Every NBA Team's Biggest Flight Risk This Offseason
Nearly every NBA team will enter the offseason facing potential exits from players they'd rather not lose. The stakes of these possible departures vary across the board, but the dilemma itself is close to universal.
Selections for each squad's biggest flight risk will not be forced. Every choice strikes a balance between two factors: the likelihood of a player leaving, and how much he means to his respective franchise.
Free agents who might relocate despite their incumbent team's attempt to keep them will curry favor over expendable players who may bolt due to a lack of interest. Salary-cap situations and depth-chart logjams are fair game when making our decisions, as are superstar pursuits that culminate in collateral damage.
Teams without impactful or notable flight risks will be granted immunity from this discussion. Any squad that picked up their could-be big leaver on the buyout or waiver wire will get similar treatment.
Accepting that difficult goodbyes might take place over the summer is part and parcel of basketball fandom. In the words of One Tree Hill's Peyton Sawyer: "People always leave." (I'd apologize, but I'm actually not sorry.)
Let's brace ourselves for notable farewells together.
Teams Without Notable Flight Risks
Denver's list of free agents includes:
- Tyler Lydon, who has logged a grand total of 90 minutes this season.
- Trey Lyles (restricted), who was barely playing before he suffered a left hamstring strain.
- Isaiah Thomas, who is on the verge of playing himself out of the rotation as he works his way back from a right hip injury.
The Nuggets won't be fretting over any of these potential exits. They'll save the concern for next summer, when Paul Millsap (assuming Denver picks up his 2019-20 option), Malik Beasley (restricted) and Jamal Murray (restricted) will all be up for (or on) new deals.
Assuming Harrison Barnes picks up his $23.6 million player option, Willie Cauley-Stein (restricted) is the Kings' lone free agent of consequence, and he's completely replaceable.
Opponents are shooting 67 percent against him at the rim, and Sacramento's big-picture offense will fare better leaning on the more expansive arsenals of Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and Nemanja Bjelica.
This is not to say the Kings shouldn't re-sign him. But the price needs to be right—preferably under eight figures per year.
San Antonio Spurs
Apologies to the Dante Cunningham stans, but Rudy Gay is San Antonio's sole significant free agent. And he isn't going anywhere.
The Spurs have next to zero luxury-tax concerns after parting ways with Pau Gasol, and Gay's Early Bird rights are more than enough ammunition to keep him. In all likelihood, his cap hold ($13.1 million) will overshoot his price tag. If the Spurs want him, they'll have him.
Derrick Favors gets excluded here since his $16.9 million salary for next season is nonguaranteed. Utah has the final say on whether he stays or goes.
Ricky Rubio is a worthy choice...if you're living in 2017-18. Thabo Sefolosha is a legitimately worthy choice, but going on 35, he doesn't soak up enough playing time to be considered indispensable. Ekpe Udoh is a first-rate defensive backup, but the Jazz have freaking Rudy Gobert in front of him.
Notable Flight Risks from Buyouts and the Waiver Wire
Detroit Pistons: Wayne Ellington
Here's the good news: Wayne Ellington's three-point shooting has perked up after a slow start in Detroit, and the starting five that includes him is outpacing opponents by almost 18 points per 100 possessions.
Here's the bad news: The Pistons don't owns his Bird rights and won't have cap space this summer. They'll need to use their mid-level exception to retain him if this relationship pans out.
Here's the probably-pretty-OK-news: If the Pistons play their cards right, they'll have access to the full MLE ($9.2 million) while carrying Ish Smith's free-agent hold. That's more than enough to keep Ellington, but it isn't certified security. Detroit will need that money to fill multiple voids. A majority-share offer from another team would put Ellington's return in jeopardy.
Houston Rockets: Kenneth Faried/Austin Rivers
The Rockets almost land under the "Teams Without Notable Flight Risks" umbrella. None of their soon-to-be free agents are critical or especially likely to leave.
They have full Bird rights on Iman Shumpert in case he lifts off upon his return from a calf injury, and Early Bird rights on Gerald Green should be enough to keep him around. Kenneth Faried and Austin Rivers are having their moments, but no one in Houston will lose sleep if they get more than minimum salaries from other suitors.
Still, the Rockets aren't without stakes. Rivers is seventh on the team in total minutes played, and Faried is going to crack the top 10 by season's end. As a team with minimal flexibility this summer, every rotation staple matters. Not having Bird rights on either of them isn't ideal.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Markieff Morris
Markieff Morris doesn't have to be a rental for Oklahoma City. The taxpayer's MLE ($5.7 million) will be right up his alley. If that falls short, it won't be by much.
But the Thunder must be open to tapping into their MLE to secure Morris' stay. They barely did that this year and will likely be less inclined to do so next season after paying the repeater tax.
In the event they do, they need a sweet-shooting 2-3 more than a combo big. Morris only takes priority if they cannot find a cheap replacement for Nerlens Noel (who should opt out of his $1.9 million option), who is also a non-Bird free agent.
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon
Dewayne Dedmon is close to the ideal frontcourt partner for John Collins. He can space the floor around the bouncy sophomore's dives to the basket, and he's a good enough rim protector and shepherd in space to tackle the tougher defensive assignments.
That ultimately works against the Atlanta Hawks, as other teams will sniff around him. Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only other players who have rivaled Dedmon's defensive rebound, steal and block percentages while making at least 25 three-pointers.
Atlanta doesn't have to worry about being outbid. Early Bird rights will be enough to match any long-term offers Dedmon might field, and the team has plenty of cap space to burn.
With general manager Travis Schlenk eyeing marquee free-agent meetings, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick, the Hawks might even aggressively pursue Dedmon's return. He turns 30 in August and doesn't fit a more gradual timeline, but it is telling that Atlanta neither traded him nor bought him out.
On some level, Dedmon's future is tied to the Hawks entering win-now mode. His partnership with Collins isn't effective enough on defense to warrant open-ended consideration. He'll be playing somewhere else if Atlanta isn't prepared to accelerate its rebuild.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Morris
Kyrie Irving (player option) is definitely a flight risk. His "Ask me July 1" comment, coupled with the Boston Celtics' uneven season, has earned him that billing. But his market is going to be finite since not every team will have access to max cap space.
After the New York Knicks, the best-guess threats to whisk him away from Boston are the Brooklyn Nets, who already have D'Angelo Russell (restricted), or one of the Los Angeles teams. That isn't a broad scope of possibilities, and the Celtics have a potential trump card in their back pocket: a fifth year they can dangle if Irving is looking for maximum security.
Marcus Morris is the more likely goner. He'll fall within a friendlier price range, and his career year has undoubtedly earned him more suitors. Though he's cooled off from the floor in recent weeks, only seven other players are scoring as much and hitting as many threes per 36 minutes while flirting with his effective field-goal percentage: Irving, Bojan Bogdanovic, Stephen Curry, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, LeBron James and Klay Thompson.
Boston has the bandwidth to meet Morris' price point, wherever it lands. Keeping him becomes crucial if team president Danny Ainge ships out Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in an Anthony Davis package.
But the Celtics will be well into luxury-tax territory next year if they bring back Irving and Al Horford (player option). It won't take much for Morris to become collateral damage of a salary-cap outlook that has to maneuver around imminent paydays for some combination of Brown (extension-eligible), Tatum (extension-eligible in 2020), maybe Davis (2020-21 player option) and potentially Terry Rozier (restricted).
Brooklyn Nets: Ed Davis
Non-Bird free agents are always difficult to keep. The Nets might get lucky.
Ed Davis should command more than the $4.4 million he's making this season, but not by much. Reserve bigs who don't space the floor are rarely in line for overpays, and Brooklyn has the cap flexibility to bring him back if his market dictates more than the 20 percent raise non-Bird rights allow.
At the same time, re-investing in a backup big doesn't profile as the Nets' top priority. Jarrett Allen is their unchallenged man in the middle, and they have bigger fish to fry on the open market. D'Angelo Russell is entering restricted free agency after an All-Star appearance, and Brooklyn's rotation sorely needs someone who can play full-time minutes at the 4 without being a net negative on one end of the floor.
This is all before considering whatever appetite the Nets may have for chasing superstars. They can carve out more than $20 million in cap space while carrying Russell's hold ($21 million) if they renounce Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (restricted). Max money is just an Allen Crabbe dump or stretch-and-waive away.
Calling Davis a goner stretches it too far. The Nets are further along in their development than the Hawks and have already started re-investing in their core. (See: Spencer Dinwiddie's extension.) They might be more focused on keeping the skeleton of a postseason squad intact.
If anything, Davis is the player most likely to fall through the cracks unless Russell's market gets inflated by an overenthusiastic admirer—a fork-in-the-road dilemma Brooklyn likely won't have to worry about given the limited number of teams with both max space and the drive to spend it on a point guard.
Charlotte Hornets: Jeremy Lamb
Kemba Walker is set to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, and the Charlotte Hornets have not given him many reasons to stay. Another early playoff exit or lottery appearance is imminent, and they don't have the cap space or trade assets to meaningfully improve the supporting cast around him.
That might not matter. Not only does Walker sound at home in Charlotte, but he's working off a four-year, $48 million extension that became one of the NBA's biggest bargains. This is his first real chance to get the bag, and the Hornets have the inside track on handsomely rewarding him.
Charlotte can offer him up to five years and $189.7 million (or $221.3 million if he makes an All-NBA team), while other teams top out at four years and $140.6 million. Whether Walker is worth that much over the long haul won't impact the Hornets' thought process. Letting him walk for nothing isn't an option. They should have moved him prior to one of the past two trade deadlines if they aren't prepared to pay him.
Bank on the Hornets offering Walker the full boat, and his exit gets tougher to envision. The same can't be said for Jeremy Lamb.
Maxing out Walker brings Charlotte past the $132 million luxury-tax line if Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams exercise their player options, as expected. Waiving Tony Parker's nonguaranteed $5.3 million salary likely won't push them out of tax territory.
Paying Lamb in that scenario becomes unworkable. He shouldn't sniff his free-agent hold ($14.2 million), but he's clearing 15 points per game while once again shooting the lights out from mid-range. Someone will offer him more than peanuts. And if the Hornets do have the stomach for his next contract, it diminishes the likelihood they'll use their mid-level exception to add anyone else of significance.
Chicago Bulls: Ryan Arcidiacono (Restricted)
Ryan Arcidiacono earns this inclusion by default. The Chicago Bulls are light on flight risks they care about, and their point guard situation has long since crossed into the realm of dire.
Next year might be better. Kris Dunn cannot be charged with the livelihood of an NBA offense, but Chicago will have plenty of maestros. Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, an unleashed Otto Porter Jr. and a healthy Denzel Valentine can all create off the dribble, and Wendell Carter Jr. has the vision fit for an interior hub.
The Bulls also have a good chunk of cap space at their disposal. They're looking at an easy path to between $15 and $20 million in room depending on where their draft pick lands. That'll be enough to reel in another guard.
Arcidiacono is close to a necessity until Chicago turns those funds into a floor general. He isn't a quintessential offensive captain, but he makes hustle plays and has done a much better job protecting the ball this season. He's recently gone tepid from beyond the arc, but he's still canning 37 percent of his treys for the season.
Arcidiacono is not irreplaceable, and Chicago does not have to worry about a robust market pricing him out of town. Teams will not go over the top to steal a reserve, and the Bulls have matching rights even if they do. But reinvesting in anyone without an immediate path back to the postseason is risky. Chicago might bow out in the face of any competition, even if it doesn't have a clear upgrade lined up.
Cleveland Cavaliers: David Nwaba (Restricted)
David Nwaba will not have issues creating a market this summer. Left ankle and right knee injuries have limited his availability, but he's leaving a strong defensive impression whenever he's on the floor.
While he stands 6'4", Nwaba gets into opposing players like he's 6'9". He's logged time at four positions, and the Cleveland Cavaliers habitually line him up against big guards and wings.
Check out the 13 players—there was a four-way tie for 10th—Nwaba has spent the most time defending by total number of possessions: James Harden, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jeff Green, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Knox, Bradley Beal, Thaddeus Young, Mike Muscala, Blake Griffin, Miles Bridges, Glenn Robinson III and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Rival offenses are averaging 1.01 points per possession when Nwaba guards one of these players, and this 13-man gaggle is shooting a combined 37.9 percent against him. That is patently bonkers, and it will get the 26-year-old paid.
Cleveland doesn't have Nwaba's Bird rights, and the Gilbert Arenas provision doesn't apply to him as a three-year veteran. While that stings, it isn't a death sentence. Nwaba probably won't cost more than the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.7 million), let alone the non-taxpayer MLE ($9.3 million).
The Cavaliers' cap sheet is the real kicker. They'll have to tinker with their salary obligations even if they waive JR Smith's partial guarantee ($3.9 million) just to evade the tax. Keeping Nwaba can be only so much of a priority without shedding salary elsewhere.
Dallas Mavericks: Dorian Finney-Smith (Restricted)
Get past the idea of Kristaps Porzingis as a flight risk.
Following Porzingis' trade to the Dallas Mavericks, The Athletic's Shams Charania reported he planned to accept his qualifying offer and enter unrestricted free agency in 2020. But even if he goes this route, he won't become a flight risk for another year.
Related: Porzingis isn't taking this road never traveled. His qualifying offer has dropped to $4.5 million after he failed to meet starter criteria. Playing out next season at that number costs him more than $20 million in 2019-20 salary alone, plus whatever subsequent years he's punting on. Leaving that much money on the table is a non-starter for someone coming back from a torn left ACL.
Other teams can try to complicate the Mavericks' decision by maxing out Porzingis. It won't do any good. Dallas didn't take on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, give up Dennis Smith Jr. and fork over two first-round picks to let Porzingis hit the road a few months later.
Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are the larger concerns. Both are restricted free agents—Kleber is an Early Bird RFA—and are due significant raises from the afterthought salaries they're earning now.
Small cap holds and matching rights make it easy for the Mavericks to keep them. They can dredge up max money and then re-sign both after pursuing (and perhaps landing) a bigger name. But this assumes neither one fields an offer sheet in the interim, and that Dallas is prepared to pay both over a longer term.
Finney-Smith is the player to most closely watch. Teams are more inclined to make enthusiastic bids for wings, and he's hitting enough of his wide-open triples to fill both ends of the three-and-D requirement. Dallas is far more likely to face stiff competition for him than Kleber, who became less essential following Porzingis' arrival.
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant (Player Option)
DeMarcus Cousins is the choice here if you believe the Golden State Warriors will want him back and he's a good fit beside the rest of their nucleus. They don't own his Bird rights, so something will have gone terribly wrong if he returns for the $6.4 million they can offer him for next season.
While Cousins gives the Warriors another hub during stretches in which they're light on megastars, his defensive fit isn't clean. Golden State's starting lineup is allowing almost 117 points per 100 possessions and is a net negative with him jumping center.
In fairness to Boogie, he isn't even 20 games into his return from a ruptured Achilles. But this isn't only about him—or about him at all. The "Kevin Durant is gone" noise is just too loud. As The Athletic's Sam Amick said during his appearance on The Rich Eisen Show:
"Do I think that a team like the Knicks has a very high level of optimism that would not be there if some reason for optimism had not been conveyed to them? No, I do not believe they're doing this of their own accord entirely to best position themselves to get two specific max players.
"The league has itself a very challenging situation when it comes to tampering because it's not that hard in any walk of life to have a message conveyed through a couple of back channels so that certain people's hands are clean and then they can go about their business. ... The Knicks thing is real. There's a reason they feel really good about their shot at this thing."
This isn't "Movie star, celebrity basketball player and handsomely paid brand ambassador Kyrie Irving hates fame!" levels of speculation. This is something more. Durant already feels like he's playing for a different team.
The Warriors should no longer care about it. Durant told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes in December that he cannot be recruited. If winning a third straight title and the chance to snag a fourth don't convince him to stay, nothing will. Golden State will want to keep him, but it has other matters with which to concern itself—like making sure Klay Thompson isn't driven to shop himself around in free agency.
Indiana Pacers: Thaddeus Young
Flight risks are peppered up and down the Indiana Pacers' depth chart. Such is the risk for a roster stocked with expiring contracts.
Plucking only one from the ranks is impossibly hard.
Bojan Bogdanovic is the Pacers' most valuable free agent—an underrated, albeit unspectacular, combo-forward defender with No. 1 option scoring chops. Malcolm Brogdon, Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari, James Harden, Tobias Harris and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only other players topping 19 points and two made three-pointers per 36 minutes while posting a true shooting percentage north of 60.
Outside interest will demand the Pacers break open their piggy bank to re-sign Bogdanovic. Bet on them obliging. His cap hold ($13.7 million) is manageable enough for them to float and still muster max-contract space, and team president Kevin Pritchard is acutely aware of Indiana's market limitations. The odds of them cracking the superstar conversation are nil. Bogdanovic is indispensable unless that changes.
Thaddeus Young is more liable to fly the coop. He is the heartbeat of the Pacers defense, but they'll be hard-pressed to pay him after already locking down Myles Turner, their other defensive heartbeat, and with Domantas Sabonis extension-eligible. All three cannot stay put on higher price points.
Re-signing Young essentially guarantees Indiana will gauge the market for Turner or, more likely, Sabonis. That isn't out of the question. A choice may loom between the latter two no matter what. But the Pacers have to play it semi-safe unless they land a star.
Doubling down on this infrastructure is difficult without knowing what Victor Oladipo looks like following his return from a ruptured quadriceps tendon. Overpaying everyone to stay on one-year placeholders is fine, but Bogdanovic and Young have earned longer commitments. Other teams won't hesitate to extend such offers.
That doesn't make this an either-or situation. But Bogdanovic's sizzling shooting and from-scratch creation is harder to replace. Indiana seems more likely to keep him than Young, who gets the nod over Darren Collison and Cory Joseph—two other flight risks who aren't nearly as valuable.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
Patrick Beverley is earning himself a crap ton of money during the Los Angeles Clippers' home stretch. Bloodhound defense remains his calling card, but he's turning on the offensive jets in recent weeks.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Beverley is averaging around 10 points and four assists while downing 44-plus percent of his threes. He's grabbing more than seven boards per game as well.
Topsy-turvy play over the first half of the season stood to detract from Beverley's appeal, but his closing kick has reaffirmed his worth: He is still the ideal running mate for teams with at least one incumbent star. That's bad news for the Clippers.
Every contender wants a point guard who competes his butt off on defense without monopolizing offensive control. Beverley's market isn't necessarily predicated upon the A-listers choosing their next destination. Any team with a win-now window that doesn't have superstar cap space will be on him. Los Angeles may lose him to grander plans.
"Every time I'm in the Clippers orbit all season long, they're confident in terms of getting Kawhi Leonard," the New York Times' Marc Stein told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith. "You feel it when you're around them. They think they're getting Kawhi."
Perhaps Beverley will still be on the market by the time Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, et al. make their decisions. The Clippers have the flexibility to carry his Bird rights if they don't need to open two max slots. They even have ways of opening that requisite cap space and keeping him if they move Danilo Gallinari.
They also have guards galore in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, Tyrone Wallace (non-guaranteed) and Lou Williams. The pull to keep Beverley should be strong, but he isn't can't-lose material.
Los Angeles Lakers: Reggie Bullock
Scooping up Reggie Bullock at the trade deadline is among the few LeBron James-era personnel moves the Los Angeles Lakers nailed. He hasn't helped them move back into postseason contention, but he's proven spacing for an offense hopelessly light on it.
Bullock's importance to the Lakers only mushrooms when looking at the broader picture. He is a cozy complement if they lure another star and a must-have shooter if they strike out.
Retaining him will be difficult either way. The Lakers cannot carry his cap hold ($4.8 million) and open up max room without making subsequent moves if they finish in the lottery. A small salary dump will do the trick—such as Isaac Bonga or Moritz Wagner—but it's still something to consider.
So, too, is Bullock's market. Most of his field-goal attempts are coming as catch-and-fire threes, on which he's shooting better than 39 percent. He isn't a stifling one-on-one defender, but he's 6'7", switchable and works hard off the ball. He will not remain unsigned for long.
Expecting him to wait for the superstar ranks to sort themselves out isn't a big deal. The Lakers will let him know they plan to pay him if they connect on their home run swing.
Things get hairy if they whiff on their primary targets. They won't be subjected to as many cap gymnastics, but they'll have to weigh the opportunity cost of eating into future flexibility for a non-star. Bullock isn't a one-year-placeholder type unless he's getting paid similarly to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2017-18.
Memphis Grizzlies: Delon Wright (Restricted)
Delon Wright has the makings of a typical re-signee. The Memphis Grizzlies acquired him as the centerpiece of their Marc Gasol trade, they can match any offer he receives, and they don't have the cap-sheet malleability to land a suitable replacement.
Assuming C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas pick up their player options, the Grizzlies need to waive Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee) to ensure they remain under the tax. They're limited in what they can do out of house without cutting costs elsewhere. Keeping Wright's upside as a rangy defender and secondary playmaker is one of their lone mechanisms for potential improvement.
And yet, diverging timelines might make for an awkward continuation. Wright turns 27 at the end of April, and the Grizzlies are toeing the line on a full-scale rebuild. They cannot match whatever offer sheet Wright receives when they project to be over the cap and possibly right up against the tax.
Wright's play hasn't warranted that degree of faith. His defensive portability is on full display in Memphis, but his shooting percentages have cratered. He's another spacing liability for an offense forever short on snipers.
That might work in service of the Grizzlies. Wright won't enter the market with the same fanfare as, say, Terry Rozier. It shouldn't take much to bring him back. His future in Memphis is more dependent on whether the Grizzlies are comfortable shelling out a multiyear contract during what appears to be a restructuring period.
Miami Heat: Rodney McGruder (Restricted)
Rodney McGruder's season is following one helluva slippery slope. He went from starting through his first 44 appearances to barely in the rotation to back into the rotation to now sniffing starter's minutes.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra experiments when his team isn't clicking. McGruder's wild swings in court time aren't so much an indictment of his play—though his offense began going haywire toward the end of November—as they are evidence the Heat have so many guards and a depth chart that wants for practical chemistry.
Consistent opportunity will help the 27-year-old stick in South Florida, but it isn't everything. The Heat yet again forecast as a luxury-tax team if Goran Dragic (likely) and Hassan Whiteside (duh) pick up their respective player options. Waiving and stretching Ryan Anderson's partial guarantee ($15.6 million) drags them under the $132 million tax threshold, but a new contract for McGruder may take them right back over it depending on where they fall in the draft order.
Miami can finagle elsewhere if it's itching to keep him. Team president Pat Riley might not be.
"In 2020, we'll have a lot of room," he told Fox Sports Sun's Jason Jackson, per the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman. "We'll also have the possibility to have enough room going after two max contracts, and we're going to do that. So we're planning that 2020 will be the room year."
Bankrolling McGruder's next deal mucks up an endgame already reliant upon player options for James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk in 2020-21 and the final year of Dion Waiters' contract. He won't be one of this summer's most popular names, but teams will roll the dice on a guy who plays bullish defense against bigger players, hits standstill threes and has shown traces of pick-and-roll initiation.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez
Locking up Eric Bledsoe on a cap-friendly extension and dumping the contracts of Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson have put the Milwaukee Bucks on track to pay Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) without cannonballing into the tax. They might have room for Brook Lopez in this scenario, but his return is far from a sure thing.
Not owning his Bird rights is part of the problem. The Bucks won't have cap space if they keep holds for Brogdon and Middleton, so they'll need a portion of the mid-level exception to get them by.
It most definitely should if they have the non-taxpayer's version. The taxpayer MLE may also get the job done, but that rests on Lopez's list of suitors and Milwaukee's openness to spending more money after potentially consigning itself to luxury-tax territory.
Almost everything hinges on the price tags assigned to the other two. If Middleton costs the max (he might) and Brogdon's next deal runs more than $15 million per year (it may), the Bucks won't be able to bring back Lopez without entering the tax or shaving off more salary. If one or both of Brogdon and Middleton fetch less than expected, Milwaukee is in great shape.
Nikola Mirotic deserves an honorable mention. Half-season rentals typically don't cost four-second picks. His arrival might signal a willingness to pay the tax, or he may merely be a pricey add-on acquired to be both a championship-ceiling raiser and worst-case insurance.
Lopez's future is the more urgent matter either way. His outside volume is critical to the Bucks' revamped shot profile, and he's a sturdy presence around the rim.
No one else has ever averaged two made threes and two blocks per game for an entire season, and opponents are shooting just over 52 percent against him at the iron—a top-seven mark among 200-plus players who have challenged more than 100 point-blank looks.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Derrick Rose
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a case to join the "Teams Without Notable Flight Risks" section. Their veteran free agents don't mesh with the window of a team that may opt for a quasi-reset, and only one of their youngsters, Tyus Jones (restricted), is scheduled to reach the open market.
Arguing for Jones misses the mark. Restricted free agents are inherently tough to poach, and Minnesota has never shown a lasting soft spot for him. Interim head coach Ryan Saunders has displayed a little more faith in him than Tom Thibodeau did, but Jones remains the third point guard when the rotation is at full capacity.
Derrick Rose is more on par with the Timberwolves' place in the Western Conference. They aren't close enough to the playoff picture to identify as a finished product, but they aren't far enough away to warm up to an overhaul—even if a wholesale shakeup is the more prudent move.
Footing the bill on Rose's next pact isn't a roadblock. Early Bird rights will be enough to keep him around if the Timberwolves so choose. But they can't pay him willy nilly when their future isn't secure, especially since his comeback campaign doesn't necessarily portend a new normal.
Rose's recent downturn may keep his price point in check. He's shooting under 14 percent from deep since the Timberwolves reached the halfway point of their season, during which time the offense is also a statistical wash with him on the floor. Negotiating a happy medium is easier for both sides if he isn't tracking toward a massive raise.
Then again, Rose will have his suitors. The Pistons, Pacers, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz will all be on the prowl for point guard help. Some may even have openings for a starter. Rose will find other fits as a cost-effective solution with a higher ceiling than many other non-star alternatives.
New Orleans Pelicans: Julius Randle (Player Option)
Please don't state the obvious. Anthony Davis won't be with the New Orleans Pelicans next season. That doesn't render him a flight risk. It makes him already gone.
And that invites another pick—the correct pick: Julius Randle.
Without controlling his Bird rights, the most New Orleans can offer him before using cap space is a $10.4 million starting salary. That won't convince him to stay if he declines his player option. He'll only join the free-agency fracas if he's on course for a more lucrative windfall.
The Pelicans have the ability to fund that payday. They'll have access to more than $20 million in spending power if they renounce their rights to Stanley Johnson. But they have to decide whether opening their wallet for anyone makes sense when they're staring down a post-Davis...something.
Trading superstars usually leads to a rebuild. The Pelicans may aim for a quicker reboot around Jrue Holiday and whatever they net in exchange for Davis. Going that route increases the importance of re-signing Randle.
Pivoting into a more unhurried process leaves his return up in the air. At 24, Randle is young enough to be part of a project. His numbers—20-plus points and three assists per game with a true shooting percentage north of 60—suggest he can help headline it. But he gives up as many points on defense as he scores, and again, the Pelicans must be conscious of how much he'll cost following a career year.
New York Knicks: Noah Vonleh
Noah Vonleh is no different from any of the Knicks' other free agents: They will readily make him a casualty of a two-star coup.
Remove that dream scenario from the table, and Vonleh's free agency defaults to the team's most delicate matter. The Knicks do not have his Bird rights, and unlike Luke Kornet (Early Bird restricted), Emmanuel Mudiay (restricted) and Mario Hezonja (non-Bird), they have to worry about other squads going after him.
Standouts from terrible teams are always drowning in caveats. Vonleh is shooting under 34 percent from deep, and his 2.4 post-ups per game feel like too many. But he has dabbled in a little bit of everything on offense, from rim rolls to jumpers to running fast breaks. And he's interchangeable defensively at the 4 and 5, even if he isn't a premier deterrent.
Only three other players are averaging at least 10 rebounds, two assists, one steal, one block and one made three per 36 minutes: Dewayne Dedmon, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Vucevic. Some small-sample cherry-picking is at play, but Vonleh will ride his gap-filling performance to genuine interest.
This leaves the Knicks at the mercy of two possible outcomes: Either they sign two stars, in which case they'll need Vonleh to cost no more than the room exception ($4.8 million), or their pie-in-the-sky designs go belly-up, and his return becomes an issue of how much future flexibility they must cede to re-sign him.
Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross
Average together the rankings in 10 different catch-all metrics this season, and Nikola Vucevic grades out as a top-10 player, per Andrew Bailey of the Hardwood Knocks podcast. That is high—too high. But he's putting up pre-Achilles-injury DeMarcus Cousins stat lines and just earned his first All-Star bid.
Vucevic isn't only the Magic's best player. This season, he is a star...in a contract year...on a team not exactly built to maximize the competitive window of 28-year-old stud.
So why isn't he Orlando's biggest flight risk? Friggin' logistics.
Take stock of the free-agency landscape, and a discernible suitor for Vucevic fails to emerge. He won't commandeer attention from the top spenders. Maybe the Clippers or Lakers enter the running, but he won't be their first choice. They'll probably view him solely as a placeholder option in the face of failure elsewhere.
The Magic have the advantage in retaining him. They don't have the cap-sheet plasticity to chisel out max space or the market pull to make use of it even if they do, and Vucevic is paramount to their continued trek up the Eastern Conference ladder.
Terrence Ross' return, meanwhile, is in limbo. He won't be as expensive as Vooch, but he'll have a longer queue of admirers. It's tough to find teams that can't use a 37 percent three-point shooter capable of making a few plays off the bounce.
And whereas the Magic can sell themselves on Vucevic's star quality, Ross fails to crack the same cornerstone tier. Whatever he ends up costing, it may be tougher to swallow for a team still existing in the middle.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jimmy Butler (Player Option)
More than a few are hanging on to this idea that operating costs will break up the Sixers. Joel Embiid is taking home superstar money, both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are max-contract candidates this summer, and Ben Simmons will be on his own megadeal in 2020-21.
Tallying it all up hurts the eyes. If Butler, Harris and Simmons all get the max, the Sixers will have more than $127 million committed to their four-star core after next season. That number climbs above $133 million if Simmons qualifies for a designated rookie extension.
Affording this group beyond 2018-19 is a real concern, but the Sixers will deal with it. Teams don't surrender a ton of assets for two players in contract years on a whim.
"We gave up a lot to get Tobias and Jimmy on our team," Sixers co-owner Josh Harris told ESPN.com's Jackie MacMullan. "We think they're exceptional talents. We're going to try to keep them. We know we are going to have to pay these guys in an appropriate way. We get it. It's expensive."
Money isn't breaking up the Sixers. Ego might.
Butler is sixth on the team in shot attempts per 36 minutes, fifth in usage rate and fourth in touches since the Harris trade. He challenged head coach Brett Brown about his offensive involvement back in January, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski, and Philly employed only two other stars at that time.
None of this makes Butler a bad fit or a surefire goner. He is adapting well following Harris' arrival. But the sheer volume of individual cachet in Philly makes for an unpredictable cocktail.
Relative to his stature throughout the league, he more than anyone else is enduring a functional face-lift. Winning may turn that into a non-issue, but deep postseason run or not, the promise of a more prominent role somewhere else might appeal to him.
Phoenix Suns: Kelly Oubre Jr. (Restricted)
Richaun Holmes is a good option for the Suns. They own his full Bird rights, but they won't back up the Brink's truck for a second-string big.
Other teams won't, either. Holmes' price point is capped by his position. Ticketing him for a starter's role in a different situation doesn't do much to change that.
Even as a restricted free agent and even with his three-point clip hovering well below league average, Kelly Oubre Jr. is the bigger flight risk.
Combo wings are in greater demand than bigs, and teams are almost always willing to take a flier on 23-year-olds who can cover three to four positions on defense. Oubre is beefing up his case with solid counting stats. He's averaging 17.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks while dropping in nearly 54 percent of his two-pointers since Jan. 1.
The Suns are less likely to pass on matching any offer sheet Oubre signs if they're out on Josh Jackson. But with Devin Booker's max extension set to take effect and TJ Warren already on his second deal, they have to be wary of how much they're funneling into a bottom-three team. Oubre is nothing if not gettable.
Portland Trail Blazers: Seth Curry
Potential flight risks are not hard to find on the Portland Trail Blazers. Four key rotation players are prepping to hit the open market.
Al-Farouq Aminu is going to incite more interest than anyone. It feels like he entered the NBA forever ago, but he doesn't turn 29 until September. This marks the third time in four seasons he's connecting on at least 36 percent of his treys, and he continues to shine as a half-court defender and glass-crasher.
Jake Layman (restricted) has started some games this year and is an offensive firecracker. He's notching a true shooting percentage in the mid-60s since Jan. 1.
Rodney Hood is a virtual goner. Portland does not own his Bird rights, and 20-something wings who can dribble and knock down threes with a semblance of consistency are always in demand. Some version of the mid-level exception will be enough to keep him, but the Blazers have another non-Bird free agent who might cost more.
Enter Seth Curry.
He doesn't see as many reps as Aminu or even Hood, and his scorching-hot three-point clip is encountering a reality check, but human flamethrowers tend to get paid. Only Davis Bertans and Joe Harris are splashing in a higher percentage of their long balls, and unlike most specialists, Curry has showcased the ability to create off the dribble with some volume. He's draining almost 38 percent of his pull-up treys, which account for more than 20 percent of his shot attempts.
Mid-level money will be enough to keep him in Portland, but the Blazers have a combined $57.4 million committed to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum next season. Throwing a multiyear agreement at a backcourt reserve won't top their list of priorities. And as of now, they figure to have only the taxpayer MLE, and Curry might cost a bit more.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Kawhi Leonard's free agency was painted as a race between the Clippers and, um, themselves before the start of the season. The Toronto Raptors have since established themselves as a viable option, but Los Angeles is still making noise. As Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes explained during a recent appearance on The HoopsHype Podcast with Alex Kennedy:
"We all know that the Clippers have two max slots. They’re going to be aggressive. ... They have interest in Jimmy Butler. They’re going to go after KD. They’re going to go after Kawhi Leonard. And, this has been said before so I’m not reporting anything new, but I think the Clippers have a really good shot at Kawhi. I really do. Give credit to that front office over there and the way they’ve changed the culture. ... It depends on how things play out in Toronto. I think they really have to, if not win the championship, [at least] get to the NBA Finals to kind of cure the concern."
Toronto has other flight risks, namely Danny Green and Jeremy Lin (non-Bird), but Leonard's decision is more integral to the future.
The Celtics can skirt a full-tilt rebuild if Kyrie Irving flees for another team. Ditto for the Warriors if Kevin Durant bails. The Raptors don't have that luxury.
They're looking at a reset if Leonard leaves for Los Angeles or a dark-horse destination, regardless of whether they hang onto Marc Gasol (player option) and Kyle Lowry.
Washington Wizards: Jeff Green
Just about every free agent from the Washington Wizards has cause to be treated as a flight risk.
Sending Otto Porter Jr. to the Bulls alleviates their luxury-tax concerns, but they aren't making the playoffs, and John Wall's Achilles injury may keep him on the sidelines through next season.
In this case, grappling with the protracted absence of a franchise pillar is grounds to start anew. Bradley Beal is a star, but he's now the Wizards' only one. They won't be in much better shape if they run it back with him, Trevor Ariza, Thomas Bryant (restricted), Jeff Green, Tomas Satoransky (restricted), Jabari Parker (team option) and Bobby Portis (restricted), not to mention Dwight Howard (player option). Even if they prefer to keep Beal, the Wizards are better off using the next season-plus to regroup and reassess their situation ahead of 2020-21.
That's apparently asking too much. They want to re-sign Ariza and Green, per NBC Sports Washington's Ben Standig, and they've already talked to Tomas Satoransky about signing an extension, according to NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes. Bryant might as well be penciled into this plan, too. He's playing well enough to wedge his way into the big picture, as is Portis. Cap relief was the impetus for the Porter trade, but Portis is the closest Washington came to a tangible centerpiece.
Bringing back everyone isn't feasible. The Wizards instantly run into luxury-tax concerns if they keep the entire band together. Certain cuts will be easier to make. Parker is one of them. Others will be difficult to reconcile—and involuntary.
Green is among NBA Twitter's favorite punchlines, but he's far and away exceeding expectations in Washington. He has never shot so well from behind the rainbow at such a high volume, and the Wizards have extracted invaluable minutes from him as a small-ball 5. He verges on essential if they're angling for a quick turnaround.
However,, re-signing him isn't a given. He will have a market after this season's performance, and the Wizards don't own his Bird rights. Dipping into their mid-level exception likely arms them with enough money, but it remains to be seen how deep they'll need to go and how many years he'll be after.
Proximity to the tax also becomes an issue if the Wizards use non-Bird rights to re-up Ariza and are set on retaining one or more from the Bryant-Portis-Satoransky trio. Green isn't nabbing more than the mini MLE if that's what Washington gets consigned to, but the mere thought of settling in somewhere close to the tax is asinine when looking at the potential return on investment.