Ranking Every NBA Team as 2020 Free-Agent Destinations
Goodbye, NBA trade deadline talk. Hello, free-agency breakdowns.
Last summer's absurdity is going to be this offseason's wet blanket. Not nearly as many players are hitting the open market, and fewer teams will be working with more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
That doesn't make this summer uninteresting. The NBA is always good for a curveball or 20 over the offseason. Teams will still be looking to improve, and players will still need new homes.
Ergo, we're going to talk about free agency as if it matters because it absolutely, positively does.
Assessing the league's most attractive destinations is not a straightforward exercise. Salary-cap situations vary and must be taken into consideration. We've sorted squads into tiers so that they're being graded against spending-power equals:
- Max Space Teams: Every team with immediate or relatively easy access to the cheapest max deals that start at 25 percent of the salary cap ($28.8 million).
- Mini Mid-Level Exception Teams: Projected taxpayers who only figure to have the $6 million MLE to spend.
- Non-Taxpayer MLE Teams: Most of the league will be included in this tier and receive more in-depth treatment. Certain squads will have the ability to carve out more room but either aren't likely to do so or would still be working with noticeably less than the max. This $9.8 million MLE forecasts as their best free-agency tool.
Rankings will be based on a variety of factors, including short- and long-term trajectories, faith in the front office and incumbent asset bases. Market size and location are taken into account, but championship proximity and big-picture potential trounce everything else.
Cap situations are fluid. Important decisions that impact calculations—player options, team options, contract holds, etc.—are being assumed. Teams could switch tiers by the start of free agency. This pecking order is based on where every squad stands entering the All-Star break.
Mini MLE Teams
5. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant can render this foolish if he's every bit of his previous self upon returning from a ruptured right Achilles. For now, this is a hedge against possible regression.
Maybe Durant regains a top-five pole position. Even remaining in the top-10-to-15 range would be big. But counting on him to immediately recapture superstar form is too ambitious. The Nets' forecast involves low- to middle-rung contention if he's only a fraction of himself in his first year back.
This isn't even just about him. Kyrie Irving has missed most of this season with a combination of right shoulder, hamstring and knee issues, and he's never been a billboard for durability.
Complicated still, the Nets need to strike a balance between Durant, Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. That could be too much ball-dominant talent in one rotation. At the very least, it could prevent Brooklyn from playing its five best players—Jarrett Allen being the fifth—together for long stretches.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Depending on the day, the sky in Philadelphia either is falling or has never been bluer.
Awkward questions await the Sixers over the offseason if they get jettisoned from the playoffs before the conference finals. Do they look at trading Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons? How about Tobias Harris? Can they find a taker for the three years and $69 million guaranteed left on Al Horford's contract?
The taxpayer's mid-level exception isn't going to solve their warty floor balance if they go belly-up in the playoffs. It will get them another shooter, maybe two, but they won't profile as an attractive ring-chasing getup until—or rather, unless—speculation about their future subsides.
3. Golden State Warriors
Dropping the Warriors behind the Sixers is not egregious. Putting them behind the Nets seems too pessimistic but is worth a conversation. Golden State is up against that much uncertainty.
Stephen Curry's left hand injury probably doesn't cost him most of this season if the Warriors had anything at all for which to play. Klay Thompson's recovery from a torn left ACL is more unnerving but not exactly damning. Those injuries have become more routine than career-ruining.
Age and depth are bigger issues. Curry, Thompson and Draymond will all be on the wrong side of 30 next season. The Warriors have unearthed some keepers during their gap year and will have a high lottery pick entering the equation, but they're not what you would call decidedly deep.
So much—arguably too much—of their future is in Andrew Wiggins' hands. Can he be a Harrison Barnes knockoff? Anchor a blockbuster trade as the primary salary attached to picks? Golden State has an immediate path back to championship contention but is far from the foregone conclusion it was over the previous four years.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers' projection changes if they direct Montrezl Harrel or Marcus Morris Sr. toward the exit. Letting one walk could put them into non-taxpayer MLE territory. More likely, though, it will cost both.
Los Angeles will have no trouble netting an impact player for the mini MLE. This coin should go farther than in years past, and title favorites typically get more bang for their buck anyway.
Nudging the Clippers to No. 1 inside this five-team tier wouldn't be an unfounded decision. The squad in front of them isn't flush with two top-15 players—or, necessarily, even one. But Paul George (player option) and Kawhi Leonard (player option) can both hit free agency in 2021. That bakes a little more ambiguity into the Clippers' projections, even if it seems immaterial now.
1. Boston Celtics
The Eastern Conference is still looking for a second in command behind the Milwaukee Bucks. No candidate is better positioned to occupy that space over the long term than the Celtics.
Boston has its best players under team control for the next few years, if not longer. Kemba Walker cannot explore free agency until 2022. Marcus Smart is under contract until 2023. Jaylen Brown signed a four-year extension this past fall. Jayson Tatum is among this offseason's max-extension locks.
Other Eastern Conference powers do not have this same luxury. The Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors will be in the market for No. 2 scorers over the next couple of summers. The Nets need to see what they have in the Durant-Irving tandem. The Sixers have to show they can coexist for more than days at a time. The Indiana Pacers must get back 2017-18 Victor Oladipo before entering that discussion.
Heck, the Celtics might even be in line to unseat the Bucks. It will take Milwaukee losing Giannis Antetokounmpo (eh) or Tatum transforming into an All-NBA candidate (he's close), but that transfer of power will gain traction over the next few years. Boston's staying power near the top of the East should have sway over the same free agents its tax-paying peers will be chasing.
Max Space Teams
5. Detroit Pistons
Cutting Andre Drummond's player option from the books earmarks the Pistons for more than $30 million in space if they're not attached to the cap holds of their own free agents.
Langston Galloway could throw a wrench in these projections, but he's not due for a massive raise from his $7.3 million salary. Floating his hold won't impact Detroit's proximity to max money if Tony Snell declines his player option.
Hanging onto Derrick Rose past the trade deadline implies the Pistons are angling for a quick turnaround. That increases the odds of them using their cap space. It does only so much to buoy their appeal.
A willingness to spend matters in this summer's cash-poor market. It would mean a whole lot more if there were a bunch of available timeline-proof standouts or wandering stars for Detroit to pay. There won't be.
Besides, the Pistons' outlook remains up in the air until Blake Griffin takes the floor again. He regained All-NBA flair last season but will close this year with just 18 appearances under his belt while dealing with left knee problems that began at the end of 2018-19. Detroit doesn't have the surety or market appeal to outperform the league's other max-space suitors.
4. Charlotte Hornets
Nothing's more terrifying than a Charlotte Hornets team with max(ish) cap space—for Charlotte Hornets fans, that is.
This front-office regime seems more devoted to a thorough rebuild following Kemba Walker's departure last summer. They didn't make an impulsive move at the trade deadline, and buying out Marvin Williams suggests they're not aiming for the ever unlikely mega-fast about-face.
Free agency will be the ultimate gauge of the Hornets' stomach for a rebuild. They could get cute with an offer sheet for a sub-max restricted free agent—like Malik Beasley or Bogdan Bogdanovic—and wind up regretting it later.
Patience should be the mandate in Charlotte. Miles Bridges, Devonte' Graham, PJ Washington and this year's first offer a starting point. The Hornets should not get caught up in outbidding rivals for any one free agent.
3. New York Knicks
New York's cap situation is more fluid than anyone else's in this tier. Picking up Bobby Portis' team option and guaranteeing all of next year's one-plus-one salaries would displace them from max-space territory and into mid-level-exception range.
That outcome is not out of the question. The Knicks may see value in kicking the can to 2021 free agency when superstars will crowd the market. Retaining the soon-to-be expirings already in place is a lot easier than brokering new ones.
But running it back is beyond unlikely. Declining Portis' option alone—as they definitely should—makes the Knicks a cap-space team. From there, only one other departure separates them from the 25 percent max. A second would put them within range of a more veteran max (30 or 35 percent of the cap).
Whatever the Knicks decide to do, they don't have much pull for free agents with actual options. They employ neither an entrenched superstar nor a prospect definitively on the path to becoming one. They've yet to even show they're invested in developing unfinished products.
Rebranding themselves by not changing anything about the way they handle basketball operations is certainly a decision. New York will always hold a certain intrigue, but for now, that interest has nothing to do with the on-court product.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon knifed into the Hawks' space but did nothing to torpedo it. They'll be closer to $50 million in spending power than $45 million, depending on where this year's draft pick sits.
Flinging a bulk of that money at one player shouldn't be in the cards. Anthony Davis (player option) and Brandon Ingram (restricted) are the only two players it would make sense for them max out, and neither is likely to bolt his current digs.
Splitting up this money among a few impact acquisitions is the more palatable scenario. Brokering short-term overpays for two impact players is even acceptable.
Atlanta is not close to contention but tipped its interest in winning with the Capela deal. Whether that was the correct decision is a matter of course.
In the meantime, the Hawks have a defensive anchor up front to go along with Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and gobs of space. They're a desirable destination by default.
1. Miami Heat
Why yes, the Heat did lop off the final year of James Johnson's and Dion Waiters' contracts without including a first-round pick or a young player aside from the injured Justise Winslow. Led by team president Pat Riley, their front office remains a logistical juggernaut.
Trimming so much money from next year's ledger positions them for more than $30 million in room if they renounce all their own free agents. That cash flow mushrooms if Kelly Olynyk declines his player option.
Designs on dominating 2021 free agency could prevent the Heat from shelling out deals that leak past next season. Then again, Jimmy Butler's salary and Bam Adebayo's restricted-free-agent hold are the only eight-figure cap hits guaranteed to be on their books. They can sign someone like Danilo Gallinari to a multiyear contract without jeopardizing their inevitable superstar chase that summer.
Free agents will struggle to find a situation much better than what Miami offers: immediate contention and the potential opportunity to be part of a powerhouse by 2021-22.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers get vaulted up to the max-space tier if Andre Drummond declines his player option. Related: He's probably not declining his player option. (Also: Cleveland would need to renounce Tristan Thompson, as well.)
True centers are up against a tight financial ceiling to begin with, and the trade deadline did Drummond no favors. The Detroit Pistons flipped him for a less favorable second-round pick and cap relief. Elsewhere, the Houston Rockets gave up their own first-rounder to move Clint Capela in a four-team trade that brought back Robert Covington, even though the former was arguably the best player in that deal.
Declining a $28.8 million player option would be a bizarre decision by Drummond. It only takes one team to drive up his price tag, but where is that team? He could bank on signing a four-year pact at the full mid-level exception, but that doesn't even guarantee him an extra $15 million over the long haul.
Sign-and-trade possibilities are in play. They also don't do anything to improve the Cavaliers' cap situation. They'll be working with the MLE unless Drummond leaves, which doesn't dress them with a ton of appeal.
It'd be one thing if they were slinging max money when so many others cannot. That allows them to get creative with restricted free agents and dole out strategic overpays. Retaining Drummond loops them into the vast majority, and most free agents won't beat down the door to join a team with a hazy future.
Timelines for Drummond and Kevin Love are warring against those for Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and, eventually, Dylan Windler and this June's first-round pick. Moving Love would provide some clarity but is a chore by itself. The $91.5 million left on his deal would be on another team's payroll if it weren't considered a net negative.
19. Washington Wizards
Mid-level money is all the Washington Wizards have to work with if they renounce Davis Bertans' cap hold. Limited flexibility is the status quo when you have $70-plus million committed to Bradley Beal and John Wall next year.
Both stars are responsible for the Wizards' bottom-of-the-barrel placement. They have a line back to the playoffs—shoot, they might get there this season—but only if Beal stays.
Last summer's contract extension doesn't guarantee he will. It delayed Washington's inflection point by a year, nothing more.
To what end keeping Beal would boost the Wizards' standing is up to Wall. His left Achilles injury has kept him off the floor since late December 2018. He can get by on his basketball IQ alone, but so much of his stardom is also owed to his athleticism.
Washington's future is a wild card until it has a hold on what the point guard looks like post-recovery.
18. Orlando Magic
Making the playoffs won't do anything to strengthen the Orlando Magic's pull. Eighth place in the East amounts to a first-round sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks and the loss of a lottery pick. It does not imply they are on the verge of something special.
Injuries have admittedly tightened this season's ceiling. Jonathan Isaac was an All-Defensive shoo-in before suffering a severe sprain and bone contusion in his left knee. But he alone doesn't give the Magic much to sell.
They need scorers and floor-spacers and playmakers. The MLE isn't getting them someone who checks all three boxes. Even with Chuma Okeke and another first-round pick entering next season's fold, they may need to divvy up this money among multiple players.
Orlando's situation gets hairier if Evan Fournier declines his player option. Removing his money from the books doesn't open meaningful cap space. The Magic have holds for D.J. Augustin, Michael Carter-Williams and Wes Iwundu, and renouncing all of them won't drum up serious flexibility. They'd still be better operating as an over-the-cap team without shedding other salary.
Talk about a lukewarm sales pitch. "Come join our restrictive fringe-playoff squad" isn't resonating with free agents who have equal-money options elsewhere.
17. Sacramento Kings
Dysfunction is still the standard for the Sacramento Kings. That instability can be overlooked when they are peddling more money than their peers, but they're not slated for above-average room this summer.
Carrying Bogdan Bogdanovic's restricted-free-agent hold takes them above the cap if they guarantee Nemanja Bjelica's contract (duh), Jabari Parker opts in (also duh) and they land a top-10 pick (probably duh). Their maneuverability under the tax will shrink exponentially if Bogdanovic brokers an absurd offer sheet—not so much so that they won't have access to the full MLE, assuming they renounce Kent Bazemore, but Bogi's final price point is worth monitoring.
De'Aaron Fox's trajectory spares Sacramento from tumbling to last place. Marvin Bagley III hasn't played enough this season to be part of the solution—though I was pretty high on him entering this year—and Buddy Hield's less-than-fuzzy attitude hasn't dissipated following his extension.
It doesn't help that the Kings haven't done a good job maximizing recent free-agent acquisitions. Their 2017 spending binge blew up in their face, and two of their four primary outside signings from last summer, Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon, already play for different teams.
Upside is available in ample supply so long as Bogdanovic, Fox and Hield are around and Bagley gets healthy. That's not going to edge out comparable offers from contenders, and plenty of rebuilding squads in the MLE tier inspire more confidence than Sacramento's front office.
16. Chicago Bulls
Injuries are the Chicago Bulls' free-agency safe haven. Their front office and coaching situation are roughly on par with those in Sacramento, but their 2019-20 campaign has noticeably more what-if mystique.
Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. didn't get a chance to play together after last year's trade deadline. Injuries across the board—most notably to Porter—have limited them to just 257 possessions this season.
Maybe that doesn't begin to negate the Bulls' continued trek to nowhere. So much of their offense is predicated on watching Zach LaVine over-dribble into ridiculously difficult shots. To his credit, Chicago doesn't have many alternatives. Markkanen was up and down—mostly down—prior to his left ankle issue, and Coby White has a severe case of rookie-year inefficiency inside the arc.
But the Bulls still have a path to getting much better without any wholesale changes. A full-strength rotation built around Carter, LaVine, Markkanen, Porter, White, Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young can become an Eastern Conference nuisance. Add in a likely mid-lottery pick and MLE-level talent, and Chicago has a clearish path back to the postseason.
This all assumes Porter picks up his $28.4 million player option. The Bulls can get north of $30 million in space if he enters the open market and they renounce the rights to all their other free agents, including Kris Dunn.
15. San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan can change everything for the San Antonio Spurs. They'll have the capacity to dredge up significant cap space if he declines his player option. Renouncing him, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl (restricted) while waiving Trey Lyles ($1 million guaranteed) would fast-track them to more than $20 million in spending power.
That's...a lot of player equity to surrender for sub-max room, especially when the 2020 free-agent class isn't worth it.
The Spurs' outlook can also just as easily go the other way. If DeRozan opts in and they re-sign Forbes and Poeltl, they'll have a hard time using their MLE without going into the tax. A lot rests on how much either player fetches, but their cap holds alone would bring San Antonio within $8 million of the tax, depending on where this year's first-round pick falls.
Consigning the Spurs to full-MLE territory is the appropriate middle ground. Chances are they won't pay top dollar for both Forbes and Poeltl—particularly the former—and they're infrequent big-game hunters anyway. LaMarcus Aldridge's 2015 arrival is their exception.
Avoiding the confines of the mini MLE doesn't necessarily help. San Antonio is traditionally awarded the utmost benefit of the doubt, but that blind goodwill is wavering in the face of a natural crossroads.
How much longer will head coach Gregg Popovich be around? Is he even a distinct selling point these days? What happens after next year when Aldridge and DeRozan will be off the books? Is a rebuild on the horizon? Are they good enough to compete for more than lower-level playoff seeds if it's not?
This year's closing kick will say volumes for the Spurs' open-market charm. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 3 percent chance of making the playoffs. Signing impact players when they don't have a cap-space advantage will be much harder if their 22-year postseason streak gets reality-checked.
14. Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns have the capacity to create a new tier. So do the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, for what it's worth. We'll get to them shortly.
Renouncing the rights to Aron Baynes and Dario Saric (restricted) and declining Frank Kaminsky's team option opens up more than $20 million in wiggle room—sub-max territory, but substantive spending power all the same. The bet here is the Suns don't jump through all the requisite hoops to be a cap-space team.
Two from the Baynes-Kaminsky-Saric trio would need to go, and letting either Baynes or Saric walk for nothing is a waste of resources. They should both be in play for returns unless their price tags get unreasonable.
The Suns are in an interesting position either way. They've yet to assemble a legitimate playoff contender around Devin Booker, but, well, they still have Devin Booker. He's this year's biggest All-Star snub. His playmaking is lead-guard material, and he has the third-highest true shooting percentage among 54 players averaging 20 or more points per 75 possessions.
Joining next season's playoff conversation is a huge ask. The Western Conference is nothing if not teeming with contenders and postseason hopefuls. But Phoenix's core is deeper than it appears at first glance.
Between Baynes, Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges (shooting 38.2 percent from deep over the past 25 games), Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ricky Rubio, the Suns have six players who are clearly replacement level or better. Saric and Cameron Johnson are both on the fringes of that discussion.
Running it back with these nine players plus a mid-level-exception signing lays fringe-playoff groundwork. That's not nothing. The Suns' pool of possibilities opens further if they consolidate incumbent cap holds into sub-max space. A stopper who isn't a zero on offense would go a long way. Think about what Phoenix could do with Paul Millsap or Jerami Grant (player option) soaking up frontcourt minutes.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves could remove themselves from the full-mid-level-exception crowd if the price points for restricted free agents Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez get out of control. That's a worst-worst-worst-case scenario.
Neither Beasley nor Hernangomez has played well enough—or long enough—this season to warrant aggressive offer sheets. Beasley should still garner interest as an athletic wing who can dribble and shoot, but the market for overpays is hardly robust. Fewer than a half-dozen teams could be working as teams under the cap when all's said and done.
Impact veterans can find more playoff-ready situations. The Timberwolves aren't slingshotting to the top of anyone's list just because of the D'Angelo Russell trade.
At the same time, his acquisition came at the expense of a top-three-protected pick in 2021. That infers a certain obligation to accelerate their window. They may be open to chasing more win-now additions on the trade market using James Johnson's expiring contract (player option).
That interest in expediting their position out west and the space manufactured around Russell-Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-rolls should tempt those who don't have open offers from the heaviest hitters. The Timberwolves might even be willing to throw long-term MLE money at sub-MLE wings just to beef up the perimeter defense.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
Feel free to put the Oklahoma City Thunder much higher if you can promise they'll stay together. But after their dalliance with a Danilo Gallinari-to-Miami scenario at the trade deadline, it's clear they're not married to keeping their veterans.
Prioritizing the big picture won't preclude them from maintaining the status quo. Retaining Gallinari makes the most sense after holding onto him, if only so they can try flipping him later. (Sign-and-trade possibilities are also on the table.)
All of which is the point: The Thunder's situation is fluid.
Gallinari's return wouldn't nod to a win-now direction. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder should be eminently movable on expiring deals. Chris Paul will have just two seasons, at $85.6 million total, left on his contract. Offers could come rolling in for him with that light at the end of the tunnel and on the heels of a lackluster free-agency class.
Oklahoma City's appeal is entirely rooted in its freedom of choice.
With so many first-round picks in the coffer, the front office doesn't have to spend on outside talent if starting over is the plan. The Thunder are also good enough to take a small swing with their mid-level exception if they please. The power of that alternative increases tenfold if they win a playoff series this spring—a feat their present-day core is fully capable of doing.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
Punting on max cap space this summer was a bold move by the Memphis Grizzlies. Time will tell if it was also the right one.
Chandler Parsons is the biggest name they've ever poached in free agency. Taking on so much money to roster Justise Winslow is a defensible line of thinking. He is better than anyone they could've realistically wooed this summer.
And yet, did they have to swallow that much money?
Including Winslow's salary, the Grizzlies tacked on $42.9 million to their 2020-21 ledger in the Andre Iguodala trade alone. Dillon Brooks' relatively team-friendly extension brings that total to $54.3 million. That's a steep opportunity cost in a vacuum.
What exactly is Memphis missing out on, though? The chance to max out Brandon Ingram and see the New Orleans Pelicans match? The opportunity to overpay Malik Beasley? Leasing out all of next season's cap space prohibits the Grizzlies from replicating last summer's Iguodala deal, but teams won't be as desperate to offload money attached to picks when the free-agency landscape wants for gettable star power.
Restricting themselves to the mid-level exception really isn't that much of a limitation at all. They can still pitch players on joining one of the league's most bankable young cores headlined by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, and their short-term concession inoculates them against making any big-picture investments they might lament later if this year's playoff push proves to be an anomaly.
10. Indiana Pacers
Postseason staying power can be magnetic, and the Indiana Pacers have shown they can parlay that consistency into quality free agents. They reeled in Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison during the 2017 offseason and landed Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb in 2019.
Lucrative cap space was the common denominator in both summers. The Pacers won't have that kind of plasticity this year. They'll be hawking the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, along with most of the league.
Noticeably differentiating themselves from the majority won't be all that difficult if Victor Oladipo recaptures form following his return from a ruptured right quad tendon. His first few games have provided no offensive assurances—he owns a 39.0 true shooting percentage—but his defensive mobility is ubiquitous, as Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper put it:
"The lift on Oladipo's jumper may not be as trampoline-like, and he doesn't quite have the same burst when he pulls back and then rapidly propels himself forward against a switch, but man alive can that guy still plug holes on defense.
"... He's also been fun as the low-man, sliding over from the weak side and sacrificing his body to such a degree that he already leads the team in charges drawn through only five games played. Still, where he arguably makes the most impact as a defender is with his ability to flit and flutter from between help coverages like a hummingbird in search of nectar."
Indiana may already be one Oladipo-at-full-bore away from mucking up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Working in a player worthy of the full mid-level exception would almost guarantee home-court advantage next season.
The Pacers still have to figure out the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner partnership—which, for the record, has not fared well with Oladipo on the court. But that partnership is far from hopeless, and at worst, it's the means through which Indy can deepen its roster. A nucleus assembled around Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, one high-end big (if not two) and a punchy supporting cast is the basis for something special.
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Perhaps the Portland Trail Blazers should be lower. Or maybe they should be higher.
Damian Lillard's existence demands the latter. He is All-NBA First Team Would Follow Him Into Hell and Back and Then Back to Hell Again. Everybody should want to play with him, and everybody's families should want for their NBA relatives to want to play with him.
(For those curious, Lillard joins Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker. This fictive-but-obviously-important distinction pays no mind to positions.)
Life on the draft-lottery fringes complicates the Blazers' offseason case. Jusuf Nurkic will be back at some point, but what if he isn't the same after suffering compound fractures in his left leg last March? What if the Blazers miss the playoffs and embrace a quasi-rebuild in which they break up the Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt?
Accounting for nightmarish outcomes and comprehensive pivots warps the Blazers' placement. That mostly means they aren't in a position to usurp the teams objectively better than them or squads on the come-up. And that isn't the end of the world.
Overreactions aren't in general manager Neil Olshey's DNA, and he has a host of built-in excuses for this season at his disposal. Nurkic has yet to play. Zach Collins' dislocated left shoulder has limited him to three appearances. Rodney Hood's ruptured left Achilles depleted the team's already-shallow wing rotation.
Portland plucked Carmelo Anthony out of an empty gym near you and inserted him into the starting five for crying out loud. Hassan Whiteside doesn't have the instincts or speed in space to be a top-shelf defensive anchor, but he's been less prohibitive and more actually good. Trevor Ariza has a pulse after arriving in a midseason trade from the Sacramento Kings.
This stuff matters. So many of the Blazers' issues can be traced back to how they approached the 2019 offseason, but they aren't a typical lottery-bound team/first-round steppingstone. Free from any real tax concerns next year, they can guarantee Ariza's salary and remain one of the league's most appealing mid-level-exception destinations.
And if they do make a trade, it's unlikely to be one that indentures them to a more gradual timeline. Moving McCollum or piecing together offers around young players, picks and filler is their ticket to pulling off a blockbuster that upgrades their position, not reboots it.
8. Houston Rockets
This isn't entirely tongue-in-cheek. Houston's offense is faster this side of the Westbrook trade, but it doesn't ask its supporting cast to score off motion. Role players do a lot of standing around. The fit isn't for everybody.
Still, the Rockets are a title contender with their current roster construction, and they may have elevated their peak by leaning into extreme small-ball. The early returns on lineups featuring P.J. Tucker at the 5 and Robert Covington at the 4 are encouraging. The sample size is small but not infinitesimal (205 possessions), and those combinations have held their own on the defensive glass.
Upper management is a bigger concern. The Rockets may have to dip into the luxury tax with their full MLE if Austin Rivers picks up his player option and they guarantee salaries for Isaiah Hartenstein and Ben McLemore. That might scare team governor Tilman Fertitta from allowing general manager Daryl Morey to use all $9.8 million at his disposal.
Speaking of Morey, will he even be running the show if Houston gets bounced in the first round? How far must the Rockets go in the playoffs for head coach Mike D'Antoni to get a new contract? Would an early postseason exit compel the team (read: Fertitta) to rethink monster investments in the aging Harden-Westbrook core?
Arming the Rockets with the full MLE is dangerous if they're willing to spend it. We just can't be sure they will be—or that they aren't, in some form, heading for an organizational shift.
7. Utah Jazz
Contending for a top-two playoff seed in the Western Conference gives the Utah Jazz a natural shine. Impact players are drawn to title-chasers when the money's equal.
Utah is working from a market disadvantage but offsets its geographical limitations with championship proximity. No second-tier contender is closer to entering the title-favorite tier that currently consists of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks.
The Jazz are one player from joining that trio. Maybe even a half-player away.
Imagine what would happen if they upgraded the Jordan Clarkson minutes next season while getting a better version of Mike Conley. Bolstering the backup center spot should be on the to-do list as well, but that's a marginal concern when Rudy Gobert is averaging close to 35 minutes per game. They don't even need a (much) improved Conley if the Donovan Mitchell-at-point-guard lineups continue to spit fire.
Injecting a little more optionality on the wing is basically all that separates the Jazz from the NBA's upper-most echelon. By signing someone who can capably co-opt the defensive responsibility Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles share, Utah could force a title-favorite realignment.
6. Dallas Mavericks
Though the Dallas Mavericks will most likely be surfing the mid-level-exception market, their books could tilt them toward actual cap space.
It is no longer a given that Tim Hardaway Jr. will pick up his $19 million player option. He's shooting 42.9 percent on catch-and-shoot threes and has put down enough of his triples off the dribble to be defended as a multilevel threat.
Dallas will have access to more than $20 million of breathing room if Hardaway attempts to cash in on his most efficient season ever. That's coveted flexibility in a normal summer. Every player hoping to get paid while contending for championships should pounce at the chance to tether their next few years to Luka Doncic.
Except, this isn't going to be a normal summer.
Scant few free agents are worth burning that much money on. The Mavericks are better off hoping Hardaway opts in—or signing him to an inflated one-plus-one deal—and preserving their cap space for the 2021 offseason, when there should be more star power on the open market.
Regardless of how they approach this summer, they're a borderline top-five destination among teams within their spending window. The money they have tied up in question-mark bigs is their sole source of hesitation.
Nobody can be sure whether Dwight Powell will play next season after he ruptured his right Achilles in late January, and max-contract Kristaps Porzingis has been touch-and-go. Injuries to both he and Doncic have messed with their synergy, and Porzingis' efficiency was mostly below-board prior to February.
Doncic alone puts the Mavericks in the most prominent free-agent tier, but their outlook retains a dab of iffiness with so much money tied up in a frontline that, for now, provides few assurances.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Don't care. Not sorry. Will not back off this limb.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a destination destination.
Star rookie Zion Williamson is obviously a part of this calculus. Missing the first half-plus of the season with a right knee injury has not affected his trajectory. Joel Embiid is the only rookie ever to match his per-possession point, rebound and assist totals, and the Pelicans are nuking opponents with him on the floor.
Many of Zion's most pressing defensive concerns have come to bare. He looks overmatched on switches in space, and his second jump isn't always enough to outhustle purer bigs. But he's proved useful in more aggressive half-court coverage, and the short stints he's logged at center have gone off without a major hitch.
Superstars attract talent, and Zion looks like an inevitable All-NBA mainstay. More importantly, he isn't alone.
Brandon Ingram is a virtual lock to win Most Improved Player. Jrue Holiday has not vacated the star discussion. Lonzo Ball has perked up in recent weeks. JJ Redick remains one of the league's three most lethal shooters. Josh Hart has found his touch from distance. Soon-to-be free agent Derrick Favors has been a defensive boon when healthy. Jaxson Hayes ascribes too much value to All-Star Weekend's Rising Stars Game, but he plays with endless energy.
Savvy free agents will get out in front of New Orleans' ascension. The Pelicans can up the ante this summer if executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin feels like flexing.
Renouncing the rights to all of their own free agents except Ingram (restricted) and waiving Darius Miller's non-guaranteed salary would leave them with more than $12 million to throw around. That's negligibly more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, but this year, negligibly more than the MLE can go a long way.
Clearing that much of the deck invariably isn't worth the difference. Re-signing Favors to a short-term contract with a balloon salary has more value. And while the Pelicans' appeal could be slightly compromised if they decide to trade Holiday, their asset base is deep enough that Zion, Ingram and whomever's left would remain an A-list draw.
4. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets' place in the free-agency landscape is loaded with caveats. They'll have plenty of room beneath the tax to wield the full mid-level exception if Jerami Grant picks up his player option and they renounce cap holds for Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, but not a single one of those decisions is locked in.
Grant will be hard-pressed to nab a much higher raise off his annual salary ($9.3 million), but plenty of teams should have zero qualms about throwing the entire non-taxpayer's MLE his way. A four-year, $42 million deal would guarantee him an extra $30-plus million over the next few seasons, so Denver might need to outbid that threshold to keep him in town.
Meanwhile, bidding farewell to Millsap isn't a call the Nuggets can take lightly. Having Grant and Michael Porter Jr. would render him somewhat dispensable, but his defensive IQ isn't readily replaceable. Letting both he and Plumlee walk would also leave Denver light on bigs beyond Nikola Jokic.
Millsap won't get an annual salary anywhere near his $40.6 million cap hold, which will afford the Nuggets some flexibility. But unlocking the full MLE while offering new contracts to two or more of him, Grant, Plumlee and Torrey Craig will be tight, and the suits upstairs haven't yet shown an inclination to pay the tax.
Maintaining access to that $9.8 million MLE still isn't impossible. And if the Nuggets find a way to make it work, they would become one of the Association's most desirable landing spots—similar to the Utah Jazz in that they seem less than one player away from party-crashing the title-favorite discourse.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo's supermax extension looms large for the Milwaukee Bucks. They're a far less attractive destination if he rejects the five-year, $253.8 million megadeal they're certain to offer him. They won't be on anyone's radar if he requests a trade.
Let's all agree to pump the brakes on the Bucks' potential nadir.
They're on pace to win more than 70 games and are obliterating opponents when Antetokounmpo sits. They're more likely to be fresh off a championship than fielding a trade demand from the league's best player.
Failing to get a long-term commitment from Antetokounmpo this summer wouldn't mean the Bucks will have to move him. Unless he explicitly asks to be traded—which he doesn't seem likely to do—they should treat next season as yet another tryout for his permanent affection. He's that good.
Entering 2020-21 with Antetokounmpo on the roster is both the most likely and best-case scenario. Even if the Bucks find themselves scrambling to optimize a single-year window on the heels of an unceremonious playoff exit, they'll still be the Eastern Conference's foremost power.
Staying far enough beneath the tax to use the full mid-level exception will be tight, but it's more than doable. Milwaukee doesn't have any irreplaceable free agents speeding toward a raise, and almost all of its cheaper contracts can be unloaded without requiring a significant sweetener.
2. Toronto Raptors
Sticking the Toronto Raptors so high is a bet on team president Masai Ujiri.
VanVleet is the only one of the three who will get anything close to his cap hold. He'll probably net more. Gasol and Ibaka shouldn't cost even half of their holds unless it's a one-year balloon contract.
Ujiri isn't the type to get coerced into squeezing his team's books. Nor is he one to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Raptors fancy themselves contenders for Giannis Antetokounmpo's services in 2021, so Ujiri will structure their ledger accordingly.
That doesn't mean the Raptors won't pay anyone. They have the wiggle room to re-sign VanVleet on a multiyear deal and retain flexibility to go after Antetokounmpo. The futures of Gasol and Ibaka are more contingent upon price and contract length. They don't fit into the Raptors' forecast if they aren't available for team-friendly money on a shorter-term basis.
Tough decisions ultimately await. That only increases the likelihood Toronto has the full mid-level exception. Showing even one of Gasol and Ibaka the door makes staying far enough below the tax that much easier. (Conversely, renouncing both bigs and VanVleet, while unlikely, would give Ujiri max space—and then some.)
Bringing in free agents that don't butcher the 2021 cap sheet is the bigger hurdle. Non-stars will be looking for longer-term contracts in advance of a much deeper free-agent class next year. Those deals won't be conducive to the Raptors' plans unless they come at a lower annual salary.
But finding players willing to sign at above-market rates over the short haul is never too difficult. The New York Knicks picked up a jillion of them last summer, and free agents will have even less leverage this year.
The Raptors have only shored up their appeal in the aftermath of Kawhi Leonard's departure. They have the league's third-best record, a suffocating defense and a franchise superstar under lock and key for the foreseeable future. Players should have zero qualms about Toronto's trajectory, both immediately and indefinitely.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Hollywood exceptionalism is real.
Also: The Los Angeles Lakers deserve their No. 1 billing.
Disqualified candidates help their standing. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers could stake claim to this spot if they projected to have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. The Golden State Warriors might have a case if Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson didn't miss so much of this season, and if they didn't exchange one complicated fit in D'Angelo Russell for another in Andrew Wiggins.
Both the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have No. 1 arguments, but Anthony Davis grants the Lakers a level of certainty that their closest challengers don't otherwise have. He's a veritable lock to re-sign in Los Angeles. The Bucks can't yet say the same about Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Raptors' ceiling with Pascal Siakam looks a lot different if they don't strike gold in 2021 free agency.
LeBron James' age would work against the Lakers if he were any other 35-year-old, but he isn't. He leads the league in assists, is playing his most engaged defense since he left Miami and should finish no lower than second on the MVP ladder.
His prospective foray into 2021 free agency (player option) is more of a roadblock than his basketball mortality. And even that concern rings hollow.
The Lakers have another superstar in his prime, and unlike the Cleveland Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving, they aren't in danger of losing him behind James' shadow. Davis genuinely seems to like playing beside his elder, and as timeless as LeBron's game may be, he is closer to handing off the torch than he was a few years ago.
Giving these Lakers the full MLE should serve as a major draw for able-bodied ring-chasers, particularly in this bare-bones market. Their cap sheet will get thornier if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope declines his player option and commands a mammoth contract, but neither he nor any of their other prospective free agents will tout obscene leverage.