (perhaps only) move is staying with the Clippers, building up his value, possibly getting salary-dumped at the deadline and then hitting the unrestricted market in what'll hopefully be a looser financial landscape in 2019.

Aaron Gordon: Indiana Pacers

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    Aaron Gordon is a restricted free agent, which means all of the caveats about team control and matching rights discussed to this point still apply. If the Orlando Magic want to keep Gordon, they will.

    In light of his progress last year, Orlando probably should want him around on a new deal. Gordon added major volume and efficiency to his three-point shooting, converting 33.6 percent of his 5.9 deep attempts per game, both career highs. He also displayed better off-the-bounce skill while posting career bests in assist and usage percentage.

    If Gordon's defensive focus and communication ever catch up to his physical tools, he'll be a worthy max player.

    The Indiana Pacers don't have enough space yet (they'd need $24.9 million available in the first year of a four-year, $107 million deal for Gordon), but they've got loads of nonguaranteed deals and some holds they could relinquish. Getting there would be tough, but Indy can do it if it believes Gordon is gettable.

    Victor Oladipo is the resident star in Indiana, and it's intriguing to imagine the ultra-athletic Gordon running wild on the wing, operating as a stretch-4 and throwing in some secondary playmaking. Banking on Gordon's continued development would be a risk, but that gamble paid off nicely for Indiana last time around. Oladipo went from being a solid rotation player to an All-NBA talent with the Pacers, and Gordon could follow a similar trajectory.

Julius Randle: Chicago Bulls

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    The Bulls have Zach LaVine's restricted free agency to consider, and it's sounded all along like they're comfortable maxing him out if that's what it takes to match another team's offer sheet. Chances are, nobody values LaVine highly enough to push Chicago into the max range in a matching scenario.

    LaVine is a low-efficiency scorer with a career effective field-goal percentage of 50.1, a figure lower than 2017-18's league average of 52.1 percent. He's also an atrocious defender, despite supreme athleticism. LaVine's DRPM of minus-2.19 ranked 491st out of 521 players in the league. The year before: minus-2.35, good for 441st out of 468.

    If the market is at all logical, Chicago should have money left to spend on Julius Randle—a better player and a better fit for the team's future.

    Randle, possibly a casualty of the Lakers' cap purge in pursuit of superstars, can attack the rim with bludgeoning force, handle the ball a bit and physically overwhelm opponents at all positions on both ends. His power and intensity fit perfectly alongside Lauri Markkanen's floor-stretching game at the 5. Few teams have the frontcourt shooting to offset Randle's lack of range, but the Bulls are one of them.

    It's possible Randle sticks around in Los Angeles, and another non-Bulls suitor could hit him with a significant offer. But the fit is most fun here.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

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