NBA Teams Entering Franchise-Altering Free Agency
Free agency is an important time for every NBA team. Even the squads that don't have cap space will face certain stakes come July 1.
Some teams trip over themselves to add A-list talent. Others try to prevent irreplaceable players from leaving. Capped-out suitors must hunt for bargains. Rebuilding teams aim for leaps. Fallen contenders adapt to new realities.
What happens over the summer is a tone-setter. We're looking for the franchises with the most on the line. Run-of-the mill stakes don't cut it.
The Denver Nuggets are a good cutoff for this exercise. They're declining Nikola Jokic's team option and plan to offer him a five-year max deal, according to Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. His salary in 2018-19 (roughly $25.3 million) will drag them into the luxury tax ($123 million).
Scores of offseason scenarios are now on the table for them. Do they submit to the tax and keep their core together? Will they let Will Barton walk in free agency and cut additional costs? Are they so committed to their nucleus they'll sweeten salary dumps on all their expiring contracts, look to spend money on free agents and then cannonball deeper into the tax by reupping Jokic after the fact?
Denver's summer will be big, but not big enough. More precarious situations will get the apple of our affections—extreme cases in which entire eras and windows, both new and old, are hanging in the balance.
Every offseason has been a course-correcting experience for the second-era LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers. His short-term contracts kept them on default tilt, while the Golden State Warriors' budding dynasty and Kyrie Irving's departure contributed to annual wholesale reassessments.
This summer won't be any different. If anything, it will be the most crucial offseason the Cavaliers have faced since James returned in 2014. He has their entire future on a string as he contemplates his player option.
Losing him will be a death blow. Depending on the day, it's also the most likely outcome. The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers, among a select few other teams, are all expected to pique his interest, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein. Each destination arguably offers him a better crack at taking down the Warriors in the short or long hauls.
If he leaves in free agency or by way of a forced trade, then James will force Cleveland to start over. Though Cleveland.com's Terry Pluto has heard the Cavaliers will resist a full-scale teardown, they'll have no other choice. A soon-to-be 30-year-old Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, a mishmash of veterans and scattered youth does not equate to relevance.
"They have some ammo now, thanks to that Nets pick [Sexton], but they are poorly prepared for a potential transition of this magnitude," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "If LeBron leaves again, it will be a long while before we are talking about Cleveland basketball in May."
Tanking has finite appeal since lottery reform will take effect ahead of next year's draft. The Cavaliers will consider plumbing rock bottom anyway. Collecting losses still improves their chances at landing a top selection, and the draft is their best hope at getting another cornerstone for the post-LeBron cycle. Cleveland is not a free-agent hot spot without him, and the Cavaliers won't have cap space even if he bolts.
Extract another commitment from James, and the work is far from done. Convenience will have a role in his potential return. Staying in Cleveland is the teflon-legacy play. But roster reconfiguration will be a part of the process. James isn't sticking around to wage battle with the same supporting cast he barely ferried to an NBA Finals sweep.
Appreciable changes wouldn't come via free agency in this scenario. The Cavaliers have nothing more to peddle than the taxpayer's mid-level exception ($5.2 million). They'll look to make waves on the trade market with some combination of Love, Sexton, Cedi Osman and salary-filler contracts.
Whatever happens, though, will be triggered by James' free-agency decision. With or without him, they'll look drastically different to start 2018-19.
Los Angeles Lakers
To say this summer is huge for the Los Angeles Lakers undersells its impact.
They are odds-on favorites to sign James if he enters free agency, per OddsShark. They are the preferred landing spot for the disgruntled, disenchanted Kawhi Leonard, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. They are forever at the forefront of the Paul George discussion.
Ending the offseason without the addition of at least one marquee name would qualify as a major letdown, though. Sure, it wouldn't be the end of the world. The Lakers can float their flexibility into next summer's free agency, when Leonard (player option), Jimmy Butler (player option) and Klay Thompson could all be available. And they have the youthful base with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle (restricted) to play the long game and feel mostly good about it.
But they've also planned their future around free agency. From the Timofey Mozgov salary dump last June to the Jordan Clarkson trade this past February, they've positioned themselves to strike hard and invited coup-level expectations in the process.
Acquiring another headliner or three would alter the Lakers' trajectory in an obvious manner. Procedural approaches go out the window. They'll be thrust into the contender's circle even if they haven't done enough to deserve it. That pressure will invariably manifest itself on the trade market. The youth becomes bait for larger fish—teammates who better align with the windows of George and/or James.
Whiffing on their primary free-agency blueprint would propagate a different transformation, leaving the Lakers at another fork in the road. What happens if George and James end up elsewhere? Do they pursue Leonard anyway? Will they offer multiyear deals to contingency free agents? Will they wait for 2019? Do they interpret an empty-handed summer as a vote against duality and then distance themselves from offseason pipe dreams in favor of gradual development?
One way or another, the Lakers' big-picture plans are about to change. And their leaguewide standing will either be better or worse for it.
The Philadelphia 76ers are not downplaying the role this offseason will play in shaping their future. They're doing just the opposite: upselling its importance.
"The whole notion of star hunting, star chasing, star development is at the forefront of everything we do," head coach and interim general manager Brett Brown said after the draft, per the Bucks County Courier Times' Tom Moore. "I would just like to go there to admit it to all of us. The timeline is now."
That they flipped an NBA-ready prospect such as Mikal Bridges could suggest otherwise. His off-ball offense, defensive range and overall polish would've fit nicely into their setup. Sending him to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, a project prospect, and the Miami Heat's 2021 first-round pick connotes a certain restraint—an indirect admission their timeline is more open-ended.
On some level, maybe that's the point. Or perhaps the move is more about minimizing the mark a newbie will leave on next year's squad. Rookies are seldom key cogs in championship hopefuls. Many of the best beginners struggle to be more than replacement-level contributors.
Smith's long-term upside beats Bridges' collegiate experience if the Sixers aren't counting on another first-year anomaly. He's also a low-key nod to their investment in free agency. They save approximately $1 million in rookie-scale salary with the trade. They'll now wake up on July 1 with more than $26 million in cap space and a bunch of lucrative offseason permutations.
Greasing the wheels of a Jerryd Bayless salary dump would vault them past the $35 million benchmark if they included sweetener from their incumbent selection of prospects. That would arm them with enough money to bankroll a max offer for George or James. They could also stretch Bayless and shave salary elsewhere. Or they could use their brimming asset cupboard to broker a sign-and-trade.
Landing George or James, meanwhile, wouldn't remove the Sixers from the Leonard sweepstakes. They'll have the prospects, future picks and salary-matching tools to deliver competitive, if incomparable, offers even after tacking on a max contract.
Striking out on free agency's two biggest prizes could coax the Sixers into inaction. They have another summer before they need to worry about Ben Simmons' raise (extension-eligible in 2019). Play their cards right, and they'll have money to burn next year.
Philly could contend for the Eastern Conference crown while standing pat. Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Simmons should get better. Markelle Fultz cannot be any worse or less available. Bake in a few veteran place holders, and the Sixers are sitting pretty.
Except, Brown's comments ooze more urgency than that. The Boston Celtics will be terrifying with both Gordon Hayward and Irving in the fold. The Cavaliers aren't going anywhere if James stays put. The Sixers need to sign a star or handful of second-tier free agents to tip the scales in their direction. And this summer, in the face of a market starved for cap space, is the time to do it.
Expectations aren't supposed to explode for franchises after they've used the No. 1 pick. They should get better, but they remain subject to a grace period.
Growing pains are real. Navigating around learning curves take time.
The Suns aren't an exception. They were the NBA's youngest team last season and will be rolling out two lottery selections next season, Deandre Ayton and Bridges, along with a fringe first-round prospect in Elie Okobo. They'll likely prioritize development over results.
At the same time, they don't have the luxury of unrestrictive patience. Devin Booker's salary will (probably) swell past $25 million in 2019-20. Joining the free-agency fray won't get any easier with him taking home a max paycheck.
Expiring contracts for Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley afford the Suns some wiggle room beyond next season. But more teams will have cap space in 2019. They stand out now, as one of nine or 10 squads with access to north of $15 million in space.
Packaging Smith and the Heat's 2021 first-rounder for Bridges merely emphasizes this immediacy. Bridges, 21, is more than two years Smith's senior and panders to instant gratification. And Phoenix paid a premium for his services with the unprotected Heat pick. The 2021 draft could be the first in which the league abolishes the one-and-done rule, according to Lowe. The Sixers might be choosing from an absurdly deep class that includes both high school seniors and college freshman.
Signing one established veteran doesn't mean the Suns will be held to the contender's standard. They won't be. That kind of player isn't within their grasp. They don't have a clear source into which they should funnel their money. The point guard pool is laughably shallow and adding one or two second-tier wings wouldn't nudge the needle past a possible postseason bid.
Still, that free agency figures to be of any pressing importance to the Suns says everything. They're not ready to win, but they're also not married to the drudgery associated with rebuilding, either. They're caught somewhere in between, again, and this offseason will, in some form, see them re-devote themselves to a discernible direction.
San Antonio Spurs
Leonard is not a free agent, but the San Antonio Spurs' attachment to him—or lack thereof—will act as a franchise-defining bellwether.
"Kawhi and his family mean a lot to our organization and to our community," general manager R.C. Buford told reporters after the draft. "While none of us would wish we are where we are, we are going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him. We will explore all of our options, but the first one would be to keep Kawhi as part of our group."
First and foremost: Buford's "our group" drop is either low-key genius or diabolical—or both. It could be seen as an inclusive olive branch on the heels of head coach Gregg Popovich's identifying Leonard's camp as "his group." Or it might be viewed as another shot at Leonard's people that left Tony Parker rolling on the floor, cackling uncontrollably. (Related: Basketball politics are so petty and arbitrary and fun.)
Keeping Leonard would likely require the Spurs give him a five-year, $219.2 million designated veteran extension. He's worth the coin at full strength, but that deal would hamstring their books as it ages—particularly until LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol come off the ledger.
This offseason represents the Spurs' best hope of retaining Leonard and fleshing out the roster by appreciable margins. They're not flush with mountains of room, but they have certain measures they can take after Rudy Gay declined his player option and Danny Green exercised his own.
Renouncing all their other free agents while finding a taker for Patty Mills' deal (three years, $37.3 million) gets them past the $15 million plateau. They'll gain even more room if they suss out a landing spot for Gasol's pact (two years, $32.8 million; partial guarantee for $6.7 million in 2019-20).
Entertaining costly salary dumps isn't the Spurs' style. But making nice with Leonard incentivizes drastic measures. Playing around with the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($8.6 million) doesn't feel like enough if they make a nine-figure bet on him.
On the flip side, if Leonard and the Spurs are donezo, they need to weigh alternatives. Unloading him onto a team that doesn't need to send back equal money puts them in play for more expensive signings. Packages built around picks and prospects will beg them to hit reset, but they'll need to consider more immediate-leaning moves if they're not planning to reroute Aldridge.