NBA Free Agents Who Would Be Foolish to Change Teams

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 5, 2019

NBA Free Agents Who Would Be Foolish to Change Teams

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    While some NBA free agents might already daydream about greener grass, some shouldn't even consider looking beyond their own backyards.

    When players are in great situations, there's no need to risk rocking the boat. Their free-agency experience should only include inking a 12:01 a.m. ET pact with their current club, then turning up like they're Paul George at a Russell Westbrook house party.

    We're looking at the no-brainer decisions only here. Even if we think Kevin Durant shouldn't leave for basketball reasons, we get why he might bounce to build something from scratch with best buddy Kyrie Irving. Just like we're skeptical of Jimmy Butler finding a more talented team but could envision him finding a supporting cast and system that better complements his game.

    These cases are different. Whether for basketball or financial reasons, the following five players shouldn't even contemplate a change of scenery this offseason.

Al Horford, Boston Celtics (Player Option)

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    Al Horford has a $30.1 million player option for next season. As a soon-to-be 32-year-old center, you might assume that's the motivation for placing the five-time All-Star on this list.

    It's not.

    Truth be told, if Horford had a chance to lock up a longer deal with a (probably significantly) smaller annual salary, he'd have to consider it. That's how good he fits with the Boston Celtics. And he knows it.

    "If they want me here, I'm very happy," Horford told Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp before the season.

    The Celtics have complete confidence in their interior anchor. Head coach Brad Stevens called him "an elite leader." President of basketball operations Danny Ainge dubbed him "the perfect guy," noting his ability to "play any style of basketball."

    Perhaps that sounds like inflated praise for a player with per-game contributions of 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists. But Horford's brilliance lies in the subtleties—crisp rotations, on-time and on-target passes, defense-separating screens—and Boston is best equipped to maximize them.

    If Kyrie Irving sticks around, Horford can continue serving as the ultimate glue guy for a top-tier contender. If Uncle Drew departs, the center can help groom Boston's collection of youngsters while keeping the Shamrocks in the dark-horse discussion.

    Much like Horford himself, the situation can be molded however circumstances demand. With this coaching staff, front office and roster, the Celtics have everything needed to optimize his impact as he ages.

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks (Unrestricted)

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    When conjuring up images of fantasy basketball pairings, shame on us for never mentally linking Brook Lopez and Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

    OK, maybe they're not Michael and Scottie, Kobe and Shaq or Steph and KD. But Lopez and Budenholzer are responsible for the most splashes by a 7-footer in NBA history and two critical components of one of the best campaigns the Bucks have ever had.

    Lopez's transformation from back-to-the-basket behemoth to Splash Mountain shifted into overdrive this season. The same player who hit just three triples over his first eight NBA seasons netted 187 this year, more than noted marksmen like Joe Harris, Bryn Forbes, Landry Shamet and Bojan Bogdanovic. Lopez's 36.5 perimeter conversion rate also outpaced the league average of 35.5.

    "I couldn't be happier playing in Milwaukee," Lopez told Marc Stein of the New York Times. "This has been an amazing situation to come into."

    Just last summer, Lopez was unceremoniously cast aside by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. To say he hit the ground running with the deer would be a massive understatement. He trailed only real-life Monstar Giannis Antetokounmpo on net differential (plus-7.0) for the Bucks, who were this season's best team by wins and efficiency (plus-8.6).

    Budenholzer knows every string to pull with Lopez. The Bucks launch the league's most catch-and-shoot threes, and the big man paces them in the category. They also revamped their defensive coverage around his interior presence and subsequently spiked from 18th to first in defensive efficiency.

    Lopez, this season's 19th-ranked player by ESPN's real plus-minus, settled for a one-year, $3.3 million pact last summer. He should be looking at a big earnings boost this time around, ideally on a new deal to stay in Milwaukee.

Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (Player Option)

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Two Bucks in a row—what gives?

    Look, we're not saying anyone who shares the floor with Antetokounmpo would be foolish to leave him. (Of course, we're also not not saying that, either.) But Khris Middleton landed in Milwaukee as essentially a throw-in to a deal headlined by—wait for it—Brandon Knight and Brandon Jennings. The walking Swiss Army knife has since become a lethal long-range shooter, a 20-point scorer and an All-Star.

    It's been a similar script for the Bucks as a whole. They won 15 games his first season. They notched 60 in this one.

    Who would want to walk away from that? It doesn't sound like Middleton would.

    "It's not being in the right market, it's being on the right team," Middleton said, per ESPN's Malika Andrews. "This organization—they've done everything they can to make sure we succeed."

    The on-court setup is perfect. Middleton doesn't need to carry the offensive load, but he can seize the spotlight when he's feeling it (12 games of 25-plus points). He has the opportunity to spread his wings as an isolation scorer (15.8 percent of his offensive possessions, 14th-most overall), but he also often finds himself on the receiving end of drive-and-kick deliveries (3.0 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per night).

    He's not quite a top-shelf talent, but he works as a sidekick to a star as bright as Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee's defensive success shines a favorable light on Middleton's versatility, and he's just as involved at the other end (25.1 usage percentage, second on the team).

    He'll have his pick of destinations this summer, with the Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers all looming as potential landing spots. If the money is equal (or even close to it), he won't find better than the Bucks can give him.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors (Unrestricted)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Klay Thompson, care to handle this one for us?

    "When guys go into free agency, they're looking for situations like mine," Thompson said, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic. "I'm content."

    And why wouldn't he be?

    Over his eight seasons with the Golden State Warriors, he's made five All-Star trips and won (at least) three championships.

    The Dubs make perfect use of his talents. He's one of the most accurate three-point shooters ever, so they find him more than six long-range catch-and-shoot chances per game. He's a brilliant backcourt defender, so they entrust him with the toughest guard assignment. He's pretty underwhelming as a rebounder and distributor, so they have other elite players in those areas.

    It's a dream job. Playing alongside Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Thompson never needs to force the issue. But when he ignites, the Warriors can warp their system to find him enough shots to, say, score 37 points in a single quarter, splash 14 triples or cook a 60-burger in under 30 minutes.

    He's not going anywhere—not this summer, maybe never. He wants to play out his career with Golden State. He's said that, and so has his father.

    Again, given how good he has it, why wouldn't he?

Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat (Player Option)

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Free agency isn't always just about money, but in Hassan Whiteside's case, it should be.

    His contract with the Miami Heat offers two options this summer: stay put and pocket a cool $27.1 million, or risk everything by entering an open market growing increasingly disinterested in interior big men.

    In other words, there is no decision, right? You take the money and stay. But somehow the big fella has decided this isn't so cut and dry.

    "I'm definitely going to weigh my options," Whiteside said in April, per Anthony Chiang and Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "It's definitely a decision I got to make and do the best for me. I feel like if I'm playing, I'm going to produce, so it will take care of itself."

    No one has ever accused Whiteside of lacking confidence, but this seems reckless.

    Teams aren't paying non-shooting bigs. JaVale McGee, Nerlens Noel and Zaza Pachulia all settled for minimum money last summer. Dwight Howard (two years, $11 million) and Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) got a pinch more. The only two to really cash in were DeAndre Jordan (who only signed for one season) and Clint Capela (who's a lot younger and plenty more mobile than Whiteside).

    There's zero reason to believe the market will behave differently this summer.

    In fact, it could be worse for throwback bigs. The center class isn't just crowded, it's loaded with stretchy 5s like Horford (maybe), Lopez, Nikola Vucevic, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins and Dewayne Dedmon. Plus, teams targeting traditional centers could potentially value Jordan, Davis, McGee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter, Thomas Bryant and/or Robin Lopez more than Whiteside. 

    Even if the Heat don't have the available minutes Whiteside wants, there's no guarantee anyone else does, either. It's much better to stick out this season, embrace whichever role he's given, put another massive sum in his bank account and then see if the grass is any greener next summer.


    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.