Predicting Every NBA Team's Best 2019 Free-Agency Target

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2018

Predicting Every NBA Team's Best 2019 Free-Agency Target

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    Forecasting 2019 NBA free agency with any sort of concreteness this early is impossible and unfair. You might even call it impossibly unfair.

    Let's do it anyway. 

    Crystal balls return fuzzy visions and projections when forced to look nearly 12 months into the future. So much is going to change between now and when the Los Angeles Lakers get another tampering fine next July. Be ready to roll with the punches.

    Cap outlooks are going to shift, for both better and worse. Players will be traded. Underachieving teams will steer into resets. Surprise squads will ratchet up their timelines. A championship contender or two will try getting weird and wedging their way into scenarios we cannot yet fathom. Impending free agents will inflate and torpedo their price points.

    These predictions only take into account so much of that uncertainty. They're more a reflection of current circumstances. Every suggested target will fit within the existing roster construction and salary-cap profile, but approach them with an open mind. 

    Incumbent free agents are fair game. Emphasis will be placed on outside pursuits wherever possible, but prickly cap situations and superstar flight risks will beg certain teams to stay within their own house.

Atlanta Hawks: Kristaps Porzingis (Restricted)

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    Next summer will not change much for the Atlanta Hawks. They won't yet be in the business of winning basketball games. Cap space will again be allocated to salary absorption before free agency. They'll lean on as many as three first-rounders to fill their new-face quota.

    A more robust spender's market incentivizes that general inaction. The Hawks won't be left to take on Jeremy Lin's expiring deal just because. More teams should fall within striking distance of cap space and luxury-tax relief. There will be a higher demand for contract dumps sweetened with assets other than second-rounders.

    The Hawks should consider branching out beyond salary-cap leases. They don't need to shop for talent to the extent they overpay graying veterans, but they can, and should, take a chance on younger studs who fit their timeline.

    Kristaps Porzingis is the quintessential investment for a team in their situation. His restricted free agency will be a fascinating case study. The New York Knicks might opt against offering him an extension as he recovers from a torn left ACL and as they preserve flexibility for other offseason ventures. They could be resigned to matching any offer he receives, but his price point may also rest on his post-recovery performance and sample.

    Atlanta can chisel out Porzingis' max salary ($27.3 million) by strategically juggling its own qualifying offers. His next contract will be steeped in risk, but he's a good fit beside John Collins, and chances are the Hawks won't find a big worth their top pick in the 2019 draft.

    If the Knicks match, so be it. The Hawks will have left an imprint on their books. If they pass (unlikely), Atlanta has poached a cornerstone.

Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving (Player Option)

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    Kyrie Irving's foray into free agency shouldn't technically scare the Boston Celtics. They're the toast of the Eastern Conference with LeBron James living out the Train Wreck sequel on the Los Angeles Lakers. And if proximity to the NBA Finals doesn't resonate with him, a fifth year no other team can offer might.

    Convincing Irving to stay could still boil down to more than money and title contention. His purported interest in playing beside Jimmy Butler is "credible chatter," according to's Zach Lowe. And he's expected to give the Knicks a fair shake in free agency, per's Ian Begley.

    Leaving his comfy gig with the Celtics would be quite the on-my-terms play. It feels objectively foolish on the surface. But Irving has always existed on a different sort of proving ground.

    As The Athletic's Jason Lloyd,'s Dave McMenamin and's Joe Vardon made clear during an extensive roundtable on 92.3 The Fan, Irving never wanted LeBron James to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers. He might see Boston as another, more severe talent eclipse. He will never get the unchallenged alpha recognition playing beside Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford (player option in 2019) and Jayson Tatum.

    Keeping Irving will demand a delicate balancing act from the Celtics no matter how well they fare in 2018-19. They'll have Terry Rozier (restricted) as a contingency if he bolts. Marcus Smart could still be around, too. But they shouldn't want their situation to reach that point.

    Boston is set up for a decade or more of title contention. A 26-year-old Irving is crucial to that extended window—infinitely so with the Kyrie-for-Kawhi Leonard conspiracy scenarios now officially dead.

Brooklyn Nets: Jimmy Butler (Player Option)

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    Singling out targets for the Brooklyn Nets is fun because you can't go wrong. Throw out any big name, and the case writes itself.

    Jimmy Butler is a good place to begin building Brooklyn's pipe dream. Head coach Kenny Atkinson is smitten by what he calls Power 3s, and Butler is 100 percent gettable.

    Citing Karl-Anthony Towns specifically, a source told the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley that Butler has grown "frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates." Butler is also "trying to figure out a way" for he and Kyrie Irving to join forces, per Cowley.

    The Nets are a good end destination for both. They'll have dual-star cap space if they're content to pass on all of their own free agents, including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D'Angelo Russell.

    Pursuing Butler takes priority. Irving has a good thing going in Boston, and Brooklyn won't want for a different look at point guard if Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie pan out. 

    Punting on the two-star front could squander brownie points with Butler, but he doesn't seem like a guy who has to follow in another A-lister's footsteps. The Nets won't need to bust up the core to afford his max alone; they only have to hope Russell costs less than his $21.1 million cap hold. Promising Butler he'll play under 38 minutes a night is bound to hold sway with him, too.

Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker

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    Kemba Walker's next contract won't top the Charlotte Hornets' to-do list if they submit to the inevitable rebuild they've been avoiding for too long.

    So, naturally, Walker will be their primary focus next summer.

    Everything the Hornets have done thus far intimates their procrastination will continue. They flipped Dwight Howard's expiring contract for Timofey Mozgov to dredge up extra wiggle room under the tax. They gave a 36-year-old Tony Parker two guaranteed years. And then they acquired Bismack Biyombo as a value play.

    Charlotte's offseason doesn't have the vibe of a team planning for the bigger picture—hence why Walker is smart to assume he isn't going anywhere. 

    "As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it," Walker told The Athletic's Michael Scotto. "I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about that [New York]."

    Maybe Walker is an expert deflector. And things could change with the Hornets. Perhaps they have their come-to-Jesus moment, elect to start over and trade him prior to February's deadline.

    Until that epiphany takes place, Walker is their guy. They have no other choice. They're stuck. They have no clear path to cap space with or without him. It wouldn't make sense to let him enter the market without any intention of courting him.

Chicago Bulls: Terry Rozier (Restricted)

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    The Chicago Bulls will have plenty of cash to spend next summer insofar as they can be trusted to cut Jabari Parker (team option) loose after one year. 

    Which is to say: They might not have too much money to burn through after all.

    Terry Rozier is a nice hedge against the Bulls being Bulls. They'll have roads to more than $20 million in space even if they keep Parker. That largely yanks them from the superstar conversation but gives them enough scratch to party-crash the restricted free-agent pool.

    Targeting a wing like Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr. or Justise Winslow would do more for a defense that profiles as cataclysmically crappy. But signing Parker neuters that simplicity.

    Spending on a 2-3-4 hybrid when they could be paying around $40 million combined for him and Zach LaVine isn't in the cards. Parker is being mistakenly pigeonholed to the 3 as it is, and Chicago doesn't have flexibility to play small if he, Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are on the docket.

    Chasing Rozier prioritizes a hole that isn't getting filled anytime soon. The Bulls need an indefinite body at point guard. Neither Kris Dunn nor Cameron Payne is it. Rozier is a much better scorer than both and more than rivals Dunn's defensive malleability.

    And who knows, if the Celtics re-sign Irving, he could end up costing Chicago around $8 million per year less than Parker does.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Kelly Oubre Jr.

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    Good luck figuring out what the Cavaliers' roster and payroll look like one year from now. 

    Will they blow it up following LeBron James' departure? Does a teardown entail shedding salary or taking back bad money attached to picks and prospects?

    Are they committed to chasing a playoff berth in the East instead? Will Kevin Love get traded? Will he leave in free agency (player option) if he doesn't? Is Rodney Hood coming back? How much is he snagging on his new deal?

    Standing pat arms the Cavaliers with significant breathing room in 2019. Love will likely decline his player option (barring a major injury or a considerable drop in play), and they can save more than $32.8 million by waiving partial guarantees for George Hill, Kyle Korver and JR Smith.

    Cleveland shouldn't spend all of that money in one place. The post-LeBron project will take years to find a palatable form. Flexibility should be allocated to absorbing unwanted pacts and hitting some singles and doubles.

    Kicking the tires on Kelly Oubre Jr. would be a nice middle ground. The Cavaliers have done a less than bang-up job stockpiling wings, and he boasts the mobility to hang with point guards and the length to pester small-ball 4s. He won't unnecessarily accelerate their timeline as a 23-year-old, and the Washington Wizards' annual dalliance with the luxury tax suggests he could be had for a modestly aggressive offer sheet.

Dallas Mavericks: Klay Thompson

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    Picking up DeAndre Jordan on a one-year deal keeps the Dallas Mavericks on course for max cap space in 2019. Renouncing him along with J.J. Barea and Wesley Matthews fast tracks them toward a slush fund worth more than $50 million. 

    Divvying up that money will be tough. The Mavericks have an affinity for big men, but quality centers don't cost the moon nowadays unless they drop in threes and switch across almost every position at the less glamorous end. 

    Minutes at the 5 can be capably filled with bargain-bin additions. Jordan might even fit into the budget without compromising Dallas' maximum headway. He turns 31 next July and shouldn't command anything near top dollar. A multiyear deal worth $12 million to $14 million per season could prove fair for both sides.

    Surrounding Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. with lights-out snipers will register as the more pressing concern. Who better than Klay Thompson to fill that role?

    The Golden State Warriors won't let him get away if they have their say. But they're on the verge of encountering untenable luxury-tax penalties. They may have to choose between keeping Thompson, Kevin Durant (player option) or Draymond Green (free agent in 2020).

    Thompson could always alleviate concern by accepting a below-market extension. That scenario is on the table, according The Athletic's Marcus Thompson. But Klay's father, Mychal Thompson, doesn't see a deal happening before next summer, per NBC Sports' Drew Shiller. That opens the door for other teams, like the Mavericks, to pitch him on an expanded role and, perhaps, offer max money the Warriors won't.

Denver Nuggets: Danny Green

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    The Denver Nuggets will have some money to throw around in 2019 if they decline Paul Millsap's $30 million team option and renounce Trey Lyles' restricted free-agent hold. But the resulting flexibility won't put them in superstar territory or even be enough to adequately supplant the output lost in Millsap.

    No matter, though. Continuity will suit the Nuggets just fine. They don't have any big-time free agents of their own to worry about if they bring back Millsap, and they'll be far enough under the $132 million luxury tax to access the full mid-level exception ($9.3 million). 

    Fleshing out the wing rotation remains a must even after lucking into Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets don't know what he'll by next July. Torrey Craig and Gary Harris are the closest they come to battle-tested perimeter stoppers.

    Danny Green would fit in nicely off the bench. He shouldn't be slotted against the biggest wings, but he can comfortably rotate between the 1, 2 and 3 positions.

    This switchability could fade with time, but Green is not in danger of falling off a cliff. He turns 32 in June and has never averaged more than 28.5 minutes per game. He should have a couple more years of top-shelf defensive hustle left in the tank.

Detroit Pistons: Justin Holiday

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    As has become annual tradition, the Detroit Pistons will not have meaningful money to dole out during next year's round of free agency. 

    Between lugging Stanley Johnson's restricted free-agent hold, team options on Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and Glenn Robinson III and their 2019 draft pick, the Pistons could land inside $2 million of the luxury-tax line entering July 1. And that doesn't include a new contract for Reggie Bullock.

    Tapping into the mid-level exception will be a chore. It might even be too rich for Pistons ownership. They'll struggle to create enough separation between them and the tax without shedding a notable salary. 

    Detroit needs to think small. Stumbling into Justin Holiday would be considered a win under the expected circumstances. He turns 30 in April, so he shouldn't break the bank, and his 6'6" frame stands up versus most guards and some truer wings. 

    Holiday isn't an automatic-swisher from distance, but he's shooting 35.6 percent on threes over the past three seasons. The Pistons will see that as indispensable firepower if the roster doesn't undergo a facelift. They need all the shooters they can get their hands on to orbit Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin—especially if they intend to re-sign Johnson.

    They shot 34.3 percent from deep as a team whenever those three shared the floor, and incorporating Reggie Jackson will only put their floor balance under additional strain.

Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant (Player Option)

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    Fast forward to 2019. Kevin Durant is coming off his third straight championship with the Warriors. Maybe he has a third Finals MVP to his name. Durant declines his player option, but so what?

    Golden State owns his Bird rights. He has already accepted multiple discounts to help keep the core intact. LeBron James is no longer a viable threat to this dynasty. The East is the East. The Warriors are positioned to run roughshod over the league for another half-decade or so.

    Why would Durant leave? Better yet: Why should the Warriors concern themselves with him signing elsewhere? His parade of one-plus-ones has never implied a desire to bolt. His contracts have been business decisions—and generous ones at that.

    Something about Durant's relationship with the Warriors still feels impermanent, as if they're borrowing a superstar until he gets his championship fix and warms up to a new challenge.

    "I mean, I'm crazy about winning, don't get me wrong," Durant told Lowe. "I'm just not obsessed with winning championships. It's not the only reason I play. I play for my individual growth."

    Some people close to Durant have also, when prompted, predicted "that he will one day leave Golden State for a team that can be truly his," per Lowe. Would he scratch that itch in the middle of a three-peat? Or before getting a chance to play in the Warriors' new arena, Chase Center, when it opens for the 2019-20 season?

    Definitely not. Well, probably not. Maybe not. Actually, we don't know. Nobody knows. The Warriors must treat him as a flight risk until they do.

Houston Rockets: Wilson Chandler

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    Expect the Houston Rockets to once again be operating without cap space next summer. They should have an easier go of moving Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon as they enter the final year of their deals, but any long-term commitment whatsoever to Clint Capela transports the ledger beyond real maneuverability.

    Circle back should the relationship between Houston and its Swiss skyscraper go belly up. General manager Daryl Morey will have some interesting, if unsettling, scenarios to pore over if Capela plays 2018-19 on his qualifying offer.

    In the meantime, earmark the 2019-20 Rockets for the luxury tax and all the spending limitations that come with it. The mini mid-level exception will be their best tool, and while it won't go as far as it could have this year, a $5.7 million carrot should secure them face time with elder-statesman wings. 

    Wilson Chandler could fall neatly into that price range. He turns 32 in May and is seasons removed from his athletic peak. The Philadelphia 76ers won't be tripping over themselves to retain him if they have plans for their own cap space, and even with more money being bandied about, the competition for so-so shooters is seldom stiff.

    Reuniting him with head coach Mike D'Antoni is a good-feelz deed the Rockets should pounce on. Chandler won't have trouble draining threes at a league-average clip beside James Harden and Chris Paul, and after losing both Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston needs a fair-weather switcher to dance between perimeter assignments.

Indiana Pacers: Khris Middleton (Player Option)

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    Khris Middleton tilts toward the lackluster end of the spectrum when looking at the Indiana Pacers' cap outlook. They'll have more than $50 million at the ready if they carry Myles Turner's restricted free-agent hold and renounce everyone else.

    Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Klay Thompson can all be on the radar with that much money on the table. But the Pacers have to be more realistic than the typical pipe-dreamer.

    Indiana has never been a hotbed for free agents. Gutting the core in hopes that will change qualifies for franchise malpractice.

    Any combination of Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young could serve the team as big-picture staples. The Pacers shouldn't just abandon their depth for the chance to maybe, if they're lucky, make an unlikely splash or two.

    Their actions this summer suggest they'll embrace a more level-headed approach. They guaranteed contracts for Bogdanovic and Collison instead of waiving them and then spent their cap space on mid-end options like Evans and Doug McDermott.

    Middleton is an extension of this self-aware blueprint. He's due for a massive raise from the $13 million he'll take home next season, but he's not getting the $32.7 million max salary it would take to poach fellow switchy wings Butler, Leonard or Thompson. Indiana can sign him, float Turner's hold and still have the leftover cash to reinvest in its own free agents and other second-tier options—an alternative preferable to most Plan As.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)

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    Kawhi Leonard's most recent cameo in the rumor mill could deter the Los Angeles Clippers from placing him atop next year's shopping list.

    The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is still "insisting that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers," according to's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, but the San Antonio Spurs sent him to the Toronto Raptors, as Woj reported with his colleague Chris Haynes.

    Forgive the Clippers if they don't care. They shouldn't. Leonard's slow, painful, finally official divorce from the Spurs has been peppered with conflicting reports and paradoxical agendas. 

    It wasn't long ago the Clippers were being trumpeted as Leonard's preferred landing spot. As's Michael C. Wright said during an appearance on the Back to Back podcast (h/t Def Pen Hoops' Rob Lopez):

    "Well, contrary to, and I don’t know if it’s changed. I think that’s what happened. Things have changed. But the Lakers are not Kawhi’s preferred destination anymore. He wants to go to the Clippers. He doesn’t want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron. That’s what I was told. And it was by somebody that would know. And so right now, the Clippers are where he wants to go. But I’m also told, like you know, I talked to people within the Spurs organization and they’re like, ‘well yeah he wants to go to the Clippers, but their assets are s--t at this point.’ That’s what I was told."

    Even if Leonard has pivoted, again, since James joined the Lakers, the Clippers aren't in bad shape. Tim Duncan's protege turned traitor is clearly infatuated with playing in Los Angeles. Assuming he doesn't re-sign with the Raptors, his choices are limited to the Clippers and Lakers.

    A one-in-two shot at Leonard isn't bad. And the Clippers have the projected cap space to play up his potential distaste for joining forces with James. They'll skate past $60 million in room if they're not married to Avery Bradley (partial guarantee), Sam Dekker (restricted), Tobias Harris or Milos Teodosic (restricted). That, in turn, leaves them a feasible salary dump away from two max slots—one for Leonard, and one for a compadre of his choice.

Los Angeles Lakers: Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)

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    For all the criticism lobbed at the Lakers for their signings following LeBron James' arrival, their long-haul trajectory is pretty strong. They've added the best player in the game and maintained max-contract capacity for next summer without knifing into their youthful base.

    Look at the Lakers through James' immediate title window, and the absence of another marquee acquisition stings. Step back, and their restraint figures to pay huge dividends—in the form of a Kawhi Leonard-sized prize, if the rumors are true.

    "So far, the Lakers are playing the longer game in trade talks, confident in the belief that Leonard wants to play with them and plans to sign in free agency in July 2019," Shelburne and Wojnarowski wrote before he was traded to Toronto—where sources told Haynes that he has "no desire to play." 

    Imagine a Lakers squad built not only around James and Leonard but also with the assets to trade for a third star or, equally if not more likely, groom depth LeBron's teams have never known. That lays the groundwork for an eventual crack at the Warriors.

    Granted, this all depends on the stock placed in Leonard's seesawing desires. He could take a liking to the Raptors. The Lakers, similar to the Clippers, shouldn't care. Their livelihood is not at the mercy of Leonard.

    Stretching the final year of Luol Deng's contract gives them max room they can spend on anyone. Leonard merely needs to be option numero uno until he's officially off the market or unable to recapture previous form after last season's bout with a right quad injury.

Memphis Grizzlies: Terrence Ross

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    Failing to re-sign Tyreke Evans was supposed to render the Memphis Grizzlies offseason losers. Their status in the Western Conference engendered little faith with him on the roster. Whiffing on last season's best player should be crippling. 

    It still might be.

    Indeed, Memphis is having an effective summer by any measure. Jaren Jackson Jr. will garner Rookie of the Year consideration if his playing time isn't dwarfed by the Marc Gasol-JaMychal Green frontcourt. Kyle Anderson shores up the line of defense outside the paint. Along with the recently traded for Garrett Temple, he offsets the playmaking void left behind by Evans.

    But life comes at you fast in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies are not guaranteed a playoff spot. A healthy Gasol and Conley ever so lightly tips the scales in their favor. Prospectives rises from the Mavericks, Nuggets, Lakers and, possibly, Phoenix Suns tilt them right back.

    The important thing: Memphis is trying—not just next season, but beyond. The Anderson contract implies that much. And if the Grizzlies are going to milk the Conley-Gasol infrastructure into 2019-20, they'll need microwave shooters.

    Terrence Ross fits that bill. He drilled 37.9 percent of his threes through the previous four seasons before a right leg fracture derailed his 2017-18 crusade, and he swished 37.4 percent of his catch-and-fire treys while splitting time with the Raptors and Orlando Magic in 2016-17.

    Ross' price tag is unlikely to skyrocket from his current $10.5 million salary. He turns 28 in February, so he doesn't align with Orlando's rebuilding timeline. That'll cost him both reps this season and leverage on the open market, making him an idealistic target for a Grizzlies squad with nothing more than the full mid-level exception to dangle unless Gasol declines his $25.6 million player option.

Miami Heat: Iman Shumpert

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    In the mood for a good scare? Also a Miami Heat fan? Well then take a look at your team's 2018-19 cap sheet. It brings new meaning to the horror genre. 

    Assuming Goran Dragic (probably), Tyler Johnson (duh) and Hassan Whiteside (double duh) exercise their player options, the Heat will be up you-know-what's creek with only toothpicks held together by chewed Bubble Yum to use for paddles. 

    Shouldering cap holds for Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow (restricted) has them starting the summer nearly $20 million into the luxury tax. That number will drop if Ellington and Winslow get renounced or re-sign for under $26 million combined, but only by so much. Rodney McGruder is ticketed for restricted free agency as well. Paying him offsets what Miami might save in the Ellington and McGruder negotiations.

    Moral of the story: The Heat's most flexible offseason will not be without luxury-tax concerns. They'll need salary dumps of epic proportions to shop outside the clearance rack.

    Turning to Iman Shumpert is a nice low-risk gambit. His career arc is suffering from an in-progress nosedive, but he'll be on the right side of 30 and the Heat are famed for their successful reclamation projects. He isn't the model three-and-D wing by any stretch, but Miami doesn't have the luxury of being selective.

    Besides, as of now, Shumpert straddles the fence between Ellington and Winslow. He has more defensive pop than the former and more experience launching threes than the latter—the 2017-18 season notwithstanding. With the Heat at risk of losing or having to reinvest in three wings, Shumpert is someone worth putting on the radar. 

Milwaukee Bucks: DeMarre Carroll

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    Eric Bledsoe or Khris Middleton could be slotted here without issue. Paying them, along with Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), probably vaults the Milwaukee Bucks past the luxury tax if no cost-cutting moves are made on the margins. 

    But their returns are inferred by Jabari Parker's exit—or rather, Milwaukee's willingness to pony up for both is.

    Letting a No. 2 pick walk for nothing after you had the opportunity to trade him isn't good business, and there's nothing the Bucks do can change that. They botched the Parker situation. But it becomes a lot easier to spin their penny-pinching maneuvers now by bankrolling new deals for Bledsoe and Middleton later. 

    Scenarios exist in which the Bucks evade the tax and re-sign Bledsoe and Middleton. Still, it'll be tight. Shelling out a combined $40 million for both does the trick only if Brogdon is pushed out or locked up on a cheapo deal. The Bucks will more likely than not be tethered to low-income dice-rolls.

    DeMarre Carroll will turn into an ambitious bull's-eye if he builds upon last season's momentum. He dropped in 37.1 percent of his threes while soaking up time at all three wing spots. Brooklyn's offense took off whenever he logged time at the 4, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    Entering his age-33 season with a history of knee troubles, Carroll might have to settle for ring-chasing destinations or fringe contenders hocking multiyear pacts worth a fraction of the mid-level exception. Milwaukee will have the means and motive to be among those offering more than a one-season flier.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler (Player Option)

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    That Jimmy Butler declined the Minnesota Timberwolves' four-year, $110 million extension is not a harbinger of doom. He was never going to sign it.

    Waiting for free agency lets Butler broker a five-year max worth nearly $190 million if he re-ups with the Timberwolves. They too had to know he'd pass on the tinier payday for a shot at more lucrative long-haul security. If anything, they went through the motions just to remind Butler they want to keep him.

    "Every day we work at it," coach-president Tom Thibodeau said of Butler in June, per the Star Tribune's Jerry Zgoda. "We know how important he is and we feel he’s one of the best players in the league. So how you manage that on a daily basis is important. I think our communication with him is important."

    Butler's apparent unhappiness with the Timberwolves' kiddies is the larger, if sole, concern looking ahead to next summer. He's reportedly been rubbed the wrong way by both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and his interest in syncing up with Kyrie Irving is legitimate, per Lowe.

    The Timberwovles have other things to worry about, but none more so than Butler's future. Towns will inevitably sign a max extension, and the shortage of wings on the roster means next to nothing without the cap space to add them. Losing Butler will set Minnesota back by years. Re-signing him isn't just the top priority; it's everything.

New Orleans Pelicans: Khris Middleton

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    Next summer is going to be a franchise-altering one for the New Orleans Pelicans.

    Anthony Davis will be entering the final year of his contract (player option) and eligible to ink the designated player exception, which the Pelicans will throw at him without a moment's guesswork. But will he sign it?

    No player has turned down that early monster. The Spurs never offered it to Kawhi Leonard, according to Shelburne and Wojnarowski. Davis stands to be the first exception. He's secure enough in his status as a top-five player that he needn't fret about not finding four-year maxes on the market in 2020.

    New Orleans must improve itself to the point Davis sees value in recommitting long term—sort of like what Russell Westbrook did for the Oklahoma City Thunder after they landed Paul George. He knew they weren't a finished product; they still aren't. He also knew they wouldn't submit to complacency.

    The DeMarcus Cousins trade works for or against the Pelicans on this front. They traded for him, yes, but then they let him walk. It could turn out that was in every party's best interest, right down to replacing him with Julius Randle, another fellow Kentucky big. But the Pelicans have to put the flexibility they've assured themselves to good use.

    Going after bigger-fish wings like Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson would have a stronger effect on Davis. The Pelicans don't have that kind of money. They'll enjoy a clear path to slightly more than $20 million in space if Randle opts out and they renounce Nikola Mirotic. Solomon Hill and/or E'Twaun Moore need to be rerouted for them to join the max-contract fray.

    Adjusting for salary-cap gymnastics still gives New Orleans the breathing room to enter the Khris Middleton sweepstakes. He can sponge up time at all three wing slots and blends a dab of from-scratch shot creation with solid off-ball work. He alone wouldn't signal a championship to Davis, but his price tag sets up the Pelicans to keep Randle or Mirotic while retaining a rainy-day fund for 2020 free agency.

New York Knicks: Kevin Durant (Player Option)

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    Kevin Durant? The Knicks? Seriously? Apparently, yes. 

    Munch on what Lowe said during an episode of The Lowe Post podcast: 

    "Kevin Durant is going to be the single biggest story in the NBA now that this [LeBron James' free agency] is over. And if you don't think that all of these teams—like, if you think the Knicks noise is bogus, it's not. I'm not saying he's going there. I'm saying they are absolutely planning their offseason around him."

    Planning for Durant's free agency is different from having the inside track on signing him. And the Knicks, despite offhanded assumptions to the contrary, do not have the cleanest cap sheet.

    Stretching Joakim Noah alone doesn't give them nearly enough to finance Durant's max salary ($38.2 million). They'd also need to waive Lance Thomas ($1 million guarantee) and then renounce every free agent not named Kristaps Porzingis. 

    To be clear: You do all of that to get Kevin Durant. To be even more clear: Why would Durant want to join that gutted-out version of the Knicks?

    Finding a way to offload Noah's contract while keeping Thomas and Courtney Lee in tow would go a long way. So, too, would sussing out a buyer for Tim Hardaway Jr.'s deal.

    Whatever it takes, the Knicks need clear access to max room. They can table Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving pursuits until Durant makes his decision. If he's at all interested in running his own team again, they need to get themselves in the door—pitching him on both renewed alpha status and the opportunity to immortalize himself as the star who ended a four-decades-and-counting championship drought. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Thabo Sefolosha

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    Chris Nicoll/Associated Press

    Figuring out what the Thunder must do to have cap space next summer is a fool's errand. They won't have it and cannot get it.

    A better question to ask: How much flexibility won't they have?

    Waiving and stretching Carmelo Anthony's $27.9 million across the next three years drags their free-agency holds and salary obligations past the $150 million before factoring in taxes. They'll have the mini mid-level exception to their name, but their openness to using it rests entirely on how much money they save this season.

    Oklahoma City has essentially consigned itself to one summer of minimum-contract hunting unless the Sacramento Kings bite on Anthony trade scenarios. That harshes the team-building process in more ways than one, limiting both what the Thunder spend on outside talent and how much they'll reinvest in Alex Abrines (restricted), one of their most reliable shooters.

    Crossing their fingers for Thabo Sefolosha to tumble into the minimum-salary ranks represents the height of their realistic ambition. He will be 35 by that point and missed most of last year following right knee surgery, but he's no shot in dark.

    Sefolosha established himself as one of the Utah Jazz's secret weapons before adjourning to the shelf. He buried 38.1 percent of his triples on near-career volume and chiseled out a niche as a pocket-sized power forward.

    Utah notched a plus-5.1 net rating in his 1,122 possessions at the 4 spot. Oklahoma City should need zero convincing to pursue a reunion with Sefolosha—particularly if Jerami Grant's three-point success rate hasn't climbed closer to the league average.

Orlando Magic: Spencer Dinwiddie

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Believe it or not, the Magic have not definitively plugged their point guard hole with the trade for Jerian Grant. And they're not going to remedy this years-long quagmire (sorry, Elfrid Payton stans) in next June's draft.

    Point guards are not available in ample supply in the 2019 rookie class. The battle for best floor general looks like it'll unfurl between Vanderbilt's Darius Garland and Kansas' Quentin Grimes, who is more of a combo guard. Duke's Zion Williamson will draw some appeal as a setup forward, but Orlando already has its share of jump-shot projects on the depth chart.

    Free agency will be the quickest, most effective route to adding a capable playmaker—even if the Magic draft one with what should be a top-five pick. Renouncing Grant (restricted), Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic opens up more than $15 million in room. Waiving Jonathon Simmons ($1 million guarantee) while ditching all other free-agent holds slingshots them north of $25 million.

    Orlando should be more reserved with its point guard spending. Next year's crop is devoid of a star other than Kemba Walker, and despite his familiarity with head coach Steve Clifford, he's too old and expensive for suitors adhering to rebuilding timelines.

    High-priced offer sheets for restricted free agents like Terry Rozier and D'Angelo Russell are up the Magic's alley...until they realize they'd be overpaying for Terry Rozier and D'Angelo Russell.

    Dropping down a peg or two for Patrick Beverley, Spencer Dinwiddie and Delon Wright is the smarter play. And Dinwiddie does the best job of melding immediate impact with untapped upside. He has grown exponentially as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, shot 37.2 percent on spot-up threes, can competently defend certain wings and will only be entering his age-26 season in 2019-20.

    Brooklyn will want to keep him. Orlando isn't getting him for small potatoes. But the Nets will have some tough decisions on their hands with Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson due for raises. Dinwiddie could become collateral damage of their return or the pursuit of a Jimmy Butler- or Kyrie Irving-type.

Philadelphia 76ers: Jimmy Butler (Player Option)

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Kawhi Leonard is a fine pick for the Sixers, but his fondness for Los Angeles squelches his appeal to teams that aren't the Clippers or Lakers. Plus, if he was so inclined to broaden his horizons to include Philly, the Sixers would've traded for him. Probably.

    Jimmy Butler is more likely to consider Philly when flying the coop (for now). His frustrations with the Timberwolves' youth could spill over to Joel Embiid's Instagram posts, but the Sixers' anti-Thibs vibrations would tickle Butler pink if it translates to winning.

    Fit will be an issue out of the gate. Butler is a ball-dominant force in his own right. But he's never played alongside a table-setter like Ben Simmons. He should welcome not having to work as hard for his points. More than 40 percent of his attempts came as pull-up jumpers last season. He'll get to further plumb his 38.9 percent accuracy on catch-and-shoot threes while catching kick-outs from Simmons, Embiid and, hopefully, Markelle Fultz.

    The Sixers could balk at an all-out courtship if Butler required them to hold a stick of dynamite to their nucleus. He doesn't.

    Renouncing every free agent except T.J. McConnell clears the max-contract runway. Embiid, Fultz, Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Zhaire Smith and next year's pick would all be safe and sound.

Phoenix Suns: Malcolm Brogdon (Restricted)

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Hashing out Devin Booker's max extension crimps the Suns' flexibility next summer, but they won't be without cap space. Renouncing all of their own free agents should be good for more than $14 million in room, depending on where their own pick lands and whether the Bucks' first-rounder conveys.

    Additional spending power is just a flick of the wrist away. The Suns have nearly $10 million wrapped up in team options for Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, neither of whom has shown enough to warrant more time. The deadline for declining their fourth-year salaries is too early for Phoenix's taste, but both of them should be movable in straight dumps entering the offseason.

    Divorcing them offers the Suns a path to almost $25 million in space. They don't need that much. A bulk of their breathing room should be devoted to finding a point guard, and no one on the market is both worth that coin and young enough to fit their timeline. In other words, the Suns should not be giving chase to Kemba Walker.

    Settling on a cheaper alternative invites a cleaner fit. Malcolm Brodgon is the bee's knees of non-star contingencies—the Fred VanVleet of next year's class.

    Brogdon is a plug-and-play combo guard with the size and length to defend wings. He works perfectly in a system built around Booker, as he's used to firing off the catch and can take on the backcourt assignments his partner in crime cannot.

    Starrier options will be available—just not at point guard. Again: Walker should be a no-go. And signing Brogdon serves two masters: Phoenix's in-progress rebuild and its desire to make waves on the fringes before 2020.

Portland Trail Blazers: Garrett Temple

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    One of these offseasons, before this millennia is out, the Portland Trail Blazers will have cap space. 

    Next summer isn't it.

    On the bright side, they won't have to do much to slink under the luxury tax. Unless they want to keep Al-Farouq Aminu. And Seth Curry. In which case, yeah, they'll have some shuffling to do.

    Probing Garrett Temple's price point is a good hedge against the futures of both Curry and Aminu. He has the size, at 6'6", and strength to harass some of the wing assignments Aminu would draw. His handles and vision are passable enough to spell Damian Lillard for short stints as a half-court triggerman; he is averaging almost as many assists per 36 minutes (3.1) as Curry (3.4) for his career.

    Temple isn't someone the Blazers should stretch themselves to sign. He averaged under two free-throw attempts per 36 minutes through two seasons in Sacramento and has shot better than 45 percent on two-pointers for a season just three times in his career. The taxpayer's mid-level exception is too much for him.

    Still, as he leaks into his age-33 season after changing teams yet again, he could find himself slipping closer to the clearance rack, firmly in need of stock reset. The prove-it opportunity the Blazers are giving Curry now could suit him, and thus them, ahead of 2019-20.

Sacramento Kings: Justise Winslow (Restricted)

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Another questionable offseason is just about in the books for the Kings. But wherever you stand on the Zach LaVine offer sheet and Garrett Temple trade, know this: Sacramento has not jeopardized its 2019 loot.


    Swallowing unsavory contracts sweetened with picks-and-prospects additives cuts into next summer's plasticity. That would be fine—encouraged, even. Leveraging their current cap space into a contract for, say, Rodney Hood (restricted) does the same. That would be, to put it kindly, less fine.

    For now, the Kings are tracking toward more than $50 million in 2019 capital. They will blow past the $60 million threshold if they renounce Willie Cauley-Stein (restricted) and could eke out more if they jettison one or more of their five team options.

    Owner Vivek Ranadive is no doubt lulling himself to sleep at night counting all the ways in which Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard will devote themselves to Sacramento. He needs to curtail those expectations. 

    All-NBA types are not tying the back end of their salad days to the Kings. They could possibly lure in a Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton with above-market deals, but overpaying fringe stars is a great way to wed yourself to mediocrity.

    Over-the-top offers should be reserved for younger players, verging on prospects, who age well relative to the Kings' gradual window. Think along the lines of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Justise Winslow.

    A 23-year-old Winslow gets the nod over everyone else. He's shown more as a pick-and-roll initiator than everyone in that four-player gaggle except for Hollis-Jefferson, and his 38 percent three-point clip from last season could mean he's turned an offensive corner.

    Sacramento doesn't have anyone right now who can set up others, splash in threes and tackle the toughest perimeter scorers. Winslow is more than a cut above Justin Jackson (team option for 2019-20) and a quality consolation for a team that doesn't own its 2019 first-rounder.

San Antonio Spurs: Trevor Ariza

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Flipping Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green while taking back DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a late first-rounder doesn't give the Spurs a ton of space for 2019. 

    Exhausting all of their cap-clearing options, including Pau Gasol's $6.7 million partial guarantee, affords them a fairly clear path to $15 million in room. They're not sniffing meaningful spending power until 2020 at the earliest and won't tout more than the full mid-level exception if they run it back.

    Tabbing them as MLE spenders is the easiest part of the puzzle. Predicting free agents of interest is a separate matter. San Antonio's wish list will be directly impacted by its championship nearness, which gets butchered in the wake of Leonard's exit.

    Or maybe not. The Spurs won 47 games without him and have LaMarcus Aldridge under contract for another two years (partial guarantee for 2020-21). The odds of Gregg Popovich coaching out his twilight with a rebuilding squad are not particularly high. If a willingness to absorb DeRozan's contract is any indication, San Antonio will look to instantly regroup in the post-Leonard era.

    That brings us to Trevor Ariza, the NBA's consummate mercenary. He'll go wherever the money takes him, and the Spurs could position themselves as quasi-favorites by baiting him with a multiyear deal worth the full mid-level exception. 

    Viewed in tandem with DeRozan's arrival, LaMarcus Aldridge's 2017-18 efforts, Dejounte Murray's development and Lonnie Walker IV's tantalizing stock, San Antonio could find worse ways to kick off life beyond Leonard.

Toronto Raptors: Luc Mbah a Moute

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    Deja vu much?

    The Raptors need to embark upon a serious contract purge if they're to have more than the taxpayer's mid-level exception at their disposal. Early projections have them flirting with the $170 million benchmark in the event they carry holds for Danny Green and Delon Wright (restricted) and CJ Miles and Jonas Valanciunas pick up their player options.

    Remaining at or near the tax will coax the Raptors into relative inaction. They holstered the mini MLE this summer. Whether they're more likely to spend it next summer remains to be seen and probably depends upon whether Kawhi Leonard commits to them long-term.

    Luc Mbah a Moute probably dips outside their price range if they rope off that $5.7 million magnet. Then again, his market value is the source of constant flux and mystery.

    He couldn't net more than part of the Clippers' MLE after a standout defensive performance with the Rockets. His sticker price could be turned upside down as he plays out his age-32 season on a team that lacks discernible direction.

    Al-Farouq Aminu is another name to consider for the Raptors, but he's a few years younger and, therefore, bound to stay more expensive. When it comes to using loose change found between the couch cushions, Toronto's search for switchability on the wings tops out at Mbah a Moute. Expect the team's scope to be adjusted considerably if Leonard bolts.

Utah Jazz: Khris Middleton

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Klay Thompson earned serious consideration here. Ultimately, though, his A-OKness with Utah's nightlife doesn't give the Jazz a tangible edge over the Warriors.

    Don't feel bad. No team has that clout. Thompson was more ceremonial prediction for the Mavericks than genuine option. He seems like he'll stay with the Warriors until they won't have him, but he's a marquee free agent. To write him out of this exercise altogether feels wrong. 

    Anyway, Khris Middleton is a better fit for the Jazz. He doesn't force them to jump through as many hoops. They can afford him while parting ways with Derrick Favors (non-guaranteed) or Ricky Rubio. Thompson, Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard would either cost them both or one plus a series of other dumps.

    Middleton erases the Jazz's most glaring need with his square-one shot creation. Donovan Mitchell needs a running mate who's comfortable working off the dribble. Dante Exum could be that partner in due time, but he'll need to first flash dependability from floater range and beyond.

    Though Middleton falls in love with junky twos and wonky post-ups, he hits enough of them that his selection flies in small doses. He is shooting 43.7 percent on long twos since joining the Bucks and knocked down 53.4 percent of his back-to-the-basket looks last season. Head coach Quin Snyder would get him moving more off the ball, and his 39.0 percent clip on standstill threes would be put to more consistent use.

    Just picture the two-way damage inflicted by a lineup featuring Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder and Rudy Gobert. Holy switch-almost-everything and spacing, Batman. Everyone from the Warriors and Rockets and the wannabe contenders in-between would take notice.

Washington Wizards: Darren Collison

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Bet on the Wizards trying to shed the roughly $11.1 million it'll take for them to avoid the luxury tax by season's end. Next year's obligations basically demand it.

    Backpacking free-agent holds for Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky hurls the Wizards past the $140 million marker. Dwight Howard drags them closer to $150 million if he exercises his player option.

    Actual contracts will offer minimal respite. Morris will earn less than his $12.9 million hold, but Oubre ($9.6 million) and Satoransky ($5.9 million) should come in at or below market value. Washington needs to renounce Morris and one of the latter two to have a Slim-Jim's chance of sidestepping the tax. Even that might not be enough.

    Consider this a roundabout way of saying the Wizards won't be able to afford players who fetch more than the mini mid-level exception. And if they're not prepared to front for Satoransky or Austin Rivers, they better pray Darren Collison isn't getting more than that.

    The Pacers will have his early Bird rights and can pay him appreciably more. Other teams unconcerned with the tax could be willing to spend over $5.7 million on a backup point guard. Collison isn't a pristine on-ball creator, but his 46.8 percent clip from downtown led the league last season, and he's no stranger to playing off ball-dominant guards. He should receive John Wall's stamp of approval.

    That, again, doesn't bode well for the Wizards. They need Collison to have a tepid market. Unlikely? Perhaps. But Washington can feel a whole lot better about its chances if Indiana cuts ties with him to maximize its own cap space. 


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of or Basketball Reference. Salary 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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