1 Outside-the-Box NBA Free Agent Your Team Needs
Repetition is an implicit constant of NBA free-agency speculation.
Discussions about who's leaving, who's staying, which teams will create the most cap space, what destinations are most appealing and all that good stuff begin more than a year in advance. Overlap is unavoidable when looking that far into the future. We end up talking about the same targets for the same teams over and over.
This ad nauseam analysis doesn't necessarily get old. Hypotheticals and conspiracy theories have a way of consistently engaging.
And yet, variance is fun! Most of us are suckers for fresh conversations and new angles. So consider this our novel dive into potential free-agency fits.
Not every suggestion is completely outside the box. Some of these could-be partnerships have broken the surface before. But none of them are being talked about as primary outcomes. They all fall under the contingency-plan or alternative-option umbrellas.
Full disclosure: Certain squads aren't worth overthinking. They are so invested in superstars rostered by other teams that it doesn't make sense to lay down options or complementary targets outside that scope. In these instances, an alternative 1A target will be listed instead.
It's Too Complicated: A Toronto Raptors Story
Kawhi Leonard's free agency (player option) is not a cut-and-dry turning point for the Toronto Raptors.
They acquired him under the guise that they had just locked down their championship window for years to come or set themselves up for a clean reboot in 2019-20. That might still be the case.
Toronto will be left pursuing ring-chasers and poring over the markdown section if Leonard stays. It is no longer a lock to start over if he leaves.
Pascal Siakam's swift ascension is part of the new calculus. So is the Raptors' top-to-bottom depth. Siakam, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol (player option), Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are an Eastern Conference noise-maker on their own. They're not a contender, but they don't need to be.
Anunoby, Siakam and Powell (restricted) are the only players from that gaggle under contract beyond next season. The Raptors can talk themselves into a year of respectable transition before enjoying gobs of cap space.
Or, again, they could start over. Or they could have Leonard.
We can't be sure what happens next. And while the Raptors won't have cap space unless both Gasol and Leonard bolt, the specter of their free-agency search is at the mercy of too many unknowns and subsequent possibilities.
Save your outside-the-box takes until we know what box they're operating within.
Alternative target: Jimmy Butler (player option)
This might be a "Why choose?" situation. The Nets can carve out dual maxes by renouncing D'Angelo Russell (restricted), Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving wanted to play together as of last summer and Brooklyn may now be frontrunners to sign the latter, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Chasing Butler isn't a novel concept, either. The Nets were believed to have "a very real chance" of landing him as of May, per the New York Post's Brian Lewis.
As a primary target, though? Butler is more unique. The back end of his four-year max is already a source of discomfort for talking heads. He turns 30 in September and has more than six years of Tom Thibodeau miles on his knees.
Brooklyn can afford to gloss over the obvious risks more than other suitors. Russell and Joe Harris are the only players who have ever averaged more than 30 minutes under head coach Kenny Atkinson, and no one has come close to approaching 31. If any major free-agency buyer has the foresight to preserve Butler's body into his mid-30s, it would be the Nets.
Los Angeles Clippers
Presumed top target: Kawhi Leonard (player option)
Alternative target: Jimmy Butler (player option)
The Clippers' chances of stealing Kawhi Leonard have taken a hit following the Toronto Raptors' NBA Finals bid. They'll suffer a perhaps insurmountable blow if he wins a second championship during his first year in The North. Sources have already told TrueHoop's David Thorpe that Leonard will return to Toronto "at least on a short-term deal."
Wooing that initial superstar will be worlds tougher for the Clippers if their first option removes himself from consideration. They're the best-run NBA franchise in Los Angeles, but they don't have the historical or LeBron James-sized cachet of their Staples Center tenants.
Not many of the remaining free-agency alphas seem like they'll take the plunge on their own. Khris Middleton (player option) and Kemba Walker don't nudge the Clippers' standing enough without help, and Los Angeles has been there, done that with Tobias Harris. Klay Thompson isn't going anywhere, and Kevin Durant (player option) scenarios have lost luster this side of his Achilles injury.
Butler feels like someone who would join the party without assurances of an equal. The Clippers are not so young that they'd incite his next tour de force, but they have the prospects (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet) and cap flexibility to set themselves up for a future that doesn't include overexerting him.
Los Angeles Lakers
Presumed top target: Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard
Alternative target: Kemba Walker
Woj dropped a cold dose of uh-oh on the Lakers' curb appeal during ESPN's 2019 NBA Mock Draft Special (h/t Silver Screen & Roll's Harrison Faigen): "Right now they are not a frontrunner, or even really a major consideration, among any of the elite free agents."
Walker is a tier below this summer's heaviest hitters, but he's an ideal co-star for James: a strong approximation of his partnership with Irving in Cleveland. He's also more gettable than many of the other top-10 names.
Staying with the Charlotte Hornets is his first priority, but they don't have the trade assets or cap space to strengthen the roster around him. The five-year, $221.3 million deal Walker can sign after making an All-NBA team is their ace in the hole, but they must be willing to play it. Their advantage over the field ends there.
New York Knicks
Presumed top target: Kevin Durant (player option) or Kyrie Irving (player option)
Alternative target: Kawhi Leonard (player option)
Durant's latest setback probably won't do anything to dissuade the Knicks' interest, but it at least forces them to spend a minute or two charting alternatives.
Why not Leonard?
Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry "expect to get a meeting" with him in free agency, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. This says nothing of his actual interest, but people in his camp wanted Leonard to play for New York when the San Antonio Spurs first started shopping him last summer, per Ian Begley, then of ESPN.
Prying him away from the Raptors (and Clippers) is a long shot. Whatever. Leonard is now the top free agent on the market—here's to a speedy and full recovery for Durant—and the Knicks' chances of a coup already took a turn for the worse when Irving and the Nets' mutual interest became public knowledge.
New York might as well go down swinging for the best of the best. Maybe it works out against all odds. The Knicks can drum up two max slots and haven't yet tumbled out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. If Leonard is at all interested in syncing up with another star or two (a big if), they'll be on his radar.
Atlanta Hawks: Maxi Kleber (Restricted)
Long-term investments don't seem to be a priority for the Atlanta Hawks.
Swallowing Allen Crabbe's expiring contract from the Nets in exchange for two first-round picks infers a designed transience. Their interest in bringing back Dewayne Dedmon on what The Athletic's Shams Charania called a "balloon one-year deal" does the same.
Then again, Atlanta's bread-breaking with Brooklyn might just be a matter of opportunity. The Hawks will still have over $15 million in cap space if they carry Dedmon's hold, picked up a third first-round pick in this year's draft and no longer need to worry about paying the extension-eligible Taurean Prince.
Sam Amick of The Athletic reported in February that Atlanta planned to act like buyers over the offseason. That remains in play. The Hawks are blockbuster-ready with three large expiring contracts, and their cap space will rise above $25 million if they end up renouncing Dedmon.
Shoring up the frontline slot beside John Collins has to be a priority no matter what timeline they're following. He demands a very specific partner: someone who spaces the floor on offense and protects the house at the other end. Dedmon is basically that player, and the Hawks can burn one of their draft picks on a big. But they must be ready to pivot.
Paying Maxi Kleber constitutes a dice roll. Most of his minutes with the Dallas Mavericks have come at power forward, but he has the lateral quickness and size to be a defensive shape-shifter. He can bang with most towers on the block, and opponents shot 55.7 percent against him around the rim—a top-25 mark among 165 players who challenged at least 150 point-blank looks.
Atlanta has zero to consider looking at Kleber's offensive fit. He put down 35.3 percent of his treys on 5.2 attempts per 36 minutes and was even deadlier after Jan. 1, draining 41 percent of his triples amid a bigger role.
Talented restricted free agents are tough to poach. Kleber should be an exception. The Mavericks have to pay Kristaps Porzingis (restricted), and Dwight Powell is expected to sign an extension after exercising his player option, according to the Dallas Morning News' Brad Townsend. Kleber fits with either skyscraper, but bankrolling expensive big-man trios has an archaic feel to it.
Boston Celtics: Jeremy Lin
Every possible outcome to the Boston Celtics' offseason should include their nabbing a cheap point guard.
Whether they keep Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier (restricted), both or neither doesn't matter. They need a ball-handler to put pressure on set defenses, reach the rim and draw fouls. And they need that player to sign for a cut rate.
Boston's flexibility will vary depending on what its own free agents do. Actual cap space is beyond reach. The non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($9.2 million) is in play if Irving leaves, but less so if Marcus Morris remains part of the picture.
More likely than not, the Celtics will be working with the mini MLE ($5.7 million) unless both Irving and Rozier hit the bricks. (Possible!) They should be limiting themselves to point guards who cost even less than that. The free-agency pool is light on floor-general lifelines, and Boston won't have the cap equity to make a run at the best options.
Jeremy Lin stands out as a bargain-bin candidate. He battled serious injuries in each of the two previous seasons, and the Toronto Raptors have been reluctant to break his seal during the playoffs—at least in part because he has dealt with back spasms.
In the event he can remain healthy, Lin is exactly what the Celtics need in a second or third point guard. He isn't the craftiest finisher around the basket, but he gets there. More than 29 percent of his looks have come at the rim since 2015-16, over which time he's notched a free-throw-attempt rate of 38.7—a top-10 mark among 163 non-bigs who have appeared in at least 150 games during this span.
Not since Isaiah Thomas has Boston's perimeter corps included this brand of prober. That won't make Lin a lucrative acquisition or starting-level player, but it does mean he'd help diversify the Celtics' half-court offense.
Charlotte Hornets: Rodney Hood
Kemba Walker's free agency will dictate the Hornets' direction, but his decision won't do much to impact their spending power.
Maxing him out vaults them into the luxury tax without cutting other salary. Losing him only drags them under the cap if they also bid farewell to Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky (restricted).
Charlotte will need a cheap scorer in either case. Lineups without Walker mostly crashed and burned on offense, and Lamb's potential (read: likely) departure only increases that functional strain. The Hornets could swing a trade for Bradley Beal, and they'd still need at least one more reinforcement scorer.
Rodney Hood is right up their alley. He isn't a from-scratch maestro but doesn't shy from putting the ball on the floor and launching off the dribble. He put down 36 percent of his pull-up threes during the regular season and helped the Portland Trail Blazers a great deal in the playoffs with semi-occasional attacks on the basket and spot-up jumpers.
Pursuing Hood is easier to sell if Walker comes back. But going on 27, he's young enough to run with any version of a Hornets franchise that probably won't look to bottom out in response to a nightmare offseason. Affording him is an entirely different matter.
Accessing the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception will be a relative breeze if Walker flies the coop. Charlotte won't have more than the mini MLE if he sticks around. That might be enough.
Hood's restricted free agency yielded crickets last summer, and he has struggled to play the part of offensive complement. But the Hornets must be willing to tap into their mid-level exception to have a crack at him. Owner Michael Jordan has yet to foot a luxury-tax bill, and it isn't quite clear how much he's willing to shell out for a non-contender if Walker returns.
Chicago Bulls: Tomas Satoranksy (Restricted)
Don't expect the Chicago Bulls to go big-game hunting this summer. They have pain-free paths to more than $20 million in cap space, but they plan to divvy up that money among "multiple players," per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.
This makes sense. Few free-agent point guards are worth the Bulls' entire purse, they are more than one B-plus floor general away from contention and they may use the No. 7 pick on Darius Garland or Coby White.
Tomas Satoransky is a good in-between target. He isn't the forever answer, but he's way more valuable than Chicago's in-house alternatives.
Poaching him won't take the vast majority of the Bulls' spending power. The Washington Wizards want him back, but John Wall's four-year, $170.9 million extension kicks in while he's recovering from a ruptured left Achilles tendon, and Bradley Beal's next contract looms. They cannot view Satoransky in completely indispensable terms with so much of their future unsettled.
Chicago has the leeway to offer him more money. Satoransky isn't terribly old (27), and he's suited to play alongside other ball-handlers.
Almost 60 percent of his made baskets came off assists this past season, and he averaged as many points per spot-up possession as Joe Harris. His fit beside Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine is a non-issue, and Chicago will be free to bring him off the bench once it acquires or grooms a longer-term option.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Furkan Korkmaz
Free agency will not be an integral part of the Cleveland Cavaliers' offseason. They'll be up against the luxury tax even if they waive JR Smith ($3.9 million partial guarantee), and their payroll will skyrocket should they use his uniquely appealing contract to absorb a less-savory pact attached to picks and prospects.
Tapping into the mini mid-level exception is unlikely. Owner Dan Gilbert will deserve some praise if he's willing to flip Smith for future assets and pay the tax for a lottery squad, but expecting him to inflate the bottom line in free agency goes too far.
Cleveland will have a hard enough time retaining David Nwaba (non-Bird restricted). All of its signings will come on the margins via the afterthought barrel. And that market usually takes some time to develop. The Cavaliers won't know the full scope of what's available to them until the dust begins to settle.
Furkan Korkmaz is a safe bet to land in the bargain bin. The Philadelphia 76ers declined his team option, a right knee injury cramped his availability after the All-Star break and he didn't factor into the playoff rotation.
Another suitor might be open to offering Korkmaz a one-year deal worth more than the minimum. He doesn't turn 22 until the end of July and has barely 750 minutes of action to his name. Young and inexperienced 6'7" wings make for optimal gambles.
The Cavaliers should pounce if the market for his services stalls. They don't have one specific need beyond more talent, and Korkmaz started to perk up before his right knee injury. He buried 36.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes after Dec. 1, and Cleveland can get away with deploying him at the 2, 3 or 4.
Dallas Mavericks: D'Angelo Russell (Restricted)
Dallas has its sights set on slightly bigger fish than D'Angelo Russell. Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker top the team's list of targets, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein. Tobias Harris is on the radar as well, per The Athletic's Shams Charania.
All three are solid fits next to Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Prioritizing them also shows acute awareness on the Mavericks' behalf. They are stars, but not on the same level as Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Dallas clearly recognizes how hard stealing one of the five biggest names will be.
Shifting focus to Russell would exemplify a similar understanding. He is more obtainable so long as the Nets and Kyrie Irving share what ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski called "strong mutual interest," and going after him won't require the Mavericks to dredge up more cap space.
Dwight Powell's return leaves them with just under $28 million to throw around without making any cost-cutting moves. That's around $5 million shy of starting max salaries for Harris, Middleton and Walker. Russell's comes in at $27.3 million.
Tying up cap space in restricted free agents is dangerous. The Mavericks won't be able to spend that money on anyone else while the Nets take up to 48 hours to deliberate. But courting Russell early and aggressively forces their hand. They'll have to renounce him if they want to max out two other stars, and the idea of paying him the full boat without bagging another big name might sway them into letting him walk.
Few teams can feel comfortable offering Russell top dollar. The Mavericks are one them. His ball-handling overlaps with Doncic's skill set, but not untenably so.
Two off-the-dribble maestros are a must for today's game, Porzingis isn't particularly ball-dominant and Russell has experience playing away from the rock. He posted an effective field-goal percentage of 58.3 on catch-and-shoot opportunities during the regular season, and, at 6'5", he has more to offer as a cutter.
Denver Nuggets: Trevor Ariza
Deepening the wing rotation has to top the Denver Nuggets' offseason to-do list.
Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Gary Harris don't fit the bill, and Michael Porter Jr. cannot be treated as the savior even if he's fully healthy. Juan Hernangomez helps, but he's more of a one-position player (power forward), and Denver didn't view him as a rotation staple following his core-muscle injury.
Finding these players for what the Nuggets can offer won't be easy. They can maneuver themselves into the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, but they'll have to offload salary, including Paul Millsap's team option, to be a bigger player.
Trevor Ariza isn't so far outside the box. Contenders on the prowl for combo forwards who don't crimp their spacing will be drawn to him. To date, though, he has been a best-contract chaser—and good for him. But that inherently drives up his cost.
Enticing him may take most of the MLE, and teams with higher payrolls are usually hoping to split up that money among two or more free agents. The Nuggets aren't in the same boat. Twelve of their roster spots for next season are set if Millsap stays. They can funnel their MLE into a singular investment.
Shelling out real money for a 33-year-old Ariza is not beyond reproach. He didn't shoot the ball too well this past season, and it'll get harder for him to track quicker wings as he ages. But he provided an extra layer of half-court playmaking as a member of the Wizards and splashed in 44.7 percent of his wide-open threes overall.
Denver can work with his limitations. DeMarre Carroll, Darius Miller, a Wilson Chandler reunion and other options would come cheaper. That shouldn't matter. Ariza, at worst, offers a higher defensive ceiling and, at best, gives the Nuggets a more reliable and malleable option at the offensive end.
Detroit Pistons: Danuel House Jr. (Restricted)
Danuel House Jr. is not primary-target material. That's the point.
The Detroit Pistons have too many holes to plug: another point guard or two, wings at large and a backup big behind Blake Griffin. They have a line to re-signing Ish Smith and using the full mid-level exception, but they do not have the incumbent depth to dole out that money to one impact player.
And if Smith leaves or the Pistons don't have the flexibility beneath the hard cap to function as non-taxpayers, forget about it. They'll be tasked with filling just as many or even more voids with less money.
House is eminently gettable for what Detroit can offer. The Houston Rockets do not own his Bird rights, weren't playing him by the end of their playoff run (he had a toe injury) and are currently trying to rejigger the nucleus around James Harden, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
A fraction of whatever MLE the Pistons are peddling might be enough to pry House away. And while his sorry shooting in the playoffs is a red flag, his standout regular season warrants a gamble.
Through 39 appearances, House posted an effective field-goal percentage of 63.9 on catch-and-fire jumpers and shot 52.6 percent on drives. He might have more to offer as an off-the-bounce attacker if afforded the requisite half-course license.
His defensive portability is foreign to Detroit's rotation. Houston leaned on him to salvage what remained of last year's switching scheme and gave him run at every wing position. He should not be saddled with pestering superstar scorers, but he can hang with second-tier creators and will come up with stop and strips in space.
Golden State Warriors: Austin Rivers
Kevin Durant's free agency and apparent Achilles injury don't change the complexion—or complexity—of the Golden State Warriors' offseason.
Without him, they'll be in the market for capable depth, predominantly at the 5 and on the wings. With him, they'll need the same. Their supporting cast outside the starting lineup is that unmanageably thin.
Most will gravitate toward the center spot. Damian Jones is the only one under contract next season. But bigs are easier to scrounge up on a beggar's dime. The market always squeezes a few.
Besides, Durant's injury creates a superstar-sized void on the perimeter. He'll either leave in free agency or, it seems, return to recover from a setback that'll cost most or all of next year.
Austin Rivers is not a panacea disguised as a cheap alternative. He is, however, within the realm of possibility for what the Warriors can pay. They'll (probably) be working with the mini mid-level even if Durant signs elsewhere.
Signing with Golden State might actually entail Rivers accepting a tiny haircut. He made himself some money while helping the Rockets navigate Chris Paul's regular-season hamstring injury and emerging as an important rotation piece in the playoffs.
Rivers drilled 45 percent of his spot-up threes and 53.8 percent of his pull-up treys through 10 postseason appearances. He lacks the playmaking chops to be called upon for table-setting duty with any semblance of consistency, but he's just long enough to be moved around the 1, 2 and 3 slots on defense.
Golden State's second unit badly needs that versatility.
Houston Rockets: Thabo Sefolosha
Houston's openness to moving anyone other than James Harden should not have any impact on its free-agency position.
Opening the full mid-level exception is in play but not especially likely. Bringing back any combination of Danuel House Jr., Kenneth Faried, Gerald Green, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert will eat away at the Rockets' breathing room under the luxury-tax apron. Keeping incumbent talent probably even chisels into their MLE, since so many of their players are entering free agency without Bird rights.
It is equally hard to figure out how much they will pay for their roster. They only used part of their MLE this season, and general manager Daryl Morey pulled out a bunch of stops to skirt the luxury-tax line. Owner Tilman Fertitta might pump the brakes on any substantive spending if the Rockets aren't shaving salary on the trade market.
Thabo Sefolosha is a payroll-proof option. He isn't netting real money at the age of 35 after missing 76 games over the past two seasons, but he does beef up the frontcourt rotation. He mirrors a lot of what PJ Tucker does defensively, albeit on a much smaller scale, and Houston generates the type of three-point looks that suggest his 43.6 percent clip from this year won't implode.
Downsized lineups that feature him at the 4 beside a small-ball 5 could become an instant staple. The Rockets do not use Tucker as their de facto center often, but Sefolosha almost exclusively played power forward with the Utah Jazz.
Even using him to strictly spell Tucker would preserve Houston's frontline versatility in a way rivaled only by House, who is both more of a defensive wild card and probably going to cost more money.
Indiana Pacers: Marcus Morris
Bigger names may monopolize the Indiana Pacers' attention entering free agency. They can open the festivities with more than $30 million in space while ferrying Bojan Bogdanovic's cap hold, and The Athletic's Shams Charania identified them as one of D'Angelo Russell's primary suitors.
Expect the Pacers to eventually about-face their intentions. Wrapping up cap space in restricted free agents is inherently dangerous, and they're at even greater risk of whiffing on the top consolation prizes. Indiana is not a market to which players have historically flocked or on which they've typically waited.
Beginning with the third- and fourth-tier options is just cleaner, particularly if the Pacers want to keep more of their own free agents. They won't have the wiggle room to sign Russell or other max-contract candidates unless they renounce Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young.
Marcus Morris fits within the Pacers' price range if they're prioritizing a greater level of continuity. He ranked among the Celtics' most valuable players for much of the year, but a turbulent second half should keep his average annual salary at bay.
Indiana needs a playmaking combo forward, and Morris doesn't qualify to a T. But he comes close. He isn't a certified ball-stopper, and his inside-the-arc attacks are pretty effective for someone who doesn't reach the rim too often. He shot 45.5 percent from floater range this season and 51.4 percent on drives in general.
Nearly 38 percent of all his looks came as standstill threes, of which he canned 39 percent. He will play nicely off whoever the Pacers have running the show aside from Victor Oladipo, and, at 6'9", he can give them defensive reps against both bigs and wings—positional flexibility they'll sorely crave if Young leaves town.
Memphis Grizzlies: David Nwaba (Restricted)
The Memphis Grizzlies won't have much money to work with if, as expected, Jonas Valanciunas picks up his player option. Between CJ Miles exercising his own option and Delon Wright's restricted free agency, they'll be annoyingly close to the luxury tax for a team not built to make waves next season.
Inevitably waiving Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee) doesn't even assure access to the full mid-level exception. The Grizzlies can lop off salary in a Mike Conley trade, but his exit isn't a given—not before free agency, anyway.
Remaining over the cap at all is a huge turnoff. Memphis is never among the biggest spenders, and paying, say, $125 million for a potentially rebuilding squad doesn't sit right.
Consider this a roundabout way of saying the Grizzlies will be scouring the footnotes of free agency for clearance-rack value without a demonstrative shift in direction. They're like the Western Conference version of the Cavaliers, only they're much cheaper and far less likely to spend above the minimum.
David Nwaba might even price himself out of their finite reach. He isn't untouchable; Cleveland is cap-strapped and doesn't own his Bird rights. But despite standing 6'4", he is legitimately strong enough to guard 1 through 3 and match up with the occasional 4.
Memphis has cross-position stoppers of its own, namely Wright, Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. That doesn't render Nwaba nonessential. He further weaponizes the defense, giving the Grizzlies a hyper-switchable vibe they've never quite espoused.
His jumper is still a question mark, which would be problematic if both Anderson and Wright remain in the fold. It isn't a big enough dilemma to table interest altogether. Plus, Nwaba nailed 35.7 percent of his wide-open threes this year and 33.3 percent of those same looks in 2017-18. He's not a huge spacing liability.
Miami Heat: Mario Hezonja
Bit-player contracts are about all we should expect the Miami Heat to be slinging in free agency. They project as a taxpayer even if they waive Ryan Anderson ($15.6 million partial guarantee), and tossing out a chunk of the mini mid-level exception doesn't move the needle nearly enough to validate the total cost.
Sources told The Athletic's Shams Charania the Heat are interested in trading for JR Smith's partially guaranteed deal. (Them and everyone else without cap space.) Brokering a salary dump might arm them with the breathing room required to spend a little more, but they'll need to pony up significant sweeteners for the Cavaliers to stomach Hassan Whiteside's expiring pact, James Johnson (two years, $31.4 million) or Dion Waiter (two years, $24.8 million).
Third-tier fliers like Mario Hezonja are more in line with Miami's current cap situation. He has yet to figure out anything on offense, but the Heat are experts at carving out niches for discarded assets. Plus, they need more combo wings if Justise Winslow is going to remain the de facto point guard.
Hezonja is forever on a heat check. Tamping down his self-imposed green light will be a chore. But he exuded slightly more control during his time with the Knicks. More of his shots came at the rim than ever before, and he swished 46.3 percent of his pull-up two-pointers.
Maybe Miami can channel his fire-at-will style into better set shooting. Or maybe playing next to more established floor spacers could unlock his pick-and-roll game. The Knicks gave him free rein to run the show later in the season, but he proved erratic and turnover-prone.
Heck, perhaps the Heat are inventive enough to use Hezonja's 6'8" frame as a screener in smaller lineups. Anything is worth a try. And given how much 24-year-old wings tend to cost, Hezonja is worth a look.
Milwaukee Bucks: Kyle O'Quinn
Retaining Brook Lopez is critical to the Milwaukee Bucks' offensive floor balance and half-court defense. And they've laid the groundwork for his return.
Signing Eric Bledsoe to a four-year, $70 million extension gives the Bucks a semi-feasible shot at re-upping Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton while remaining far enough below the luxury-tax apron to have the full mid-level exception for Lopez. Spending the entire thing on him isn't ideal, but rim protectors who stretch the defense with reliable outside shooting aren't easy to find.
Forfeiting the non-taxpayer's MLE changes everything. Lopez earned himself a windfall worth more than the mini version, and the Bucks do not own his Bird rights. They must be prepared to lose him if Brogdon solicits mammoth offer sheets in restricted free agency they're compelled to match.
Dewayne Dedmon is a common refrain when searching for alternatives. Good luck getting him for the taxpayer's MLE or less. Milwaukee needs to go even cheaper if Lopez leaves.
Kyle O'Quinn is a sneaky-good replacement hiding in plain sight. Questionable conditioning has prevented him from ever assuming an expansive role, and the Pacers hardly used him this season. But his small-burst numbers are better than solid.
Teams have yet to give him the unconditional go-ahead from long range. The Bucks can change that. And he deserves a little more freedom. He's shooting 42.6 percent on long twos for his career. He's also a better passer than any of Milwaukee's incumbent bigs and fit to supplant some of the rebounding and rim protection Lopez would take with him.
Here's every player who has matched O'Quinn's career defensive rebounding and block rates in at least as many minutes: Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Dikembe Mutombo and Hassan Whiteside.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Darius Miller
Mapping out a free-agency plan for the Minnesota Timberwolves borders on impossible. Are they rebuilding? Bent on returning to the playoffs next season? Prepared to stand pat, see where they sit closer to the trade deadline and go from there?
Free-agent suggestions for them can be spun as anything—outside the box, uninventive, spot-on, outlandish, whatever. The Timberwolves' direction is unknowable at the moment, which paves the way for many eye-of-the-beholder takes.
Their cap sheet is the closest we get to a blueprint. They'll have the full mid-level exception at their disposal if they don't overspend on in-house free agents. Most of that money should go toward deepening the second unit or landing an alternative starter at the 4. Adding another wing who can dribble would be nice, too.
Darius Miller doesn't check every box, but Minnesota needs dependable floor spacers, and he's shooting 38.8 percent from distance over the past two seasons on more than 700 total attempts. Just 12 other players have done the same in this span: Bojan Bogdanovic, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Danny Green, Joe Harris, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Joe Ingles, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Klay Thompson.
Spot-up specialists are among the easiest players to integrate, so the Timberwolves needn't get caught up in what Miller doesn't do. Dario Saric, Karl-Anthony Towns and—deep breath—Andrew Wiggins can take on more ball-handling responsibility, and they can get away with playing the 6'8" Miller at both the 3 and 4, though his defense is more of an issue in the latter slot.
New Orleans Pelicans: Kevon Looney
Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans are at long last headed for divorce. He has made it known he prefers to join the Lakers or Knicks, and executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is listening to offers, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Thinking outside the box on the Pelicans' behalf is difficult without knowing what they get for Davis. Their biggest needs will vary based on the package they accept.
Settling on another big feels like the safest play. The Knicks (Mitchell Robinson) and Nets (Jarrett Allen) are the only could-be prominent suitors whose best packages figure to include a worthwhile prospect at center. The Celtics, Clippers and Lakers are richer in guards and wings.
Kevon Looney fits whatever timeline the Pelicans commit to in the post-Davis era. He doesn't turn 24 until February, so he meshes with a full-tilt rebuild, but he's played meaningful minutes during the Warriors' dynasty.
Pairing him with Zion Williamson in the frontcourt is pretty darn dreamy. The Pels would be giving up a ton of size every night, but they'd have a fairly high defensive peak alongside Jrue Holiday. Looney has shown he can hang in space on switches, and Williamson should be able to do the same.
Spacing might become an issue, but Golden State has tasked Looney with launching some longer twos. At the bare minimum, the Pelicans can get away with running dual-big pick-and-rolls while also staggering their minutes if need be.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Garrett Temple
Bolstering the wing rotation with someone who can both shoot and handle the ball would go a long way for the Oklahoma City Thunder. If only they had the money to reel in that dual threat.
Bagging a shooting specialist will be tough enough. The Thunder won't have anything more than the mini mid-level to offer and might not be keen on using it. They just paid the repeater tax and have more than $145 million in guaranteed salary on next year's books after accounting for this year's draft pick.
Garrett Temple is a quality target for the stingiest spenders. His three-point shooting dipped after he was traded to the Clippers, but he's knocking down 36.3 percent of his outside opportunities since 2015-16, and many of his teams have used him as a spot initiator in the half court.
Just to be clear: A 33-year-old Garrett Temple isn't a jacked-up alternative to Dennis Schroder. He is turnover-prone when forced to jump-start a high volume of pick-and-rolls and won't consistently generate efficient offense from scratch.
For what the Thunder can pay, though, Temple is an ideal depth piece. He subsists on set looks, so his presence won't clash with Paul George or Russell Westbrook, and he's a bigger swingman (6'6") who can soak up time against certain point guards and small forwards.
Any off-the-bounce creation Oklahoma City can get from him is found money.
Orlando Magic: Darren Collison
Carrying free-agent holds for Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic will leave the Orlando Magic to operate over the cap. This isn't a terrible position to be in since they're not a marquee-player destination, but it does restrict their capacity to upgrade the roster.
Ball-handling and shooting are easily the Magic's two biggest concerns. Markelle Fultz addresses both if he makes good on his 2017 draft stock, but he needs to be viewed as a wild card until, well, he isn't.
Bringing in another backcourt playmaker to help DJ Augustin is a good, if necessary, hedge. But the pickings will be slim for a team dangling part—or even the entire—mid-level exception. As The Athletic's Danny Leroux wrote:
"Unfortunately, this is not a great class for point guards, especially in Orlando's price range since the most intriguing restricted free agents would just get matched if they sign reasonable offer sheets. The pure backup market could be fruitful, though, as players like Jeremy Lin, Ish Smith and Michael Carter-Williams should be available at a reasonable price. The Magic could also roll the dice on Isaiah Thomas, depending on what the veteran wants in his next team."
Offloading money to chase a splashier addition won't do the trick. Again: Orlando isn't a hub for big-time free agents, and clearing cap space to sign restricted free agents who might return to their parent teams anyway doesn't make sense.
Darren Collison is a target more befitting of the Magic's position. He is an acceptable scorer and passer out of the pick-and-roll, and he noticeably upgrades Orlando's spacing. Among the 224 players who finished more than 100 spot-up possessions this past season, Collison's 64.6 effective field-goal percentage ranked 10th.
Size is an issue when using him off the ball. The Magic cannot play him (6'0") and Augustin (6'0") together and hope to survive on defense. But Collison is more than capable as a backup floor general, and Orlando can run out some intriguing backcourt combinations featuring him and Fultz should the latter pan out.
Philadelphia 76ers: Noah Vonleh
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick take precedence as Philly gears up for free agency. This much we know. We also know their futures do nothing to alter the Sixers' offseason stance. They cashed in their best trade assets twice in 2018-19, came within one victory of the Eastern Conference Finals, already paid Joel Embiid and have Ben Simmons' next deal on deck.
Their timeline is now.
Only the Sixers' financial flexibility is up in the air. Losing either Butler or Harris gives them a line to cap space, but operating under the assumption that one or both will leave is unnecessarily nuclear. They don't cough up so much value for soon-to-be free agents if they're not prepared to pay market value to keep them.
Aiming bigger on their initial run through the market is fine. They can, in theory, retain their three main guys and still have the full mid-level exception to burn. Some will posit that whatever version of the MLE Philly is hawking should go to a backup big. They're not wrong—unless they're hoping the Sixers devote a bulk of it to the center spot.
Embiid is on the books for $27.5 million next season. Devoting a lion's share of their best roster-building tool to their best player's position is overkill. Dewayne Dedmon or Brook Lopez would be great fits off the bench, but both should wind up being too expensive.
Noah Vonleh is a different story. He played well with the Knicks, but it wasn't hard for him to stand out on such a bad team. And unlike Dedmon and Lopez, he isn't elite in any one area. He is a dabbler, and New York allowed him more freedom than he'll get on a contender. Philly won't let him jump-start as many fast breaks off opponent misses.
Still, his hypothetical fit on the Sixers is clean. He banged in enough of his long twos (41.2 percent) and no-dribble threes (35.7 percent) to work the pick-and-pop, and while undersized for the 5 slot at 6'9", his rebounding and so-so rim protection will hold up against other second-stringers.
Phoenix Suns: Delon Wright (Restricted)
Somewhat lost amid the (accurate) insistence that the Phoenix Suns need a point guard: They also have to make sure they don't completely remove the ball from Devin Booker's hands.
Letting him work in more catch-and-shoot reps and testing out his touch off screens is just smart business. But Booker is at his best when controlling possessions. Partnering him with a score-first or ball-dominant point guard threatens to stunt his impact.
Striking the perfect balance is tricky. Even someone like D'Angelo Russell might pose too much overlap. Malcolm Brogdon is an ideal running mate, but the Suns have to shed salary to afford him—and Russell for that matter.
Delon Wright isn't a quintessential fit for Booker on the surface. His jumper is shaky, and he's more ball-dominant than not. But he has the size (6'5") to guard either backcourt spot and is an intuitive help defender in the half court. He'll cover up for Booker in ways most other options cannot.
Look back at his performance with the Raptors in 2017-18, and perception of his offense will also start to change. He was a rock-solid facilitator in the pick-and-roll and shot extremely well off the catch. And from Toronto to Memphis, he has always been a willing mover and shaker off the ball.
Better running mates for Booker aren't hard to find. They're harder to afford. Bake in the Grizzlies' cramped cap sheet, and Wright is an impact player the Suns can poach without having to renounce Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted) or greasing the wheels of a larger salary dump.
Portland Trail Blazers: Markieff Morris
The Blazers have no choice other than to journey off the beaten path. They will blow past the luxury-tax line if they re-sign Al-Farouq Aminu and won't have much room beneath it even if they renounce him.
Mini-MLE candidates have to be their bread and butter—and that's assuming they use it. The Blazers just paid the tax, Damian Lillard's supermax extension is coming down the pipeline and CJ McCollum will need a new deal in two years' time. They may look to cut costs in preparation of future expenses.
Markieff Morris is worth a look either way. A neck injury limited him to a career-low 58 appearances this year, and he wasn't playing particularly well before being traded from the Wizards, but he's not that far removed from helping anchor a top-heavy Washington rotation.
Just nine other players cleared 15 points, seven rebounds and one made three-pointer per 36 minutes on a true shooting percentage north of 55 in comparable court time through 2016-17 and 2017-18: DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Otto Porter and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Portland cannot bank on Morris being that guy. But he's a bigger wing (6'10") who can handle the ball and make the occasional play for others off the dribble. That's more than the Blazers can hope for on offense from Aminu or Moe Harkless.
Sacramento Kings: Malcolm Brogdon (Restricted)
Malcolm Brogdon only qualifies as an off-beat suggestion for the Sacramento Kings because their free-agency plans are so tightly bound to their apparent need at center. Blame general manager Vlade Divac and his belief that Marvin Bagley III is neither a center nor just a big.
As Sactown Royalty's Tim Maxwell wrote:
"When Vlade Divac was asked to discuss the potential of Marvin Bagley shortly after drafting him last June, the general manager of the Sacramento Kings waxed eloquently about the second overall pick's incredible versatility on the offensive side of the floor, even going so far as to discuss the potential of playing Bagley at small forward in the future. Despite the relative impossibility of that belief, there has been one clear message issued from the Kings since day one: they do not believe Marvin Bagley is a center in today's NBA.
"That opinion has been a driving factor behind Sacramento's approach to free agency, as every reliable outlet has reported their interest in signing a quality big man this summer. Nikola Vucevic has been linked to the Kings by Sam Amick and Jason Jones, while local sources close to the team have been inelegantly whispering the name of DeAndre Jordan for the past several weeks. From an outsider's perspective, Dewayne Dedmon, Brook Lopez and Nerlens Noel have all been mentioned as possible targets for the front office, and Willie Cauley-Stein still resides as the former starter and current restricted free agent for Sacramento."
Nothing is especially wrong with Sacramento targeting a center. The Bagley-Harry Giles frontcourt combination still needs time to marinate, and refusing to deem either one a full-time center over the next few years is hardly criminal. But the Kings have no business spending big on, ahem, a big.
Having Bagley and Giles in the infancy of their developments has to mean that much. Any center who runs more than the equivalent of the non-taxpayer's mid-level should be a no-go. That's Vucevic for sure, and it probably includes Dedmon and Lopez after factoring in the surge pricing markets like Sacramento are subject to when wooing well-known free agents.
Getting ultra-aggressive with Brogdon is a trendier play. The Kings will have more than $35 million in space if they renounce Cauley-Stein and even more if Harrison Barnes declines his player option or they waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Yogi Ferrell and Frank Jackson. They can tie up max money in Brogdon ($27.3 million) and not think twice about it.
Worst-case scenario: Milwaukee matches and Sacramento has hamstrung the cap sheet of a premier NBA contender. Best-case scenario: The Kings snag a 26-year-old dead-eye shooter who can defend three positions, play off De'Aaron Fox and subsume much of the backup-playmaker duties.
San Antonio Spurs: Wilson Chandler
Below is a list of every Spurs player under contract next season who can play both the 3 and 4:
- Whoever they draft at 19 or 29???
Wasn't that fun?
Feel free to tack on Rudy Gay. San Antonio has his early Bird rights, and he's staked his claim to the fictive "Most Successful Career Post-Achilles Injury" award since joining the cause. Only six other players matched his defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block rates this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Larry Nance Jr., Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Vucevic.
The Spurs have nobody to fill their combo-forward quota after him, and they're not landing a higher-end option in free agency. They won't have more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception without jettisoning other salary.
Someone like Marcus Morris is their ceiling. Even that might be a stretch. But the Spurs do have one thing going form them: Their roster is almost full if neither of their first-round picks is a draft-and-stash prospect. They don't need to concern themselves with divvying up their MLE among more than one player.
Wilson Chandler is too cheap relative to that line of thinking. But the market isn't drowning in superior alternatives, and the Spurs could always land closer to the tax line than expected if they opt to preserve long-term flexibility by overpaying Gay to stay on a one-year deal.
In any case, Chandler can tussle with bigger wings on defense. His three-point clip, while an annual roller coaster, sits at 35.3 percent since 2012-13, and he has experience making off-ball beelines from his time in Denver.
Injuries are a ubiquitous part of the Chandler experience. Hamstring and quad issues hampered his availability this season. But the Spurs don't play a punishing brand of basketball. Their methodically paced offense is a fountain of youth that just might suit a perpetually banged-up 32-year-old.
Utah Jazz: Bojan Bogdanovic
Replacing Ricky Rubio with a sweeter-shooting point guard beside Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz's most urgent matter. Kind of.
Utah needs that player more than anyone else but will have a tough time bagging him. The floor-general market isn't teeming with the potential No. 1s or No. 2s, and the Jazz have to waive Derrick Favors (non-guaranteed until July 6) to clear the cap space necessary to sign the top names.
They'll of course do that if Kemba Walker professes his love for green, purple and yellow. They're not ditching Favors to levy could-be strikeout offer sheets to restricted free agents like Malcolm Brogdon and D'Angelo Russell.
Filling that void is easier on the trade market. They're expected to make another run at Mike Conley, according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, and lower-end options (Jeff Teague) might reach the chopping block before February's deadline.
Allocating a majority of their cap space to the search for a combo wing will be more fruitful. The Jazz will have over $16 million in spending power if they keep Favors—not max-player money but more than enough to lure Bojan Bogdanovic.
He and the Jazz are a perfect pairing when you think about it. Their half-court offense cratered in the playoffs, and he was unable to shoulder the entirety of the Pacers' scoring burden during their own abbreviated postseason run.
Mitchell doesn't shed his first-option workload if partnered with Bogdanovic. That's not a problem. He's still getting a capable attacker and dependable shooter. Bogdanovic shot 51.7 percent on drives during the regular season, ranked in the 78th percentile of efficiency off screens, converted 44.9 percent of his standstill threes and even expanded his pick-and-roll usage in Victor Oladipo's absence.
Putting him in Utah doesn't turn the Jazz into a juggernaut, but it appreciably transforms their offense. They can even get away with sticking him at power forward for stretches. Indiana's defense held up during those spurts. Utah's will, too.
Washington Wizards: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Restricted)
Washington needs to name a permanent general manager before going this far into the weeds. Let's do it anyway.
Paying Bradley Beal, Troy Brown Jr., Dwight Howard, Ian Mahinmi, John Wall and the No. 9 pick will run the Wizards around $94 million. Toting Tomas Satoransky's hold inches them closer to $100 million, and that number will climb if they hang onto any combination of their other free agents or pick up Jabari Parker's team option.
This is to say: For the time being, Washington is working with neither cap space nor a distinct direction.
Next season feels like it'll be a wash with Wall recovering from his ruptured left Achilles tendon. And if the Wizards view 2019-20 as a transition year, they're better off skulking around the second-chance market.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson springs to mind, if only because he has more utility than most other outcasts. He does not figure into the Nets' long haul, so affording him won't be a problem. His three-point touch is nonexistent, and he's a clumsy finisher around the rim, but he flashed competency on mid-range jumpers in 2017-18.
Brooklyn tried coaxing pick-and-roll creation out of his game to no avail. Washington won't necessarily have better luck but does have the frontcourt bandwidth to give him more burn as the screener. The Nets never fully delved into the RHJ-at-center experiment, and while the defensive returns during his small samples in the middle didn't wow, the Wizards don't yet have their 5 of the future in tow.
Hollis-Jefferson has not looked overmatched as a power forward. Expanding his usage at center is worth a shot—and perhaps his last chance at evolving into an offensive asset.