Every Tanking Team's Biggest Need in 2019 NBA Free Agency
Tanking NBA teams do not throw in the towel on their current season to boost free-agency appeal. It doesn't work that way. Embracing losses is all about draft-lottery odds.
And yet, their offseasons begin sooner so free agency is more pertinent than it is to other, more successful squads.
Some teams are still fighting to make the playoffs. Others are preparing for deep postseason pushes. Every franchise is focused on the summertime festivities to some degree, but these rock-bottom explorers are about to have the most free time on their hands.
This year's crop of tank jobs is fairly extensive. It started out on the shallower end, but a few late-season nose dives have expanded the field to include roughly one-third of the league.
Primary concerns might shift once the draft unfolds, but for now, each team's greatest need is determined based on their current rosters. Suggested targets are included for good measure and listed with both salary-cap outlooks and market appeal in mind.
Tankers Without Cap Space
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Combo forward
Cleveland's most impactful additions over the summer will come via the draft and trades. Making a meaningful splash in free agency isn't an option until 2020.
Assuming they waive JR Smith ($3.9 million partial guarantee), the Cavaliers are still looking at a payroll dangerously close, if not above, the $132 million luxury-tax line. Owner Dan Gilbert isn't going to let that fly on a non-contender.
It won't be hard to skirt the tax. The Cavaliers come close to ducking it entirely without doing anything else if they don't land a top-two pick in the draft lottery. Brokering a buyout with one of their veterans—say, Tristan Thompson—might take care of the rest, and they'll have no trouble shedding money in trades if they're open to taking back contracts that spill into 2020-21.
Nothing the Cavaliers can realistically do will leave them with more than the mid-level exception. And even that may be a stretch. They'll need to dump tons of money to access the full MLE ($9.2 million), and teams without immediate playoff aspirations don't have the incentive to tap into the mini mid-level ($5.7 million).
The Cavaliers also have to consider David Nwaba, a non-Bird free agent who will eat up part of whatever MLE they have if bringing him back is a priority. So, while they need a combo forward to diversify their guard-heavy setup, they don't have the capacity to sign one outright unless he's coming off the clearance rack.
Potential Targets: Mario Hezonja, Furkan Korkmaz, Stanley Johnson (restricted)
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Cheap starting-lineup candidates under 25 (preferably playmaking bigs or larger wings)
Memphis' free-agency approach is difficult to map out without knowing whether the team will commit to a rebuild. It won't take much for the Grizzlies to sell themselves on an immediate comeback if their top-seven draft position holds—their pick goes to Boston if it falls outside the top eight—and both Jonas Valanciunas and CJ Miles pick up their player options.
At that point, with Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. in tow, why not keep Mike Conley? And re-sign Delon Wright (restricted)? And maybe even hold onto Avery Bradley ($2 million guaranteed)?
Going that route dictates that the Grizzlies cut costs to sidestep the tax. They're better off starting over, but the pull to avoid a full-tilt renovation is strong in a smaller market.
Either way, the Grizzlies won't have more than the full-sized MLE to spend. And aiming for a 2020 postseason berth doesn't give them carte blanche to add more elder statesmen—or even shell out a contract like they gave to Anderson last year (four years, $37.2 million).
"Cheap and youngish" has to be the Grizzlies' offseason mantra. Unless they lean into a reset, they need players who fit a to-be-determined timeline without clogging up the books.
Potential Targets: Jordan Bell, Trey Lyles (restricted), Noah Vonleh
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Three-and-D wing
Please officially welcome the Timberwolves to Club Tank. They've only just arrived. It initially appeared they might be content to hover around ninth or 10th place in the Western Conference, but they've since shut down, um, well, almost everyone.
Angling for next year's postseason is in play. Karl-Anthony Towns, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Josh Okogie and whoever gets taken with this year's pick make for an intriguing asset base. And though the Timberwolves won't have cap space, they can re-sign Tyus Jones (restricted) or Derrick Rose while retaining access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level.
Point guard vaults to the top of their shopping list if neither Jones nor Rose sticks around. Jeff Teague is the human embodiment of "eh" these days, and Andrew Wiggins is no point forward.
Three-and-D specialists take centerstage for now. The Timberwolves have Covington, but that's about it. Wiggins (with his 33 percent career average from three) is never going to qualify, and Okogie, while hitting 35 percent of his treys in recent weeks, needs to shoot league average (35.5 percent) from beyond the arc for a half-season before earning the specialist designation.
Finding that player within Minnesota's max price point ($9.2 million) will be difficult. It should not be impossible—particularly when, as of now, the Timberwolves don't need to emphasize youth in the same vein as the Cavs or Grizzlies.
Potential Targets: Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith (restricted), Wesley Matthews
Disclaimer: Are they even tanking?
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Playmaking wing
The Hawks didn't assemble their roster with the intention to win games, but they're not steering into losses, either. They're free from mysterious and damaging shut-downs, and head coach Lloyd Pierce hasn't resorted to any fourth-quarter voodoo. Atlanta's most important players continue to get run during the most pivotal times.
Organic tanks are fun! And the Hawks don't plan on riding the bottom-of-the-barrel express for much longer. They are "are so bullish on the development of [Trae] Young, fellow rookie Kevin Huerter and second-year big man John Collins that they want to explore even the biggest and boldest of offseason plans," according to The Athletic's Sam Amick.
Atlanta has the cap sheet to get weird. Missing out on the Dallas Mavericks' first-round pick (top-five protection) opens up more than $40 million in room even if the Hawks net the No. 1 selection.
Bringing in another big man needs to be a priority if they don't win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. But they have Early Bird rights on Dewayne Dedmon, and centers are by and large easy to find on the cheap—even when they need to be floor-spacing rim protectors to make sense alongside Collins.
Poaching a playmaker on the wings is more important. I will die on Taurean Prince Mountain, but at this rate, my funeral may be scheduled before Christmas. He's looked that out of place. The Hawks don't have many wing prospects after him. DeAndre' Bembry isn't big enough to qualify, and Kevin Huerter, even at 6'7", is more of a nicely sized off-guard.
Skulking around the max-player market is fine. The Hawks do themselves a great service by merely getting face time with a glamour free agent. But they must also kowtow to the realities of their market and timeline. Expect their pursuits to include players of varying cost and experience.
Potential Targets: DeMarre Carroll, Khris Middleton (player option), Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted)
New Orleans Pelicans
Disclaimer: Anthony Davis
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Depends on Davis trade
Even with the losses raking in for a while, the Pelicans are only now getting to live their best tanking life. The NBA force-fed Anthony Davis into their rotation and, despite the jokes, they were 5.6 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court after he made his trade request.
Remove the asterisk on the tank itself, and they'll still have one attached to their free-agency whiteboard. They won't know what they need most until they have a hold on what's coming back in the eventual Davis blockbuster. They also won't know how much cap space they'll have until hammering out the futures of Julius Randle (player option) and Jrue Holiday (trade candidate).
New Orleans will need a big to replace Davis. Very few of the most popular hypotheticals include an anchor in the middle. A Toronto Raptors package built around Pascal Siakam (and Serge Ibaka's expiring contract) is the only sort-of-serious one that springs to mind.
Chasing wings is never a bad idea. The Pelicans will need another point guard even if Holiday sticks, too. Frank Jackson and Elfrid Payton (non-Bird free agent) aren't the answers. Their exact to-do list is subject to change, but they'll have the money to get something done. Letting Randle (not a sure thing) and Stanley Johnson (restricted) walk affords them a semi-clear line to $20 million in space.
Potential Targets: Tyus Jones (Restricted), Kevon Looney, Rodney McGruder (restricted)
Disclaimer: Limited cap space
Biggest Need in Free Agency: Point guard
Re-signing Kelly Oubre Jr. is "expected to be a priority" for the Suns, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Keeping him all but guarantees they won't have the coin to woo a bigger-time point guard.
Carrying Oubre's free-agent hold ($9.6 million) leaves them with noticeably less than $10 million to spend no matter where they fall in the draft lottery. They can jettison another salary. Renouncing Oubre also takes them into the $15 million and beyond range.
Failing that, the Suns must look to the draft and third-tier free agents.
Potential Targets: Tyus Jones, Terry Rozier (restricted; must renounce Oubre or shed salary), Tomas Satoranksy (restricted)
Chicago Bulls: Point Guard
Taking on Otto Porter's $27.3 million salary for next season has not removed the Chicago Bulls from the expensive-player hunt.
They can win the No. 1 pick and still dig up more than $15 million in cap space if they waive Shaquille Harrison (non-guaranteed) and renounce restricted free agents Ryan Arcidiacono and Wayne Selden. That baseline number only mushrooms the further they tumble down the draft ladder.
Whether the Bulls will—or should—exhaust their spending power remains to be seen. They've already re-invested in Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen will be extension-eligible after next season. Inflating the payroll doesn't track unless they fancy themselves playoff hopefuls in 2019-20.
Scooping up the right point guard might put them in that discussion. The Eastern Conference is that wild, and the Bulls have a promising frontline with Porter, Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Nabbing a significant upgrade from Arcidiacono, LaVine-as-playmaker lineups and Kris Dunn renders them hyper interesting.
Winding up with the second overall pick probably forces Chicago to shift focus. Murray State's Ja Morant seems like a lock to go after Zion Williamson, and paying another point guard to expedite the timeline comes at the expense of his development.
Thinking smaller also works. The Bulls don't have to trip over themselves trying to outbid the field for a shinier target.
Rolling the dice on an affordable mid-end option, such as Tomas Satoransky (restricted) or Delon Wright (restricted), allows them to gently nudge their roster in the win-now direction without forking over primetime money.
Best Potential Targets: Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright
Dallas Mavericks: Playmaking Wing
Kemba Walker is expected to be Dallas' "top target" in free agency, according to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. That's...totally fine. It's better than totally fine.
Anyone who has watched Walker over the past few years understands that he can share the spotlight with another primary ball-handler. The Charlotte Hornets have rarely, verging on never, given him that opportunity, but he's canning 41.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes since 2015-16.
Luka Doncic is a dream teammate for Walker following an eight-year slog as mostly a lone wolf. But adding a point guard, while reasonable, doesn't address the Mavericks' greatest void. Doncic is a floor general unto himself. Cheaper options can approximate the responsibility point guards must ferry beside him.
Landing a playmaking wing is the more pressing priority. The Mavericks know it. The New York Times' Marc Stein identified Khris Middleton as an "inevitable target" for them back in February. Showing heavy interest in Walker says more about their confidence in the Milwaukee Bucks re-signing Middleton than their thirst for a point guard.
Other options will be at the Mavericks' disposal—pretty much all of them, actually.
Grinding out Kevin Durant room is a stretch ($38.2 million). But they can cakewalk their way to max money for a player with up to nine years of experience ($32.7 million) if their first-round pick conveys to Atlanta (top-five protection) while carrying free-agent holds for Dorian Finney-Smith (restricted) and Maxi Kleber (restricted).
Sussing out a taker for Dwight Powell's expiring pact just about gets the Mavericks to star territory in the event that their draft selection stays put.
Best Potential Targets: Bojan Bogdanovic, Jimmy Butler (player option), Khris Middleton
Los Angeles Lakers: Co-Star for LeBron
Los Angeles Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka will never live down their so-obviously flawed approach following LeBron James' arrival.
Signing a handful of ball-dominant non-shooters while failing to seriously consider retaining Brook Lopez and Julius Randle, per The Athletic's Bill Oram, is unforgivable. The Lakers effectively punted on a year of James' prime—a huge no-no during his age-34 season.
Still, their decision to offer one-year contracts in service of this summer's cap space isn't franchise malpractice...yet. (Both Lopez and and Randle, who has a player option for next season, signed one-year pacts. But whatever.) Plenty of transgressions—including maybe the Ivica Zubac trade—will be forgotten if the team gets James a co-headliner.
Except, well, that isn't a given. The Lakers aren't being billed as favorites for any of the most popular names. That's unlikely to change, as Oram wrote:
"The Lakers need to project stability going into yet another critical offseason if they hope to attract a second superstar to pair with James. After Paul George ignored the Lakers last summer, most league insiders believe the biggest names in this year’s loaded class of free agents will follow his lead."
Acquiring Anthony Davis wouldn't soften the blow of a star-less free agency. No one beyond Kevin Durant (player option), Jimmy Butler (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option), Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Kemba Walker is worth the wait of stomaching this past season's drama-drenched makeshift core.
Settling now only means Los Angeles should have more aggressively pursued a superior supporting cast last summer. And perpetuating a placeholder nucleus in favor of 2020 cap space isn't an option. With James entering his 17th season and coming off the most serious injury of his career, the Lakers' sales pitch is shaky enough as it stands.
Waiting another year, when LeBron will be staring down his 36th birthday, won't make it any better.
Best Potential Targets: Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard
New York Knicks: Two—Yes, TWO—Superstars
Teams shouldn't need to sign a pair of superstars in free agency. But the New York Knicks are, as ever, the New York Knicks. So they do.
Trading Kristaps Porzingis consigned the Knicks to this all-or-nothing direction. The haul was good for a soon-to-be free agent working his way back from a torn left ACL: Dennis Smith Jr., two first-round picks and an easy path to dual-max slots. This still isn't a move smart organizations make in a vacuum.
Porzingis is franchise-cornerstone material when healthy. His reported unhappiness in New York cannot count as a deciding factor. His leverage was that minimal. The Knicks could have matched any offer he received in restricted free agency, and the threat of him signing his $4.5 million qualifying offer never registered as a real problem. Players don't leave that much guaranteed money on the table coming off their rookie deals.
Cap flexibility dictated New York's thought process. But offseason spending power isn't a must-have asset in January or February. The Knicks could have worried about clearing the deck over the summer once they knew with absolute certainty that they needed that much wiggle room.
Smith and two first-rounders from a Mavericks team that could be really good by next season isn't nearly enough to forfeit Porzingis' future for the off chance two superstars flock to New York. And make no mistake, it has to be two.
The Knicks needn't have gone nuclear to open up a single max spot. They could have kept Porzingis and sweetened a Tim Hardaway Jr. or Courtney Lee salary dump ahead of free agency. Worst-case scenario, they could have waived and stretched Lee's expiring contract to get Kevin Durant money.
Signing one marquee name alone no longer equates to a victory. Smith isn't fit to help a wannabe contender win now, and neither he nor Dallas' picks will be enough to headline a blockbuster trade to get the Knicks someone who does. That responsibility falls to this year's pick and, perhaps, Kevin Knox—assets New York already had in the bank.
Oh, and if this won't do it for you, owner James Dolan declaring the Knicks a certified free-agent hotspot will.
"We hear from people all the time, from players, from representatives [about] who wants to come," he said during an appearance on The Michael Kay Show (via Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix). "We can't respond because of NBA rules, but that doesn't stop them from telling us. I can tell you from what we have heard, we are going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents."
Two stars. That's what the Knicks need after taking such drastic measures in advance of the trade deadline. And by their standards, any combination of Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker will do.
Best Potential Targets: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard