1 MLE Candidate Each Contender Should Avoid in 2020 NBA Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2020

1 MLE Candidate Each Contender Should Avoid in 2020 NBA Free Agency

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Hurry up and finish this sentence. NBA free agency may have already started and finished by the time you do.

    The Association's offseason is unfolding that quickly. The shorter break in the name of opening training camps Dec. 1 is giving way to an ultra-accelerated timeline. The draft (Nov. 18) and free agency (Nov. 20) are bearing down upon us all at once.

    Overwhelming? Sure. But we're now at least working with concrete information. The NBA and players union have agreed to keep the salary cap at $109.1 million, with a luxury-tax line of roughly $132.6 million, so teams have an etched-in-stone idea of how much money they can spend in free agency.

    Most will be working with some version of the mid-level exception: the non-taxpayer MLE ($9.3 million) or mini MLE ($5.7 million). And with so few teams projected to have actual cap space—fewer than six—this money stands to go further than it would in offseasons past.

    That's great news for contenders. So long as they're willing to spend their MLE, they should be able to add an impact player. But that's no reason to chase names alone. These investments have to make sense.

    Identifying which free agents teams are better off avoiding is an awkward process. It entails sussing out players who have appeal on the surface but who either don't fit or shouldn't be designated priorities over more urgent needs.     

    For our purposes, these "Not so fast!" candidates are meant to be anyone who has a realistic path onto a team's radar and should cost the entire mid-level over a multiyear term. The list of contenders, meanwhile, is determined by plucking out the squads with the 10 best 2021 title odds at FanDuel as of this writing. Scorned fans of the Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz should direct their ire toward the linemakers.

Houston Rockets (+2400): Hassan Whiteside

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Hassan Whiteside's inclusion is not meant to suggest the Houston Rockets will fall in love with him. They won't be enamored with any traditional big if general manager Rafael Stone continues to flesh out the roster in the image of his predecessor's vision.

    Signing a center still feels inevitable, even if the Rockets are married to the microball core Daryl Morey leaned into before his departure in October. They have zero true bigs under contract for next season. Even Morey would've wanted to house one for emergency's sake.

    Houston is just more likely to spend above the minimum on a pure 5 now that Stone has taken the helm. This, of course, assumes team governor Tilman Fertitta is prepared to spend above the minimum at all.

    The Rockets will be right around the tax line if Austin Rivers declines his player option and they guarantee the salaries of David Nwaba (club option) and Ben McLemore. Fertitta has said he will pony up to field a contender, and Stone has insisted the franchise remains "all-in," according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. But Houston hasn't evaded the luxury tax in each of Fertitta's first three seasons at the top by fluky circumstances alone.

    Let's give him the benefit of the doubt this time, mostly because it's a mandate of this exercise, and because Fertitta is officially on the clock with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Let's also say the Rockets want to funnel their entire MLE—or at least most of it—into beefing up the center rotation. They'd be linked to nearly all the marquee(ish) bigs on the market: Whiteside, Aron Baynes, Derrick Favors, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Nerlens Noel, Tristan Thompson, et al.

    Certain players will default to non-options by virtue of price point. Baynes, Favors and Ibaka in particular will feel like stretches if the Rockets are peddling the mini MLE. Whiteside is bound to fall more in line with what they can realistically afford. Even then, they'd do better to explore roughly any alternative.

    Adding another non-shooter is a thorny proposition if Russell Westbrook remains on the roster. The Rockets would need to make sure that player is a consistent defensive presence. Whiteside doesn't check that box. He is not the most reliable helper and will get cooked on switches more often than a Noel or Thompson.

    Houston should be looking for someone more dynamic with its MLE. Rolling the dice on Whiteside only makes sense if he's coming at an extremely team-friendly rate.      

Denver Nuggets (+2000): Derrick Jones Jr.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Figuring out which mid-level exception the Denver Nuggets will be working with and then whether they'll use it is in itself chore. Torrey Craig (restricted), Jerami Grant (player option), Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are all entering free agency, and bringing even two of them back—Grant and take your pick, basically—could leave them close enough to the luxury-tax line that they opt not to spend the entire MLE.

    Insofar as the Nuggets are dangling it, Derrick Jones Jr. should fall into their price range. At 23, he could command more than the mini MLE, but it's not absurd for teams within that spending tier to give him a look. He is a terror in the open floor and when finishing downhill, and he's a defensive difference-maker.

    Denver needs the latter. Michael Porter Jr. doesn't render it any more flush with properly sized wing defenders. Its pool of options will be even thinner if Craig signs somewhere else.

    Jones helps plug that hole across four positions—and technically five, if you read into the Miami Heat's attempts to deploy him at backup center. He spent more than 20 percent of his time guarding 1s, 2s and 3s and nearly 15 percent of his possessions pestering 3s this past year, according to BBall Index's Krishna Narsu.

    Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O'Neale were the only players with similarly comprehensive matchup splits.

    Reconciling Jones' defensive impact with his limited offensive range is still tough. The Nuggets ranked 27th in three-point-attempt frequency and a so-so 15th in outside accuracy last year. Nikola Jokic can generate quality looks in the tightest spaces, but the offense doesn't have infinite operating room to spare.

    Treating Jones like a backup big neutralizes some of the imbalance but also caps his minutes beside Denver's best player, who could use someone like DJJ alongside him if Millsap bolts.

    This becomes a non-issue if Jones' price point dips below the MLE. Then again, if that's the case, it doesn't make much sense for the Heat to let him walk. They can shell out a multiyear deal at a manageable number without torpedoing next offseason's flexibility or use what would be a bare-bones market to leverage the prospect of a slightly inflated one-year deal.    

Toronto Raptors (+2000): Goran Dragic

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Goran Dragic isn't a complete and total no-no for the Toronto Raptors. They'll have cap space to burn if two of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet leave in free agency, and he'd be a nice stopgap replacement for VanVleet on an inflated one-year deal that doesn't compromise the team's 2021 spending power.

    And yet, the Heat are in an identical position. They're supposed to be saving their powder for 2021 and the run at Giannis Antetokounmpo that might come with it. If Dragic is signing a one-year windfall with anyone, it should be them.

    His exit only starts to feel remotely possible if he's seeking more guaranteed seasons. And in that case, he should be on the prowl for a three-year deal. Signing for two won't offset the money Miami is surely willing to pay him.

    That's where things get prickly for the Raptors. Dragic is an interesting add-on as another multilevel scorer who will put pressure on set defenses. VanVleet's return wouldn't even devalue the fit. Toronto already plays him in tandem with Kyle Lowry and could use a from-scratch creator off the bench.

    Dragic would be absolutely terrifying in that super-sub role. He's also 34 and coming off a torn left plascia he suffered during the NBA Finals. His health bill prior is hardly pristine either. He has battled a variety of injuries with the Heat, most notably right knee issues.

    Getting him for a year is one thing. Even two is fine. The three it could take to lure him away from Miami? With or without VanVleet in the fold, that should be a pass from the Raptors.       

Miami Heat (+1600): Paul Millsap

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Paul Millsap is, in theory, a great get for the Heat. He can play the 4 next to Bam Adebayo and soak up minutes as the backup 5—so the Andre Iguodala-at-center experiment needn't return—and just drained a career-high 43.5 percent from beyond the arc. He fits.

    But fit isn't the problem. It's the length of his next contract.

    At 35, going on 36 in February, Millsap might be looking for a contending situation in which he can sign a multiyear deal. The Heat shouldn't be it. They have 2021 free agency to think about, and Millsap looked his age at times during the Nuggets' postseason push.

    This all falls by the wayside if Miami bags him on a one-year deal. But that, in all likelihood, will take cap space. The Heat don't profile as a cap-space squad unless one or both of Jae Crowder or Goran Dragic heads for the exit—or Kelly Olynyk declines his $12.2 million player option (not happening).

    The non-taxpayer mid-level forecasts as Miami's best tool, and burning it on a 35-year-old who might average noticeably under 25 minutes per game doesn't sit right.

    Throwing away the contract-length hang-up doesn't change the calculus. Miami needs another face-up creator more than anything else. That isn't Millsap. And while he'd be a seamless addition to the frontcourt rotation, the Heat can find another reserve 4-5 for cheaper.      

Boston Celtics (+1200): Tristan Thompson

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics are being billed as the one of the teams most likely to prioritize adding a rotation big. There's a discussion to be had about whether they belong in the class of free-agency shopper at all.

    Daniel Theis (non-guaranteed), Enes Kanter (player option), Grant Williams and Robert Williams should each be on the books next season, barring a trade, and the Celtics don't have roster spots to spare. They're at 12 players before factoring in Semi Ojeleye's non-guaranteed deal, Brand Wanamaker's future (Early Bird restricted) and their three first-round picks.

    Tinkering is unavoidable. The Celtics will either consolidate their firsts or draft-and-stash—or both. Vincent Poirier, another big, seems like a fait accompli salary-dump candidate. Kanter could be too.

    Opening up roster spots doesn't create an invitation for the Celtics to spend the lion's share of their mini mid-level on a big. And if they do, they should ensure the center they land has pick-and-pop range.

    Tristan Thompson, along with some other names who will invariably be linked to Boston, doesn't qualify. He busts out a nifty floater every once in a while, but he's more of a rim-diver and inside presence. The Celtics have that, albeit in varying doses, with Kanter and Robert Williams. (The same can be said of Jakob Poeltl, a higher-end candidate, but the mini MLE isn't enough juice to poach most restricted free agents).

    Hoping Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, Harry Giles or even Chris Boucher (Early Bird restricted) falls to mini-MLE range is more suitable. Serge Ibaka would be fire, but he's getting at least bigger-MLE money.

    Really, the Celtics should be focused on netting another creator in the form of a backup point guard or floor-general wing. They should find that rim-running bigs like Thompson and Nerlens Noel fetch less in a market likely to shoehorn centers into cut-rate deals.

Brooklyn Nets (+950): Markieff Morris

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets should be looking to use their mini mid-level on a power forward who can switch onto wings or sponge up reps at the 5 spot. Sniffing around Markieff Morris would constitute the right idea but the wrong player.

    This is more of a price-point issue than anything else. Morris wasn't in the MLE discussion upon joining the Los Angeles Lakers. He was end-of-rotation depth. But then he shot 38.9 percent from deep to finish the regular season in the bubble. And he definitely earned himself money by canning 42 percent of his triples during the playoffs.

    Brooklyn should stay away if it takes the mini MLE to sign him. He isn't a dependable enough three-point shooter, and more than that, the team needs a bigger defensive bang for its buck.

    Kevin Durant might be the Nets' best defender—non-center division—as the roster stands. They need to be pulling for the MLE to get themselves someone along the lines of Maurice Harkless, JaMychal Green (player option) or Paul Millsap.

    Going after Justin Holiday or Glenn Robinson III and asking them to guard up when KD isn't on the floor would even be a smarter play. Morris doesn't assure them as much positional flexibility on defense. His fit intrigues only if he's not monopolizing Brooklyn's best spending tool.                       

Golden State Warriors (+750): Marc Gasol

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Marc Gasol gives off can't-miss vibes for the Golden State Warriors if he stays in the NBA.

    Signing him for the mini mid-level would presumably amount to a fairly sizable discount off what he could get elsewhere, even if that's just the bigger MLE. And more importantly, he is a cloud-nine fit for how the Warriors play and what they still need. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote:

    "So much of the Golden State offense is based on movement, intuition, quick reads and unselfish decision-making. Highly intelligent and preprogrammed to pass, Gasol would easily be the best setup big Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have ever played with—Draymond Green excluded. Notably, unlike Green, Gasol could scare defenses from the perimeter, opening up opportunities all over the floor.

    "The Warriors also lack a post defender with size, and though he's lost mobility, Gasol (6'11") might still be the top one-on-one down-low stopper in the league. If Golden State intends to resuscitate its dynastic run, it'll need everything Gasol offers."

    Color me convinced...in a world where Gasol can log 25-to-30 minutes per game across an entire season and a playoff run. The extent of his availability is debatable. He turns 36 in January and missed 28 games this past year while dealing with a left hamstring injury.

    Golden State doesn't have the requisite depth to use its best spending tool—depending on whether it uses the Andre Iguodala trade exception—on someone who isn't an everyday contributor.

    Kevon Looney played absent limitations during Warriors minicamp, but he missed most of last season and underwent surgery to repair a core muscle injury in May. How trustworthy is Marquese Chriss (non-guaranteed)? And how often is head coach Steve Kerr willing to roll with Draymond Green at the 5? Golden State needs more than an aging, albeit wildly talented, big to polish off its front line.

    Full disclaimer: Back in June, I called Gasol a "when-in-Rome" opportunity for the Warriors if he falls to their price range. That sentiment will hold if he's on a one-year deal or coming on at sub-MLE money. Otherwise, should the Warriors use their $5.7 million chip, they're better off allocating it to a wing or a combo big who can guarantee them more games.         

Milwaukee Bucks (+650): Jae Crowder

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Jae Crowder works just about anywhere, including with the Milwaukee Bucks. Their secondary wing rotation behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton isn't too deep, and it will get shallower if they're unable to re-sign Wesley Matthews (player option).

    Landing someone like Crowder, who typifies three-and-D value, would be a huge win. He gives the Bucks another body to throw at larger wings, an area in which Matthews and Middleton can both be overmatched, and his 44.5 percent clip from downtown with the Heat shouldn't be too much of an outlier relative to the shots he'd receive inside this offense.

    But writing off Crowder is much less about his fit than the cost of actualizing it. Like Goran Dragic, he's in line for a one-year gravy train from the Heat as they try to juggle immediate title contention with 2021 free-agency ambitions. If he's shopping around and cap-space squads aren't looking to poach him, he should be among those who ink multiyear deals for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception.

    Roughly two-thirds of the league can sling that much money or more. The Bucks won't have a problem distinguishing themselves from the pack, as one of the foremost Eastern Conference powers, but they'll be hard-pressed to retain access to the bigger MLE unless they cut salary while renouncing all of their own free agents who don't hold player options.

    If and when they manage that, there remains the matter of the tax. They have a feasible path toward staying under the apron, but they're not staying out of the tax altogether without significant cost-cutting.

    In the event they're amendable to footing that bill—they should be; they have Giannis—they'll need to decide whether Crowder is the right player on whom to make the call. It'd be one thing if his price tag came on a one- or two-year deal, but leaving Miami only tracks if he's getting three or four.

    Giving him four years at the full freight will total close to $40 million (before any taxes that need to be paid). That's a not-insignificant commitment to make in a 30-year-old who doesn't address the Bucks' biggest need: secondary shot creation.     

Los Angeles Clippers (+600): Derrick Favors

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Bringing on another big shouldn't top the Los Angeles Clippers' to-do list even if Montrezl Harrell isn't in their future plans. Ivica Zubac is legitimately really good, so much so he emerged as their best center during the postseason. As The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote:

    "For the playoffs as a whole, the Clippers' net rating with Zubac playing was a phenomenal +17.7 points per 100; when he didn't they were -8.3. While short-term plus-minus stats can be fluky, the Clips were also substantially better in Zubac's regular-season minutes. (+8.1 when played, +4.9 when didn't).

    "Interestingly, it was on offense where they suffered most in the Nuggets series, scoring just 97.1 points per 100 with Zubac off the floor. While Harrell's points got the attention, Zubac is low-key a fantastic complementary offensive player. He led the NBA in Offensive Rebound Rate in 2019-20, has great hands when catching passes on the move, runs the floor well, makes free throws (74.7 percent) and open 15-footers, and sports a low turnover rate."

    Investing a bulk or all of the mini mid-level in someone to back up Zubac, who barely makes more than that himself, is inessential. The Clippers have JaMychal Green (player option) and Marcus Morris Sr. (unrestricted) if they want to downsize and cater to a five-out look.

    Re-signing Harrell would render this entire conversation moot. Center was never a true weakness for the Clippers this season, just a spot in which they could plausibly upgrade via trade.

    Picking up some size and heft will matter if Harrell leaves, in which case the Clippers could be seduced by a splashier name who is squeezed by a cap-poor market.

    Is Favors' stock going to tumble that far? I'd hazard no, but anyone claiming to have an unimpeachable feel for how the big-man landscape will play out is kidding themselves. He might be forced into a lower-value contract or be willing to sign for the mini MLE with a contender in hopes of beefing up his stock ahead of another run at free agency.

    Whether that would be the ideal use of the Clippers' best spending tool is a matter of preference. The prospective fit is not. Any potential search for a big man should zero in on guys who have more stretch to their game. Someone like Favors—or Nerlens Noel or Tristan Thompson—only shrinks the floor compared to Zubac-at-5 arrangements, let alone those featuring Green or Morris.

    Beyond that, can the Clippers please focus on a point guard? The market for playmakers isn't particularly robust, but they should be poking around Goran Dragic (long shot), D.J. Augustin and Alec Burks before prioritizing another big.    

Los Angeles Lakers (+360): Serge Ibaka

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    League executives expect the Los Angeles Lakers to make a run for Serge Ibaka, according to Heavy.com's Sean Deveney. This is at once tantalizing and definitely not it.

    Ibaka's fit in the frontcourt isn't in question. Anthony Davis spent much of his time playing beside Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, two non-shooters. Pairing him with someone who just banged in 38.5 percent of his three-pointers—not to mention 45 percent of his mid-range jumpers—is a no-brainer.

    Failing a sign-and-trade agreement with the Raptors, though, the Lakers (should) need their non-taxpayer's mid-level to poach Ibaka. That's much less of a no-brainer.

    Sure, they'd be getting a player ostensibly worth more than they're paying him. But that value would be marginalized by their total asset allocation. The Lakers already have Davis. Many, if not most, of their best closing lineups will feature him at the 5.

    Finding a cheaper alternative is also a cinch. Davis has shown he can play beside centers with finite range, and quality bigs are attainable even on the most rigid budgets. It'd be one thing if Ibaka ensured the Lakers wouldn't ever have to downsize, but he's not that much less matchup-proof than Howard or McGee. There would still be certain playoff series in which he's rendered shaky as part of dual-big combinations.

    This says nothing of the Lakers' more pressing need: another playmaker. Rajon Rondo (player option) is set to hit the open market and is expected to draw interest from the cross-the-hall-rival Clippers, per the New York Times' Marc Stein. And he isn't necessarily the answer anyway. The Lakers' half-court offense placed in the 30th percentile when he ran the show without LeBron James.

    Using the MLE to fill that void should take precedence.

    The Lakers still might not have the coin to land Danilo Gallinari independent of a sign-and-trade, but Goran Dragic would be a great get if he leaves Miami. Or they could consider trying to split the MLE between two of D.J. Augustin, Alec Burks, Austin Rivers and Jeff Teague. Either scenario—or a similar outcome—does more to improve the L.A. roster than going after Ibaka.

                       

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.

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