Ambitious 2020 Free-Agent Targets for Every NBA Team
NBA free agency is now officially scheduled to begin Oct. 18, less than a week after a prospective Game 7 of the NBA Finals, per The Athletic's Shams Charania. That, naturally, got us thinking about who teams should chase on the open market. Which, naturally, made us wonder how ambitious each squad can realistically be.
Which, naturally, brought us here.
Each team's suggested target seeks to juggle idealism with feasibility. Financial flexibility still dictates the latter, even with 2020-21 salary cap projections up in the air. Squads will be assigned players who might fit into how much they can spend.
Time won't be wasted on unequivocally pointless free agents. Anthony Davis isn't leaving the Los Angeles Lakers. Let's move on. Similarly, those with player options are only included if they're semi-likely to decline them. That removes names such as DeMar DeRozan, Evan Fournier and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Incumbent players won't be included for the sake of intrigue. We know paying Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. (non-Bird) will be an ambitious, expensive venture for the Los Angeles Clippers. But who should they go after while assuming they'll retain both?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, get ready for some overlap. Roughly two-thirds of the league will be peddling the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, and many of them need to fill the same void: wing depth. Prepare to see more than your fair share of Jae Crowder and Jerami Grant (player option).
Atlanta Hawks: Brandon Ingram (Restricted)
This is the closest we'll come to endorsing a futile pursuit.
The New Orleans Pelicans can match whatever offers come Brandon Ingram's way and knew going into the trade deadline a max bid would be his market. They're unlikely to be scared off by any overtures.
Then again, the Atlanta Hawks might as well try. They'll be sitting on more space than the market has bankable talent. Even if the cap drops, they should have no trouble carving out $40-plus million in wiggle room should they renounce all their own free agents.
Throwing a huge chunk of that cash at a playmaking wing who jibes with their timeline makes all the sense in the world. Trae Young needs another proven from-scratch creator around him, and who knows, maybe the Pelicans will be less inclined to foot Ingram's max-contract bill if and when the cap falls.
Boston Celtics: Aron Baynes
Reunions are fun.
The Boston Celtics' lack of size on the frontline is too often dramatized. They've cobbled together a top-five defense while leaning on Enes Kanter (player option), Daniel Theis (non-guaranteed), Robert Williams III and a little bit of Grant Williams in the middle.
All four could be back next season. Theis isn't going anywhere, and Kanter almost assuredly isn't beating his $5 million player option on the open market. Signing a backup point guard might turn into a more pressing priority by default.
But roster logistics should go out the window if Aron Baynes is willing to return for the taxpayer's mid-level exception. He is both a burly body and a floor-spacer to plug up front who would give the Celtics a higher likelihood of success against the Eastern Conference's most terrifying behemoths—namely Joel Embiid.
This isn't to say Baynes will be had for the mini MLE. His own team, the Phoenix Suns, should be prepared to offer him more if it's not trying to operate with cap space. On the flip side, the market for bigs has tilted toward unforgiving in recent years. A relative lack of spending power around the league might give Boston a fighting chance.
Brooklyn Nets: Maurice Harkless
Free agency is not a primary avenue through which the Brooklyn Nets will improve. Joe Harris is their only notable incumbent headed for the open market, and general manager Sean Marks won't have more than the mini mid-level exception to burn.
Any major move the Nets make will come via trade. Finding a third star figures to top their to-do list, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. They'll be thinking much smaller in free agency.
Beefing up the power forward rotation is their most urgent matter. Neither Rodions Kurucs nor Taurean Prince provides enough defensive resistance, and the Nets can't be sure what to expect from Kevin Durant, positionally or defensively, upon his return from a ruptured right Achilles.
Maurice Harkless would be the perfect under-the-radar acquisition whether Brooklyn opts to make a blockbuster trade or stands mostly pat. He holds up defensively across both forward spots, and his shaky three-point clip shouldn't be so seesawy with up to four standout playmakers—Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert—feeding him standstill three-pointers.
Circling Harkless' name doesn't seem too ambitious at first glance, not even for a team working with the mini MLE. But the New York Knicks want to re-sign him, and if they don't, he'd still be a candidate to receive a short-term windfall with so few serviceable wings on the market.
The Nets would be lucky to get him.
Charlotte Hornets: Malik Beasley (Restricted)
Expecting to see Christian Wood here? Or maybe Montrezl Harrell? Or Serge Ibaka?
Almost everyone and their next-door neighbor's fourth cousin thinks the Charlotte Hornets will be itching to spend on a big. That's fine. Cody Zeller comes off the books in 2021, and deploying Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington at the 5 is best done in measured doses.
Defaulting to a big man isn't all that ambitious, though. The Hornets were tracking toward more than $25 million in spending power before the league turned the lights off. Anthony Davis is the lone 4-5 worth that kind of coin. Charlotte can outbid rival suitors for whichever big it wants.
Poaching a restricted-free-agent wing is harder. Malik Beasley is among the scant few higher-end options available. He doesn't quite have the range to consistently guard 3s, but he makes up for it with plug-and-play offense that boasts a little more off-the-bounce pizzazz than meets the eye.
Unloading the clip for him should not be on the table. He isn't a $20-plus-million-per-year player. But the Hornets have the cap space to toss him an offer the Minnesota Timberwolves would think twice about matching.
Chicago Bulls: Derrick Jones Jr.
Unless Otto Porter Jr. declines his $28.5 million player option, the Chicago Bulls will be entering free agency with the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. That puts them in a fairly difficult spot relative to what they need: a wing defender who has no trouble soaking up full-time small forward minutes.
A handful who fall into the MLE discussion fit that bill. Jae Crowder and Jerami Grant are chief among them. But they'll have offers from better teams, if not pricier offers altogether.
Derrick Jones Jr. has a chance to land in the Bulls' sweet spot. The Miami Heat value his defensive hustle and transition motor, but they're trying to preserve max cap space for 2021. Giving DJJ a multiyear pact would knife into that plan. (Note: Things in Miami stand to change if Giannis Antetokounmpo quickly agrees to a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.)
Removing the Heat from the equation wouldn't guarantee Chicago anything. Other teams will show interest in him. But some will invariably be hesitant to fling all or most of the MLE at a combo wing who's shooting 27.6 percent from deep for his career.
The Bulls have the luxury of looking past his limitations. They need his defensive optionality more than anything else. Whatever sweet music he makes with Coby White on the break would just be a bonus.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Derrick Jones Jr.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are up against the same restrictions as the Chicago Bulls. Their largest vacancy comes on the wings, but they don't have the cap space to outbid better teams for the same players after taking on Andre Drummond (player option).
Someone like Jerami Grant would be an ideal fit. He can sponge up minutes at all three frontcourt spots, allowing the Cavaliers to build all different sorts of lineups. Grant-Kevin Love combinations might even hold their own on defense.
Cleveland will have to get in line. Grant is expected to decline his player option, per Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes, which is, for now, worth a hair below the $9.8 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($9.3 million). The Cavaliers aren't getting him for similar money per year. They're too far away from contention.
Derrick Jones Jr. profiles as the more attainable target. It'll be open season on his services if the Miami Heat aren't willing to give him a multiyear deal. And the Cavaliers, unlike most other teams, don't have to worry much about his three-point shooting. They need defensive talent on the wings, period.
Plus, between Collin Sexton, Kevin Porter Jr. and Darius Garland, they have the ball-dominating guards necessary to milk DJJ's athleticism on the break and, if they so choose, off screens.
Dallas Mavericks: Jae Crowder
Jae Crowder played for the Dallas Mavericks once. They shouldn't hesitate to bring him back after roughly five years apart.
Dallas can map out bigger plans if Tim Hardaway Jr. declines his player option and allows the team to work with actual cap space. Or maybe not.
Renouncing Hardaway would give the Mavs a clear path to more than $20 million, but less than $25 million, in space. That isn't enough to get them to Brandon Ingram's max, and no other wing is worth all that money. Coming with an over-the-top offer for Marcus Morris Sr. would be a tantalizing play, but again, THJ needs to decline his player option first.
Assuming Dallas is working with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, Crowder represents the best fit. His shooting is overrated at this stage, but he has banged in 39.3 percent of his triples after getting traded to the Miami Heat. Catching passes from Luka Doncic should help him hover above the league average beyond the arc.
Jerami Grant (player option) also works here. He works basically everywhere. But for all Crowder's ill-advised heat-checks, he can do more with the ball in his hands. Dallas could use another wing who's accustomed to doing more than dribbling in straight lines.
Denver Nuggets: Jae Crowder
Figuring out the Denver Nuggets' price range is a hairy proposition. Their access to the full mid-level exception rests squarely upon the shoulders of their own free agents.
Torrey Craig (restricted), Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are all scheduled to reach the open market. If Jerami Grant (player option) follows suit, as expected, the Nuggets' finances get tight.
They'd be a little more than $33 million away from the luxury tax (unless the cap drops) with four key futures to settle. And if Grant commands anywhere near what his cap hold will be ($17.8 million), they'll have trouble running it back without blowing comfortably past the tax line.
Denver falls well outside Jae Crowder country in the most expensive scenarios. He isn't signing for the mini MLE ($6.1 million, if not less), and who knows whether the Nuggets will use their exceptions if it means entering the tax.
Let's crystal ball it and assume they keep Craig, Grant and Millsap without sacrificing the full MLE. It's not impossible.
Millsap is 35 and should be more concerned with contract length than annual salary, and Craig isn't a good enough three-point shooter to incite big-time offers from the outside. Losing Plumlee would sting, but Grant and Millsap can take on some backup center reps, Denver still has Bol Bol to think about and second-string bigs are inherently cheap.
Bolstering the wing rotation is a larger concern.
Crowder would give the Nuggets yet another properly sized body to cover 3s and 4s if Grant sticks around. He might also be cheaper insurance in the event Grant leaves. And housing both, mind you, won't be a problem if the price is right. Denver could then make it so Michael Porter Jr. is never on the floor without at least one of them by his side.
Detroit Pistons: Fred VanVleet
Sending Andre Drummond (player option) to the Cleveland Cavaliers positioned the Detroit Pistons to make a gaudy offer to a prime-time free agent. They were on the fast track to max space before the shutdown and should still have no trouble treading water above $30 million. That number will only climb if Tony Snell declines his $12.2 million player option.
Fred VanVleet is a natural target for their flexibility. He played for Pistons head coach Dwane Casey in Toronto and wouldn't clash with Derrick Rose's—or Blake Griffin'—ball dominance. VanVleet is used to playing off Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam and has the passing chops to pilot lineups on his own—all while maintaining an endless supply of defensive energy.
Detroit needs to answer two questions before consummating this pursuit: Is the team interested in spending on a win-now player? And if so, what will it take to pry VanVleet out of Toronto?
The first question is a non-issue. The Pistons have Griffin and Rose. Moving Drummond doesn't automatically put them in full-on rebuilding mode.
Gauging VanVleet's price point is a different story. Maxing him out would be reckless, but with the Raptors eyeing Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021 and approaching a crossroads with a good portion of their core, it shouldn't take the full freight to get him.
Golden State Warriors: Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol is a when-in-Rome target for the Golden State Warriors. They're better off investing in their wing rotation, but if they can get him for the mini mid-level exception, why not? Their center rotation has room.
Golden State isn't apt to play Draymond Green at center full-time, Kevon Looney has dealt with a bunch of serious injuries this year, and it isn't yet known how much Marquese Chriss does for a could-be contender. Gasol would add sweet post- and face-up passing, floor spacing the Warriors don't have at the 5 spot anymore and a big body to rumble and tumble with fellow big bodies on defense.
Whether Big Spain would accept a ring-chaser's salary is a separate matter. Gasol is 35 and missed a bunch of time with a left hamstring injury this year, but he already has his championship, and the Toronto Raptors, in all likelihood, will be open to bringing him back on a one-year balloon payment.
Failing that, if he wants to chase another ring, he'll have same-money offers from potentially more intriguing locales. Does a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson trounce the Boston Celtics' championship chances? Are the Los Angeles Clippers more of a sure thing?
Gasol will have options, many of which will be more lucrative. The Warriors should pick up a phone anyway. It never hurts to ask.
Houston Rockets: Jerami Grant (Player Option)
Good luck deciding what constitutes ambitious on the Houston Rockets' part. As John Hollinger wrote for The Athletic:
"Houston will make things tight—the Rockets always do—but certainly can use the full taxpayer MLE if it wishes and still stay below the hard cap. The larger question is whether there will be any stomach to pay luxury tax, which based on how the past two trade deadlines played out would be a firm 'no.' Using the full MLE and adding a minimum contract or two would leave Houston roughly $4M into the tax and pushed up against the hard cap, pending some incentives and the fate of a few back-of-roster players."
These projections are fluid and will get even tighter if the salary cap dips by any significant amount. If the Rockets are going to make a splash in free agency without first shedding a ton of money, they'll need to get comfortable paying the tax.
Team chairman Tilman Fertitta is a wild card on this front. Let's be generous and guess that he'll pay the tax—or simply bank on general manager Daryl Morey finding a way to move other money out. Jerami Grant would be a perfect addition to the Rockets' micro-ball setup.
Perhaps he'd leave Houston with a few too many combo wings who shouldn't be dribbling. The Rockets already have Robert Covington and PJ Tucker. They also have James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They needn't waste time worrying about ball-handling limitations on their supporting cast.
Grant would arm Houston with another certifiable small-ball center who can also log minutes in tandem with Covington and Tucker. (The latter would no doubt be thankful for such a teammate.) With so many other MLE teams in need of Grant's services, though, his attraction to the Rockets boils down to whether he wants to allocate a larger share of his minutes to the 5 spot.
Indiana Pacers: Joe Harris
Knockdown wing shooters are forever the Indiana Pacers' greatest need. They've outfitted their rotation with rock-solid complementary weapons in Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott and T.J. Warren, but they could still use a more dynamic sniper away from the ball.
Joe Harris fits that job description to a T. He can fly around the half court and swish threes in motion, and he has plenty of experience attacking closeouts off the dribble.
And while he's not a lockdown defender, the Brooklyn Nets have leaned on him to pester 3s. Indiana, which is notorious for getting more stopping power out of complementary wings to begin with (Warren, Bojan Bogdanovic), could deploy him in a similar capacity.
Price and market stand in the way of any potential marriage. Harris' skill set is universally scalable. There will be no shortage of teams offering him the full non-taxpayer's mid-level exception to join their cause. The Nets may have to pony up noticeably more just to keep him. They'll need to get turned off by his asking price for anyone else to have a puncher's chance.
Los Angeles Clippers: Marc Gasol
Upgrading the center rotation is the Los Angeles Clippers' only offseason chore if they re-sign both Montrezl Harrell (non-Bird) and Marcus Morris Sr. Adding another playmaker could be under consideration, but getting a full year of availability from Paul George neutralizes much of that urgency.
Checking in on Marc Gasol wouldn't be an insult to Ivica Zubac. He's a stout rim protector and lighter on his feet than his build suggests. But he's not nearly matchup-proof. Ditto for Harrell.
Ultra-small lineups could play them off the court, and neither is fit to tussle with Anthony Davis- or Joel Embiid-types. Gasol doesn't much address the downsized dilemma, but the Clippers have Morris- or JaMychal Green-at-the-5 combinations to do that. He more so offers a mix of defensive girth, passing and floor spacing they don't get from any of their incumbent bigs.
Signing Gasol would all depend on his immediate inklings. Other teams will have more money. A lot more money.
But if he's willing to take the taxpayer's mid-level exception to chase another ring, he'll have a hard time sussing out a better fit than the one promised by the Clippers, who just so happen to have a former teammate of his they can ask to recruit him (Kawhi Leonard).
Los Angeles Lakers: Goran Dragic
Recycling one of the most sought-after wing options is tempting here. The Los Angeles Lakers don't have that certifiable gnat who can capably guard 3s and 4s without giving up size or speed. Jae Crowder or Jerami Grant (player option) would fit quite nicely.
Except the Lakers need their glitziest offseason acquisition to be both a ball-handler and a shooter. Crowder is a question-mark dribbler and shooter and didn't fare too well during his last stint with LeBron James, and Grant shouldn't be doing much with the rock in his hands. Lineups that feature either with Kyle Kuzma could also get too clumpy.
Marcus Morris Sr. checks just about every box, but the Lakers cannot offer more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. That won't convince him to bolt from the Los Angeles Clippers. And with few to no alternative wings worth the Lakers' time, settling on Goran Dragic is the move.
Bench-heavy lineups that have him spell LeBron as the primary ball-handler would be infinitely more potent than Rajon Rondo-led combinations. He also poses less of an overlap next to LeBron himself.
Spot-up possessions have accounted for more than 15 percent of Dragic's total offense so far this season. He rates inside the 70th percentile of efficiency in these situations. By comparison, more than 18 percent of Rondo's offensive possessions have come as spot-ups. He's in the 27th percentile of efficiency.
Memphis Grizzlies: Tony Snell (Player Option)
The Memphis Grizzlies punted on cap space at the trade deadline in exchange for taking on Justise Winslow. Their mindset is enviable. The 2018-19 version of Winslow is exactly what they need. But they're still a little light on sweet-shooting wings even if they can count on him to regain form following his back injury.
Tony Snell fits the Grizzlies' current makeup like a glove.
He has worked off the ball on offense for his entire career but has flashed just enough pick-and-roll orchestration in Detroit this season to make you wonder whether he has more to offer beneath surface. And his seven-foot wingspan can be disruptive when guarding on the ball, though he's never been quite strong enough to hang as a small-ball 4.
His downside is solely rooted in his price point. The Grizzlies first need him to decline his $12.2 million player option, which is neither a given nor impossible. After that, they have to hope he lands in the non-taxpayer's mid-level bin.
Even if he does, the Grizzlies then have to make sure they're wielding the full MLE. Bringing back Josh Jackson—they can't offer him more than $8.9 million after declining his team option—and De'Anthony Melton (early Bird restricted) could leave them too close to the luxury tax if the salary cap incurs a steep enough hit.
That would then put them in a position in which they could afford two of the three...in which case prioritizing Snell still makes sense.
Miami Heat: Danilo Gallinari
Danilo Gallinari may wind up being too pie-in-the-sky for the Miami Heat.
Rest assured, money isn't the primary roadblock. They topped out above $33 million in cap room, before the NBA closed its doors, if they were prepared to renounce all of their own free agents except Derrick Jones Jr. Even now, against shrinking projections, they still have a prayer of carrying holds for both DJJ and Jae Crowder while opening close to $20 million in space. Their flexibility will only mushroom if Crowder re-signs for sub-$14.9 million or Kelly Olynyk declines his player option.
Substantial adjustments to the salary cap could of course take the Heat out of the Gallinari sweepstakes. But the length of his deal poses a more imminent threat. Paying him market value through 2021-22 and beyond threatens their presumed pursuit of Giannis Antetokounmpo or other max free agents next summer.
Miami can add some money to that year's ledger. Just how much remains to be seen. The long-term effects this year's shutdown will have on the cap isn't yet known, and the Heat have Bam Adebayo's restricted free agency—and subsequent $15.3 million hold—to think about. They might be reticent to get into Gallo for too much money when so much is unsettled.
Selling him on a one-year deal feels like it'll be a stretch. He should have long-term leverage elsewhere to dwarf even a, say, one-year, $30 million payoff. The Heat's best bet is to hope this summer's cap-craven market depresses his value. That, or they can opt to pay him whatever and worry about cutting costs when next summer rolls around.
Either way, Gallo has to be the pick. The offense needs his blend of from-scratch creation, foul drawing and shooting. Miami goes from fringe contender to full-tilt force if he enters the fold.
Milwaukee Bucks: Joe Harris
Joe Harris may be an extreme reach for the Milwaukee Bucks. They need to be hawking at least the non-tax payer's mid-level to join the conversation, a benchmark that might prove too steep if the salary cap significantly decreases.
Keeping the crux of this year's team together would leave the Bucks within $7 million or so of the luxury tax. And that's against the initial $115 million cap. They'll need to get creative if the league rolls forward with this year's $109 million marker or an even lower version.
Milwaukee has some cost-cutting cards to play in the event of a squeeze. Robin Lopez ($5 million) and Wesley Matthews ($2.7 million) control their own options, but Ersan Ilyasova's $7 million salary for next season is non-guaranteed. The Bucks can also look to reroute D.J. Wilson's $4.5 million salary.
Dipping into the tax would likely be unavoidable no matter what they do. Contenders that can access the full MLE while remaining under the hard cap are usually locks to spend it, but the Bucks don't play in a glamour market and let Malcolm Brogdon go last year rather than pay the tax to keep him.
This summer should be different. Giannis Antetokounmpo is eligible to sign a supermax extension. If he doesn't, next season is a contract year. Now is not the time to pinch pennies—particularly if it means nabbing a lights-out shooter who can score in motion, attack closeouts and survive brief stretches at the 3.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Paul Millsap
Settling on an ambitious name for the Minnesota Timberwolves ended up being a headache. They could very easily be lumped into the squads that make desperate-looking kissy faces at Jerami Grant (player option) and Jae Crowder—two fair-weather shooters who make for quality defensive fits alongside Karl-Anthony Towns.
Still, pivoting to Paul Millsap feels better.
Is he, at age 35, more likely to sign for the full mid-level exception on a non-contender than Crowder or Grant? I'd lean no. But that might change if the Timberwolves are hocking a three-year deal when many others will be slinging two- and one-season pacts.
Also: Who cares? This exercise is all about identifying sensible reaches.
Millsap typifies that for Minnesota. He is a seamless offensive fit beside KAT and begins to give the Timberwolves a defensive identity. Crowder or Grant may be the more intriguing long-term get, but Millsap can shimmy between covering 4s and 5s without overextending himself.
New Orleans Pelicans: Serge Ibaka
Picking up another conventional wing is certainly on the New Orleans Pelicans' offseason wish list. Their current rotation consists of Brandon Ingram and a bunch of undersized options.
Feel free to plug in Jae Crowder or Jerami Grant (player option) if you're a fan of broken records. But New Orleans also needs an ideal frontcourt running mate for Zion Williamson. His partnership with Derrick Favors, while so far a statistical success, seems erodible as long as neither is a high-volume three-point shooter. (The same goes for any minutes Zion spends with Jaxson Hayes.)
Serge Ibaka's offensive profile is a cleaner fit next to Zion. He is canning 39.8 percent of his threes this season and has shot 45.9 percent on long twos for his career. He's less of a defensive backbone than Favors, but not by much, and his rim protection complements Zion's learning curve. Opponents are hitting just 51.4 percent of their point-blank attempts against him, one of the 11 stingiest marks among 67 players challenging four or more such looks per game.
Floor spacing is of the utmost importance to the Pelicans when they have so many ball-handlers. They've fared just fine this season. They're seventh in three-point attempt rate and third in efficiency from long range. But Ingram, Zion and Lonzo Ball have shot suspiciously well from outside. Ibaka can help ensure this season isn't an anomaly, if not permit New Orleans to build upon its long-distance success.
New York Knicks: Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet is the New York Knicks' all-purpose free-agency target. They can justify shelling out to sign him whether they're slow-playing a rebuild or angling for the ever-elusive instant turnaround. He's clearly a better fit for the latter, but at 26, he hasn't yet aged out of fitting inside a gradual reset.
Putting together enough scratch to poach VanVleet from the Toronto Raptors is almost entirely on the Knicks. Between Bobby Portis' team option, Moe Harkless' free-agent hold and $1 million partial guarantees for Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, Taj Gibson and Elfrid Payton, they can maneuver their way to more than $40 million in space depending on where their first-round pick and next year's salary cap land.
Relevant: Maxing out VanVleet should be a no-go. New York hasn't employed a top-15 point guard since Jeremy Lin went kaboom for a few weeks, but handing superstar money to a non-superstar reeks of desperation and incompetence.
Besides, it shouldn't take that much to get VanVleet out of Toronto. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has at least one eye on the bigger picture. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be a free agent in 2021, and more than that, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell will all hit the open market this summer or next. Ujiri may be less inclined to make long-term investments before taking stock of Toronto's landscape beyond 2020-21.
Coming in at four years and $76 to $80 million would be a good place to start for the Knicks. It might be worth upping the ante if that doesn't get VanVleet to leave the Raptors, but somewhere around $85 to $88 million is a warranted cutoff. New York has its own future to consider, and VanVleet, while a defensive worker bee who can run the offense or play off others, isn't the acquisition that will propel the franchise out of obscurity.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Player Option)
Disregard the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope pick if the Oklahoma City Thunder lean into the teardown they were supposed to undertake following the departures of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. This selection presumes they'll look to re-sign Danilo Gallinari and won't sell off Chris Paul for cap relief and a low-end asset.
And hey: It could happen. Oklahoma City's 9-17 record against teams .500 or better is troubling, but it'll still be the Western Conference's No. 5 seed when the season resumes at the end of July.
A favorable first-round matchup could lead to some Cinderella magic, which would then incentivize the front office to give this core another go. Breaking up the band will be easier in 2021 anyway, when Paul is entering the final year of his contract and both Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder come off the ledger.
Loading up on wings should be the Thunder's focus if they're keeping the nucleus intact. Their current perimeter carousel wants for spacing even on its best day. Caldwell-Pope is undersized for a 3, but he injects more outside shot-making into the equation. He's burying 39.4 percent of his threes on the season, and he'll add a smidgen of off-the-dribble creation to the wing spots, albeit not in the form of (efficient) off-the-bounce treys.
Whisking him out of Hollywood won't be easy—or necessarily possible. He shares an agent with LeBron James, and the Los Angeles Lakers will own his Bird rights if he declines his $8.4 million player option. The most Oklahoma City can hope to offer is the non-tax payer's mid-level exception, a tool it's only likely to use in full if Gallinari's next contract doesn't take them too close to the luxury-tax line.
Orlando Magic: Goran Dragic
Markelle Fultz's transition from prospective bust to solid NBA player doesn't solve the Orlando Magic's point guard issues in their entirety. They need someone who poses more of a threat from the outside and who's more naturally suited to jump-starting the offense without a playmaking safety net beside him.
Relative to a bare-bones point guard market, Goran Dragic's arrival would be a dream scenario. He's draining 37.7 percent of his triples this year, including a 38.5 percent clip on pull-up treys, and what he lacks in volume around the rim he makes up for with sneaky-good finishing. His experience playing away from the ball would allow Orlando to field he and Fultz in tandem, and the offense stands a much better chance of staving off complete implosion without Nikola Vucevic if he's running the show.
Affording Dragic will be a crapshoot. He's the second-best floor general set to hit the market, behind only Fred VanVleet. Maybe Detroit or New York offers him more money. If they don't, better teams—actual contenders—will surely be dangling the full mid-level exception to get him.
Orlando doesn't have much of a leg to stand on if the money's equal elsewhere. Promising him a starter's role beside Fultz—and the minutes that come with it—would be essential to any sales pitch.
Philadelphia 76ers: Langston Galloway
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons need to be surrounded by ball-handling shooters. The Philadelphia 76ers have, by and large, taken their supporting cast in the complete opposite direction. And they don't have a clear path to reversing course, at least not in free agency.
Philly is going to skate right past the luxury tax once Simmons' extension takes effect. Quality players won't be tripping over themselves to seize the mini mid-level exception for what amounts to a reserve role with no guarantee of playing time.
Ergo, don't ask about Davis Bertans, Goran Dragic, Joe Harris, et al. The Sixers can't afford them. Signing someone like Kent Bazemore might even be a stretch.
Langston Galloway—or perhaps DJ Augustin—is probably the best Philly can do for what it's able to offer. And he's not a bad consolation prize. Galloway doesn't need the ball but sports an underrated in-between touch when he has it, and he's splashing in 40.7 percent of his catch-and-fire threes this season on top-25 volume.
Phoenix Suns: Bogdan Bogdanovic (Restricted)
To chisel out cap space, or not to chisel out cap space? That, my friends, is the question facing the Phoenix Suns.
Most are going to bet they'll opt against using cap room. They're not wrong. The Suns need to renounce Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky (team option) and Dario Saric (restricted) to crack the $20-plus million threshold. That finagling may not even cut it if the cap drops far enough.
Holding onto at least Baynes and Saric and using the mid-level exception is Phoenix's safest option. That gets the team in a room—or socially distance video chat—with Jerami Grant (player option) or Paul Millsap, both of whom are ideal frontcourt fits next to Deandre Ayton.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is only in play if the Suns exhaust their cap-space stores...and perhaps not even then. The Sacramento Kings lopped off Dewayne Dedmon's 2020-21 salary ahead of the trade deadline to ensure they could re-sign their restricted free agent without subjecting themselves to any salary concerns.
Possible adjustments to the cap don't overturn that logic. But the Kings, to some extent, have to be counting on a curveball-free negotiation with Bogdanovic. The league at large is starved for cap space, and none of the squads with money to burn necessarily need to unload the clip on a soon-to-be 28-year-old.
The Suns are different. They're on Devin Booker's timeline, which is now. Why not try calling the Kings' bluff and signing Bogdanovic to a lucrative offer sheet? Tying up their cap space for a couple of days is hardly a worst-case scenario, and creating that flexibility won't cost them anyone indispensable.
Saric has rarely hinted at his playmaking-4 peak since arriving in Phoenix, and Frank Kaminsky is Frank Kaminsky. Letting Baynes walk while waiting to see what Sacramento does with Bogdanovic would hurt, but if he's off the board that quickly, he's probably signing a contract the Suns have little business offering with Ayton in tow.
Really, this comes down to Phoenix needing another ball-handling scorer to survive minutes without Booker more than anything else. The Suns will have an easier time replacing Baynes and Saric. Taking a swing at Bogdanovic is worth the collateral damage it could potentially inflict.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jerami Grant (Player Option)
Players who might sign for the non-tax payer's mid-level exception are within the Portland Trail Blazers' reach even if Rodney Hood picks up his player option (duh) and they guarantee Trevor Ariza's $12.8 million salary. They can technically re-sign Hassan Whiteside and retain access to the full MLE.
Chasing Jerami Grant might seem superfluous when they should have a healthy Zach Collins next year, but it's really not. He can log minutes at the 3, 4 and even 5, giving the Blazers a wealth of lineup optionality.
Viewed this way, landing Grant for the MLE could actually save money. Portland doesn't need to bother paying Whiteside if Jusuf Nurkic is healthy and it has Collins and Grant to take on backup 5 reps.
Maybe the Blazers are better off devoting their top offseason tool to functional shooting. Grant is converting 40 percent of his triples, but he's not hitting them off the dribble. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Joe Harris or Dario Saric (restriction) would promise more variety.
But Portland doesn't need to concern itself with offensive dynamism. They have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to ferry the shot-creation gymnastics, not to mention Anfernee Simons and, possibly, Carmelo Anthony. Solidifying the frontline defense would make more of a difference. Grant could do just that—provided he can be had for the MLE.
Sacramento Kings: Jae Crowder
The Sacramento Kings will be toting the non-tax payer's mid-level exception unless they renounce Bogdan Bogdanovic (restricted) or spend themselves closer to the luxury tax by offering he and Kent Bazemore way too much money. Though they could be in the market for a backup-playmaking upgrade over Cory Joseph and Yogi Ferrell (Early Bird), deepening their wing rotation is the way to go.
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote: "If the Kings manage to ink both Bogdanovic and [Harry] Giles without sacrificing their full mid-level, they should be in the market for a bigger wing, as Harrison Barnes, best used at the 4, is the closest thing to a stopper on the roster. Note: Barnes is serviceable—not a stopper."
Jae Crowder falls under that same defensive umbrella—serviceable but not a stopper. The Kings cannot afford to care. Lockdown defenders who aren't total jump-shot question marks and might sign for the MLE don't grow on trees. As it stands, Crowder could price himself out of Sacramento's range or be more likely to accept the same money from a bonafide contender.
He should still be near the top of the Kings' shopping list, if only because they don't have many reasonable alternatives. Sniffing around the next tier down would leave them with Torrey Craig (restricted), Justin Holiday or Moe Harkless, who, like Barnes, is more 4 than 3.
San Antonio Spurs: Dario Saric (Restricted)
It isn't every offseason you have the outside chance to bag an intriguing restricted free agent in his mid-20s without functional cap space. And to be sure, this might not be the year it happens for the San Antonio Spurs.
Counterpoint: It also could be.
Dario Saric has underwhelmed since being shipped to the Phoenix Suns last season. His potential as a playmaking 4 has taken a massive hit, and he's knocking down under 37 percent of his jumpers for the year. Phoenix has too many better-performing players on the wings—Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr.—to bite on a modest-to-hefty long-term price tag.
The Spurs have more room to experiment. Rudy Gay is their only combo forward who can reliably put the ball on the floor, and they're thin at the 4 spot if LaMarcus Aldrige spends most of his time at the 5. (He should.)
San Antonio won't have more than the non-tax payer's mid-level exception to dangle without taking a stick of dynamite to its book. That...might get the job done. The Suns can always turn around and match, but if the current MLE goes unchanged or close to it, they're looking at three years and $30.9 million or four years and $42.1 million.
For them, relative to what Saric has done, that's an overpay. The Spurs should feel differently. They don't have alternative options at their disposal unless Luka Samanic is ready. Saric is a worthwhile gamble if his money doesn't catapult them into the tax. And that's only a concern if San Antonio pays through the teeth for Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl (restricted).
Toronto Raptors: Justin Holiday
The Toronto Raptors' offseason can be pulled in any number of directions.
Chris Boucher (Early Bird restricted), Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet are all free agents. Bringing everyone back could vault the Raptors into or right up against the tax. Letting everybody walk would leave them with a mountain of cap space.
Landing somewhere in between feels like Toronto's most likely outcome. And regardless of what happens, the bet is team president Masai Ujiri scours the market for reasonably priced players willing to sign placeholder deals that don't eat into next summer's prospective spending spree.
Potential options are sparse under those circumstances unless the Raptors are working with cap space. Jae Crowder, Jerami Grant (player option), Marcus Morris, etc. aren't signing placeholder contracts for the MLE.
Justin Holiday might.
Toronto should jump at the opportunity if he's open to it. He's overextended when teams expect him to create off the dribble, but he's found his wheelhouse as a spot-up marksman and transition scorer with the Indiana Pacers. He's also dabbled in defending power forwards this season, which exponentially increases his utility on the wings. He'd fit right in with the Raptors, both next year and beyond.
Utah Jazz: Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague is far from the flashiest name on this list, but he's about as good as it'll get for the Utah Jazz.
Re-signing Jordan Clarkson at a salary equal or comparable to this year's rate ($13.4 million) wouldn't give them much room to work. They'll be within $5 million of the luxury tax and potentially closer, if not inside it, should the salary cap fall by a large enough margin.
Names like Goran Dragic and Joe Harris can enter the chat if the Jazz are prepared to keep Clarkson and enter the tax or just get rid of him. For the time being, though, we have to assume they'll neither pay the tax nor let Clarkson walk.
From there, this becomes a matter of deciding what Utah needs more: better reserves up front or another playmaker.
Chris Boucher (restricted) would be a nice get to both back up Rudy Gobert and spend some minutes at the 4. But it's a little tougher to spend even a modest amount of money on another big when Tony Bradley and Ed Davis will both remain on the docket. Anyway, short of throwing the full MLE at Boucher, the Jazz will be hard-pressed to scare the Toronto Raptors out of matching.
Jeff Teague would be a more pressing addition. Utah cannot guarantee Mike Conley (early termination option) will feel much more at home next season, when he turns 33, and neither Clarkson nor Emmanuel Mudiay, a free agent, facilitate well enough to run the offense for prolonged stretches.
Getting Teague would give the Jazz a better game manager behind Conley and Donovan Mitchell, and contrary to Dragic, he shouldn't cost the full MLE if he's netting a multiyear contract.
Washington Wizards: Derrick Jones Jr.
Fattening up the wing rotation has to be the Washington Wizards' top priority over the offseason. Even John Wall agrees.
"With me and Brad [Beal], who is a great cornerstone, and you have Rui [Hachimura] who is a rookie that's in there, but I feel like we definitely need a 3 that's a dog, that can knock down shots and compete and create for us," he said on the All The Smoke podcast (via NBC Sports' Chase Hughes). "And then, we've also gotta build a bench, just being realistic."
Washington's uncertain future works against its free-agent pitch. Retaining access to the non-tax payer's mid-level exception while re-signing Davis Bertans isn't a problem, but it'll be harder to bag players who have other offers worth the same amount if the Wizards can't guarantee they'll keep Beal or be a major force in the East even if they do.
Jae Crowder and Jerami Grant, while fantastic fits, should both draw interest from better teams. Washington has to think a little smaller without also bringing in someone who only works against an immediate timeline.
Derrick Jones Jr. it is.
At 23, he fits with whatever direction the Wizards go from here. And if Wall wants a "dog" at the 3, DJJ is it. He'll work his behind off on defense and in transition, and Washington only needs to be wary of his shaky three-point shooting in lineups that feature both Wall and Hachimura.