1 Ambitious Free-Agent Target for NBA's Top 2020-21 Contenders

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2020

1 Ambitious Free-Agent Target for NBA's Top 2020-21 Contenders

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Ready or not, it's time to aim for the moon on the behalf of the NBA's top contenders. They can thank us later.

    Free agency is going to be weird this offseason. That's a fact. Scant few teams have cap space burning a hole in their pockets, and the pool of realistically gettable players is devoid of stars. It also isn't yet clear how many franchises will be afraid to spend as a result of the financial hits incurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

    So much uncertainty gives way to a vast range of outcomes. More to the point, a cash-poor market basically invites marriages between players and teams not previously considered possible. A willingness to spend even the entire mid-level exception, non-taxpayer ($9.3 million) or mini ($5.7 million), is more of an advantage than normal.

    When you think about it, then, the league is practically begging us to come up with ambitious free-agency targets for the top contenders. Who are we to refuse?

    Interpretations of "ambitious" will vary. Suggested pipe dreams not only depend on whether teams have cap space, the non-taxpayer MLE or the mini (taxpayer) MLE but also how likely they are to use their best spending tools. Contenders that don't have a track record of paying the tax will have their sights lowered accordingly.

    Finally, teams will be considered strong enough championship hopefuls to make the cut if they have top-10 title odds from FanDuel at this writing. No exceptions. Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz fans should brace themselves for disappointment.       

Dallas Mavericks: Jae Crowder

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Houston, we have a change—in Houston, no less.

    The Rockets cracked the sister installment of this exercise but no longer have top-10 title odds following the news that, well, they're imploding behind the scenes. The Dallas Mavericks have since seized their spot, most likely to ire of Sixers and Jazz fans.

    Swing-for-the-fence enthusiasts won't see Jae Crowder as an aspirational enough target.

    The Mavericks could try shedding salary—or exploring sign-and-trade hypotheticals—and going after Fred VanVleet. They need another creator to pair with Luka Doncic, even after towering over the league in offensive efficiency. VanVleet is an ideal option to fill that void and offers the added bonus of not jeopardizing an already-compromised defense.

    Like a few other teams to come, though, Dallas is among those expected to heavily monitor Giannis Antetokounmpo's future. Handing out multiyear deals isn't a complete no-no; cap space can always be created later. But VanVleet will require a star-level salary, probably something north of $17 million per year, and that gets unnecessarily complicated.

    The Mavericks are better off sticking with players who could sign for the non-taxpayer's mid-level. That stance shifts if they can acquire an actual cornerstone or a fringe-star in the last year of his contract (Victor Oladipo?), but capping their multiyear expenses is otherwise the safer call.

    And look, Crowder checks the ambitious box independent of that context given the hurdles Dallas must clear to get him.

    The Miami Heat are almost certain to offer him a fat one-year deal to preserve their own 2021 cap space, and in the event Crowder opts to leave for a three- or four-year deal at the MLE, the Mavericks will be one admirer among many. They might stand out because they have Doncic or because Crowder began his career in Dallas. That also might not matter.

    Pretty much every team could use Crowder. He capably matches up with three positions, sometimes four, on defense—including the bigger-wing assignments. And while his career three-point splits are topsy-turvy, he buried 44.5 percent of his deep balls after getting traded from the Memphis Grizzlies to Miami. He even dabbled in roll-man usage during the Heat's playoff push.

    Landing another crunch-time creator might top the Mavericks' wish list. Crowder doesn't help them in that department. But again: Dallas just finished with the league's best offense. Beefing up the defense without shrinking the floor is more important.       

Denver Nuggets: Wesley Matthews (Player Option)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Wesley Matthews, 34, doesn't embody the conventional definition of "ambitious." He can hit threes, do some stuff off the dribble (for both better and much worse) and match up defensively across three positions—he deserves more credit for his work against Jimmy Butler in the postseason—but he doesn't fall on the bank-breaker end of the spectrum.

    That's just as well for the Denver Nuggets. Poaching any impactful free agent will be considered ambitious. They have their own players to pay and could be too close to the luxury tax thereafter to predict any real spending.

    Torrey Craig (restricted), Jerami Grant (player option), Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee are all set to hit the open market. Price point could be an issue for all except the latter; the market is saturated with bigs. Grant looms as the most expensive decision. It's hard to imagine him signing for less than $12 to $15 million if he declines his $9.3 million player option.

    Millsap will have his own market, even if he's not a 25-to-30-minutes-per-game player anymore. Craig shouldn't cost a truckload, but the pool of available wings is rough. Someone who can defend nearly all perimeter spots should have suitors, shaky jumper and all.

    Pencil in Grant for, say, $13 million next season, and the math starts to get tight. The Nuggets would have slightly more than $12 million in breathing room under the tax while factoring in Craig's cap hold and non-guaranteed salaries for Keita Bates-Diop, PJ Dozier and Monte Morris. Bringing back Millsap and giving Craig a raise, however slight, could erase all that wiggle room.

    This isn't a big deal if the Nuggets are willing to dive into the tax. They'd have a good shot of re-signing Grant, Millsap and Craig while remaining far enough below the apron to use the bigger mid-level exception ($9.3 million).

    Making that assumption is too much of a risk. The Nuggets don't have the track record of the Golden State Warriors. Skirting the tax figures to be a high priority, and that'll make using even the bi-annual exception ($3.6 million) difficult without letting one, if not two, of their own free agents walk.

    Cap sheets this dense don't usually allow for significant additions. Matthews himself will be a stretch if the Nuggets aren't at least peddling the BAE. He just played this past year on a minimum contract and has earned a raise. So make no mistake: Targeting him wouldn't be akin to aiming low.      

Toronto Raptors: Danilo Gallinari

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Deciding how to handle the Toronto Raptors' selection was pure agony. Their range of offseason outcomes is so damn wide.

    Working with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception is their most likely scenario. That should allow them to re-sign Fred VanVleet on a long-term deal and one of Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, if not both, to a single-season windfall.

    Deciding how to play this is still difficult. The Raptors are among the throng of teams expected to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo next offseason. They won't be in the business of shelling out multiyear contracts to players other than VanVleet if the two-time reigning MVP doesn't sign a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Danilo Gallinari qualifies as super ambitious when viewed against those self-imposed limitations. He will only fall to into MLE territory if none of the cap-space squads show any interest and other contenders aren't willing to explore more lucrative sign-and-trade options with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Giving him two to three years shouldn't register as even a remote concern if he's accepting the MLE. Cap space isn't important until teams actually need it. The Raptors can generate wiggle room in 2021 if Giannis wants to play for them.

    Toronto shouldn't even be opposed to kicking the tires on Gallo sign-and-trades. Norman Powell might intrigue the Thunder on his own, or the Raptors can attach him to the No. 29 pick, as an actual salary, to allow for a $16-plus-million acquisition.

    This is not to say that the Raptors should be paying Gallo $15 million annually for the next three years. But he's a multilevel scorer who's averaged 18.8 points per game on a 47.3 free-throw-attempt rate and a 60.8 percent true shooting percentage since 2015-16. James Harden is the only other player doing the same after logging as many minutes. Toronto's half-court offense needs everything Gallo brings. Paying him, within reason, is worth the extra work it might incite later.         

Miami Heat: Marcus Morris Sr.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Establishing a benchmark that counts as ambitious for the Heat is a little prickly. Numerous questions loom, most notably: Will they be working with cap space? Will they bring back both Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic? One of them? Neither of them? And are they willing to hand out multiyear contracts if Giannis Antetokounmpo still projects to be in play during 2021 free agency?

    Slotting Marcus Morris Sr. into this space is an attempt to juggle Miami's jumbled scope of offseason scenarios.

    The Los Angeles Clippers don't have his Bird rights but can offer him up to $18 million in the first year of his contract. That makes him an overwhelming favorite to return unless a team with cap space peddles an over-the-top offer.

    That could theoretically be the Heat. They're in line for more than $25 million of spending power if they renounce the rights to Crowder and Dragic. (They can have more if Kelly Olynyk decline his $12.2 million player option, but well, yeah.) They could still have plenty of room if they choose to keep one of their main free agents.

    Signing Dragic or Crowder to a starting salary between $10 or $12 million could leave them with $13 to $15-plus million with which to play. The Clippers can still beat that annual rate but might be less inclined to do so over a longer term when they forecast as indefinite taxpayers. Miami can distinguish itself by virtue of offering a three-year deal above the mid-level exception.

    Whether team president Pat Riley and his salary-cap gurus are willing to go that high is a separate matter. Morris is an ideal fit for the Heat, particularly if they acquire him as a Crowder replacement. He provides just as much defensive optionality, if not more, as someone who can sponge up small-ball 5 minutes. He also brings more off-the-dribble shot-making in the half court, which Miami needs even if Dragic stays put.

    Still, Giannis' impending free agency casts a shadow over any aggressive pursuits from the Heat. Pitching both Crowder and Dragic on one-year balloon deals is incredibly attractive because of the 2021 flexibility it conserves. Unless both leave, they won't have the juice to offer Morris enough for him to ink another single-season pact.

    Put yours truly in the camp of those who wouldn't worry about it. The Heat have shown they can concoct sign-and-trades and move around money when necessary. If they have a chance to bag Morris, they should pounce and figure out how to drum up more 2021 cap space when they actually need it.    

Boston Celtics: Aron Baynes

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Way too much urgency is ascribed to the Boston Celtics' potential search for a center. They finished fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions this past season while leaning on Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, Robert Williams and, at times, Grant Williams. They're free to funnel their mini mid-level exception into another investment, like a reserve guard.

    Then again, none of the Celtics' current bigs project to hold up particularly well against Joel Embiid. This year's sweep of the Sixers in the first round was an anomaly. Philly didn't have Ben Simmons, and their roster construction was, to put it bluntly, borderline incoherent.

    Reuniting with Aron Baynes would be a great way to neutralize whatever threat the Sixers and other Embiid-types still pose. And contrary to Kanter and Robert Williams, Baynes doesn't shrink the floor on the offense. His three-point shooting fell off a cliff after a scorching-hot 10-game start to the 2019-20 campaign with the Phoenix Suns, but it matters more that he has outside range at all.

    He was a no-brainer fit in Boston for two years, and he remains one now.

    Affording him is the actual issue. The Celtics first must handle their roster-spot crunch and be willing to use the mini MLE. They then have to hope Baynes' price tag doesn't rise above that $5.7 million starting salary.

    Prying him from the Suns doesn't forecast as the biggest roadblock. Phoenix has Deandre Ayton and the opportunity to create space by renouncing Baynes' rights. He is inessential to their immediate future, especially if they need cap equity to facilitate a Chris Paul trade.

    Other suitors might still give Baynes more money. He isn't a pressing need for any of the cap-space franchises, but a huge chunk of the league will be working with the non-taxpayer MLE. One of the teams from that group will have the means and potentially motive to outbid Boston.

    But the idea that Baynes could rejoin the Celtics isn't ludicrous. Maybe he's willing to accept less in the name of familiarity. More importantly, the free-agency market is oversaturated with centers. Players like Baynes, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Nerlens Noel, Tristan Thompson, etc. could be shoehorned into accepting less than they would in a more cash-rich offseason.

    Give the sheer breadth of available bigs and the dearth of demand for them, Baynes hits that sweet spot for Boston: ambitious, perhaps out of reach, but not impossibly beyond their price range.    

Brooklyn Nets: Paul Millsap

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Recurring visitors to this space will not be surprised. Paul Millsap is a fantastic target for the Brooklyn Nets, and yours truly has cried it from the rooftops before.

    Unpacking Millsap's would-be fit with Brooklyn is a lot like playing tennis with the net down. He fits everywhere. Combo bigs who are plug-and-play at both ends and virtually matchup-proof are hard to find. Millsap hits that note even at the age of 35. His self-creation isn't as glamorous as it used to be, but the 43.5 percent he shot from distance this past season mitigates that drop-off by upping complementary appeal.

    Any number of teams can find reasons to throw their mid-level exception at him. That doesn't bode well for the Nets. They'll be working with the mini MLE.

    Even if certain suitors who can offer more money pass—Minnesota, New Orleans, Phoenix, San Antonio, Toronto, etc.—Brooklyn still has to grapple with superior contenders hocking equal money. Boston and Golden State in particular stand out. Denver cannot be counted out either.

    Playing time will be the Nets' greatest asset when courting Millsap. They desperately need someone to anchor the 4 spot and who can absorb minutes as a small-ball 5. Taurean Prince is not the answer.

    Millsap wouldn't just be in line to start games. He'd also be a pivotal part of most, if not all, closing units. Not every other might-be suitor can say the same. That includes the Nuggets, who have Jerami Grant (player option) and Michael Porter Jr. to occupy the 3 and 4 spots. Opportunity will be available in larger supply with the Nets, and they're close enough to the championship discussion right now that Millsap can likewise satisfy any potential ring-chasing itch.                 

Golden State Warriors: Serge Ibaka

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    People wondering why the Warriors are assigned a more ambitious target than the Nuggets and Celtics have a point. They're all projected contenders expected to be shopping within the same price range. And if Serge Ibaka is going to take a pay cut to play with Golden State, why not do the same to join Boston, a team with arguably more realistic title odds given its place inside the Eastern Conference?

    Willingness to spend.

    The Warriors are more likely to use their mini mid-level than the Celtics, not to mention plenty of other teams. Boston has a roster crunch to hash out first and needs to plan around Jayson Tatum's inevitable max extension kicking in for 2021-22. Denver should have the option of spending more than the mini MLE, but it isn't a team that's a lock to pay the tax.

    Golden State is beholden to maximizing the window of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It has to spend in some forms, if not all forms. Whether it's using the Andre Iguodala trade exception to take on a pricey player, flipping draft equity for a win-now return or using the entire MLE on a higher-end veteran looking to ring chase or boost his short-term stock, the Warriors are obligated to aim for a biggish move.

    Gauging Ibaka's interest in joining the fold would be time well spent. Sure, his market value will be higher than the mini MLE. Failing other offers—which he'll surely have—the Raptors should be open to paying him a loftier salary on a one-year deal.

    But maybe the Raptors will go in a different direction. They have enough key free agents of their own to consider a quasi-reset—particularly if Giannis Antetokounmpo signs an extension with the Bucks. Or perhaps Ibaka will want to re-explore the open market next offseason, when there'll be more money available, and believes playing for the Warriors will do more for his multiyear stock.

    Stranger things have happened, and the 2020 market is oozing unpredictability. And hey, it never hurts to try. The Warriors arguably need more wing depth, but their center position is far from set. Relying on Marquese Chriss is a crapshoot, and they've yet to show interest in making Green a full-time 5. Kevon Looney apparently looks healthy, but he's never even averaged 20 minutes per game.

    Ibaka is a much better bet when evaluated against the workload Golden State needs from its center. He can be schemed off the floor on defense in certain matchups, but his offensive fit is relatively seamless. Green's spacing limitations won't be as huge of an obstacle if the big man beside him is someone who just canned 38.5 percent of his treys.    

Milwaukee Bucks: Bogdan Bogdanovic (Restricted)

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Chasing restricted free agents is a bold move by teams that have actual cap space. It is infinitely more difficult, verging on impossible, for those without real money to burn. Certain names always fall through the cracks. Restricted free agents worth a major damn, however, get puh-aid.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic is the latter.

    New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair may not be as married to him as his predecessor, Vlade Divac, but three-level scorers who can play off the ball, add tertiary table-setting and have the size to hold up positionally on defense are hardly dime-a-dozen. And beyond that, the team cannot afford to let him walk for nothing, if they can afford to let him walk at all. His departure should only come as part of a sign-and-trade.

    Enter the Bucks.

    Though they will, at best, have the non-taxpayer's mid-level to spend, and they've shown interest in sign-and-trade scenarios that land Bogdanovic as well as Harrison Barnes, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe. The framework of such a transaction will be complicated.

    Barnes and a freshly paid Bogdanovic should account for around $35 to $40 million in salary, and Milwaukee, as it stands, has virtually no room under the tax if Ersan Ilyasova's salary is guaranteed and keeping Wesley Matthews (player option) remains a priority.

    Money shouldn't be the reason this scenario is deemed unrealistic. Giannis Antetokounmpo is, for now, entering a contract year. The Bucks should feel obligated to spend. They have enough breathing room under the hard cap to increase their commitments via a sign-and-trade. They need only be willing to pay the tax at all.

    Pulling out the stops for a Chris Paul blockbuster makes more sense if Milwaukee is willing to pony up. But Bogdanovic is worth breaking open the piggy bank for. The Bucks need someone else who can both shoot and put pressure on defenses in the half court, and if expanding hypothetical sign-and-trades to include Barnes limits the extent to which they must mortgage their future, even better.

    Packages built around Ilyasova, Eric Bledsoe, Robin Lopez (player option) and the No. 24 pick (as an actual salary) let them take back more than $38 million. They also have Donte DiVincenzo to include if a late first-rounder doesn't get the Kings excited. The Bucks should probably draw the line at tossing in both if they're absorbing Barnes, but the overarching point stands: Hyper-ambitious needs to be their default mode.

Los Angeles Clippers: Fred VanVleet

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Fred VanVleet isn't leaving the Raptors to play for the Clippers on the mini mid-level. He's most likely not leaving the Raptors, period. They can sign him to a long-term deal at a lucrative rate without obliterating their flexibility in 2021 free agency, and only teams with the financial bandwidth to bid max money have the sway to force them into an unsavory decision.

    So much has to break right for the Clippers to enter the conversation as a sign-and-trade destination. Most importantly, VanVleet must want to play for them. If Toronto opts to go in a different direction, that may be part of the calculus. Otherwise, VanVleet doesn't have much of an incentive to leave, let alone force his way out.

    Assuming the 26-year-old guard is actually intrigued by joining Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers then need the Raptors' cooperation. That's not a given. Toronto will be guarding 2021 cap space if it's losing VanVleet. Los Angeles has to cobble together a package befitting that aim.

    The Clippers must also find a way to squeeze VanVleet's salary under the hard cap. That in itself is a chore. They might be on track to surpass it if they re-sign both Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. The math gets hairier if JaMychal Green declines his player option and returns at a higher price point.

    Either Harrell or Morris might have to become collateral damage for this work. Harrell would be the bet if the Clippers reach that point. The value of bigs is easier to approximate on the cheap.

    At the same time, keeping both isn't out of the question. For our purposes, let's say Morris gets $13 million next season and Harrell comes in right around $11 million. That leaves the Clippers a little less than $1 million away from the apron.

    Now let's assume VanVleet requires a starting salary of $21 million. The Clippers need to send out within $1 million of that number to remain below the apron. That's doable.

    Piquing the Raptors' attention is harder. The Clippers don't have future picks to spare. If Toronto isn't interested in acquiring Harrell as part of a dual sign-and-trade, their best offer will look something like Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet and then either Green (if he opts in), Rodney McGruder or Lou Williams.

    Who knows whether this would actually intrigue the Raptors. It might when operating under the assumption that VanVleet is leaving. They may think they can do better with cap space, but that's if they have it. Losing FVV doesn't get them meaningful room if they're re-signing one or both of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.

    In a universe in which VanVleet leaves and the Raptors don't gain cap space as a result, this return is defensible. Beverley and Shamet (club option) are both on the books for 2021-22, but they won't ruin Toronto's proximity to max space. Either can get rerouted later if need be. They're also plug-and-play fits relative to the rest of the roster.

    This shouldn't require much thought for the Clippers. VanVleet would give them another impactful initiator who will have no trouble playing off George and Leonard. Giving him so much money while re-signing one or both of Harrell and Morris mushrooms their long-term expenses, and a Beverley-Williams package has them surrendering two guards. But VanVleet is a much better fit for their postseason offense.   

Los Angeles Lakers: Danilo Gallinari

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Danilo Gallinari's potential value to the Lakers isn't up for discussion. He'd be a big-time help.

    Shoring up the minutes without LeBron James on the court is at the crux of Gallinari's utility. He doesn't add too much as a playmaker, but the Lakers' half-court offense placed in the 24th percentile of efficiency without its four-time MVP on the court. Adding someone else who can generate his own offense stands to reinvent the returns during those stretches.

    Gallinari's path to the Lakers is less clear. They have ways to ensure access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, but he could garner interest from one of the cap-space teams or re-sign for a higher price point with the Thunder under the guise that they'll deal him to a contender later.

    Sign-and-trade scenarios will be the Lakers' bread and butter if Gallinari's market exceeds the MLE. They require Oklahoma City's cooperation, but that's not a huge ask. The alternative would be losing Gallinari for nothing, and Los Angeles has expiring deals to send out in return.

    Offering something like Danny Green, Talen Horton-Tucker and the No. 28 pick feels fair for both sides. Green doesn't fit the Thunder's soon-to-be-rebuilding timeline. But they forever need wings who can shoot, and they'd be getting back to viable prospects.

    Hashing out a deal gets tougher if Oklahoma City won't take on Green's expiring $15.4 million. That's a legitimate risk. Depending on Gallinari's next price point, Green may be the more expensive player in the short term, and the Thunder don't currently have a payroll far enough beneath the tax to feel great about adding money.

    That should change once they trade Chris Paul, but even then, the idea of tacking on salary as part of a Gallinari sign-and-trade probably wouldn't sit right.

    Soliciting a third party to grab Green shouldn't be too much trouble. Oklahoma City might even get another asset if it's willing to swallow a cheaper yet less desirable contract.

    The Lakers can also try to concoct a package without Green. If Avery Bradley or JaVale McGee opts in, attaching one of them to THT, Quinn Cook (salary must be guaranteed) and No. 28 allows them to take back somewhere between $13- and $14-plus million—though that then becomes a four-for-one scenario that might necessitate a third team anyway so as not to overload the Thunder's roster.

                                                                

    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.