Desperate NBA Teams That Need to Make a Splash in Free Agency
Of the three ways to add talent in the NBA, free agency is easily the leading generator of anxiety.
Trading for and drafting players can be nerve-wracking, but those methods give teams a measure of control. If you're trading for talent, it means you have something to give up in exchange. You can pivot to another buyer when the price isn't right. If you're drafting a prospect, you get the certainty of a league-mandated contract structure and team control for several years.
Free agency is a more desperate exercise. It's competitive, for one, because several teams vie for the same players. More than that, it implies a void that needs filling. Cap space can't put on a jersey if you don't spend it, so there's an urgency to turn it into a live body. And if you're resorting to free agency as your primary roster-building method, it might mean you haven't had success drafting or trading.
It's often the last resort of the chronically mismanaged.
We'll stretch the limits of the term "desperate," which usually implies a sense of hopelessness. For some of the teams here, there will be reason for major despair if free agency doesn't turn out well. For others in more stable positions, this summer's free agency represents a prime opportunity that may not present itself again.
In both cases, the stakes will be high.
Los Angeles Lakers
The only thing riding on the Los Angeles Lakers' free-agency success is...everything.
Both the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke and ESPN's Dave McMenamin suggested on The Sedano Show (h/t Brad Botkin of CBSSports.com) that LeBron James could seek to extricate himself from the Lakers if the team botches its efforts to provide him with free-agent support for a second straight summer.
Plaschke's comments were particularly sensational: "I'm hearing that if they whiff on free agency, and if they whiff on a trade ... they've got big trouble with LeBron. I mean, the LeBron era could be over before it starts here."
The concept of "Lakers mystique" has been on life support for years, sustained only by James' decision to sign there in 2018. Losing him this quickly—because of egregious mismanagement and top-down dysfunction—would pull the plug for good.
Failing again in free agency would merely be a symptom of organizational rot, and you could hardly blame James for wanting to distance himself from the decay. But if the Lakers do manage to attract significant talent to support James, title contention might become realistic.
That's a wide spectrum of possible futures, and it all hinges on what the Lakers do (or don't do) in free agency.
New York Knicks
When the New York Knicks cleared the decks by sending Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks at the trade deadline, cutting almost every bad dollar on the books and ginning up more cap space than any team in the league, it was simultaneously exciting and unnerving.
It was the kind of move a wise franchise would make only if it knew something about the future. Why free up all of that money unless you know who would eventually collect it? Kevin Durant had to be en route, right?
Then again, the Knicks haven't exactly exuded wisdom in their previous roster-building efforts. So while it seemed like a foolish approach unless they had a longer-term plan in place, the Knicks have always been kind of foolish, haven't they?
A few months removed from the trade, the situation doesn't seem quite as make-or-break. The Knicks have no bad contracts on their books, two first-rounders coming from Dallas in 2021 and 2023 and the No. 3 pick in this year's draft. If they don't sign two max stars this summer, it'll be disappointing (and vindication for anyone who viewed the cap-clearing gamble as reckless), but they'll still have the option to build more deliberately.
Unfortunately, the Knicks can't be trusted to operate with patience. So in that sense, this summer is still critical.
Succeed in signing a pair of superstars, and the whole gambit pays off. Fail, and trigger the reactive, franchise-crippling rashness that has consigned the Knicks to the league's cellar for 20 years.
The Milwaukee Bucks' desperation is complicated.
You wouldn't expect a franchise that came within two games of the NBA Finals to feel anxious about its future—particularly one with a 24-year-old who's likely to win his first MVP award in a few weeks. The Bucks are already great, and they could be greater next year.
But that proximity to major success carries with it an uncomfortable specter of collapse. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a free agent two years from now, and players of his caliber often don't wait until they're officially on the market to start planning their exits. That's why free agency is so important.
Antetokounmpo wants to run it back, and that might be tough.
Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon started for the Bucks last year, and they're all ticketed for free agency and considerable raises. Milwaukee has only paid the luxury tax once, and even if it's willing to do so again, that doesn't address the difficulty of keeping Lopez.
The Bucks can use full Bird rights to pay Middleton and Brogdon up to their maximum salaries, but the most they can give Lopez is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which starts at around $9.25 million) unless they somehow free up more cap space by shedding salary. Lopez, who was perhaps more critical to Milwaukee's spaced offense and drop defense than anyone but Giannis, is worth far more than $9 million.
Somebody's going to prove that with a bigger offer than Milwaukee can manage. That makes it doubly important for the Bucks to keep Middleton and Brogdon (and to a far lesser extent, Nikola Mirotic).
With Lopez's exit seeming likely, Milwaukee can't afford to backslide further by losing any of the other players Antetokounmpo wants it to keep.
The Brooklyn Nets are financially flexible, flush with young assets and fresh off a playoff trip, all thanks to a stable and progressive management structure that should be just as attractive to free agents as any of those other selling points.
Capable of clearing two max salary slots (by dumping Allen Crabbe and renouncing their own free agents), the Nets could lift themselves into the league's upper tier with a pair of marquee signings. While adding Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard is far-fetched, there are already indications Brooklyn has an inside track on another All-Star.
Irving's rocky season with the Boston Celtics should give the Nets pause. He's lost the benefit of the doubt in the "can he lead without LeBron?" debate. Still, it's remarkable that Brooklyn is in a position to attract free-agent interest from a star after a half-decade without control of its own first-rounders.
If the Nets reel in one or two major names and see organic growth from their promising core—Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs—they could climb into the East's upper echelon.
Los Angeles Clippers
Take all the grand possibilities ahead of the Nets and triple them. Now you have a rough idea of what could be ahead for the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's sleeping giant.
The Clips already have one max slot cleared, and they're a Danilo Galinari salary-dump away from another. They've had their eye on Kawhi Leonard for months, and they continue to look like the front-runner to sign him whether the Toronto Raptors win a ring or not.
After the 2019 draft, the Clippers will have no further outgoing first-rounders and two coming in from the Sixers and Heat in 2020 and 2021, respectively. They have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac (a restricted free agent) under team control, plus Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams signed to below-market deals.
If the Clippers miss out on Leonard and another star this summer, it'd hardly be fatal. A strong culture, elite management, a respected coach and a stable foundation mean L.A. will be on the upswing regardless.
But if the Clips connect in free agency, they immediately become a title contender with staying power—one with every imaginable organizational advantage.
Considering the potential highs that would come with big splashes in free agency and the lows that would accompany a strikeout, the Clippers may have more at stake than anyone else this summer.