NBA Free Agency's 10 Biggest Questions

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2018

NBA Free Agency's 10 Biggest Questions

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Another round of NBA free agency is about to commence, and wouldn't you know it? We have a few pressing questions.

    Loads of them, actually.

    Where will the prime-time flight risks land? Which teams and players will the market be waiting on? How will a bleak salary-cap climate impact buyers and sellers? Which players are set to take a bath? Can anyone be overpaid?

    This is but a taste of our peaking curiosity. It goes deeper, gets more complicated and invariably sets the stage for complete and utter chaos.

    And let's face it: We wouldn't take our NBA summer any other way.

What's the Deal with San Antonio?

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    Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

    It turns out the Kawhi Leonard-sized domino in San Antonio may need to fall before free agency's chain-reaction train can leave the station.

    LeBron James "remains hesitant" to begin the Los Angeles Lakers' theorized superteam on his own, according to a report from ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst and Adrian Wojnarowski. Coupled with Paul George's seeming fondness for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers front office is faced with heightened "pressure" to complete a trade for Leonard and use him as a free-agency buffer.

    The Spurs are not feeling this same time crunch. They're content to let this situation drag out, per the report. In fact, as of the NBA draft, they hadn't conceded to losing Leonard.

    General manager R.C. Buford said the team's first preference remains "to do what we can to keep Kawhi as a part of our group," per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. San Antonio even closed Tuesday night as the betting favorite to retain Leonard, according to OddsShark.

    How the Spurs proceed will have a direct impact on the rest of the league. George and James are this summer's two most prominent flight risks. If one or both of them delay a decision until the Leonard saga reaches its resolution, the entire market will be consigned to a holding pattern.

    Refusing to do business with Los Angeles (and Philadelphia) offers some semblance of closure...outside San Antonio. Lest we forget, the Spurs have to map out their own future.

    Remaining in limbo with Leonard makes it more difficult to game-plan a free-agency approach. The Spurs won't have meaningful cap space without shedding salary, but they'll have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($8.6 million). Leonard's status will dictate which players they target and whether they'll re-invest in Kyle Anderson (restricted), Rudy Gay and even Tony Parker.

    Will the Spurs be acting as a team trying to win now? Will they operate as a franchise steering into a rebuild? Or will they hedge somewhere in between, allowing Leonard's future to hang in the balance without making any telltale additions or subtractions?

    We'll know soon enough. We think. Maybe. Hopefully.

What Will LeBron James Do?

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    One player and one staff member from the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers recently told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin they believe their team has the "best chance of any other" suitor to land LeBron James.

    The Lakers are reportedly scrambling to deal for Leonard because it would appease the four-time MVP. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid is recruiting James on the Philadelphia 76ers' behalf.

    Forcing his way onto the Houston Rockets makes all the sense in the world if beating the Golden State Warriors right away is James' primary interest. But he apparently isn't a fan of Clutch City, and his BFNND (best friend not named Dwyane) is telling people his BBB (banana boat bae) wants to be in Hollywood.

    Meanwhile, according to TMZ Sports, 13-year-old LeBron James Jr. is "likely" going to enroll at Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles. (On a related note, we should all hate ourselves for intruding upon the life of a teenager.) 

    Oh, and Kyrie Irving essentially referred to James as the NBA's—[2014 Kevin Durant voice]—real MVP. Should we fire up the Boston Celtics sign-and-trade scenarios now? Or is James just going to L.A.? Or maybe Houston? Or perhaps Cleveland?

    And will he be signing a long-term deal spanning four or, in the Cavs' case, five years? Or will he go the one-plus-one route? Will he even opt out of his contract?

    Does all of this end with Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum wearing a Cavs jersey? 

    Fifteen years into his career, James continues to have the NBA on a string. Some moves will take place independent of his decision. But the offseason won't officially begin for everyone else until he reveals his next destination—which he hopes to do, landscape-willing, sooner rather than later, according to Shelburne, Windhorst and Woj.

Where Will Paul George Sign?

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Paul George's free agency is not causing nearly the same ruckus as LeBron James' foray onto the open market, but he's still the third co-lead in this summer's weeks-long epic. And unlike his fellow headliners, he's a flight risk without any discernible loyalties.

    Lakers apologists will push back against mercenary designations, but they aren't the only fanbase capturing his attention. The Thunder are firmly in play, as the New York Times' Marc Stein first reported (h/t Daily Thunder's Weston Shepherd) and Shelburne, Windhorst and Woj later confirmed.

    "Here they have made a huge risk in trading for me, knowing I have one year on my deal," George said during the first part of ESPN's three-part docuseries on his free-agency decision (via the Oklahoman's Brett Dawson). "But I felt I didn’t finish as strong as I could have. Just knowing you left something on the table, even to this point now, it weighs on me."

    Feel free to declare George's free agency a two-team race between the Lakers and Thunder if you dare. But the NBA offseason is routinely home to the unexpected. This is to say: Don't count out the Sixers.

    They wrapped their second-round playoff march with plans to pursue George, James and Leonard, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. Nothing they've done since suggests they're done chasing any of them.

    For all of the talk about how the Lakers can add superstars in tandem, the Sixers are right there—except with a postseason core already in place. They have the flexibility both to sign George and lavish the Spurs with the most enticing package for Leonard. Or they could target James via a sign-and-trade. 

    Never underestimate the potential for a dark horse to arrive out of left field, either. Other teams projected to have cap space won't appeal to George, but he can expand his wish list if the Thunder are game for sign-and-trade scenarios. And they should be. They'll have luxury-tax concerns even without him, but barring a full-tilt reset, Russell Westbrook's timeline keeps them in talent-acquisition mode no matter what.  

How Many Teams Are Willing to Pay the Luxury Tax?

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    Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

    Here's a list of every team in danger of crossing the $123 million luxury-tax threshold if they don't shed salary and/or part ways with key free agents:

    • Boston Celtics
    • Cleveland Cavaliers
    • Denver Nuggets
    • Detroit Pistons
    • Houston Rockets
    • Golden State Warriors
    • Los Angeles Clippers
    • Miami Heat
    • Minnesota Timberwolves
    • New Orleans Pelicans
    • Oklahoma City Thunder
    • Portland Trail Blazers
    • Toronto Raptors
    • Washington Wizards

    Yes, you're counting correctly. Fourteen teams are in or around tax territory. And the list could be stretched to 17 squads. The Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks are all hovering around this area, but their evasive paths are smoother than most.

    Half of the Association isn't going pay the tax. Some (if not most) of these teams will use the five D's—dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge—to slip below the luxury-tax line.

    Houston, Golden State and Boston (assuming Marcus Smart sticks around) are the only ones who should enter the tax without pause. They have the star power to justify the investment. Cleveland and Oklahoma City will be grandfathered into this group if James and George, respectively, resist outside overtures. The same holds true for New Orleans if it re-signs DeMarcus Cousins.

    Everyone else? They'll actively seek to avoid or escape the tax to varying degrees of success and failure.

What's the Price for Leasing Out Cap Space? And Which Teams Will Do It?

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    If potential taxpayers are looking to offload salary, they'll need to find dumping grounds. Good luck with that.

    Only a handful of teams have the capacity to swallow bad money at all, and many of them won't be open to digesting those pills. Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has already declared his team open for business, but other cap-flush squads have yet to follow suit.

    Five of the other eight teams with serious room—or access to it—will be functioning as offseason buyers: the Lakers, Sixers, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns. The Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings are set up nicely to absorb crummy contracts, but their front offices could just as easily fancy themselves free-agency players.

    Flipping Timofey Mozgov for Dwight Howard ate into the Brooklyn Nets' flexibility. They could carve out more breathing room, but they're set up for squeaky-clean books in 2019. The New York Knicks are on similar ground. They're looking to shave money off their bottom line before next summer, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone.

    The list of potential salary sponges ends here. Assume the Bulls and Kings stay out of their own way, and they make for a three-team market with Atlanta. That number might climb to four or five if the Lakers, Mavericks and/or Suns come up empty in free agency.

    Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento can name their price and let interested parties stew. It could take more than just a future first-round pick for them to soak up expiring salaries (Jerryd Bayless, Kenneth Faried, Wesley Matthews, etc.).

    And if they command that much for contracts with an imminent expiration date, just think of how much it'll take to lop off the Luol Dengs (two years, $36.8 million) and Evan Turners (two years, $36.5 million) of the world.

How Valuable Is the Mid-Level Exception?

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Both the taxpayer ($5.3 million) and non-taxpayer ($8.6 million) mid-level exceptions should prove especially useful in this summer's skimpy market. But just how valuable remains to be seen.

    Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams was one of only seven players to clear 20 points and five assists per game last season while posting a true shooting percentage north of 57. His company: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker.

    Williams signed an extension with the Clippers in February worth less per year than the non-taxpayer MLE.

    Second-tier free agents who would typically net much more may be in for a rude awakening.

    Avery Bradley wanted something "in the $20 million range" before getting traded to the Clippers, per Woj. Will Barton turned down a four-year, $42 million extension from the Nuggets last summer, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. A source told Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko that Trevor Ariza is looking for "a contract in the range of $50-60 million over four or five years."

    Tyreke Evans inked a one-year deal at the bi-annual exception with Memphis last July and then turned in the best season of his career. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signed a lucrative placeholder contract with the Lakers in hopes of parlaying his performance into a comparably fat long-term pact. 

    Aside from certain incumbent squads, which teams are offering any of these quality names more than the non-taxpayer MLE? A thirsty small-market suitor like Indiana or Phoenix might, but that's far from guaranteed. Going on 33, Ariza will be lucky to secure the taxpayer MLE somewhere outside Houston.

    Will players settle? Will we see in uptick in one-year layover agreements? Could a bare-bones landscape coax veterans like Ariza into becoming discounted ring-chasers earlier than usual? Are the Warriors really that charmed? 

Will a Restricted Free Agent Other Than Nikola Jokic Land a Max Deal?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Restricted free agency invites over-the-top contracts by design. When incumbent teams have the right to match any offers, rival admirers inflate price tags to poach up-and-comers or simply mess with opposing cap sheets. 

    The Nets turned these ploys into an art form over the past two summers. They threw above-market deals at Allen Crabbe, Tyler Johnson and Otto Porter, each of them replete with expensive caveats like poison-pill structures (Johnson) and trade kickers (Crabbe, Porter). And while they whiffed on all three (Crabbe is now in Brooklyn), they left Portland, Miami and Washington to cope with equivocating levels of buyer's remorse.

    This practice appears to be dead for the time being. Cap space has dried up around the league, and the restricted free-agent market is nearly devoid of worthwhile dice rolls.

    Consider this summer's top seven options, via Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal:

    1. Nikola Jokic
    2. Clint Capela
    3. Aaron Gordon
    4. Julius Randle
    5. Marcus Smart
    6. Jabari Parker
    7. Kyle Anderson

    Jokic is getting a max deal from the Nuggets, according to Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. He deserves it. But who else?

    Capela and Gordon would have shot-in-the-dark cases during most other offseasons. Maybe they still get max-level love from aggressive buyers. The Mavericks and Pacers loom large in both instances. If they don't join Jokic, though, no one will.

    No team is paying to the hilt for Randle, Smart, Parker, Anderson or even Zach LaVine. The market won't demand it. More importantly, with the exception of Jokic, not one restricted free agent warrants a max-money gamble.

Is There Money for Big Men Outside Dallas?

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    George Bridges/Associated Press

    Approximately six jillion free-agent big men breathed a sigh of relief when the Mavericks traded up to draft Luka Doncic.

    Getting him at No. 3 meant they couldn't select Mo Bamba at No. 5. Which meant they would look to use their cap space on a center. Which meantand still means—that one big man will get paid. Which is great news for that one big man.

    As for the rest...well, it doesn't look great.

    Pore over every depth chart, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a team outside Dallas that needs a big. Even squads with their own free agents could be driven to plumb alternatives.

    New Orleans has a good thing going with Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic up front if it doesn't want to invest in post-Achilles-injury DeMarcus Cousins. Portland can pivot to Zach Collins rather than pay Jusuf Nurkic (restricted).

    Clint Capela will be in high demand, but Derrick Favors, Brook Lopez and Kyle O'Quinn could all find themselves closer to the bargain bin. The Clippers won't go overboard to keep DeAndre Jordan (player option). Unproven assets like Nerlens Noel, Lucas Nogueira (restricted) and Jahlil Okafor can forget about reaping the benefits of pricey fliers. 

    Once the Mavericks get their guy, game over. They're the lone team with a glaring need at the 5, plenty of cap space and the intention to spend. Bigs everywhere will run out of leverage when they make a decision—one that could be around the corner after they rescinded Doug McDermott's qualifying offer for the sake of additional flexibility, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.

Are Sign-and-Trades Going to Make a Comeback?

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Sign-and-trades have devolved into a rarity since LeBron James' first free-agency tour. The incentives for brokering one barely exist anymore.

    Teams are subjected to the hard cap when acquiring free agents in a sign-and-trade, which is problematic. These squads are usually over the cap in the first place—hence the sign-and-trade. Hard-capping them makes it more difficult to fit inbound superstar salaries or flesh out the rest of the roster while remaining under the luxury-tax apron.

    Players who agree to contracts as part of this process are also limited to signing four-year deals with 5 percent raises, compared to five-season pacts offering 8 percent bumps. That amounts to quite a bit of dough for max-money formalities.

    Tack on the teams that plan for specific free-agency classes years in advance and the call for sign-and-trades has virtually been nonexistent.

    Will a market barren of cap space change that? Perhaps. Teams over the cap but outside the clique of contenders must get creative when upgrading their rotation. 

    Versions of the mid-level exception can only get so much even in the scrimpiest landscapes. Sign-and-trade scenarios offer teams like the Bucks or Utah Jazz, who have room to maneuver under the luxury tax, a chance to take larger swings without navigating a labyrinth of salary-dumping logistics.

    Likewise, with the restricted free-agent pool begging for star power, the prospect of overpaying an Aaron Gordon or Jabari Parker could convince incumbents to try capitalizing on their departures at the last minute.

    Sign-and-trades also profile as useful tools for bigger names with tepid markets (Cousins) and could help George and James expand their search or improve the odds of them landing in the same spot.

How Many New Superteams Will Be Born?

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    How many superstars are the Lakers going to acquire? One? Two? Three? (Aside: What will they do if they miss on everyone?)

    Will the Sixers win over George or James? Trade for Leonard? Land two of the three?

    Might the Celtics fully commit themselves to the Kawhi sweepstakes? Do they have something else up their sleeve? Do they default to fresh-superteam status because Gordon Hayward logged only five minutes last season, and because Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum may both be on the fast track to "Boston shouldn't chase Kawhi" stardom? 

    Could the Cavaliers pull a Christmas miracle out of their thin air in July? Do Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton, future first-rounders in 2022 or beyond and partially guaranteed contracts for 2019-20 give them the juice to trade for another star who convinces James to stay?

    Is there a smack-us-in-the-face shocker set to strike? Could not-quite-contenders like the Blazers, Raptors, Thunder or Wizards get lucky on the trade block? Do the Spurs have the gall to keep Leonard and the assets necessary to deal for another star?

    Are the Nuggets a sneaky-good bet to stomach the luxury tax and use their collection of expiring contracts, prospects and future first-rounders to party-crash blockbuster developments? Do the Jazz have the pieces to trade for a third A-lister to play alongside Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell? 

    Strap in, folks. This summer's going to be weird.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball ReferenceSalary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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