1 Free-Agency or Trade Target for NBA Teams in Need of a New Identity
Every year in the NBA offers the chance to change.
And this summer, five franchises—the Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat—can take that a step further.
New identities are in order.
For some, like the Grizzlies and Kings, this is just the natural next step in a progression or regression that has been happening for years.
For others, like the Rockets, angling for a new identity may feel drastic. With the Golden State Warriors set to be without injured stars Klay Thompson (for most of the 2019-20 season even if he re-signs) and Kevin Durant (for perhaps all of it even if he doesn't sign somewhere else), the West is wide-open. But if there's some truth to the Yahoo Sports report that James Harden and Chris Paul's relationship is "unsalvageable," a shake-up may be unavoidable.
And finally, there's Miami, a team that has embodied stagnation since the departure of LeBron James in 2014.
The reasons are varied, but all of these teams are on the verge of new identities. This summer is the time to go for them.
Memphis Grizzlies: Malcolm Brogdon
The 2014-15 Grizzlies went 55-27. Marc Gasol led them in points and blocks per game; Zach Randolph led the team in rebounding; Mike Conley led the way in assists; and Tony Allen brought the most grit.
In the second round of the playoffs, they took a 2-1 lead over the eventual champion Warriors. Golden State then beat them in three straight games on the way to the first title of its half-decade dynasty.
They made the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, but that 2015 run was the last real stand of the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies.
Four years later, the last vestige of those teams, Mike Conley, was traded to the Utah Jazz. The deal paved the way for Memphis to draft Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft.
"Obviously, I have some big shoes to fill from Mike Conley," Morant told reporters the day after the draft. "He's a great player. I wish him the best. I just want to thank Memphis Grizzlies as a whole for believing in me and having that trust in me to pick me and put me in the position that I'm in."
Along with Jaren Jackson Jr. and this year's No. 21 pick, Brandon Clarke, Morant figures to lead Memphis into a new and exciting era. Throw in Kyle Anderson, who is only 25, and you have four of five spots in a long-term starting five.
The only thing missing is a 2, and perhaps another stabilizing veteran presence. Malcolm Brogdon could be both.
Fresh off a 50-40-90 campaign alongside a high-usage star, Brogdon could be the perfect pressure release for young players who need plenty of reps on the ball for the next few seasons.
But he's a restricted free agent, which is scary. It would take a monster offer for the Milwaukee Bucks to not match, but it may not need to be a max.
On a recent episode of his Lowe Post podcast, ESPN's Zach Lowe said Milwaukee has a "walk-away" price in mind for Brogdon. Memphis may be in a better position than anyone to pay it.
Morant and Clarke will be on rookie-scale contracts for the next four seasons. Jackson will be on one for the next three. And Anderson is set to make under $10 million per season over the life of his contract.
If Memphis waives both Avery Bradley and the recently acquired Kyle Korver (both nonguaranteed this season), it will have enough cap space to send a very competitive offer Brogdon's way.
Houston Rockets: Jimmy Butler
It would take some cap gymnastics the likes of which we haven't seen since, well, Houston general manager Daryl Morey traded for Chris Paul, but Jimmy Butler reportedly has interest in the Rockets.
"I'm hearing these rumblings about Jimmy trying to get back [to Houston]," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective podcast (h/t RealGM).
"They're real rumblings," Tim MacMahon, Windhorst's colleague at ESPN, added. "The Rockets think they have a chance."
Right now, Houston has $115.2 million committed to Paul, Harden, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker next season. The cap is projected to come in at $109 million.
Yes, you read that right. No, you're not missing anything.
Houston reportedly has interest in a max-level free agent, despite being on track to start free agency over the cap. To create enough space for the $32.7 million starting salary for which Butler is qualified, Morey is going to have to find some very agreeable front offices around the league.
And he may be looking to start with Philadelphia's. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski explained:
"Once free agency starts on Sunday, the Rockets are planning to recruit Jimmy Butler to push the Philadelphia 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, league sources tell ESPN.
The Rockets don't have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they'd need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philadelphia into a trade. The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of Base Year Compensation that would cover Butler's outgoing salary."
Even if Butler and Morey could convince the 76ers to work a sign-and-trade, this would be a complicated deal. Two or three of Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker would have to be involved. As noted by Wojnarowski, extra teams might need to be brought in, as well.
An easier first step might be moving CP3. When that's the easier route, you have a problem.
If Morey can't move Paul's monster contract (and do it in a way that doesn't equate to taking equal money back) or find multiple willing partners for a sign-and-trade, this rumor is probably dead on arrival.
Even if Paul and Harden's salaries were the only two on the books for 2019-20, Houston would barely have enough to fit Butler's max. And that leaves no wiggle room for team building.
Let's assume, though, that Morey can pull it off. Maybe he finds takers for CP3, Capela (Boston was rumored to have interest there) and Gordon without taking a ton back. Maybe a sign-and-trade actually happens.
Regardless of how it would get done, pairing Butler with Harden would give Houston a new, grittier identity. Sure, Paul provides some of that now, but Butler is around four years younger and eight inches taller. And if CP3 was out, Harden would probably move back to the 1 full-time, where he averaged 11.2 assists in 2016-17.
Again, all this presumes an offseason miracle (or at least real close to one). But if Houston somehow winds up with a Harden/Butler one-two punch, it may take advantage of this Warriors downturn after all.
Sacramento Kings: Al Horford
The Kings last had a winning season in 2005-06. From 2006-07 to 2017-18, Sacramento averaged 28 wins over 12 seasons. The Minnesota Timberwolves were the only team in the league with a worse winning percentage over that stretch.
This past season, the Kings finally gave their fans some hope. Behind the dynamic play of the De'Aaron Fox/Buddy Hield backcourt, Sacramento won 39 games and finished ninth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Now, seemingly on the precipice of a return to the postseason, the Kings can go after an identity-setting veteran who would make life easier for Fox, Hield and the rest of the team's talented young core.
Boston may happen to be losing such a player.
"The Mavericks are considered favorites to land Celtics free-agent big man Al Horford," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote, but Sacramento is arguably closer to the playoffs.
The Kings aren't saddled with cap-hindering contracts like Tim Hardaway Jr.'s or Courtney Lee's. Plus, Dallas has a potential star who is best suited to play Horford's position—Kristaps Porzingis should be a stretch 5—while Sacramento's center is on the way out.
"I really think Willie [Cauley-Stein] needs a fresh start," agent Roger Montgomery said, per the Sacramento Bee's Jason Anderson. "Based on how things have gone for him there in Sacramento, I just think it's time for Willie to move on and we'd really like him to move on."
Horford's passing from the high post and top of the key could open things up for Fox, Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic. And, as one of the game's best middle linebackers, he could school Marvin Bagley III on the ins and outs of NBA defense.
Boston Celtics: Nikola Vucevic
Speaking of Horford leaving Boston, the Celtics suddenly find themselves in need of a new starting center.
The natural pivot for Boston with Irving and Horford seemingly on the way out is to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. A generally positionless 1 through 4 of Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum and Gordon Hayward sounds pretty good. And a rim-runner/protector like Capela to round out the lineup makes some sense.
But Boston could give itself a much more dynamic offense than that by landing Nikola Vucevic to play center.
Last season, Vucevic finished eighth in real plus-minus, 10th in box plus/minus and 19th in win shares per 48 minutes. Adjusted for pace and minutes, his basic numbers were comparable to the average MVP of the last 45 years.
A motion offense with the four positionless players surrounding Vucevic's passing and shooting would be potentially devastating on offense. And while Vuc probably isn't winning Defensive Player of the Year any time soon, he can at least take up space inside while everyone else switches around the perimeter.
The question here, of course, is why would the Orlando Magic let Vucevic go? He just led them back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. And Orlando's net rating (net points per 100 possessions) was 8.9 points better when Vucevic was on the floor.
But he's heading into his age-29 campaign after what was by far the best season of his career. Could there be some worry that he'll never recreate this contract-year magic? If Orlando gets the Vucevic of his first season years (0.9 box plus/minus average) and not the Vuc of his eighth year (6.4 box plus/minus), buyer's remorse could set in quickly.
Sure, similar concerns may apply to Boston, but the Celtics don't have Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon or Jonathan Isaac waiting in the wings. And they might be able to sell consistent trips to the postseason and organizational history on the way to a shorter deal.
Miami Heat: Chris Paul
Miami is in a rut.
After winning 54 games with LeBron in 2013-14, the Heat have rattled off the following win totals over the last five seasons: 37, 48, 41, 44 and 39. They've only made the playoffs twice.
And most (if not all) of those contracts don't feel very movable.
Houston has one of those too. And Bleacher Report's Dan Favale had this idea prior to the draft:
"...this is the best 'it might make sense for both sides' trade I can come up with:
Heat get: CP3
Rockets get: Goran Dragic, James Johnson, No. "
And yes, CP3 may be approaching his own twilight, and he's only averaged 59 games over his last three seasons, but he's one of the best point guards of all time.
Perhaps getting away from Harden and back to something a little closer to his old role would revitalize him. Maybe the famous Heat culture would get him in better shape and add another year or two to his career. And maybe a year with Erik Spoelstra would rehab his value a bit and intrigue 2020 free agents.
If the Heat pulled off a trade like Favale suggested for CP3, the only significant contracts that would still be on the books for 2020-21 would be his, Justise Winslow's, Dion Waiters' (expiring), Kelly Olynyk's (player option), Josh Richardson's and Bam Adebayo's (team option).
Given a projected salary cap of $116 million in 2020-21, Miami would have around $14 million in cap space (with the potential for a bit more, depending on whether any cap holds are renounced).
It's not ideal, but Miami would at least have a star and some flexibility going forward.