The 1 Free Agent Your NBA Team Can't Afford to Lose
Dizzying amounts of time are spent debating which NBA teams have the best shots at poaching marquee free agents from other squads. And actual basketball every so often takes a backseat to these hypotheticals. The playoffs are not just a chance for the Golden State Warriors to win their third straight title but also a referendum on where Kevin Durant will sign over the summer.
Everyone is guilty of indulging the hype assigned to offseason transactions. We're not here to stop it. We just want to futz with it a little bit by doing the unthinkable: focusing on in-house free agents.
Can't-lose players come in all forms. Some are truly indispensable. Others are invaluable role players and glue guys who will be difficult to replace. A select few are highly important but not mission critical.
Tiers will be used to break up exceptions, and the issue won't be forced for teams that don't have free agents worth fussing over. Non-guaranteed contracts and club options are not up for discussion. Franchises get to decide whether those players enter free agency in the first place.
Bear in mind these have-to-have incumbents vary in significance, and their appearance here is relative to their specific situations.
Eastern Conference Teams Not Sweating Incumbent Free Agents
Ryan Arcidiacono (Early Bird restricted), Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Robin Lopez and Wayne Selden (restricted) make up the Bulls' list of free agents. They won't sweat departures from any of them. They may not even look to bring back a single one.
Chicago's focus will instead shift to outside targets—mainly point guards. Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson made it clear that Kris Dunn isn't the answer, and flashy help isn't coming via the draft on June 20 after the Bulls fell to No. 7 in the lottery. They need a minor miracle, or to trade up, to have a crack at Darius Garland.
Finding another floor general on the open market won't be much of a problem. Chicago can open up more than $20 million in cap space by waiving all of its own free agents.
That isn't quite enough to poach marquee attractions like Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) or D'Angelo Russell (restricted), but it more than suffices for worthwhile alternatives such as Darren Collison, Terry Rozier (restricted), Ricky Rubio, Tomas Satoransky (restricted) and Delon Wright (restricted).
Rodney McGruder (restricted) was the closest Miami came to a can't-lose free agent. But then he vanished from the rotation after making 45 starts. And then the Heat waived him in service of ducking the luxury tax.
Goran Dragic is worth consideration if we think he'll decline his $19.2 million player option. We don't. Or at least, we shouldn't. And even if he does, he's a 33-year-old point guard who has dealt with knee injuries over the past two seasons and just posted the second-lowest effective field-goal percentage of his career.
Bake in Justise Winslow's move to point guard, and Dragic is nowhere near as valuable to Miami as he was one year ago.
Western Conference Teams Not Sweating Incumbent Free Agents
Paul Millsap is a must-keep for Denver, but his $30 million team option nullifies his candidacy. He'll only reach the open market if the Nuggets let him, which they won't do without the intention of re-signing him to a longer-term deal.
Everyone else after him is less than a footnote. Trey Lyles (restricted) finished the season outside the rotation and made just three appearances in the playoffs. The Isaiah Thomas experiment went bust and isn't worth rebooting unless Jamal Murray or Monte Morris is traded. And Denver made its intentions with Tyler Lydon clear by declining his team option at the end of October.
Reeling in outside help, preferably on the perimeter, is the Nuggets' bigger concern. They will have access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($9.2 million) if they scrimp their spending and can jimmy up some extra breathing room by declining Millsap's team option and re-signing him at a cheaper price point.
Do they funnel that money into a singular acquisition? Divvy it up among multiple smaller-time pieces? Are they even willing to get into new players for more than a year with Murray, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Juan Hernangomez all scheduled for restricted free agency next summer?
Willie Cauley-Stein is the only Kings free agent worth bouncing around in this space, and his case lost luster as the season trudged on.
Sacramento's front-line carousel is part of the equation. Neither Marvin Bagley III nor Harry Giles is a true center. But their offensive chemistry noticeably improved later in the year, and they look like the 4-5 of the future. Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica don't play Cauley-Stein's position, but their relevance at the power forward spot creates a logjam that will lead to more time at the 5 for both Bagley and Giles.
Cauley-Stein's midseason plateau comes into play too. He started off as a Most Improved Player candidate, and his rosier shot profile held the entire year. But that tear ended up screeching to a halt.
"The lob is Cauley-Stein's friend, but he lacks a defined post move and he doesn't have a counterattack when his initial move is stymied," NBC Sports' James Ham wrote. "In addition, he shot just 31 percent on 200 shot attempts from three-to-10 feet away from the basket. Cauley-Stein also stumbled at the free-throw line for long stretches during the season, finishing with a career-worst 55.1 percent from the charity stripe."
Unaddressed defensive struggles seal the deal. Cauley-Stein is too long and springy to be a non-factor around the rim. He doesn't block a ton of shots, and opponents converted 66.5 percent of their opportunities at the basket against him—the worst mark of his career.
That leakiness is compounded by overstated switchability. He was dubbed an all-over defender entering the NBA and has yet to make good on that reputation. His outside closeouts are uninspiring, and he doesn't do much to dissuade dribble drives in space. The Kings will live if he leaves.
Utah doesn't want for control over its roster. Derrick Favors, Kyle Korver, Raul Neto, Georges Niang and Royce O'Neale all have partially or non-guaranteed salaries for 2019-20, and the team's short list of actual free agents is populated by backups (Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh).
Ricky Rubio's future looms as the toughest call, and that doesn't say much. The Jazz need to get Donovan Mitchell a backcourt running mate who can create his own shots off the dribble or consistently knock down standstill jumpers while he runs the offense. Rubio doesn't fit either bill.
The Jazz's most pressing priority is determining how much cap space they need. They have access to between $16 and $20 million in wiggle room, but they'll need to waive Favors, whose salary guarantees on July 6, to enter the max-contract discussion.
Worrying about Rubio's next deal isn't part of that equation. He'll be there if the Jazz have to dig deep into their bag of contingencies, but their best-case offseason doesn't include bringing him back as a starter.
Important Free Agents but Not Exactly Must-Keeps
Memphis Grizzlies: Delon Wright (Restricted)
Delon Wright earns entry by default. He is, for lack of a better asset, the crown jewel from the Marc Gasol trade. The Grizzlies are under some pressure to keep him.
Not that Wright doesn't have functional value in Memphis. His jumper is a problem, but he's a dependable finisher around the basket and flashed real pick-and-roll chops as a co-headliner for the Toronto Raptors' 2017-18 bench mob.
Memphis has more defensive options with him in the fold. Wright can chase around some small forwards and equips the Grizzlies to switch more when he's playing beside Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. Late-season injuries prevented the trio from taking the floor this year, but Memphis allowed just 100 points per 100 possessions in the scant time Wright shared the court with Jackson.
Potential cost has to play a role in Wright's future. The Grizzlies, by all appearances, are gearing up for a quasi-reset. Wright shouldn't fetch an annual salary higher than his cap hold ($7.6 million), but it gets harder to pay him at all if they draft Ja Morant and hold on to Mike Conley.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Tyus Jones (Restricted)
Tyus Jones fits whatever timeline Timberwolves commit to following. He is only 23, a defensive bulldog and unlikely to solicit offer sheets that make Minnesota wince. Letting him walk feels relatively useless with no one else other than Jeff "Just Fine" Teague to man the point guard position.
At the same time, the Timberwolves need a floor general more likely to leave his mark on the offensive end. Jones isn't that guy. He has shored up his handle, but he's a wonky finisher around the rim, a shaky three-point shooter and erratic at best when dribbling into jumpers.
Though Minnesota's offense survived with him as the lead guard, Jones is more game manager—and a beneficiary of playing beside Karl-Anthony Towns—than half-court captain. He may never move the needle as a primary playmaker.
Bringing him back is more important than keeping Derrick Rose, an injury-prone 30-year-old whose offensive glitziness crashed and burned after Christmas. That says only so much. The Timberwolves should want to retain Jones, but he isn't the guy you fret over losing to a bigger role or more money.
Phoenix Suns: Kelly Oubre Jr. (Restricted)
"I've said before, we love Kelly," Suns general manager James Jones told reporters, per the Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin. "We want Kelly here."
It isn't hard to see why. Oubre averaged 17.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game while canning 54.3 percent of his two-pointers after the turn of the calendar. He is still a wild card from beyond the arc; he looks more comfortable launching jumpers off the dribble than from set positions. But he negated some of his teetertottering on the perimeter with more under-control pick-and-roll initiation.
The Suns can match any offer sheet he receives. Whether they will is a separate matter. Combo wings are in demand, and many teams won't hesitate to pay up for a 23-year-old who can cover three to four positions on defense.
In other words: Oubre isn't going to come cheap. And renouncing him just so happens to be the Suns' most efficient path to dredging up meaningful cap space.
Cutting bait with Oubre and all of their other free agents opens up more than $17 million in room—a tempting proposition after the Suns fell out of Ja Morant and possibly Darius Garland territory in the draft lottery at No. 6.
Josh Jackson's topsy-turvy offensive development and off-court snafus might convince Phoenix to match whatever offer comes Oubre's way. But the rotation is stocked with wings, and Devin Booker needs someone to co-opt the playmaking workload. Oubre is not above turning into collateral damage.
Key Non-Bird Free Agents: Eastern Conference
Cleveland Cavaliers: David Nwaba (Restricted)
Keeping David Nwaba will top the Cavaliers' to-do list over the offseason. He is one of their only incumbent free agents, and they don't have the spending power to swing for the fences.
Cleveland is so cash-strapped that bringing back Nwaba might be asking too much. He won't field big-money offers, but suitors will take notice of his 2018-19 performance. He was the Cavs' best perimeter defender—he's just 6'4", but he can hold ground in one-on-one situations against bigger wings—and canned 35.7 percent of his wide-open treys in 51 appearances.
Without his Bird rights, Cleveland cannot offer him more than a 20 percent raise before dipping into cap space or an exception. That's no problem in a vacuum. Nwaba shouldn't even get the mini MLE ($5.7 million).
But the Cavs must waive JR Smith's partially guaranteed deal ($3.9 million) just to ensure they skirt the luxury tax. Re-signing Nwaba tips the scales in the wrong direction. Unless Cleveland doesn't care about the tax or plans to sweat the details later, it won't take much to price him out of town.
Detroit Pistons: Wayne Ellington
Let us take a moment to consider Ish Smith here.
Retaining him needs to be among the Pistons' priorities. They don't have a viable backup point guard without him and can bankroll his next deal without much fuss. Assuming he commands a salary similar to this year's $6 million price tag, they'll be able to pay him and tap into the full mid-level exception.
Wayne Ellington is still the more important cog. Detroit's spacing remains iffy, and he promises an efficient outside clip amid relatively high volume. He dropped in 37.3 percent of his treys with the Pistons after going cold upon arrival and is pivotal to a rotation that closed the season starting both Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond.
Reggie Jackson finished the year on a measured tear, and Blake Griffin's off-the-dribble sorcery affords him floor-general credentials. They can offset Smith's potential exit. Replacing Ellington is much harder when he's not enough to boost Detroit's floor balance on his own.
New York Knicks: Noah Vonleh
All of the Knicks' free agents are technically disposable. No one is on the cusp of breaking into stardom, despite what their faith in Emmanuel Mudiay might imply, and they need to renounce everyone to come within $150,000 of funding maxes for both Kevin Durant (player option) and Kyrie Irving (player option).
Noah Vonleh is an easy loss to stomach if the Knicks actualize their pipe dream. He is harder to lose if they land only one star or strike out on everyone and don't trade for Anthony Davis.
Vonleh dabbled in a little bit of everything on offense with New York. His 2.7 post-ups per game felt like too much, but he shot 52.1 percent on them. He wasn't the most effective rim-runner, but he zipped through traffic on occasion and drained enough of his long twos (41.2 percent) and no-dribble threes (35.7 percent) to work the pick-and-pop. He even earned the right to lead fast breaks.
Footing the bill for his next contract is within the Knicks' power. They have more cap space than any other team, and even if they burn it all on superstars, they can still peddle the room exception ($4.8 million).
Key Non-Bird Free Agents: Western Conference
Houston Rockets: Austin Rivers
Houston simultaneously has no free agents who will make-or-break its offseason and more should-be keepers than it can afford.
Danuel House (restricted) comes pretty close to earning this honor, but his lack of utility in the playoffs cannot be explained by his toe injury alone. Gerald Green is another option, but he barely cracked the rotation during the Western Conference Semifinals.
Austin Rivers is the more fitting answer. He shot 45.7 percent from deep in the playoffs, including 53.8 percent on pull-up triples, and proved to be someone the Rockets could move around on defense against the Golden State Warriors.
Re-signing him demands that Houston eats into its mid-level exception. That doesn't bode well for Rivers' return. The Rockets haven't operated as huge spenders under owner Tilman Fertitta and won't be slinging the full MLE if they're concerned with not just remaining below the apron but also outside the tax altogether.
New Orleans Pelicans: Elfrid Payton
Definitive assessments of the Pelicans' offseason are hard to make without knowing the outcome to the Anthony Davis situation. Their primary aims and concerns change if he stays put. He still wants out, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, but executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin isn't giving up.
"And if winning is what he is indeed all about, which we have every reason to believe, we feel confident that we can create—and are creating—the right environment for Anthony and frankly for high-caliber players of all types to want to be a part of," he said, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett. "This is something that we hope creates an energy that recruits itself, and Anthony would just be one step in that process."
Elfrid Payton likely remains the Pelicans' most important free agent no matter what happens with Davis. Julius Randle (player option) is miles from irreplaceable with Zion Williamson coming down the pipeline, and Jrue Holiday's shift to off-guard over the past two years necessitates the presence of a QB1.
New Orleans can offer Payton $3.6 million before knifing into cap space or an exception. That might be enough. Right ankle problems and a fractured left finger cost him nearly half of 2018-19, and his jumper and his finishing around the rim don't inspire much confidence.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Nerlens Noel (Player Option)
The Thunder are not ponying up to keep a big man. Steven Adams is earning a superstar's paycheck, Patrick Patterson picked up his player option and Jerami Grant-at-the-5 lineups still intrigue.
Shooting, shooting and more shooting are at the top of Oklahoma City's offseason checklist. Another wing aside from Paul George who can dribble is a close fourth. That doesn't leave any money to spare on Noel, one of this year's best backup 5s.
Crummy spacing neutralized his impact on rolls to the hoop, but he made up for it with the occasional floater and a 40.5 percent clip from mid-range. He was a defensive monster for most of the year. Opponents shot 51.5 percent against him at the rim—a top-four mark among 99 players to challenge at least 200 point-blank looks—and he joined Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson as just the third player to average more than two steals and three blocks per 36 minutes.
Bigs tend to get squeezed on the open market, but the Thunder's cap sheet doesn't have the runway to meet Noel's baseline market. The taxpayer's mid-level is their best tool, and if they don't allocate that $5.7 million to niche shooters, they probably won't use it at all.
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon (Early Bird Rights)
John Collins is a huge part of why the Atlanta Hawks' future looks so bright, but the contrast between his utility on offense and defense complicates their roster construction.
He needs to play beside a particular front-line partner: a true-sized center who protects the rim and has the lateral gait to guard in space but who can also stretch the floor around his dives to the bucket, trampoline lobs and occasional drives.
Dewayne Dedmon is that player—as close to him as the Hawks will get.
Opponents have not cleared 60 percent shooting against the 7-footer at the rim since 2013-14, his rookie season, and he's shown that he can use his length to fence in ball-handlers and challenge jumpers on rotations and recoveries.
Atlanta surrendered 110.3 points per 100 possessions whenever he played beside Collins. That defensive rating skyrocketed to 118.4 in the time Collins logged without Dedmon. Neither is an active deterrent around the basket—39.1 percent of enemy shots came at the rim with both on the court—but the Hawks are better suited to combat point-blank volume with Dedmon policing the middle and jumping the semi-frequent passing lane.
His offensive fit is even more seamless. Nearly 40 percent of his field-goal attempts came as catch-and-fire threes, on which he shot 38.1 percent. He is everything the Hawks need to put alongside Collins in high-end role-player form.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player who rivaled Dedmon's defensive rebound, steal and block percentages while making at least 25 three-pointers. Outside admirers are going to come calling, but the Hawks will get first dibs. He won't require a larger raise than the 75 percent Early Bird rights allow, and they can carry his cap hold ($9.4 million) while digging up more than $33 million in space by renouncing all of their other free agents.
Spending to keep Dedmon won't measure up to traditional home runs. The Hawks cannot care. They're not finding an insta-fit for Collins in the draft—Brandon Clarke intrigues but seems to lack the size (at 6'8") and length to play the 5 full time—and the free-agency pool is absent worthier alternatives unless Al Horford (player option) wants to rediscover his NBA roots.
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving (Player Option)
Some will inevitably maintain the Boston Celtics are better off without Kyrie Irving. They can lean into the development of their younger building blocks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and re-establish themselves free from the closed-door tension that strained the locker room this past season.
Let's agree to transcend this scorched-earth stance.
Irving is a top-10 player at his peak, and Boston's awkwardness cannot, in totality, be blamed on him. The offense cratered without him on the court in both the regular season and the playoffs, and nearly everyone overestimated the ease with which the roster could come together.
Gordon Hayward's return was always going to be a gradual affair, and conflicting timelines impeded the Celtics' capacity to navigate the number of cooks in their kitchen. Concession is not second nature to players on their rookie-scale contracts. In retrospect, the integration of Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier (restricted) around Irving, Hayward and Al Horford was never a sure thing.
Time, along with Rozier's probable exit, will simplify the Celtics' situation. If it doesn't, talent alone ensures they'll remain a fixture near the top of the Eastern Conference. They can be in worse places—like, without Irving.
Losing him overturns the Celtics' open-ended timeline. They become more of a project facing tough questions.
Do they re-sign Rozier? How can they fill the point guard slot if both he and Irving leave? Do they pursue Anthony Davis? Can they trust that Brown, Hayward, Horford, Tatum and Marcus Smart can anchor an Eastern Conference contender?
Convincing Irving to stay, even if it takes a five-year max, is still the Celtics' best possible outcome. He gives them carte blanche to go after Davis, and they can fudge the roster makeup later if the offensive hierarchy doesn't resolve itself.
By the way: Making a case for Horford is borderline acceptable. But he's not a real flight risk if he declines his player option. He's open to signing a longer-term deal with the Celtics at a cheaper price point, according to the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett, and if he does want to leave, he'll have more leverage and better offers in next summer's star-starved market.
Brooklyn Nets: D'Angelo Russell (Restricted)
D'Angelo Russell doesn't carry the same cachet relative to other No. 1 options. The idea of paying him near-max money after his first brush with stardom is legitimately terrifying, and judging from their noncommittal view of his free agency, the Brooklyn Nets seem to understand it.
"It's not going to happen in one day or one hour or a 15-minute conversation" general manager Sean Marks said following Brooklyn's first-round playoff exit, per Bryan Fonseca of SB Nation's NetsDaily. "This is something that's happened for 18 months or two years or however long these guys are here. I think D'Angelo knows how we feel about him. As I mentioned before, our job is to keep talent on the floor, and to get better talent and to keep developing that talent. So we'll see where it all ends up."
Writing Russell out of this exercise altogether takes that uncertainty too far. The Nets don't have any other potential cornerstones entering free agency—heart you, Ed Davis—and grouping Russell into the asterisk pool undersells the magnitude of his leap. He ferried a superstar's burden.
Just five players posted higher usage rates in 2018-19, and only six attempted more pull-up threes, which he drilled at a 36 percent clip for basically half the year. No one except Kemba Walker ran more pick-and-rolls, and Russell's 8.3 assists per 36 minutes were a career high.
Brooklyn cannot just afford to punt on his future for cap sheet's sake. Refusing to max him out would be one thing, but he needs to broker that offer sheet first. His market doesn't figure to run that deep.
Teams like the Suns and Orlando Magic can use him but won't begin the offseason with the space to hawk his $27.3 million max salary. The Bulls do not have the defensive reinforcements to pair Russell with Zach LaVine. (Does anyone, really?) The Dallas Mavericks have bigger fish in their sights, per the New York Times' Marc Stein.
Tying up cap space in restricted free agents isn't the Indiana Pacers' bag. The Jazz are a different story, but waiving Derrick Favors just to overpay Russell without guaranteeing the Nets cut him loose verges on reckless.
Failing an ultra-aggressive play from one of these might-be courters or a fit of "Let's. Get. Weird." from Sacramento, Brooklyn doesn't have the leeway to let its lone All-Star walk for nothing.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker's free agency threatens to consign the Charlotte Hornets to a no-win situation.
Allowing him to sign elsewhere only holds water if they're worried about staking the next four to five years of his career, and they have neither the asset equity nor the goodwill to make that call—assuming, of course, it is theirs to make.
Haggling over money with top-30 players is usually bad form, and Charlotte does not have the leverage to try it. Walker's future has been an issue since the middle of 2017-18. The Hornets had two trade deadlines to move him in exchange for picks and prospects.
Letting him leave for nothing is their disaster scenario. They still won't have cap space without him to make waves in free agency or on the trade market, and Miles Bridges is the closest they have to a cornerstone successor.
General manager Mitch Kupchak said at season's end the Hornets will "do everything that we can" to keep Walker, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. That whatever-it-takes won't come cheap.
Walker is officially eligible for the five-year, $221.3 million supermax after making the All-NBA third team. Maybe he'll shave a sum off the top in exchange for the full boat of years—his regular Bird rights max tops out at five years, $189.7 million—but that windfall is the ace up the Hornets' sleeve.
And with so many other teams promising closer proximity to title contention in free agency, Charlotte may have no other choice than to play it.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis (Restricted)
Kristaps Porzingis isn't going anywhere. The Mavericks already have too much invested in him.
Prying him from the New York Knicks cost Dennis Smith Jr. and two first-round picks, one of which will be unprotected in 2021. And they had to swallow Tim Hardaway Jr. (two years, $39 million) and Courtney Lee (one year, $12.8 million) to boot.
The Mavericks are long since pot committed, and it shows. They planned to offer him a five-year max as of March, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
Porzingis has since come under investigation by the NYPD following allegations he raped a woman at his New York penthouse. It isn't clear if this will impact his market. He was also reportedly attacked at a club in Latvia. (The team is satisfied the altercation in Latvia is a wrong-place, wrong-time matter, per the Dallas Morning News' Brad Townsend.)
From a purely basketball perspective, the Mavericks don't have an actual decision on their hands. They can worry about Porzingis' spotty health bill and let the market set his price tag if they're not keen on maxing him out from jump.
Really, though, they've already made their choice. They valued him as a superstar in trade talks. There can be no turning back now.
Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant (Player Option)
Don't bother pushing back against this pick. The Golden State Warriors cannot afford to lose Kevin Durant. It isn't even a question.
Getting past the Rockets and sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers without him doesn't change that. The Warriors could win a title without him, and it still wouldn't change.
Their title window is different if he's not in the picture—less inevitable. Going an entire season without him is different than winning a few playoff series, even if one of them ends up being the NBA Finals. (Durant is ruled out for the start of the championship round.)
Stephen Curry turns 32 next March. Draymond Green (March) and Klay Thompson (February) will celebrate their 30th birthdays well before the 2020 playoffs. Next year is Andre Iguodala's age-36 season. Shaun Livingston, who turns 34 in September, might retire. The Warriors bench ranked 23rd in total minutes played during the regular season, and Golden State won't have the cap flexibility to flesh out the roster this summer.
Durant has been a luxury up until now. That won't hold. The older and thinner this core gets, the more essential Durant becomes.
Botching contract negotiations with Thompson this summer would no doubt be a bigger PR hit. He's supposed to be a lifelong Warrior. Strip emotion from the table, and he doesn't hold a candle to Durant. Losing KD amounts to a much larger setback.
Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic
Adding higher-end shot creation is a must for the Pacers. Their half-court offense ranked 22nd in efficiency after Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury in January, a far cry from the No. 16 spot it held when he was healthy.
Indiana has the cap space to go big-game hunting. Tobias Harris is on its radar, per Philly.com's Keith Pompey, and other second-tier stars like D'Angelo Russell and Kemba Walker are both quality fits. And, in theory, they are not completely out of the team's depth.
This lukewarm optimism rings hollow. Cap space doesn't assure the Pacers of anything. Small markets are forever at a disadvantage when pitching stars in free agency, and Oladipo's recovery from a ruptured tendon in his right quad works against them. He was and remains their greatest selling point and may not hold the requisite sway over his peers until he gets post-rehabilitation reps under his belt.
That shaky curb appeal begs the Pacers to keep Bojan Bogdanovic, their second-most important offensive player.
He isn't the quintessential from-scratch creator, and his efficiency cratered as the primary focus of Boston's defense in the first round. But he shot 51.7 percent on drives (tops among Indy's non-bigs), dropped in 30 of his 85 pull-up three-point attempts (35.3 percent) and upped his pick-and-roll initiation following Oladipo's injury.
Bogdanovic alone cannot carry an offense. He shouldn't be the No. 2 option on a contender. But he is a facsimile of what the Pacers need most. That their offense sniffed the 50th percentile of efficiency when he played without Oladipo, and Domantas Sabonis is more pleasant than problematic.
Whether they bag a star or more fitting second in command doesn't matter. The Pacers need Bogdanovic, and he doesn't obliterate their spending power. They can float a $13.7 million cap hold and still clear $30 million in space, with the potential to eke out even more.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
Plenty of players will become cap casualties of the Los Angeles Clippers' free-agency ambitions this summer. Patrick Beverley better not be one of them.
Few other guards are as suited to complement superstars. Beverley defies the limitations placed upon effort at the defensive end. He is 6'1" but guards with the force of a 6'9" Adonis when nose-to-nose. He defended Kevin Durant more than any other Clippers player in the first round and even spent time on Draymond Green.
Beverley works himself to exhaustion on the less glamorous end without any expectation at the other. He can make some stuff happen off the dribble—though he's turnover-prone in the pick-and-roll and not great at finishing through traffic—but his offensive game is predicated on high usage or guaranteed volume.
Over 44 percent of his field-goal attempts this season came as spot-up threes, on which he shot 41 percent. That wheelhouse translates across all 30 offenses.
Hence why the Clippers shouldn't give Beverley a reason to shop around. They can chisel out more than $46 million in space with his $9.6 million cap hold on the books. That's enough to sign Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard and have money left over.
In the event L.A. needs a second max slot, keeping Beverley still has to be the goal. Flipping Danilo Gallinari and a smaller salary (like Jerome Robinson's $3.6 million) into rival cap space is both doable and gets the job done. Beverley is worth that extra trouble—particularly when Gallinari needs to go as part of any dual-max scenarios anyway.
Los Angeles Lakers: Reggie Bullock
One overlooked side effect of the Los Angeles Lakers' jump to fourth in the draft lottery: They can no longer open up max room while lugging Reggie Bullock's $4.8 million cap hold.
That's a pretty big deal. Bullock is the ideal superstar accessory. He isn't a lockdown defender, but he can hold up in one-on-one situations with 2s and 3s, along with some point guards. And most of his looks come as catch-and-shoot treys, which he splashed in at a 38.9 percent clip this season (35.6 percent with the Lakers).
Contrary to what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka believed early last year, LeBron James' teams can never have too many snipers. And Bullock is one of only two, maybe three, incumbent Lakers who can be counted on to nail threes at an above-average rate. They need him.
To be sure, Bullock's future is only up in the air, not dead where it stands. The Lakers can move around other salaries to accommodate his cap hold or hope he re-signs for the $4.8 million room exception (meh). Paying him won't even be a problem if they whiff on their superstar targets.
Assuming the Lakers do need max space, though, they must get creative to guarantee Bullock's return.
Emphasis on must.
Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton (Player Option)
Khris Middleton is one of many key free agents the Milwaukee Bucks have to worry about paying this summer. He's also the most critical.
Precious breaths will be wasted arguing that he's not worth keeping around if he commands the max. That line of thought misses the point. Middleton isn't a conventional No. 2, but he is the Bucks' No. 2. And they don't have enough contingencies in place to navigate his departure.
Neither Eric Bledsoe nor Malcolm Brogdon is capable of filling his role. Middleton is a junior offensive hub. He churned through more isolation possessions (224) than Bledsoe and Brogdon combined (171) and launched 502 pull-up jumpers—almost as many as Stephen Curry (507), and 214 more than Giannis Antetokounmpo (288), the next-closest Buck.
Milwaukee trusts Middleton to spearhead lineups on his own more than anyone aside from Greek Freak. In the 721 possessions he played without Antetokounmpo or Bledsoe on the court this year, the Bucks notched a net rating of 5.7.
Flip the script, and the results don't compare. Milwaukee was a minus-16.5 points per 100 possessions in the time Bledsoe spent without Antetokounmpo or Middleton. Lineups with just Bledsoe and Brogdon barely held up in scant court time.
Price tags have a way of butchering perception. Middleton's next contract needs to be an exemption. He isn't a max star, but if the market dictates he's worth the full monty, then the Bucks have to pay it.
And for anyone thinking that Brogdon's next deal renders him more valuable, ask yourself this: Is Brogdon at $20-plus million per year really a better bargain than Middleton at $30-plus million a season?
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic
Opening the checkbook for Nikola Vucevic feels inessential to the Orlando Magic when taking the cold-hearted, three-steps-removed view of their situation. He turns 29 at the start of next season, re-signing him effectively guarantees they'll operate as a capped-out team and they're primed to steer into a rebuild around Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Wesley Iwundu and, yes, Markelle Fultz.
But team trajectories aren't explicit. Franchises cannot be separated into championship contenders and long-term projects. Occupying the space between has value to certain organizations. The Magic are one of them.
Vucevic is their ticket to fringe playoff contention. Tethering so much of the offense to his skill set puts a cap on their postseason ceiling, as we saw during their first-round series against the Raptors, but he gives them a postseason ceiling at all.
"Bringing Vooch back is a priority," Magic president Jeff Weltman said, per the Orlando Sentinel's Roy Parry. "That being said, Vooch is going to have a lot of teams who will make him a priority for them too. ... Hopefully, we can get something done. It's the NBA, and I always say there's a lot of real estate between the intentions and what gets done."
Orlando's scoring output bombed whenever Vucevic took a breather. Head coach Steve Clifford didn't have anyone else he could roll out even as a pretend hub. The Magic offense got crushed in the time D.J. Augustin or Terrence Ross ran solo.
Having Fultz doesn't undo that imbalance. He is both the Magic's swing piece and their biggest wild card. He cannot be deemed the answer until he is the answer.
This absence of an alternative renders Vucevic's importance absolute. The Magic cannot afford to lose him and hope to remain in the playoff picture. They need to blow up the roster just to have operable cap space, and the No. 16 pick probably isn't going to yield another first-option building block.
Fortunately for Orlando, Weltman overstated Vucevic's offseason market. His list of prospective suitors isn't a given. Sift through this summer's biggest buyers, and no clear threat to overpay him emerges—which is great news for the Magic. Vooch is their lifeline amid a whole bunch of questions. They need to keep him, and it looks like they'll be able to do so without completely breaking the bank.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jimmy Butler (Player Option)
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick are all entering free agency, and the Philadelphia 76ers, frankly, need each of them to stick around. They cashed in their best assets for Butler and Harris, and Redick is a more malleable offensive outlet than any of the four stars he currently calls teammates.
Picking just one was tough sledding...until the playoffs happened...at which time it became crystal-clear that Butler is the free agent Philly cannot solider on without.
Harris is the theoretical cleaner fit beside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. He needs his on-ball reps but is more accustomed to accessory duty. Over 21 percent of his looks with the Clippers were coming as catch-and-shoot threes when the trade went down. Just 12 percent of Butler's attempts came in the same vein while he was with the Timberwolves.
But Harris grappled with fourth-wheel status during the playoffs. He converted under 35 percent of his treys (shot 39.7 percent in the regular season) and went freezing cold in Philly's seven-game set with Toronto, draining only 27.9 percent of his three-balls, including a sub-31 percent clip off the catch.
Butler, meanwhile, proved to be more of a steadying force. The Sixers gave him license to run more point even with Simmons on the court, and his incessant, all-out probes, while not always pretty, collapsed the defense off his teammates and helped him generate plenty of trips to the charity stripe.
Philly's half-court attack never found a sustainable groove, but its offensive rating plummeted by a team-high 20.2 points per 100 possessions with Butler on the bench.
Maxing out that player is just easier and more sensible when forced to choose. Denoted fourth wheels like Harris are inherently easier to approximate, and in lieu of seamless synergy between their best players, the Sixers must make it their mission to preserve star power over everything else.
Portland Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu
Al-Farouq Aminu may have cost himself some serious coin during the playoffs.
Defenders left him alone beyond the arc, and he seldom made them pay. He shot 29.4 percent from deep overall and just 26.3 percent on wide-open treys. He has traditionally hit threes at a higher clip in the postseason, but the Blazers viewed him as borderline unplayable by the end of their (brief) Western Conference Finals stay
That might actually work in their favor. Cheaper is always better, and they still need him more than any of their other free agents—though Seth Curry comes pretty darn close.
Aminu carries a herculean defensive load for the Blazers. He's not touted as a lockdown stopper, but he is their bridge between wings and bigs. Kemba Walker is the only other player this season who guarded as many pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions (199) and post-ups (92).
Feel free to laugh at Aminu's company. But his positional portability is key, even in the playoffs. He had a huge part in slowing down a hobbled Paul George during Portland's first-round rampage through Oklahoma City.
Affording him now gets a teensy bit easier for the Blazers following his postseason brickfest. They have his full Bird rights, but they'll blow past the luxury-tax line if he secures an annual salary close to his $13.2 million cap hold. A deal worth around or under $10 million per year would be more manageable and perhaps increase the likelihood Portland aggressively uses the $5.7 million mini mid-level exception.
San Antonio Spurs: Rudy Gay (Early Bird)
Giggle if you must. The San Antonio Spurs need the soon-to-be 33-year-old Rudy Gay.
For one, he's been genuinely good with them. He banged in 40.2 percent of his threes this season while once more eschewing feckless one-on-one vendettas and was pleasantly sturdy at the defensive end.
Lineups featuring him at power forward rated inside the 76th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions without no-showing on the boards, and he was San Antonio's best pick-and-roll defender after Derrick White. Only six other players matched his defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block rates: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Larry Nance Jr., Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Vucevic.
Strike his actual performance from the discussion, and Gay remains a logistical lifesaver within the Spurs' rotation. They don't have anyone else resembling a true wing—that player who can sponge up time at both forward spots.
Forget about small-ball-4 minutes. The Spurs need wings, period. The majority of the players most used at the 3 this year were guards masquerading as forwards. (Props to Marco Belinelli and DeMar DeRozan.) That cannot fly even in the positionless era.
San Antonio will have access to the full mid-level exception this summer. That isn't enough. Signing another wing in place of Gay still leaves the Spurs short-handed on the perimeter. They need to bring him back and land another combo forward.
It can be done. Gay's Early Bird rights will more than take care of next year's salary, and the Spurs aren't in danger of brushing up against the tax while carrying his $13.1 million cap hold. They have no excuses.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Toronto acquired Leonard from San Antonio last summer under the guise he would leave this year, and he might. The Clippers still loom, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski noted, and LeBron James is doing his damnedest to get the Lakers into the running, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
This noise isn't going away. It will persist even if the Raptors win a championship. People aren't suddenly going to stop reading into his California roots or Toronto's not-L.A.-weather climate.
The Raptors can live with it. Again: They're in this situation by their own hand. But they've also done one helluva job forcing Leonard's own. They've protected his health, put a title contender around him and made it difficult for him to find a better basketball situation.
If he leaves now, after all this, he was always gone.
Starting over doesn't have to be in the Raptors' plans without Leonard. They'll be left with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and probably Marc Gasol (player option) if he flees. That's a playoff squad in the East. It is not a contender.
That's what the Raptors have at stake in the end. Leonard is the through line to where they are now—that difference between championship-worthy and everything else.
Washington Wizards: Tomas Satoransky (Restricted)
John Wall's recovery from a ruptured left Achilles tendon projects to cost him most of next season. Tomas Satoransky's return is a non-negotiable condition if the Washington Wizards are going to angle for a trip back to the playoffs in his absence.
Leaning into a rebuild instead would change things. We can't be sure if that's on the table. Washington needs to first hire a general manager and map out a vision.
In the meantime, with Wall's salary set to double and Bradley Beal playing at an All-NBAish level, we have to assume the Wizards will keep pushing for the postseason. And they'll need another playmaker to help them do it.
Satoransky has the chops to be the pseudo point guard on a good team. He posted a higher assist rate on drives this year than any of Washington's other everyday rotation players, and the Wizards pumped in 114.3 points per 100 possessions whenever he and Beal played without Wall.
Figuring out Satoransky's price tag is a chore. He has the off-ball experience to be considered plug-and-play—he averaged as many points per spot-up possession this season as Joe Harris—but doesn't have the scoring instincts to prop up lineups on his own. He needs a star-sized buffer.
Luckily for the Wizards, they have one of those in Beal. And so long as they don't get cute with Jabari Parker's team option or overpay one of their other free agents, they can afford to bring back Satoransky without rocketing into the luxury tax.