1 Realistic Target NBA Contenders Should Chase in Free Agency
There's no such thing as downtime in the NBA.
Whenever a team's season ends, its decision-makers immediately begin to field questions about their plan for next season. That's true of lottery-dwellers and title-winners alike.
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers had only hours to enjoy their latest championship before fielding questions about the 2018-19 roster that'll gun for a threepeat.
The contender label gets used more broadly than it should, so we're narrowing it to include only teams with serious chances to win a ring in 2019. It's a small but potentially expanding club, depending on which fringe contenders push the right buttons this offseason.
Fortunately, the "realistic" qualifier affords us more leeway than you might think. When you're dealing with contenders—especially during a summer where most teams are capped out—top-end talent is easier to come by. Even if some of these targets seem bold, the unusual conditions of this free-agency market make them plausible.
Many of the best teams are likely going to get better.
Based on last year's performance and the current roster, these teams aren't quite true contenders. But they're good enough to get a quick mention.
Toronto Raptors: Marco Belinelli
If LeBron James or another big name (Paul George, anyone?) winds up with the Philadelphia 76ers, all of the money that would have gone toward keeping last year's role-fillers in the fold will be gone. And who's to say the Sixers would even want to use a roster spot on Belinelli when the presence of a superstar would attract a number of ring-chasing vets willing to take on a bench role for the minimum?
That'd give the Toronto Raptors a shot to court Belinelli, who'd provide the wing depth and three-point shooting this team needs. A smart player who tends to play his best on competitive teams (and do the opposite on bad ones, as evidenced by his 38.6 percent shooting with the Sacramento Kings in 2015-16), Belinelli can make plays on the move and drill jumpers whether coming off screens or on the catch. His career 37.7 percent accuracy rate from deep would be welcome in Toronto.
If the Raps can convince him to sign for the taxpayer's mid-level exception, they'll have a perfect fit.
San Antonio Spurs: Tyreke Evans
San Antonio won 47 games in Kawhi Leonard's lost season. If the Spurs get him back healthy and happy, they'll be knocking on the door of 60 victories again...provided LaMarcus Aldridge sustains last year's step forward and Pau Gasol doesn't disintegrate into a pile of dust when he turns 38 in July.
Easily the least athletic member of the league's upper tier, San Antonio could use bounce at every position. Evans doesn't provide that, but he can give the Spurs a scoring playmaker alongside defense-first point guard Dejounte Murray. With the Memphis Grizzlies last year, Evans averaged 19.4 points and 5.2 assists per game while hitting 39.9 percent of his threes.
San Antonio should offer its full MLE and hope Evans appreciates the opportunity to showcase his skills on a 50-win team for the first time in his career.
Utah Jazz: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The Utah Jazz may be tempted to keep Dante Exum and Derrick Favors around, but if the asking price for their incumbent free agents gets too high, they should consider letting them walk and focusing their efforts on adding one critical piece.
If Donovan Mitchell is the team's lead guard of the future, he needs a dynamic multiposition defender who can excel off the ball next to him. Caldwell-Pope hit 40.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's adept at shadowing both point guards and shooting guards on D. Still only 25, he's a low-usage scorer ideally suited for a secondary role.
In an ideal world, Utah would keep Exum and Favors, leaving its mid-level for Caldwell-Pope. The less palatable alternative is letting them go, renouncing holds elsewhere and clearing just under $20 million to sign KCP and another free agent.
Houston Rockets: Danny Green
LeBron James will complicate nearly every situation we discuss here, and if he improbably winds up with the Houston Rockets via an opt-in-and-trade or a sign-and-trade, it'll gut their roster beyond belief.
Then again, attracting vets on the cheap will be far easier with the GOAT on board.
Let's assume James doesn't wind up in Houston, which means the Rockets instead seek out another three-and-D wing to throw into in an inevitable rematch with the Warriors next spring. Please do not suggest Houston already has enough of those guys; teams can never have enough.
Danny Green has a player option with the Spurs that'll pay him $10 million next season if he picks it up. While the current financial climate means it's unlikely Green could recoup next year's earnings on a new deal, perhaps he'd prioritize joining a serious contender and accept the taxpayer's MLE on a three-year contract worth just under $16 million. It might be time for the soon-to-be 31-year-old to lock in more long-term money.
Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are free agents, and Houston's first priority should be keeping them. But if it gets too expensive, or if the Rockets want more shooting so they don't go 0-of-27 from deep again in a critical stretch of a closeout game, Green and his 39.5 percent career long-range conversion rate would fit.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Trevor Ariza
We have to embrace the idea of fractured realities here, as the only way Cleveland earns a spot in this discussion is if James stays put. That seems unlikely after a tumultuous season that pushed him to the outer limits of stamina before an unceremonious Finals brooming, but let's entertain it for discussion's sake.
Cleveland is desperate for wings that can play on both ends, especially those that could credibly defend opponents' top scorers, easing James' burden in the playoffs. Trevor Ariza is one such option.
Even though he's heading into his 15th season, he'd easily become the Cavaliers' top two-way role-player.
Ariza isn't a knockdown gunner. His 36.8 percent accuracy rate from distance last year was only slightly better than the overall league average of 36.2 percent. But he's a willing shooter who opponents respect—one that has averaged double-figure scoring in eight of the last nine seasons while also comfortably switching across several positions on defense.
For the last decade or so, Ariza has been perfecting a game that fits perfectly alongside James. Happy to contribute most of his offense as a standstill shooter, Ariza always plays hard, doesn't need the ball and has experience in big moments. He won a ring with the Lakers back in 2009 and has logged 102 playoff games in his career.
If playing alongside James is a challenge, Ariza is up for it.
Cleveland could only offer its taxpayer's MLE if the rest of the roster stays intact. But moving some bad money with the No. 8 overall pick attached could free up enough room to make the full MLE of around $8.6 million an option.
Philadelphia 76ers: LeBron James
And now we consider the scenario in which James leaves Cleveland again, which seems more likely than the alternative.
In this hypothetical, James signing with the Sixers will cost the team all of its cap space and require renouncing rights on all current free agents. If James lands in Philadelphia, JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova likely won't stay.
But if the Sixers can secure James, they should have their pick of low-cost role-player replacements.
Philadelphia is the only contender that can add James at a max salary without gutting its roster. The fit issues are concerning since Ben Simmons would be marginalized as an off-ball threat, but two players with basketball IQs as high as his and James' will figure out how to make it work.
There's also a possibility James would welcome an occasional off-ball role. He just ran himself into the ground as the be-all, end-all in Cleveland, so he might enjoy the less taxing work of trading ball-handling duties with Simmons.
From the Sixers' perspective, they can treat this like a short-term experiment. James never signs long-term deals, and if this doesn't work, the Sixers won't have compromised their future. They have Embiid signed to a fat extension, Simmons isn't going anywhere, Markelle Fultz is on his rookie deal and Robert Covington is locked in through 2022. If the James union flops, Philadelphia can resume its more deliberate climb with minimal regret.
The name involved makes this feel like an unrealistic target. But when you realize Philly has the money and the path to contention James craves, it isn't a stretch at all.
Boston Celtics: Nerlens Noel
The Boston Celtics were reportedly interested in Nerlens Noel before the 2016-17 season, according to Kyle Neubeck of Philly Voice, so perhaps the lines of communication between the two are still open.
If the Celtics think they can salvage Noel's career after the 2014 No. 6 pick flamed out in Philadelphia and then with the Dallas Mavericks, it'd be worth putting in a call. Given Noel's tarnished reputation and generally disappointing career to this point, it may only take a portion of the MLE to get him to Boston.
Though adding a player with Noel's reputation for bad behavior and general irresponsibility might seem risky for a contender, the Celtics and head coach Brad Stevens offer one of the NBA's most stable environments. If anyone can get Noel in line and maximize his considerable talent, it's likely the Celtics.
On the floor, Noel—or at least the fully realized idea of Noel—could supercharge an already fearsome defense. Quick, instinctive and long, it isn't hard to imagine him developing into a reserve center who could stay in front of all but the quickest wings. He could lighten Al Horford's regular-season load by absorbing big minutes without sacrificing defensive versatility.
There are hurdles here, but Noel should be well within Boston's price range, even if it only has limited roster exceptions to utilize. If the Celtics think they can rehabilitate a once-promising talent (call it a culture heat check), Noel might be a massive steal.
Golden State Warriors: Wayne Ellington
The Warriors quietly swung and missed during free agency last summer, landing Nick Young and Omri Casspi. The former was out of shape all year, never knew where to be on offense and was a colossal defensive minus. The latter ended up on waivers when Golden State decided it needed G Leaguer Quinn Cook more for its playoff run.
This time, the Dubs have to connect—preferably on wing shooters who can prop up the second unit and draw some semblance of attention away from the team's primary options in playoff series.
Enter Wayne Ellington, a shotmaker of the highest order who loves running around screens, tying defenders in knots and drilling high-difficulty threes. Last year for the Miami Heat, Ellington hit 39.2 percent of his three-point attempts. He was even better on wide-open looks, making 43.8 percent.
One of Ellington's great skills is making contested treys (36.8 percent with a defender in "tight" coverage last year), which is hugely valuable. It would make him viable as a top option on second units that don't feature one of Golden State's All-Stars. But chances are, Ellington would share the floor with at least one of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson most nights, which means he'd see a spike in open three-point looks.
That would bode well for a Warriors team that, despite its reputation, was woefully short on shooting outside its three historically accurate snipers.
Golden State only has the taxpayer's MLE to spend, and Ellington would have to absorb a small paycut by accepting a contract with an average annual value of around $5.3 million (he made nearly $6.3 million in 2017-18). But the Warriors have a clear role for him, and it has to be enticing when a title favorite's pitch includes the admission that they need you.