Ranking Every NBA Team as 2019 Free-Agent Destinations
The NBA calendar isn't even close to lifting the moratorium and kicking off 2019's free-agency frenzy, which should feature stars such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and plenty more.
We still have to figure out who makes the playoffs and who will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. We have to get through the 2019 NBA draft and learn where Zion Williamson will suit up.
But it's never too early to think about free agency. All the smart teams are already positioning themselves for the July festivities, which means we're allowed to get a head start by breaking down the appeal of each franchise, the cap space they'll have at their disposal (practical cap space comes courtesy of Spotrac.com) and any other factors that might affect summer pursuits.
There's just one twist.
Ranking every team in the Association next to one another doesn't make sense when so many outfits have disparate goals. The Oklahoma City Thunder, already well above the cap, will look for veterans who can flesh out the roster. The Philadelphia 76ers have plenty of cap space, but they'll strive to keep together their new-look core. Other teams have actual spending power and can pursue players currently associated with different squads.
For that reason, we're embarking on three different sets of rankings.
We'll begin with the teams that are already capped out and have to get creative when they finalize their rotations. Then we'll move to the organizations that could have money but are pursuing their own free agents above all else. Finally, we'll look at the true threats on the open market, culminating in the three-headed battle for summer supremacy.
Already Capped Out: Nos. 10-6
10. Cleveland Cavaliers
Practical Cap Space: -$27.6 million
The first challenge for the Cleveland Cavaliers would be convincing a notable free agent to come aboard an in-progress rebuild with no foreseeable surge coming. Unless Collin Sexton follows De'Aaron Fox's footsteps while Kevin Love channels his Minnesota Timberwolves days, this roster isn't talented enough to make any noise in the Eastern Conference.
The next challenge would be finding a roster spot. Ten players will operate on guaranteed contracts in 2019-20, and JR Smith will make the number swell to 11 on June 30 unless they Cavaliers choose to only pay the guaranteed $3.87 million on his $15.68 million pact and waive him. Even then, we have to factor in the team's pair of first-round draft picks, as Cleveland will likely gain access to the Houston Rockets' lottery-protected selection and retain its top-10-protected pick owed to the Atlanta Hawks.
Precious few roster spots available? Another season spent in the lottery? Over $120 million in guaranteed salaries even without counting cap holds for draft picks? That's the perfect recipe for a last-place finish in this particular battle.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Practical Cap Space: -$23.6 million
The Portland Trail Blazers are in a remarkably similar cap situation to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers, except they have the luxury of remaining competitive in the Western Conference playoff race. Should they pursue one more veteran for depth purposes, they'll have that as a selling point.
Between Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Skal Labissiere and Gary Trent Jr., the Blazers already owe $120.9 million to 10 players with another first-rounder soon to hop aboard (barring a trade). So with an expensive roster already in tow, would they retain Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, Seth Curry or Jake Layman rather than pursue external options?
Either way, they won't have much flexibility.
8. Detroit Pistons
Practical Cap Space: minus-$8.7 million
Since Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson combine to make $79.4 million in 2019-20, the Detroit Pistons won't enjoy much in the way of cap space.
Unfortunately, it doesn't end there.
Even if the Pistons get rid of the non-guaranteed contracts claimed by Glenn Robinson III and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, they're still staring at a $105.9 million for nine players. That's a bit too much for a non-contending roster, and it's not like Detroit has many intriguing Bird rights options on its radar—among those hitting the market this summer, Ish Smith and Zaza Pachulia may well be the best choices for retention.
Detroit does have to fill some roster spots and gets to claim that it's at least close to emerging as a playoff lock in the East. Making the postseason in 2018-19 might go a long way. But this situation remains unfavorable.
7. Denver Nuggets
Practical Cap Space: -$11.1 million
If the Denver Nuggets balk at their pricey roster, they could choose to turn down Paul Millsap's $30 million team option. Impactful as he's been while operating alongside Nikola Jokic, he's moving deeper into his 30s and has suffered significant injuries during each of his two years in the Mile High City. If they're willing to keep together such a potent core, they could also pick up his option and count on internal growth and a roster built around Jokic to carry them even higher in the Western Conference pecking order.
Traveling down the latter route would leave them with 12 players under contract for a combined $121.6 million. In the interest of full disclosure, we're not even entertaining the idea of their waiving Jarred Vanderbilt to save money on his non-guaranteed deal.
The former would create one more opening. But they'd still be on the books for $91.6 million and down one vital cog without any guarantee of replacing that production in the free-agency pool. It only works if the organization is suddenly imbued with confidence in Michael Porter Jr.'s readiness, and that's a risky proposition when he has yet to make his debut this deep into the 2018-19 campaign.
That possibility allows them to jump a few teams in these rankings, but it's only that: a possibility. In all likelihood, Denver will trot out the same depth chart once again—though the team is set up well to make another high-upside veteran play like it did this past offseason with Isaiah Thomas.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Practical Cap Space: -$38.2 million
Let's say Nerlens Noel and Patrick Patterson turn down their player options for $2.0 million and $5.7 million, respectively. Then the Oklahoma City Thunder choose not to guarantee Abdel Nader's contract, which drops what they owe the seldom-used small forward from $1.6 million to a goose egg.
They'd still be on the books for $136.5 million with only eight players under team control. Granted, those eight (Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo) are enough for OKC to remain in the hunt for home-court advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs, but that's a ton of cash.
Financial flexibility isn't what allows the Thunder to rise above the four previous outfits, so much as the need to fill some roster spots. By definition, they'll have to sign a few players, especially because they don't have a second-round pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
Already Capped Out: Nos. 5-1
5. Miami Heat
Practical Cap Space: -$27.7 million
In this top tier of capped-out teams, squads either have somewhat realistic paths to a bit of spending power, or they provide situations that'll prove more tantalizing to players who are seeking minimum contracts or deals that fit into cap exceptions.
The Miami Heat barely fit into both clubs.
There's a slight chance the Heat could wind up with money to burn, but that would require Hassan Whiteside ($27.1 million) and Goran Dragic ($19.2 million) to both turn down lucrative player options. And while Miami doesn't profile as a true contender, even in the Association's weaker half, the allure of playing for head coach Erik Spoelstra could tempt some veterans into signing aboard an overcrowded roster in which playing time is often determined via meritocracy.
Of course, re-signing Rodney McGruder could render all that irrelevant, depending on the price tag he seeks during the hottest months of the year.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Practical Cap Space: -$9.0 million
The Memphis Grizzlies won't function as a marquee landing spot now that they've entered a clear rebuilding phase following the deadline deal that sent Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors. But they can create a bit of space, particularly if the men sent back to Beale Street for Gasol's services decide they'd rather seek out new pacts than spend full seasons as Grizzlies.
Jonas Valanciunas has a player option for $17.6 million, though it feels like waiving his chance at guaranteed money would be an ill-advised decision in the wake of the lackluster center market that's emerged in recent offseasons. CJ Miles could save the team $8.7 million if he opts out, but would a 32-year-old specialist turn down that contract? The final option involves waiving Avery Bradley, whose $13 million pact is only guaranteed for $2 million.
If all three veterans come off the books, the Grizzlies could have a significant number of Benjamins to shop with. But the more likely scenario involves departures for only one or two of them, which means the team will still rely on the minimum contracts and cap exceptions that define this portion of the rankings.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
Practical Cap Space: -$2.0 million
When not dealing with the left foot soreness that kept him off the court for eight games, Jeff Teague has averaged only 11.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists while slashing 41.6/34.9/80.8 during his second full season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. No longer quite as quick, Teague has struggled to reach some of his pet spots around the basket while also declining on the preventing end.
Considering he'll celebrate his 31st birthday in June—the unfortunate age at which so many 1-guards start to experience precipitous declines—does that sound like a player who'll turn down a $19 million option and test the open market?
If Teague does the unexpected and opts out, the 'Wolves could be misplaced in this portion of the rankings. But if he picks up the option, they'll be capped out and relying on their appeal as a playoff contender in need of warm bodies. They'd only have seven players under contract, but the money still escalates quickly when Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng earn a combined $70.9 million.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Practical Cap Space: -$1.9 million
Strange as it may seem to see a team cut ties with a future Hall of Famer, Pau Gasol isn't a huge part of the San Antonio Spurs' rotation and has a 2019-20 contract that's only guaranteed for $6.7 million of its $16 million total worth. (This isn't the point of the article. But yes, Gasol is a guaranteed Hall of Famer. Basketball Reference gives him a 93.3 percent chance at induction based solely on his NBA career, and that doesn't include his legendary exploits for the Spanish national team.)
Don't be fooled by name recognition. He may as well already be on his way out. Even though he survived the 2018 deadline, rumors emerged, per Mitch Lawrence of Sporting News, that the team was trying to move him and, per ESPN Deportes (h/t Spurs Zone's Jeff Garcia), that he'd even asked for a trade.
That move alone would open up a bit of cap space for a roster with 10 players still under contract, but it's still not like the Spurs will be players for any notable talents who aren't willing to take significant pay cuts.
1. Houston Rockets
Practical Cap Space: -$12.9 million
Chris Paul will make $38.5 million next season. James Harden is on the books for $37.8 million. Clint Capela and Eric Gordon combine for $30.5 million. PJ Tucker and Nene make another $12.2 million, and that number could swell to $13.6 million if we make it a role-player triumvirate with Isaiah Hartenstein and his non-guaranteed number.
That's already $119 or $120.4 million, depending on the Hartenstein decision—quite a bit of moolah when we're only talking about six or seven players.
The Rockets have no way to keep their core intact and get under the cap, but they still boast an appealing system and are expected to continue to compete for championships under the enduring supervision of head coach Mike D'Antoni. It's that innate advantage and the plethora of open roster spots that boost Houston into the top placement for this capped-out category.
Chasing Their Own Players: Nos. 8-5
8. Washington Wizards
Practical Cap Space: -$0.2 million
As Kevin Broom wrote for Bullets Forever in the wake of the trade that sent Otto Porter Jr. to the Chicago Bulls for Jabari Parker ($20 million team option in 2019-20) and Bobby Portis (expiring contract), the Washington Wizards have a path to some cap space:
"While the trades give the Wizards some space to re-sign upcoming free agents, they’re now loaded with restricted free agents likely to see significant salary increases next season. They could, in theory, renounce all of them and create $18-19 million in cap space (depending on how much the cap grows), but that would mean the departures of Tomas Satoransky, Thomas Bryant, Portis, and Sam Dekker, plus unrestricted free agents Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green. They could get another $5.6 million if Dwight Howard opts out of the second year of his contract.
"That would leave them with just four players under contract: [Bradley] Beal, [John] Wall, Ian Mahinmi and Troy Brown."
That would be quite the risky strategy for a franchise that's dealing with dysfunction and operating in the frothy wake of shoddy team-building strategies. Then again, bringing back the same core on new deals might also be a questionable direction, even if Tomas Satoransky and Thomas Bryant have flashed plenty of promise.
Apparently, dedicating $37.8 million to John Wall, who won't play in 2019-20 as he recovers from an Achilles rupture, makes rising in these rankings a tough proposition.
7. Orlando Magic
Practical Cap Space: $22.1 million
Behind Door 1: Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross.
The former has, rather easily, been the Orlando Magic's best player in 2018-19, and the latter is a valuable specialist who's adjoined reliable three-point marksmanship to his athletic cutting. Retaining either one would be an expensive task, cutting into the limited cap space at the front office's disposal. Re-signing both would almost guarantee an over-the-cap situation.
Behind Door 2: massive question marks.
If the Magic let Vucevic and Ross walk, what can they reasonably expect? Free agents won't exactly line up to join a lackluster Orlando squad that hasn't made the playoffs since Dwight Howard suited up in 54 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign—especially when so many minutes must be allocated to young, developing commodities.
Door 1 limits the team's ceiling. Door 2 is fraught with uncertainty.
Have fun, Orlando.
6. Charlotte Hornets
Practical Cap Space: $6.2 million
It's Kemba Walker or bust.
Yes, the Charlotte Hornets technically have cap space, allocating "only" $102.8 million to their returning players for 2019-20. That number could also become far smaller if any of the following happens:
- Bismack Biyombo turns down a $17 million player option
- Marvin Williams turns down a $15 million player option
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist turns down a $13 million player option
- Willy Hernangomez is cut to drop his non-guaranteed contract from $1.7 million to $0
- Dwayne Bacon is cut to drop his non-guaranteed contract from $1.6 million to $0
The first two won't happen, based on Biyombo's minuscule 15.2 minutes per game and Williams' age (33 this summer). But even if the last three come to pass, Walker's new contract would more than cancel out the gains, pushing Charlotte back over the cap without any other big additions.
Again, it's Walker or bust.
5. Boston Celtics
Practical Cap Space: -$14.3 million
For our purposes, let's pretend the Boston Celtics won't make a massive play for Anthony Davis this summer, as trading myriad pieces for the All-NBA big man would have far-reaching ramifications on their free-agency plans.
If that's the case, Boston could create cap space only in ways that don't benefit the franchise. Semi Ojeleye's non-guaranteed deal won't get cleared from the books, which leaves three player options: Aron Baynes ($5.5 million), Kyrie Irving ($21.3 million) and Al Horford ($30.1 million). All three are vital to the plans—though admittedly to vastly varying degrees.
If Irving and Horford opt out, Boston will need to do what's necessary to bring them back. And even if Irving declines his final Beantown season to join the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers or some other organization you'll find later in this article, the C's still won't have much money to play with after they re-up other contributors.
Expect them to keep the same core. Whether it features Irving remains to be seen.
Chasing Their Own Players: Nos. 4-1
4. Toronto Raptors
Practical Cap Space: -$23.1 million
Given the rising ages of the core pieces for the Toronto Raptors, they should be firmly in win-now mode. The Raps made that clear by trading for Marc Gasol at this season's deadline, but they'll need to double down by hoping the newly acquired big man picks up his $25.6 million player option while Kawhi Leonard re-signs instead of jetting to the West Coast.
If both return, the Raptors will be well over the cap with only eight players under contract, forcing them to rely upon their appeal as legitimate title contenders to make the magic happen. If either opts out and departs while the other opts in or re-signs, they're pretty much in the same situation.
Inevitably, the Raptors will pursue low-end free agents who are willing to take discounts for shots at emerging from the Eastern Conference. At least they should have the appeal to successfully embark on such pursuits.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Practical Cap Space: $19 million
By reshuffling some key pieces, the Milwaukee Bucks could get involved on the free-agency market and attempt to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with fresh faces. Cutting ties with George Hill would only aid that strategy, as he has an $18 million contract in 2019-20 that's only guaranteed for $1 million.
But the list of notable free agents is rather lengthy.
Khris Middleton (assuming he declines a $13 million option) will be the team's most notable player to hit the open market, followed closely by veteran point guard Eric Bledsoe, who's somewhat quietly having an All-Star-caliber season as the No. 3 option in Brewtown. Brook Lopez will be coming off a tremendous go-around as a floor-spacing, shot-swatting 5 and looking to cash in as an unrestricted free agent. The newly acquired Nikola Mirotic will be without a deal. Malcolm Brogdon will be a restricted free agent.
That's a lot of talent that could be removed from the roster, though the Bucks could also use Bird rights to go well over the cap and keep this promising nucleus in place.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Practical Cap Space: $41.2 million
If the Philadelphia 76ers have everyone turn down player options and eliminate Jonathon Simmons' non-guaranteed deal ($1 million of $5.7 million is guaranteed), they can trim their expenditures to a meager $41.1 million for 2019-20. Problem is, they'd have only Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith and Jonah Bolden—not even enough to field a full starting five.
This team will get expensive quickly, and it'll likely be pursuing incumbent options rather than looking to the market for additions. Those come after the core is in place and veterans want to hop aboard a championship contender on the cheap.
Imagine if Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris both come back on max contracts. Then what if JJ Redick gets a new deal with significant monetary value. Those three might push the team back toward the salary cap, and the Sixers would only be seven players deep.
Don't be fooled by the listed practical cap space in this scenario. Philadelphia is extraordinarily intriguing, boasting the money and roster spots necessary to place prominently in these rankings. It just has a specific plan that won't allow for much deviation.
1. Golden State Warriors
Practical Cap Space: -$11.8 million
Assuming the Golden State Warriors don't do the unthinkable and decline to guarantee the contracts of Alfonzo McKinnie (full of upside) and Shaun Livingston (so beloved and important to this dynasty), they'll enter the 2019 offseason with just seven players under contract. The two aforementioned contributors, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Jacob Evans and Damian Jones will make a combined $89.5 million.
You might notice a few missing names.
Re-signing Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will be the top priorities, though both can reasonably be considered flight risks if they want max money and a chance to serve as the unquestioned leader of a team. It's hard to imagine Thompson would jet for a different location after so much time and success as a member of the Splash Brothers, but Durant might be frustrated by free-agency questions because he's already spent time thinking about his upcoming decision.
DeMarcus Cousins, meanwhile, will have to decide what he values most. He could very well continue playing on the cheap now that he's clicking with the established Golden State pieces, or he could parlay his success into a contract with a new organization.
In any scenario, the Warriors only have the money to pursue their own players. And regardless of whether they're successful, they'll also have a chance to attract any veteran they desire with ring-chasing promises. If you doubt that, just remember what happened with Cousins last offseason.
The Actual Free-Agency Players: Nos. 12-10
12. New Orleans Pelicans
Practical Cap Space: $19.9 million
Assuming Anthony Davis still wants out this summer—and honestly, not much should happen before then that would change his mind, especially as we prepare for a second-half saga with regard to his time on the court—why would any notable free agent sign up to play with the New Orleans Pelicans? That's less a knock on the franchise and more of a sad acknowledgment of the new reality.
The Pelicans could have money to burn—that would grow doubly true if Julius Randle turns down a $9.1 million player option and the team declines Jahlil Okafor's $1.7 million team option (growing more unlikely as he continues to produce). But they have to lure players onto the roster, and that's unlikely while the entire situation is still in flux.
It would go a long way if Davis gets traded before free agency begins, since free agents would at least have an idea of who will join them for the bayou-based organization. But even then, the Pels' primary calling card will be suiting up for a different organization; Jrue Holiday isn't nearly as strong a selling point as Davis.
11. Atlanta Hawks
Practical Cap Space: $53.5 million
If the Atlanta Hawks couldn't find a new home for Kent Bazemore at the deadline, it feels like a safe bet that he won't count on an offer of a new contract from some team that can top the $19.3 million he'll earn by simply opting into the final year of his deal. And once he's on the books, the Hawks will be up to $55.5 million in guaranteed expenditures.
But what good is cap space when it can't be used to land any big fish?
Historically, Atlanta has struggled to parlay its cultural relevance into free-agency additions, and this isn't a team that will break the trend. Previous iterations have failed in their quests despite functioning as playoff mainstays, whereas the current outfit is struggling to move out of the Eastern Conference basement. As promising as the core built around Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins may be, it's just not enough.
10. Phoenix Suns
Practical Cap Space: $28.1 million
Expect the Phoenix Suns to capitalize on the bottom of the free-agency barrel and the 2019 NBA draft, during which they should have their own two picks without the Milwaukee Bucks' first-rounder conveying (protected 1-3 and 17-30 in 2019). Adding two rookies would push the count of rostered players into double digits, assuming Tyler Johnson doesn't turn down a $19.2 million player option.
Breaking news: He probably won't.
But even if this roster has yet to generate the free-agency appeal that would allow it to maximize its cap space, that shouldn't matter much in the desert. Considering the 10 rostered players will include Johnson (preparing for his age-27 season), T.J. Warren (26), Deandre Ayton (21), Josh Jackson (23), Mikal Bridges (23), Devin Booker (23), Elie Okobo (22) and De'Anthony Melton (21), the Suns are perfectly situated to continue this ongoing rebuild by handing boatloads of minutes to the myriad youngsters waiting to break out.
Even if a veteran did want to join (see: Ariza, Trevor), that might not be the greatest idea at this stage.
The Actual Free-Agency Players: No. 9-7
9. Chicago Bulls
Practical Cap Space: $23.8 million
Though the Chicago Bulls don't have quite as much spending power as the teams directly trailing them in these rankings, they're in a superior basketball market with a team that should be classified as "rising." Despite the utter futility that plagued the Windy City representatives in 2017-18, the building blocks are so obviously there with Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Zach LaVine.
Believing in this nucleus' future doesn't exactly require a quantum leap of faith.
Of course, the Bulls will still be fighting a Sisyphean battle to make splashes this soon in their rebuilding process. Even when they add another prominent centerpiece via the 2019 NBA draft, they'll be a bit too young to truly sell veterans on the promise of the immediate future. They'll instead have to use their cap space to make lesser plays that exhibit patience and growth from the front office. (Yes, longtime Bulls fans are allowed to doubt the likelihood of that scenario for obvious reasons.)
Small steps are steps all the same, and that's what's required of teams in this tier of the rankings before we take a drastic leap forward to the top eight.
8. Indiana Pacers
Practical Cap Space: $48.8 million
The Indiana Pacers can get spend-happy this summer and around an intriguing core of Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, TJ Leaf, Aaron Holiday and Alize Johnson (non-guaranteed). With so few players under contract, they have enough ammo to go after a max player, even if that feels a little unlikely for a team constructed like this.
The far more likely route involves the Pacers spending to keep their troops together, ponying up to re-sign Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison before making a few smaller plays on the open market. Even if they renounce only Kyle O'Quinn, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans, that should still grant the Pacers a bit of flexibility.
Indiana marks a turning point in these rankings, ushering in an octet of outfits that can clear up max space and make legitimate runs at stars. It just happens to be the least likely to go in that direction, which, for what it's worth, is neither a negative nor a positive.
7. Sacramento Kings
Practical Cap Space: $37.2 million
Once Harrison Barnes accepts his $25.1 million for 2019-20—can you really imagine a world in which he turns down that much guaranteed money?—the Sacramento Kings will be on the books for $69.6 million with 10 players under contract. Both of those numbers could shrink further if Yogi Ferrell ($3.2 million) and Frank Mason III ($1.6 million) lose their entirely non-guaranteed deals.
That gives this up-and-coming squad the ability to make some serious noise on the open market.
It may only need to fill in the cracks around De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Barnes and Marvin Bagley III. It could use a large slice of that cap space to re-sign Willie Cauley-Stein. But banking on its competitiveness throughout 2018-19, the joyous nature of the basketball being played and the appeal of operating alongside these young, talented contributors, Sacramento could become an actual player—track record be damned*.
Kevin Durant probably won't be the man to soak up the cap space, but he's at least on board with the direction. As he told Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee in mid-December (h/t NBC Sports' James Ham) well before the team continued to prove its legitimacy:
"Sacramento's usually been a team that's always tried to build through the draft, and they always have some young pieces, young assets. But I feel like this is the first time since I've been in the league that they're starting to come together even more and present a great product of basketball on the floor.
"Hopefully guys start to look at this place as somewhere they want to go—new arena, fan base is pretty excited about the team. Anything can happen in the NBA. All you need is just one guy."
*The organization's history does admittedly sink the team a bit in these rankings, though that seems to be changing in expeditious fashion.
The Actual Free-Agency Players: Nos. 6-4
6. Utah Jazz
Practical Cap Space: $16.8 million
Though the Utah Jazz are the only team in the top eight without the immediate practical cap space necessary to get into max-contract territory, they can easily clear enough room if the right candidate emerges. Let's take a gander at some non-guaranteed salaries:
- Derrick Favors: $16.9 million contract is fully non-guaranteed
- Kyle Korver: $7.5 million contract is guaranteed for $3.4 million
- Raul Neto: $2.2 million contract is fully non-guaranteed
- Georges Niang: $1.6 million contract is fully non-guaranteed
- Royce O'Neale: $1.6 million contract is fully non-guaranteed
Cut those five players (painful as doing so may be in a few cases), and the Jazz are suddenly looking at $43.2 million in cap space that allows them to build around Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum and the other incumbents.
Is this the likely outcome?
Probably not, since Utah would still have to outbid the other contenders for a max-salary candidate. But the fact that it's possible proves how easily Utah can become top bidders for a prominent free-agent point guard or another asset who could push the offense forward.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Practical Cap Space: $54.7 million
No, this is not a typo.
The Brooklyn Nets, the butt of endless jokes over the last half-decade as they recovered from their monstrosity of a trade with the Boston Celtics, have emerged as legitimate players and are ready to capitalize on their status as a big-market team with bona fide playoff aspirations. Those aspirations may even turn into an actual postseason appearance by the end of 2018-19, considering the team sits at No. 6 in the Eastern Conference with a 29-29 record.
Even after Allen Crabbe inevitably opts into his $18.5 million pact for 2019-20, the Nets will have just $54.7 million committed for the upcoming season. Granted, plenty of notable players—DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Joe Harris, D'Angelo Russell, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—are coming off the ledger, but that's still quite a bit of space.
Let's assume Russell's deal creeps above $20 million in average annual value, given his newfound All-Star pedigree, and Harris lands an eight-figure yearly salary, as well.
That still leaves this surging squad with serious flexibility, and its appeal is only growing.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Practical Cap Space: $52.2 million
Once Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber come off the books, the Dallas Mavericks will only have seven players under contract. That number could even shrink to five—Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee, Luka Doncic, Justin Jackson and Jalen Brunson—if the team voids Ryan Broekhoff's non-guaranteed contract while Dwight Powell turns down a $10.3 million player option.
Those five players make a combined $43.3 million in 2019-20, which means the Mavericks have enough flexibility to offer Kristaps Porzingis a max contract and then still pursue a second max-level player to pair with him and Doncic.
Therein lies the appeal. The Mavericks can essentially shape their future around two of the game's brightest young stars. And at this point, who wouldn't want to suit up alongside the Doncic-Porzingis combination in Dallas?
The Actual Free-Agency Players: Nos. 3-1
3. Los Angeles Lakers
Practical Cap Space: $43.2 million
Any of the three final teams in these rankings could make a play for anyone. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving...you name the free agent, and the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers have the financial means necessary to make such a transaction happen.
Were we including the ability to make trades for players whose names rhyme with Danthony Avis, the Lakers might rise above their two primary competitors. But we're only worried about the free-agency market, and that's a bit troubling after the Purple and Gold have struck out on non-LeBron Jameses in the last few years. Paul George stayed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kawhi Leonard expressed zero interest in playing with James before landing with the Toronto Raptors.
Getting James is obviously a coup, but we now have to deal with a legitimate, albeit unexpected, question: Do current stars want to come join him in L.A. while he's at the tail end of his career but still dominating the ball in most situations?
Chances are the answer is a positive one, but the very existence of doubt makes it tough to elevate the Lakers any higher.
2. New York Knicks
Practical Cap Space: $74.6 million
The New York Knicks are set to swim in Scrooge McDuck levels of cash. They might have Zion Williamson rattling rims after losing a whopping 17 consecutive games, including a tanktastic battle with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 11. Stars are allegedly circling the franchise like sharks that smell blood.
Speculation is spiraling out of control as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant find themselves constantly linked to the now-downtrodden organization that might suddenly have a blindingly bright future. Though trades are irrelevant here, Anthony Davis putting New York on his list of acceptable landing spots speaks volumes.
And, of course, we don't need rumors to confirm that money in Madison Square Garden is very much a thing.
After the quickly completed, out-of-nowhere blockbuster that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, New York could turn down Allonzo Trier's team option and do away with the contracts of Lance Thomas (only $1 million guaranteed) and Damyean Dotson (fully non-guaranteed) to clear up even more room. At that point, they'd have only Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson and dead Joakim Noah money on the books for a combined $21.8 million.
How's that for some flexibility?
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Practical Cap Space: $59.7 million
The Los Angeles Clippers might not have the history of the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks. Scratch that. They definitely don't. But they're a franchise trending in the right direction that can put together a cohesive core capable of competing for the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference...and still add two max players.
The Knicks have some intriguing youngsters, but they don't have the same kind of baseline performance. The Lakers typically take center stage in Los Angeles, but they can't open up this much space without losing players who are needed in the eventual championship chase.
The Clippers tick all the boxes, so long as they can find a new home for Danilo Gallinari during the offseason. Painful as trading him may be after his resurgent season, removing his $22.6 million from the ledger is necessary for the pursuit of two maximum slots. If they can shed that salary and cut Sindarius Thornwell's non-guaranteed deal, they'd only have $25.2 million allocated to Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet and Tyrone Wallace.
Kawhi Leonard fits nicely into that space, as would one other big-name addition. And the fact that roster revamping can happen with players such as Williams, Harrell and Gilgeous-Alexander still in place tells the entire story, strange as it may seem to have a franchise without much historical appeal atop the hierarchy.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into Feb. 12's games and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com. All salary information courtesy of Basketball Reference and Spotrac.com.