The Best Player Every NBA Team Could Add in Free Agency
For teams that enter free agency with cap space, it's OK to make the call to that superstar who may not even pick up. It can't hurt to ask.
The quality of free agents whom teams can chase does hinge on some important factors. Being able to afford said player is important, as are market, competitiveness, proximity to player's hometown, roster makeup/flexibility and long-term outlook.
Kevin Durant and the Indiana Pacers are a fit as far as salary and cap space, but that doesn't mean there is a realistic shot he'll head to the Midwest. Kemba Walker could sign a mid-level-exception deal with a winning team like the Denver Nuggets, but money has to factor in more than that.
After every team aims for the stars (pun intended), here's the best player each could realistically come away with.
The Bargain Hunters
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jeremy Lamb, SG, 27
David Nwaba? Nik Stauskas? Nay, the Cavs should go all-in on Jeremy Lamb this summer.
Cleveland is still a year away from potentially signing an impactful free agent. It can dump over $88 million worth of expiring contracts next summer.
For now, a $9 million mid-level exception is the best the Cavs can do, although even offering that pushes this 19-win roster to over $140 million in total salary. Cleveland would have to dump one of its expiring contracts onto a team with cap space and waive JR Smith just to stay under the luxury-tax line.
If that's the path the Cavs take, Lamb makes sense as a potential starting shooting guard, given he averaged a career-high 15.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals for the Charlotte Hornets last season. Lamb was the team's second-leading scorer behind Kemba Walker, and the Hornets were 4.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
Houston Rockets: Danny Green, SG, 31
With $125 million already committed to next year, the Rockets will be limited to the mid-level and veteran-minimum contracts.
The best thing they can do is target athletic two-way wings who can space the floor and don't need the ball in their hands. If he's willing to take a slight pay cut, Danny Green could fill that role.
Playing beside Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, Green drilled 47.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes in the regular season, a number that could actually increase if he shares the court with James Harden and Chris Paul.
Green has years of experience facing the Golden State Warriors while a member of the San Antonio Spurs and now the Toronto Raptors. He would be the best Houston could get in free agency.
Miami Heat: Jeff Green, PF, 32
Any dreams that Miami could have cap space are quickly disappearing.
Goran Dragic is exercising his $19.2 million player option for the 2019-20 season, per Shams Charania of The Athletic. Hassan Whiteside has his own option for $27.1 million that he'll almost certainly accept as well.
Even offering a mid-level exception seems unlikely, as the Heat would be pushing $150 million in team salary before factoring in luxury taxes. Miami finished 39-43 last season and needs to shed as much salary as possible. This means all incoming players will likely be on minimum deals.
Jeff Green's last two contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards were one-year vet minimums. In both seasons he responded with at least 10.8 points per game and a positive on/off rating, which is about all a team can ask at that price.
While financial breathing room will come in 2020, don't expect any big names to sign in South Beach this summer.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Seth Curry, SG, 28
Let's put it this way: The Thunder wish they were in as good of a financial position as the Heat. It's that bad.
Oklahoma City needs more shooting, and it needs it at a discount. Enter Seth Curry, who wrapped up a solid season in Portland that saw him average 7.9 points in 18.9 minutes off the bench while connecting on 45.0 percent of his three-pointers.
Portland Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu, PF, 28
Already well over the salary cap, Portland should simply attempt to bring back one of its own.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a higher on/off rating than CJ McCollum (plus-10.0 points per 100 possessions to plus-6.3) and is usually called upon to defend the opponent's best offensive forward. He won't get the headlines of a Damian Lillard or McCollum, but the Blazers can't afford to lose Aminu's defense, rebounding and switchability.
Rodney Hood, Enes Kanter and Seth Curry also enter free agency, but Aminu is the best of the group and should be the Blazers' top offseason priority.
Would You Take a Mid-Level?
Denver Nuggets: Trevor Ariza, SF, 33
Assuming the Nuggets pick up their $30.2 million team option on power forward Paul Millsap, the small forward position will continue to be the weak link on a rising Denver squad.
At this point in his career, Trevor Ariza should only be interested in joining serious title contenders. With continued growth from Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, the Nuggets should be in the mix for the 2020 Finals.
Ariza has 102 playoff games under his belt. Bringing in a productive veteran wing like him is the best Denver can hope for in free agency.
Detroit Pistons: JJ Redick, SG, 34
It's no secret the Pistons need help on the wing.
While JJ Redick may not be "mid-level-exception money" years old yet, he might have to take a pay cut from his $12.3 million salary as big names flood the market. The Pistons can't throw their $9 million exception at him fast enough.
Although his three-point percentage has gone down each of the past three years, Redick still put up a career-high 18.1 points per game for Philadelphia last season. His addition would open up the floor for a team that shot just 34.8 percent from deep, the worst mark of any team that reached the postseason and 23rd overall.
Memphis Grizzlies: DeMarcus Cousins, C, 28
While a rebuild seemed inevitable after the trade of Gasol, who says this team has to be bad? Mike Conley is coming off a career high in scoring (21.1 points), Avery Bradley put up 16.1 points and 4.0 assists following a midseason trade, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is already very good. Oh, and Ja Morant seems destined to become a Grizzly next week.
DeMarcus Cousins' next contract is anyone's guess, as he's gone from nearly unplayable in the NBA Finals to a triple-double threat on a night-to-night basis. Signing another one-year deal to increase his value and hit the market next summer may be his only option if the big offers don't come. Memphis now has the minutes and touches available for him to return to pre-injury form and fill the box score once again.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Marcus Morris, PF, 29
The Wolves need someone with a little toughness and grit, someone who can grab end-of-the-rotation guys and challenge the starters to ultra-competitive games in practice while pushing Karl-Anthony Towns.
OK, maybe someone at about 50 percent of Jimmy Butler.
Marcus Morris brings a spirit and energy that young teams need when they're looking to take the next step toward competitiveness. With Taj Gibson headed into free agency, the Wolves have an opening at power forward, where Morris averaged 13.9 points, grabbed 6.1 rebounds and shot 37.5 percent from three for the Boston Celtics last season.
Washington Wizards: Ricky Rubio, PG, 28
If Washington does hang on to Bradley Beal this offseason and try to make a playoff run, it'll need a point guard while John Wall rehabs from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Since the Wizards can't afford Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker or D'Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio would be a fine rental for a year.
Putting up 12.7 points, 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals for the Utah Jazz last season, Rubio is used to sharing a backcourt with a ball-dominant shooting guard and could thrive playing alongside Beal.
Can't Afford to Lose Our Own Stars
Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving, PG, 27
While some Celtics fans may be ready to move on from Kyrie Irving after just two seasons, it would be a mistake to let a six-time All-Star point guard who won't turn 28 until March walk for nothing.
Boston won't have significant cap space to sign a replacement for Irving unless Al Horford decides not to opt in to his $30.1 million player option. That seems unlikely.
The Celtics seem so hell-bent on re-signing Irving that they're still pursuing a trade for Anthony Davis to help convince him to stay (per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski), even though Davis' agent, Rich Paul, recently told Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price that his client won't re-sign with Boston.
While the past two years haven't been what most envisioned when Boston traded for Irving in 2017, he's still by far the best free agent the Celtics can sign.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker, PG, 29
While Kemba Walker has stated he'll take less than the $221 million supermax deal the Hornets can offer if it means being able to add more talent around him, such a move wouldn't make much sense.
Charlotte has little cap space, even if Walker leaves. While a smaller annual salary could start paying dividends for the team in 2020, players like Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller won't see their big deals come off the books for another two years.
The Hornets shouldn't be crazy about giving Walker an average of $44 million a year until he turns 34, but what other options do they have? With no cap space to sign a replacement anywhere close to Walker's talent level, they should offer whatever their franchise star wants and hope he really will take less than the supermax.
Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson, SG, 29
With Kevin Durant sidelined for all next year, the Warriors' most important free agent to keep their dynasty alive is Klay Thompson, who himself could miss most of next season with a torn ACL.
This should be a brief conversation.
You want to be here, Klay? You good with a five-year, $190 million max? Cool. Here's a pen.
While Draymond Green may attempt to call Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Michael Jordan from the parking lot, the Warriors' focus should be on giving Thompson whatever he wants to stay.
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic, C, 28
Orlando doesn't have enough cap space to sign any max free agents, although it can pay Nikola Vucevic like one should he agree to come back.
Vucevic was the best player on a team that surprisingly made the playoffs. All momentum generated by Orlando would take a huge step back if it loses him.
While a max contract may be a little aggressive, the Magic still need to make a generous multiyear offer to keep the All-Star center in-house.
Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard, SF, 27
Think trading for a rental is worth it now?
The only player to win Finals MVP awards in both conferences, Kawhi Leonard can sign a five-year, $190 million max deal to return to the NBA champion Raptors if he'd like.
What better pitch for Toronto to make then bringing a shiny gold trophy to contract talks? What's more, the Raptors won Game 6 with three teammates either outscoring Leonard or matching him in points. While he's the star of the team, he doesn't have to carry it.
With Durant out for at least a year, Leonard is the best free agent in basketball.
Big Pockets, Small Markets
Atlanta Hawks: Julius Randle, PF/C, 24
The Hawks wisely sacrificed cap space this summer to pick up a pair of first-round picks in the reported Allen Crabbe trade. They are instead setting themselves up to be big spenders in 2020.
Until then, Atlanta should target young, high-upside starters who can grow with the Trae Young-John Collins core.
Julius Randle, coming off a career-high 21.4 points per game with the New Orleans Pelicans, fits the criteria. He started 49 of his 73 games in New Orleans, also collecting 8.7 rebounds, dishing 3.1 assists and showing off an improved outside shot (34.4 percent on 2.7 attempts per night).
Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton, G/F, 27
A first-time All-Star in 2019, Khris Middleton should be in the mix for a max contract from a handful of teams. Milwaukee may be forced to give him one if no other big-time free agents want to come to Wisconsin.
Sure, the Bucks can make phone calls to Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler since they'll have close to max cap space, but they seem far more likely to just re-up with Middleton.
Sporting a sparkling career on/off rating of plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions, Middleton makes those around him better. Milwaukee needs to make sure he doesn't get away.
New Orleans Pelicans: DeAndre Jordan, C, 30
While the Pelicans are projected to have a fair share of cap space, their roster and overall direction could look quite different any day now.
Zion Williamson will be a Pelican by Thursday. Will Anthony Davis?
If New Orleans wants to remain competitive and trade Davis for pieces that can win now, grabbing a veteran like DeAndre Jordan makes sense. The biggest free agents will probably shy away for at least a year to see how the dust settles after Davis' looming departure.
Jordan would help keep Williamson from having to guard opposing centers, and his gravitational pull toward the rim would give Jrue Holliday one hell of a pair of lob targets.
San Antonio Spurs: DeMarcus Cousins, C, 28
While signing a center like Brook Lopez would be the safe play, the Spurs should roll the dice on DeMarcus Cousins if they want to sniff another championship under Gregg Popovich.
If San Antonio takes the plunge, it would have Cousins and a healthy Dejounte Murray, potentially making it one of the West's top teams again with LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White.
A full season of Cousins may force Popovich into retirement or get him to re-sign for another five years. Either way, it would be a fun experiment to watch.
Utah Jazz: Tobias Harris, PF, 26
The Jazz should try for some of the top point guards on the market with Ricky Rubio likely to leave. After striking out there, Tobias Harris would be a fantastic free-agency plan B.
Putting up 20.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists while playing in 82 games for the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers last season, Harris can have a far bigger role with the Jazz than if he re-signs in Philly.
The Jazz need a floor-spacing 4, and Harris has made 40.5 percent of his threes over the last two years despite playing for three different teams. After bouncing around five franchises before his 27th birthday, it's time Harris put down roots in Utah.
Shooting for Stars
Chicago Bulls: Malcolm Brogdon, G, 26
The Bulls' biggest need is in the backcourt, where Kris Dunn hasn't proved himself worthy of a full-time starting job yet. Chicago doesn't have a max slot to pay some of the top free-agent floor generals but could make a very competitive offer to Malcolm Brogdon.
At 6'5", Brogdon can play both on or off the ball, pushing Dunn from a sixth-man position or starting over him if needed.
An extremely efficient scorer who rarely plays out of control, Brogdon is the Bulls' best choice in free agency.
Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis, PF, 23
While adding a star like Kemba Walker or Khris Middleton in free agency would be great, Kristaps Porzingis needs to be the Mavericks' priority.
After giving up a package including Dennis Smith Jr. and two first-round picks, Dallas needs to get Porzingis locked into a long-term deal as soon as possible. Since he's restricted, the Mavericks do have the right to match any offer sheet Porzingis signs.
At 23, we're probably still years away from seeing just how good he can become.
Indiana Pacers: Khris Middleton, G/F, 27
The Pacers have quietly put themselves in great financial shape this summer with room for a max contract and then some.
They should call many of the top point guards and forwards in an attempt to surround Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner with help. One reasonable star target? Khris Middleton, if Milwaukee tries to lowball him in contract talks.
Indiana could plug Middleton in as the team's starting small forward while looking for the 27-year-old to build on his 18.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists from the 2018-19 campaign.
Phoenix Suns: D'Angelo Russell, PG, 23
The Suns are close to having a max cap slot and may be able to get D'Angelo Russell for slightly less.
The need for a point guard in the desert is clear, and Russell's age and skill set match up nicely with this high-upside roster. A backcourt of Devin Booker and Russell could put up 50 points on a nightly basis, even if they might give up a similar number.
For Phoenix, Russell is the best free agent under the age of 27. It's hard to imagine any of the other top point guards (Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker) will leave a playoff squad or a $221 million supermax contract to play on a Suns team that won 19 games last season.
Sacramento Kings: Nikola Vucevic, C, 28
Bringing back restricted free agent center Willie Cauley-Stein is an option, but Nikola Vucevic would be far better to plug into this playoff-hopeful Kings squad.
A first-time All-Star in 2019, Vucevic boasts a combination of scoring, rebounding and passing that would open up a whole new playbook for De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield and help raise everyone's games.
With center as the primary position of need and DeMarcus Cousins probably not an option for Sacramento, Vucevic is the best big man the Kings can chase.
Superstars or Bust
Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving, PG, 27
Kyrie Irving's recent change in representation may have tipped off the 2016 champion's free-agency plans.
Per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Irving is leaving his agent of eight years, Jeff Wechsler, to join Roc Nation Sports. As was soon pointed out, Roc Nation's president, Michael Yoarmark, is the twin brother of Nets CEO Brett Yoarmark.
With the dots connecting and room for two max contracts available thanks to a trade with the Atlanta Hawks, the Nets can sign Irving to a four-year, $140.1 million max deal and still go chasing another star.
Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard, SF, 27
Perhaps the only part of the United States outside the Bay Area not cheering for the Raptors was the Clippers front office.
While an early playoff exit may have made it easier to convince Kawhi Leonard to come home to California, a title with his current team may make recruitment efforts more difficult for L.A.
Still, there are few better free-agent destinations than the Clippers given their young talent, cap space, coaching and front office. Living in Los Angeles doesn't seem so bad either.
Prying Leonard away from the Raptors may be harder than they thought, but the Clippers should have the best chance of anyone to get Leonard to leave.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kyrie Irving, PG, 27
Although Irving's future seems destined for Brooklyn, nothing that involves LeBron James is ever really over.
James needs to constantly send Irving highlight clips of their three years together, a time highlighted by three Finals trips and a ring.
Both players need each other, or at least someone extremely similar.
While it would pain those in northeast Ohio to see the superstar teammates reunited on the Lakers, Irving should give serious consideration to rejoining James. The Lakers need another star, and Irving's flash should translate well at Staples.
New York Knicks: Kevin Durant, SF, 30
Regardless of when he can play next, the Knicks need to go all-in on Kevin Durant.
It's been six years since their last playoff appearance. What's one more miserable season?
If anything, this allows the Knicks to sign and rehab Durant, retain and develop their young core, and then pursue Anthony Davis in free agency next year while not having to give up anything in return for either superstar.
Durant has always been the best option for the Knicks. Not even a bad Achilles can change that.
Philadelphia 76ers: Jimmy Butler, SG, 29
With a massive extension for Ben Simmons looming, this is likely the last time the Sixers will have any sort of cap space with this core.
Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick are all temporarily coming off the books, giving Philly over $40 million in cap space. That's enough to go chasing Durant and Leonard, but re-signing one (or more) of its own is the more likely option.
If anything, Butler deserves a bigger role for the Sixers and will certainly get a contract to go along with it. He can sign a five-year, $190 million max deal with Philadelphia, essentially putting an end to its future cap space.