The Free Agent Every NBA Team Can't Afford to Lose

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 8, 2020

The Free Agent Every NBA Team Can't Afford to Lose

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    With most NBA teams lacking cap space and a market short on "max him out" superstars, the 2020 free-agency period will force every club to make difficult decisions.

    None of the following has anything to do with those tough calls. We're here to point out the easiest ones—highlighting the one free agent on each team's roster that, if at all possible, it shouldn't let walk.

    Partly because we're dealing with an underwhelming free-agent class and partly because it's more fun, we're stretching the definition of "free agent" as far as it'll go. That means including players with non-guaranteed deals, player options, team options, you name it. If there's technically a way for a player to leave his team in a manner that doesn't involve a trade, he's eligible for this exercise.

    There will be cases in which teams don't have any free agents they truly "can't afford to lose," but we won't cop out. Every team has someone that, of the options available, they'd most like to keep. This will turn out to be good news for Alfonzo McKinnie.

    Attrition is part of building and maintaining an NBA roster, but these are the free agents NBA teams can't lose.

Atlanta Hawks: Jeff Teague

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    OK, here's the thing: The Atlanta Hawks can afford to lose Jeff Teague.

    What they can't afford is failing, for the second straight season, to roster a capable backup point guard. In the 1,136 minutes Trae Young spent on the bench this season, Atlanta's offensive rating was 95.7, a precipitous drop from the 111.2 figure it posted with Young on the floor.

    Teague, an unrestricted free agent, made his return to Atlanta via trade in January. With only 25 games and 519 minutes logged, it's tough to be overly critical of the veteran point guard. He wasn't particularly effective, but he cleared a low bar by being better than anyone else Atlanta used to run the offense in Young's absence.

    The Hawks are one of the few teams with significant cap space this offseason, but it wouldn't be a smart use of resources to toss it all at the best point guard on the market, Fred VanVleet.

    Teague has his flaws (post-entry passing and finishing inside the arc chief among them), but if he could provide the 13.2 points and 6.1 assists per contest he gave the Minnesota Timberwolves in 34 pre-trade games, the Hawks should strongly consider bringing him back.

Boston Celtics: Daniel Theis

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    Daniel Theis isn't likely to be a free agent, but he could be, which is good enough to make him the obvious choice for the Boston Celtics. If the C's don't guarantee his paltry $5 million salary for 2020-21, there'll have to be some kind of investigation.

    An improbable key to one of the NBA's best defenses, the 6'8", 215-pound Theis, grossly undersized at center, is a technician in Boston's drop coverage scheme. His presence on the floor coincides with a 5.0 percent drop in opponent accuracy rate at the rim, a product of his ability to read and react in difficult pick-and-roll situations.

    Even quality bigs struggle with the cat-and-mouse of slowing the ball-handler while preventing lobs, but Theis gets it done intuitively. You never see the wheels turning. He just seems to know how to best position himself in disadvantageous situations.

    That Theis is effectively replicating Al Horford's expertise at the same job suggests coaching and defensive principles set up smart bigs to succeed in the Celtics' schemes. But that's not the same thing as saying he's replaceable. There aren't many players offering more bang for the buck than Theis at $5 million.

    He's a no-doubt keeper.

Brooklyn Nets: Joe Harris

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    Know what a team set to field two ball-dominant scoring stars in 2020-21 needs? A killer marksman who commands nonstop defensive attention without the ball.

    That's Joe Harris, an unrestricted free-agent wing who, over the last three seasons, ranks first in three-point percentage (43.6 percent) among high-volume shooters. Ideally, the Brooklyn Nets would want a little more defense from their supporting wings, but Harris isn't a total turnstile on that end. And there's just nothing more valuable for scorers who need the ball than a teammate who occupies help defenders.

    The spacing Harris creates will be invaluable to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

    With the premium on shooting and a thin market conspiring to drive up Harris' price, retention will be costly. For a Nets team that fancies itself a contender, Harris will be more than worth it.

Charlotte Hornets: Devonte' Graham

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    Like Theis with the Celtics, Devonte' Graham heads into the offseason with a non-guaranteed salary for 2020-21. Though the Boston center's contributions may matter extra because he's making them on a winner, Graham might be even more indispensable.

    An out-of-nowhere second-season explosion saw Graham average 18.2 points and 7.5 assists on 37.3 percent shooting from deep. Though he played just 63 contests this season, he now holds two of the top three single-game three-point-make totals in franchise history.

    Charlotte's offense was 10.3 points per 100 possessions better with Graham on the floor. That's no coincidence as his ability to challenge defenses with his shooting off the bounce in the pick-and-roll is exactly the kind of threat that makes guys like Stephen Curry, Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard so impactful. His 34.4 percent hit rate on 5.9 pull-up threes per game caused a cascading set of problems for defenses.

    Graham, at 25, already possesses the single most valuable skill a modern point guard can have.

    It's scary out on this limb, but I think Charlotte will guarantee the $1.7 million he's due next season, keeping him off the market.

Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn

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    Relentless, long enough to guard small forwards and one of the NBA's most disruptive on-ball suffocators, Kris Dunn is an All-Defensive-level (free) agent of chaos. He had the highest deflection rate among players with at least 500 minutes of court time this season. Ditto for his steal percentage.

    A restricted free agent, Dunn should command interest around the full mid-level exception from teams in need of elite stoppers. The Chicago Bulls should be ready to match as his value to their otherwise suspect defense is difficult to oversell.

    When Dunn went down with an MCL sprain on Jan. 31, the Bulls ranked ninth in defensive efficiency. From that point forward, they ranked 25th.

    It's true his inability to score outside of layup range can cripple an offense, but Dunn's worth on the other end is high enough to make him the Bulls' top priority.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Alfonzo McKinnie

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    It speaks to the bleak outlook of the 2020-21 Cleveland Cavaliers that the only candidates for this exercise are (deep, shuddering breath): Andre Drummond, Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Ante Zizic and Alfonzo McKinnie.

    The Cavs would do backflips if Drummond opted out of the $28.8 million he's set to make next year, and neither Thompson nor Delly has a place on a rebuilding team. McKinnie averaged 4.6 points on 49.3 percent true shooting (that's bad; the league average is 56.4 percent), and Zizic averaged 4.4 points in 22 games, all as a reserve.

    Yuck. Five yucks, actually.

    Let's go with McKinnie, who Cleveland signed to a four-year, minimum-salary, non-guaranteed deal in February. Though the particulars of the contract suggest about as tepid a level of interest as is possible, the Cavs at least made some commitment to him.

    The 6'7" forward shot 35.6 percent from deep in 72 games with the Golden State Warriors in 2018-19. If he could replicate that, he'd be a helpful fringe rotation option.

Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.

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    Tim Hardaway Jr. is easily the Dallas Mavericks' best potential free agent, but although the Mavs figuratively can't afford to lose him, they literally can't afford to overpay him.

    Luka Doncic is eligible for his first rookie extension (a rubber-stamped max) in the 2021 offseason, and Dallas only has this offseason and next to ink its third star. This year's market lacks such a player, but 2021 will see several huge names become available. Splurging on Hardaway now (assuming he turns down his player option for 2020-21) would tie up cash Dallas should be saving for a much bigger swing.

    Once Doncic's deal is done, the Mavs' roster-building flexibility will take a hit.

    If Hardaway opts out of $19 million in 2020-21 money and can be retained for, say, $60-70 million over four years, the Mavs should probably go for it. Anything less and the decision to keep him is easy.

    The 6'5" guard averaged 15.8 points per game and feasted on clean looks generated by Doncic, hitting a career-best 40.7 percent from deep before the hiatus. Has Hardaway, now with his third team at age 28, finally found his game on a winner? Or could Dallas determine his success is a product of superstar setups and that a far cheaper option could replicate his production?

    Have fun figuring that out, Mavs.

Denver Nuggets: Jerami Grant

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    The Denver Nuggets gave up a 2020 first-round pick for Jerami Grant, a 26-year-old power forward who sounds unlikely to exercise his $9.3 million player option for 2020-21. That's not a one-year-rental level of investment, which means Denver has to be prepared to work out a multiyear deal worth eight figures annually.

    Grant was shooting 40.0 percent on 3.4 triple attempts per game prior to the hiatus, and he's a genuine five-position defender who can run, cut and finish in transition. However, his fit alongside Nikola Jokic is cause for pause; Denver posted a minus-2.1 net rating with those two on the floor, the worst two-man pairing among Nuggets duos with at least 900 minutes together.

    Paul Millsap, an unrestricted free agent, helped Denver to a plus-10.5 net rating in 973 minutes with Jokic. His defensive IQ and veteran leadership remain important to a team that, in its current form, has won just a single playoff series.

    That said, Millsap is nine years older than Grant. Taken together, the hazard of paying for Millsap's past performance (rather than what he's likely to do in his age-35 season) and Grant's strong individual numbers makes retaining the younger forward Denver's main free-agent concern.

    The two-man-lineup numbers are scary, but it seems best to bet Jokic and Grant will figure out how to work together more efficiently going forward. 

Detroit Pistons: Christian Wood

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    Christian Wood is poised for a raise that could easily increase his $1.6 million annual salary tenfold, and the Detroit Pistons would be fools not to pay it. With an ear-to-ear smile.

    It took some maturation and skill development, but the 24-year-old Wood proved this season that he's ready to be a star. Actually, check that. First, he proved he was an NBA player. Then he proved he belonged in a rotation. And then: star. A lot happened over the span of a few months.

    The 6'10" Wood barely made Detroit's roster out of camp, but he ended the season as its best healthy player. He shot it beautifully from deep, hitting 38.6 percent of his threes, and complemented his stroke with startling off-the-dribble skills. He punished closeouts with quick drives and highlight finishes. His is a guard's game (minus the passing) in a big's body.

    Though most valuable for his "you can build a whole attack around it" offense, Wood holds up on defense. If he irons out mental mistakes, his ability to defend the rim and move his feet on the perimeter could make him an All-Star-level two-way threat.

    After averaging 21.9 points and 9.4 rebounds in 12 late-season starts, Wood is a lucky find the Pistons simply can't let go.

Golden State Warriors: Marquese Chriss

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    All of the Golden State Warriors' significant free agents fall into the "not necessarily free" category of non-guaranteed deals. That group includes Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Ky Bowman, Mychal Mulder and, most importantly, Marquese Chriss.

    Rest assured the Dubs will try to find a cheap starting center on the market, but also understand they might already have one on the roster.

    Chriss resurrected his career in Golden State, flashing the athleticism everyone knew he had but surprising all involved with deft passing touch and good intuition in the dribble-handoff game. He was one of just 13 players 6'9" or taller to log 1,000 minutes and post an assist percentage of 15.0 or better.

    Chriss' facilitation matters even more on a team like the Warriors that fields two elite shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

    At worst, Chriss looks like a dynamic backup 5 who could play a major role against second units. If he adds strength and tunes in a little more often defensively, he could absolutely keep the starting gig he seized as the Warriors' 2019-20 wound down.

Houston Rockets: P.J. Tucker

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    P.J. Tucker's ability to guard centers on defense and space to the corner on offense would be valuable anywhere, but it's critical for the Houston Rockets.

    James Harden's defensive limitations mean Houston has to play a switching scheme, and Tucker's versatility is the reason it works. Similarly, with Russell Westbrook now a complete non-factor as a perimeter shooter, the Rockets have to get spacing from the center spot. Tucker's 37.0 percent hit rate (36.2 percent for his career) is the only reason Houston can get away with playing a guard opponents ignore or gleefully dare to shoot.

    At 35, Tucker's NBA clock is running out. But the Rockets will only owe him $8 million if they pick up his 2020-21 guarantee.

    Considering his indispensability to Houston's style and success, he's worth two or three times that. 

Indiana Pacers: Justin Holiday

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    When a player fits a need for virtually every team in the league, it's a good sign the one he currently plays for should do what it can to keep him.

    That's the situation for Justin Holiday and the Indiana Pacers as the 31-year-old wing is one of this free-agent class' most portable three-and-D options. There's no such thing as a team that couldn't use a capable 6'6" defender who's currently shooting a career-best 42.4 percent from long distance.

    Holiday, 31, is in the midst of his best season, marked by personal highs in true shooting percentage, offensive and defensive box plus/minus and win shares. The Pacers should price in some regression, and it's also true that a return to health from Victor Oladipo could eat into some of Holiday's minutes, diminishing his importance.

    That said, he's easily more valuable than JaKarr Sampson and Alize Johnson, Indy's other two free agents.

Los Angeles Clippers: Marcus Morris Sr.

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    The Los Angeles Clippers present our first truly tough call: Montrezl Harrell vs. Marcus Morris Sr.

    Harrell is a second-unit shredder who excels as a roll man, can take his matchup off the dribble with head-down drives and piles up cheapies on the offensive glass. Those 18.6 points (in 27.8 minutes!) per game on 58.0 percent shooting are tough to look past.

    Morris, though, plays a position of considerably higher value.

    Forwards who can hit threes, survive as perimeter defenders against dangerous wings and muscle up against bigs underneath are integral to any prospective title threat's makeup. The Clips are on a short and uncertain timeline with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard able to hit free agency in 2021, but they surely didn't surrender a first-rounder for a few months of Morris' services.

    In the end, Morris is much easier to envision closing Finals games than Harrell, a defensive question mark with consistently awful defensive rebounding rates. The Clips need versatility and non-exploitable two-way options for the high-stakes games they figure to play over the next year or two, which means they need Morris.

Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis

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    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard know what? Let's not even do this.

    Anthony Davis has a $28.8 million player option for 2020-21, and though there's no real scenario in which he'll leave, he's technically going to become a free agent when he opts out with the intent to re-sign. It's ridiculous to pretend the Lakers' other free agents, combined, matter as much as he does.

    L.A. has more than its share of uncertainty with the four guys listed above joining Rajon Rondo, Jared Dudley and a few lesser options hitting the market. But if you gave it the choice of keeping all those guys and losing Davis, whose departure might also incite LeBron James' own extraction power play, Los Angeles would vaporize its entire roster to keep Davis. Without blinking.

    If AD demanded he sign his next deal with the Lakers at the top of Mt. Everest with ink harvested from some weird octopus that only lived in the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, general manager Rob Pelinka would happily grab his scuba gear, hire a Sherpa and get down to business.

Memphis Grizzlies: De'Anthony Melton

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    Few guards in the league made a bigger defensive difference than De'Anthony Melton, a restricted free agent the Memphis Grizzlies can't allow to walk.

    Though he's barely passable offensively, Melton, the 46th pick by the Houston Rockets in 2018, is posting obscenely dominant stats on the other end. He ranks in the 84th and 98th percentiles at his position in block and steal rate, respectively. Toss in excellent rebounding numbers and you've got a second-unit guard who can punish opponents without ever shooting.

    The Grizzlies' defensive rating is 5.4 points per 100 possessions stingier when Melton plays, and from a team-building perspective, he's exactly the kind of dirty-work specialist you'd seek out to shield Ja Morant from tough assignments. How many guards can stick with Damian Lillard like this? A half-dozen? Fewer?

    That's a rookie version of Melton, by the way. He's even better now. 

    The Grizz should be ready to match offer sheets up to $5-7 million annually.

Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson

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    Derrick Jones Jr. is the Miami Heat's top retention priority among surefire free agents, but we've been lumping players with non-guaranteed contracts into this exercise, which brings both Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn into the picture.

    All three are rotation-quality talents with wildly different skill sets, but Robinson's phenomenal three-point shooting makes him the pick.

    Robinson is a substandard defender, and Miami's zone looks, which Jones supercharges, are key to covering for him. But there just aren't many shooters with his gravity; his mere presence on the floor is a full-on emergency for every opponent's defense. That he's so much more than a standstill shooter, constantly sprinting across the floor and weaving his way through a network of screens, only heightens the panic.

    Stephen Curry is the only player in NBA history to shoot at least 44.0 percent on more than eight deep attempts per game over a full season. Robinson is on pace to join him.

Milwaukee Bucks: Wesley Matthews

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    There's nothing spectacular about a 33-year-old Wesley Matthews, but the veteran wing plays capable defense and is shooting 36.5 percent from distance in his 11th season. If he opts out of the $2.7 million he's owed for 2020-21, the Milwaukee Bucks would do well to bring him back.

    Other candidates include Ersan Ilyasova (non-guaranteed), Robin Lopez ($5 million player option), Pat Connaughton (unrestricted) and Kyle Korver (unrestricted), but Matthews' 1,529 minutes to this point in the season rank fourth on the team. Connaughton has the next-most playing time, but he's over 400 minutes behind Matthews.

    If Milwaukee could find a younger, more dynamic option on the wing in free agency—perhaps one willing to take a pay cut to play for a contender—it'd be foolish to pass on the opportunity. Matthews isn't irreplaceable. But of the Bucks' free-agent options, he's easily been the most useful* this year.


    *The real answer here is "whoever Giannis Antetokounmpo likes most." Every decision the Bucks make should be geared toward making their MVP happy enough to sign a supermax extension.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Malik Beasley

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    Before you throw a suspicious side-eye at Malik Beasley's scoring explosion following his trade to the Minnesota Timberwolves, know he actually averaged more points per shot attempt in 2018-19, ranking in the 95th percentile among wings.

    Sure, his 42.6 percent accuracy mark on threes in 14 games with the Wolves was a career high, but it's not like we're dealing with some non-shooting scrub who caught a month-long heater and can't sustain it. Beasley is an objectively dangerous shooter; all he proved in Minnesota was that added volume wouldn't change that fact.

    The Wolves need spot-up options in an offense built around pick-and-pop action between D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, and Beasley excels in that role. More than a third of his 2019-20 field-goal attempts were catch-and-shoot threes, and he hit a scorching 40.5 percent of them. 

    A restricted free agent, Beasley could easily draw offers worth $15 million per season. Expect Minnesota to match.

    Oh, and don't worry about him being a below-average defender. That's kind of a requirement for everyone in Minnesota not named Josh Okogie.

New Orleans Pelicans: Brandon Ingram

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    Aside from Anthony Davis' imminent max offer from the Lakers, Brandon Ingram is the only other free agent we might see get a contract for as much money as the collective bargaining agreement allows.

    Ingram was in no way assured of being in this position a year ago. A significant health scare and a ball-dominant game short on three-point volume made max money unlikely back then. Now that he's healthy and dramatically expanding his game with the Pels, it'll be surprising if he doesn't secure the bag.

    An All-Star for the first time, the rangy forward nearly tripled his 2018-19 three-point attempt rate, hitting 38.7 percent of them before the hiatus and establishing himself as a true threat off the dribble and on the catch. Ingram ranks in the 85th percentile in mid-range attempt frequency among forwards, which is still higher than the Pels would probably like—even if he's better than average at converting those looks. 

    That Ingram is one of just seven players averaging over 24.0 points per game on 59.0 percent true shooting this season with that inefficient shot profile speaks to his potential to be an even more dominant scorer as his shot selection improves. New Orleans could wait to match offer sheets, but the better course would be preempting them entirely with a full max the moment free agency begins.

New York Knicks: Mitchell Robinson

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    We'll dip into the non-guaranteed waters again for the New York Knicks, highlighting Mitchell Robinson as the most important player not entirely locked down for 2020-21.

    Robinson started just seven of the 61 games he played in 2019-20, averaging 9.7 points on an incomprehensible 74.2 percent shooting, the highest accuracy rate ever recorded by a player attempting at least 300 shots in a season.

    Actually, maybe incomprehensible is the wrong word; looking at the photo above, which depicts one of Robinson's 185 dunks (out of 253 made field goals this year), it gets pretty easy to understand how he makes shots at such a ridiculous rate.

    Prior to the date shuffling created by the hiatus, Robinson's 2020-21 salary would have guaranteed if he were still on the roster on June 29. That deadline will likely get pushed back, but the certainty that Robinson will return is unchanged.

    New York should probably look into starting its best player going forward. If Robinson, prone to foul trouble, can't keep himself on the floor for more than 25 minutes per game, so be it. His finishing, shot-blocking and rebounding are too valuable to leave languishing on the bench. They should all be leveraged against opposing first units.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Danilo Gallinari

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder got a long way down the road to trading Danilo Gallinari at the 2020 deadline, and it's hard to fault them for trying to get something back before Gallo hits unrestricted free agency this offseason.

    Now, though, OKC might want to reevaluate its posture.

    The Thunder are a playoff team, and they figure to remain one as long as Chris Paul is on the roster. If anything, growth from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander increases their chances of staying competitive next year.

    Considering the difficulty Oklahoma City will face in trying to move on from Paul and triggering a full-on rebuild, the best course might be to ride out the final two full years of his contract and try to win as much as possible.

    In that scenario, Gallinari would be immensely valuable to the Thunder.

    The Miami Heat are the only quality team with the cap space it'd take to sign Gallo, but they don't want to tie up cash for 2021, when Giannis Antetokounmpo could be available. If that limits them to a one-year deal, the Thunder could easily put forth the most lucrative offer to keep their efficient power forward. And if things go south or OKC decides to move CP3, we know Gallinari has value in the trade market.

    Whether they view him as an asset to be moved down the line or a key piece on a playoff team, the Thunder should be most focused on keeping Gallinari. 

Orlando Magic: Evan Fournier

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    The on-off numbers cut against the idea that Evan Fournier is vital to the Orlando Magic's success; their net rating is 4.8 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor than off. Despite that ugly split, there's still an argument that Orlando should hope he picks up his $17 million player option for 2020-21.

    Put simply, Fournier is the Magic's best offensive player.

    He leads Orlando in points per shot attempt by a mile, ranking in the 86th percentile at his position overall. He also checks in at the 82nd percentile in assist rate among wings. And although Orlando's differential was worse when he played, that was mostly due to a dip in defensive efficiency. Fournier's presence on the floor coincided with a jump in offensive rating of 2.6 points per 100 possessions.

    For a Magic team that hit the hiatus ranked 24th in scoring efficiency, Fournier's offensive prowess means a little something extra. Scoring is scarce in Orlando, but the 27-year-old vet averaged 18.8 points and shot 40.6 percent from deep. That's production the Magic can't afford to lose.

    With a healthy Jonathan Isaac anchoring next year's defense and (hopefully) further improvement from Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz, the defense should take care of itself.

Philadelphia 76ers: Glenn Robinson III

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    The Philadelphia 76ers' truly non-fungible players are, at great cost, under contract for 2020-21. Between Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson and Ben Simmons, Philly is on the hook for a guaranteed $131 million.

    Of their four unrestricted free agents, the choice really comes down to Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, both acquired via trade from the Warriors in February.

    Robinson looks like the more valuable of the two, particularly for a Sixers team that won't have many shots available for role players. Burks leads him in points per game for 2019-20 (15.1 to 11.8), but Robinson's 57.6 true shooting percentage tops Burks' 54.9. Robinson, 26, is also two years younger and has marginally more impressive career defensive numbers.

    Burks can do more with the ball and has a career assist rate twice as high as Robinson's, but the Sixers just aren't in the market for high-usage support pieces. Robinson, the better shooter and defender, should be the higher priority.

Phoenix Suns: Dario Saric

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    Dario Saric hasn't blown anyone away in his first season with the Phoenix Suns, and with Aron Baynes adding volume (without sacrificing efficiency) to his three-point game, it might seem logical for Phoenix to put its focus on Baynes.

    The Baynes-or-Saric issue is a false dilemma, though, as the Suns have the flexibility to keep both if they want to. But if they had to choose, Saric still stands out as the better keeper. He's seven years younger, which makes him the sounder fit in the age range containing Phoenix's cornerstones, and Saric's "bad" year hasn't really been that awful.

    He's still a decent rebounder with a 57.2 true shooting percentage that sits above the league average. Don't overlook his passing, either. Saric's assist rate resides in the top 33 percent among bigs.

    As Deandre Ayton grows, Baynes' role figures to diminish anyway. Phoenix needs to preserve resources to address its weak backcourt bench, so it would be a mistake to pay Baynes as much or more than the $5.5 million he made this year to play a backup role at a position increasingly devalued around the league.

Portland Trail Blazers: Trevor Ariza

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    It would be a mistake for the Portland Trail Blazers to expect this version of Trevor Ariza to return next year. In 21 games since coming over from the Sacramento Kings, the 34-year-old wing is averaging 11.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 40.0 percent from deep.

    Even if Ariza's performance dips a bit from that level in his age-35 season, he'll still be worth the $12.8 million coming his way—as long as Portland keeps him on the roster past his guarantee date this offseason.

    A Blazers team that started Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu for years should be very comfortable with Ariza, a spot-shooting, defense-first wing. Something about his presence on the roster just feels...familiar.

    Some might cape for Carmelo Anthony, an unrestricted free agent. But while his secondary scoring helps, he's a massive negative on D. If the Blazers intend to rediscover the form they showed as 2019 conference finalists, they'll need some stops on the wing. Anthony won't provide them.

Sacramento Kings: Bogdan Bogdanovic

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    The Sacramento Kings prepared themselves in advance for Bogdan Bogdanovic's restricted free agency, though they did it messily, trading 2019 signee Dewayne Dedmon back to the Atlanta Hawks for Alex Len and Jabari Parker. That move cleared some extra cash, which should make matching big offer sheets for the 27-year-old Serbian guard easier to stomach.

    All signs point to the Kings ponying up whatever it takes to keep Bogdanovic around.

    That's the right call.

    Bogdanovic is a high-end two-way player capable of running the offense, spotting up (37.0 percent from three for his career) and defending guards and wings. He is averaging 14.5 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds, and he has shot more efficiently since moving into a starting role over Buddy Hield.

    There's no number to quantify the following, but Bogdanovic is one of those savvy, competitive guards who just knows how to play. He reads the floor well, isn't afraid to make the bold pass and generally conducts himself with edgy confidence. He's exactly the kind of player a Kings team looking to insert itself into consistent playoff contention needs.

    In a thin market, Sacramento should be ready to match a four-year offer worth as much as $18 million per season.

San Antonio Spurs: Jakob Poeltl

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    You can't fixate on the 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Those modest averages don't capture Jakob Poeltl's value to the San Antonio Spurs.

    At 24, Poeltl is an efficient scorer, a sneakily deft passer, an ace rim protector (96th percentile among bigs in block rate) and an imposing rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass. He's currently the only player in the league with an offensive rebound rate above 11.0 percent, an assist rate above 14.0 percent and a block rate above 7.0 percent.

    Though he has the frame of the ill-favored conventional 5, he moves his feet better than you'd expect, making him useful in drop coverage and more athletically demanding schemes that require him to come out of the lane.

    A restricted free agent, Poeltl should be the guy San Antonio has in mind as its center of the future. The Spurs are only a year away from fully starting over as both LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan finally come off the books in 2021. It's not too early to secure a player who could start for years and grow with a core of intriguing early-20s guards.

Toronto Raptors: Fred VanVleet

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    Kyle Lowry is under contract for $30 million in 2020-21, but he won't be around forever. Good thing the Toronto Raptors already have his in-house replacement.

    Fred VanVleet will be the top point guard on the market, and keeping him in Toronto could cost $20 million per season. Don't rule out offers from the New York Knicks or Detroit Pistons that push past that lofty threshold.

    The Raptors must also concern themselves with the possible departures of Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher, but none of those free agents match FVV's combination of youth (he's 26), production and future value to a franchise that isn't so far away from punting vets and restructuring itself around Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.

    VanVleet's elite high-volume three-point shooting (38.8 percent on 7.0 attempts per game in 2019-20), lockdown defense against either guard spot and demonstrated big-game chutzpah are worth Toronto's full offseason attention...and a major investment.

Utah Jazz: Jordan Clarkson

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    The Utah Jazz have seven players who've played at least 800 minutes this season, and Jordan Clarkson is the only free agent in the bunch. He doesn't need to win this designation by default, though; he's objectively important to the team.

    The slithery 6'4" guard is pretty close to what you'd draw up in an ideal scoring sixth man, complete with a self-sufficient game off the bounce and no shortage of heat-check confidence.

    Clarkson is shooting 57.9 percent on two-pointers with the Jazz this year, and only 20.7 percent of his buckets inside the arc have been assisted. At 77.9 percent inside three feet (63.3 percent for his career, which is still great for a guard), Clarkson gets his own buckets efficiently—and without help.

    The Jazz have Donovan Mitchell's rookie extension to worry about this offseason, but with both Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert heading into the last year of their deals in 2020-21, they can overpay Clarkson to beat the market without hurting their flexibility too badly. That's not to say Utah should spend recklessly to keep a bench weapon around; anything above $15 million per season should give it pause.

    With so few teams toting cap space, the Jazz should be able to retain Clarkson for less than that, especially if they aren't afraid to offer a three- or four-year deal.

Washington Wizards: Davis Bertans

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    Ian Mahinmi, Shabazz Napier and Gary Payton II are three of the Washington Wizards' unrestricted free agents, and even they would probably tell you Davis Bertans should be the team's singular focus.

    Bertans is crushing his previous career highs by averaging 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists with 3.7 made triples per game. His three-point percentage (42.4) is down half a point from last year, but considering he's attempting almost twice as many long balls per game, that's a decline Washington will happily accept.

    The 6'10" flamethrower is hitting 47.7 percent of his wide-open threes, but defender proximity apparently doesn't bother him much. When one is within two-to-four feet, he's still at 40.4 percent.

    Bertans' most notable skill is shooting from extreme distance. On shots of 30-34 feet, he's an absurd 18-of-24, good for 75.0 percent.

    Bradley Beal is rightly credited with much of the Wizards' offensive success this season. But the spacing Bertans provides—and the attention he commands—opens things up for every other Washington player on the floor.


    Stats courtesy of, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.