1 Ambitious Free-Agent Target for Every NBA Team
This year's NBA free-agency class may be light on star power, but league-wide ambition never wanes.
If anything, the limited pool of ultra-desirable talent only increases the level of competition among every team. Dreaming big is harder, because the Hall of Whimsy is at once narrow and crowded.
Each squad's proposed target will be ambitious relative to their cap sheets, depth-chart needs and direction. Realism is not completely thrown out the window, either. There needs to be an arguable path to every team entering the running for a free agent's services.
Incumbent players will be eligible for inclusion whenever the situation (usually cap sheet) calls for it. Sign-and-trades will be discussed wherever necessary, as well. If teams with little to no flexibility don't have the assets (or incentive to go that route), their suggested target will reflect as much. Free-agency pursuits are, in many cases, just as much about what suitors can do and the why behind it all as the chosen player.
Names will be recycled. In a free-agency class so shallow, it is unavoidable. For variety's sake, though, we won't give any player more than two cameos.
Atlanta Hawks: Josh Hart (Restricted)
Any Josh Hart pursuit for the Atlanta Hawks rests squarely upon sign-and-trade scenarios. They can chisel out some cap space while carrying John Collins' restricted free agent hold, but not nearly enough to field competitive offer sheets or even justify operating as an under-the-cap squad in the first place without offloading other salaries.
Hart is worth jumping through the extra hoops. His long range clip falls short of actualizing the "three" in three-and-D, but he's close enough to league average(ish) to envision his improving inside an offense that does a better job spacing the floor. His defense, meanwhile, affords Atlanta all sorts of options. He can capably guard 1s through (mostly backup) 4s.
Going after Hart would also be a hedge against the Hawks' incumbent wings. Cam Reddish has missed a ton of time with a right Achilles injury and remains wildly inconsistent at the offensive end. De'Andre Hunter is undergoing another surgery on his right knee. Both, along with Kevin Huerter, will be up for extensions in one of the next two summers.
Keeping everyone together will be tough—and expensive. Hart is someone who helps the Hawks a great deal now but also gives them leverage and flexibility over the futures of their own youngsters. That matters a ton with Collins headed for star money in restricted free agency and Trae Young up for a max extension this summer.
Boston Celtics: Evan Fournier
Penciling in a free agent not already on the Boston Celtics is fine. They need to upgrade the big man rotation behind Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III and get in a proven secondary creator to both amplify the offense and safeguard them against Kemba Walker's spotty health bill.
This all presumes the Celtics will act like aggressive buyers over the offseason. That's debatable. Boston currently projects to fall inside the luxury tax for a roster that, even at full strength, doesn't warrant such a ritzy cost, and Danny Ainge's resignation suggests the franchise might not be bent on spending to win now.
Whoever new team president/former head coach Brad Stevens hires to succeed him may be somewhat telltale of the Celtics' intentions. More meaningful conclusions can be drawn from Fournier's future. His partial-season stint in Beantown wasn't the smoothest—he missed time with COVID-19—but he gave the Celtics 15.4 points per game while nailing 43.3 percent of his triples during the playoffs and is an ideal complement to an offense spearheaded by the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Retaining him won't come cheap. He should net somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 to $16 million annually. Even if he fetches less than expected, the Celtics' iffy tax situation renders his future a wild card. Sources told Bleacher Report's Farbod Esnaashari that Boston and Walker both want a divorce. Moving him—and cutting costs in the process—is probably critical to re-signing Fournier.
Brooklyn Nets: Nicolas Batum
Know who led the Los Angeles Clippers in total minutes played during the regular season? I'll give you three guesses.
(Pause for effect.)
Nicolas Batum. Seriously.
To anyone claiming they saw this coming, please first address the smoke emanating out of your pants before taking a victory lap. Batum is working off three consecutive unimpressive seasons with Charlotte, the final of which saw him appear in just 22 games. Nobody could have predicted this sort of renaissance in Los Angeles, even when accounting for the has-something-to-play-for factor.
Batum just posted the second-highest effective field-goal percentage of his career while giving the Clippers rock-solid defense across four positions. Among every player who logged at least 1,800 minutes this season, only five turned in a higher versatility score on the less-glamorous end, according to BBall Index: Miles Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jeff Green, Ben Simmons and Jae'Sean Tate.
Armed with just the mini mid-level exception, the Brooklyn Nets will be shooting for the stars with almost any capable free agent they chase. Batum might fall into that price range by default. Teams may not trust this resurgence. The Nets can roll with it. He'd bolster their wing defense, particularly within lineups that don't include a traditional big. Whether it's for the mini MLE or the vet's minimum, poaching Batum from a fellow contender will be a chore with the chance to become a potential coup.
Charlotte Hornets: Richaun Holmes
Doling out massive contracts to bigs who aren't stars has become relatively taboo. Only a handful of pure 4s and 5s tend to qualify as worthwhile exceptions.
Two bigs meet the criteria this summer: John Collins (restricted) and Richaun Holmes. And if they're willing to spend, the Charlotte Hornets, who have a fairly clear path to $20-plus million in cap space, should be interested in both.
Holmes projects as the better fit, in part because he's the more reliable defender—and also because he, unlike Collins, won't command max money.
At 27, Holmes is on the older side for a rebuilding team. Good thing, then, the Hornets aren't rebooting from the ground up. LaMelo Ball and a healthy Gordon Hayward accelerate their timeline. Holmes is an ideal complement as a relentless floor-runner, maker of floaters and dependable rim protector who won't get torched when yanked outside the paint.
Price can and should be an issue. The Hornets shouldn't fritter away their entire cap-space balance on Holmes' services. He is not their ticket to immediate contention, and they have new contracts for Malik Monk (restricted), Devonte' Graham (this summer), Miles Bridges (extension-eligible) and Terry Rozier (next summer) to consider. But the Hornets need a center/alternative to P.J. Washington-at-the-5 lineups.
Holmes should absolutely top their wish list if he's in the range of $15 to $16 million (or less).
Chicago Bulls: Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
Backing up the Brink's truck for Lonzo Ball requires a very specific set of circumstances: either the cap space or sign-and-trade ammo to pay him, and teammates who can spare him from a lion's share of the offense's half-court initiation.
The Chicago Bulls emphatically check the second box.
Zach LaVine is one of the league's premier from-scratch scorers, and Nikola Vucevic remains someone through whom the offense can be run. Tomas Satoransky ($5 million partial guarantee) and Coby White give the Bulls two more playmakers to roll out in tandem with Lonzo, who is big enough at 6'6" to guard larger backcourt assignments.
Prying him from the New Orleans Pelicans should not be an impossible mission. He remained available closer to the trade deadline even after detonating his way out of an early-season slump, according to Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer. That doesn't mean Chicago's interest would go uncontested. It won't.
New Orleans cannot afford to let Lonzo walk for nothing—which might actually help the Bulls. They're not sniffing the requisite cap room to tender a legitimate offer sheet unless they waive both Satoransky and Thaddeus Young ($6 million partial guaranteed).
Sign-and-trade scenarios are Chicago's best friend. Assuming Lonzo has a soft spot for The Windy City, the Pelicans should be open to packages built around draft equity (pending the Bulls' obligations to Orlando), a Lauri Markkanen (restricted) sign-and-trade and/or White.
Cleveland Cavaliers: T.J. McConnell
Capably filling the reserve-backcourt minutes has ranked among the Cleveland Cavaliers' largest needs for, like, forever. It is, by far, the most urgent need now.
Cost will be an obstacle when looking at the Cavs' core. They will wield the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception if they keep Jarrett Allen's restricted free agent hold (duh) and don't unload other money, but they also have to plan around eventual deals for Collin Sexton (extension-eligible) and Darius Garland (extension-eligible in 2022).
Funneling semi-significant financial resources into the 1 spot doesn't hit the right note with two other sub-6'2" players headed for imminent raises. That could price T.J. McConnell outside Cleveland's range. He is someone who will definitely command mini-MLE money and might secure the bigger-MLE bag.
Paying him still projects as a good move. He is not the craftiest maestro and doesn't shoot a ton of threes, but he puts pressure on the rim and is a credible passer when attacking downhill. Among 58 players who averaged 10 or more drives per game this season, he tied James Harden for the second-highest assist percentage (14.8) on those plays.
McConnell's full-court, in-your-jersey, there's-no-such-thing-as-a-free-inbound-pass defense also fits with the aggressive style Cleveland championed for much of his season. The energy he brings seems infectious on many nights. The Cavs can use that sort of veteran live wire who plays every possession like it's his last, even if they have to outbid better teams who aren't offering the entire MLE to get him.
Dallas Mavericks: Mike Conley
Mike Conley is an ambitious target for 29 teams. Any interest outside of Utah presumes he wants to leave the league's best regular-season squad and what is, at this writing, one of the foremost championship threats.
Peddling a partnership with Luka Doncic is a good place to start. The Dallas Mavericks need a secondary ball-handler and square-one shot-maker to pair with their transcendent 22-year-old and have the cap flexibility to secure meetings with the biggest names on the open market—of which, by the way, there are very few.
Blowing up Kyle Lowry's phone is another option. But Conley is younger—albeit more of an injury wild card—and should come cheaper on a per-year basis if his next contract is long enough. The latter is important.
Dallas can open up nearly $35 million in room only if it renounces Tim Hardaway Jr. and Josh Richardson declines his player option. Chasing a free agent who costs $20 million or so per year gives the team a better crack at keeping THJ without having to make other moves or while facilitating smaller salary dumps (Richardson or Dwight Powell).
This is not meant to suggest the Mavs would be settling with Conley. Lowry is arguably more gettable based on Toronto's fuzzy timeline and Utah's overall dominance. But with Doncic headed for a supermax extension, this is the last summer for a while in which the Mavs will have the runway to think big. Pursuing an All-Star on the right side of 35 who might sign a longer deal that helps ensure THJ's return would count as pretty damn huge.
Denver Nuggets: Reggie Bullock
If the Denver Nuggets intend to keep the quartet of Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. together long term, this should be the last offseason in which they have access to the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception for a half-eternity.
Mind you, that access isn't guaranteed. The Nuggets will be toeing a fine line if Will Barton and JaMychal Green pick up their player options, and if they have interest in bringing back Paul Millsap.
Reggie Bullock would be a utopian fit should Denver have the full MLE. He played in all but seven games for the New York Knicks this season while downing 41 percent of threes and routinely checking the best opposing wings and guards.
Put Bullock on the current Nuggets, and they might be favorites to come out of the Western Conference without Jamal Murray by virtue of his defense alone. The team's perimeter stopping power would have real juice with him, Facundo "Human Gnat" Campazzo, a healthy P.J. Dozier and Aaron Gordon.
Luck needs to be on Denver's side to land Bullock. He's on track to get at least the full mid-level exception (starting at $9.5 million), and the Knicks, even with just Early Bird rights on him, have the cap space to go over the top. The door only opens for the Nuggets if New York isn't willing to give him a three- or four-year deal in preference of preserving future flexibility.
Detroit Pistons: Doug McDermott
Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has no plans to go on a shopping spree and is instead expected to focus on talent retention, according to the Detroit News' Rod Beard. That stance, if it holds, comes as a major buzzkill to agents looking to drum up spend-happy suitors for their clients. Detroit is among the half-dozen or so teams with readied access to more than $15 million in room.
Perhaps the Pistons shift course. Or maybe, and more likely, they're willing to toss around above-market money at young or awesome-fitting fliers. Anything they do should be in service of decongesting the half-court. They ranked 25th in three-point-attempt rate and 19th in efficiency from beyond arc.
Paying Doug McDermott would not be akin to tapping into the fountain of youth. He turns 30 in January. But he's an eminently scalable offensive player, someone who opens the floor for Detroit's more important developmental projects without cannibalizing touches, and who can be a part of Motor City's next playoff hopeful.
Looking at him demands a willingness to fork over eight figures per year. McDermott just drilled 38.8 percent of his threes, averaged an absurd 1.57 points per possession on cuts and showed he could put the ball on the deck and attack in open space. Teams will give him the full mid-level exception.
That shouldn't dissuade the Pistons. They have the flexibility to give him an inflated two- or three-year offer that doesn't hamstring their bigger picture. If anything, the pressure his motion and shooting puts on defenses will make life easier on Jerami Grant and streamline the on-ball development of Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes and whoever the Pistons select with their top-six-or-better draft pick.
Golden State Warriors: Paul MIllsap
Finding anyone who can be a steadying rotation presence, let alone an unequivocal net positive, for the mini mid-level exception is ambitious in its own right if you're not a top-shelf title contender. The Golden State Warriors know this all too well.
They didn't even use this season's mini MLE, a nod to either a puddle-deep pool of options or their already traveling, ahem, light years into the luxury tax for a roster that couldn't jockey with the league's heavyweights. (They did use their Andre Iguodala trade exception to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr.) Who knows, maybe they'll yet again holster their best free-agency tool.
Paul Millsap is a good option regardless of whether the Warriors are hocking the mini MLE or trying to get an even larger veteran's discount. Teams won't be showering him in hundy sticks; he's 36, and his offensive decision-making can be questionable. But richer short-term deals should await him, at the bare minimum. He still has a little "F U" and switchability to his defense, which continues to span the 4 and 5 spots.
Golden State can try selling him on more playing time than he'll receive elsewhere—including Denver, where Aaron Gordon, JaMychal Green (player option), Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. all factor into the power forward and center minutes. Whether he starts is immaterial. The Warriors can use him to spare Draymond Green from certain center assignments, and he'll do a better job than the former stretching the floor around James Wiseman rolls to the basket.
Houston Rockets: Talen Horton-Tucker (Restricted)
Cap space is now an attainable goal for the Houston Rockets following their talent drain. They project to have nearly $7 million in room and will see that number more than double if their first-round pick (top-four protection) conveys to Oklahoma City.
Related: Houston absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of doubt doesn't want its draft choice to convey. Operating over the cap makes more sense and is something the Rockets will probably do even if (gulp) OKC gets their pick. Carrying Kelly Olynyk's free-agent hold gets them there, and they have a $5.9 million team option they can exercise just for the helluva it.
All of 20 years old, Talen Horton-Tucker is just what the Rockets' rebuild ordered. His offensive skill set looks like a typo. His herky-jerky drives appear spasmodic yet are actually under control. He needs to sport more dependable touch from beyond the arc and around the basket but shot 41.5 percent on jumpers, including 35.4 percent on threes, from April 1 onward.
Whisking him away from the Los Angeles Lakers might be a pipe dream. Tucker cannot earn more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception in the first year of his next deal, and the Rockets will need more cap flexibility if they want to toss him a poison-pill deal that pays him out the wazoo in Year 3.
Still, the Lakers have cap-sheet hurdles to clear if they want to make a bigger move. Their priority may not be retaining someone so young unless they view him as a critical rotation piece next season.
Indiana Pacers: Doug McDermott
T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott loom as the Indiana Pacers' most important free agents, and they're both legitimate flight risks.
Carrying cap holds for both leaves the Pacers right around the luxury-tax line, and they'll pass it if the two combine for more than $19 million in salary. Indiana might pay the tax to field a contender, but it won't have the full-strength sample size to make that call before next season. This feels like an either-or situation, and the choice almost has to be McConnell.
Backup point guard is a tougher spot for the Pacers to fill. They have wings (Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Justin Holiday, Oshae Brisset) and Aaron Holiday hasn't yet flashed the playmaking chops to seize the reins of the offense for medium-sized bursts. McConnell's defensive pressure also verges on irreplaceable, and equally important, he figures to come cheaper.
Ergo, we have McDermott. He is ambitious in the sense Indiana can possibly neither afford to keep him or lose him.
Mikal Bridges and Michael Porter Jr. were the only other players to shoot better than 60 percent on twos and 38 percent on threes while burning through as many attempts. McDermott's off-ball motion, outside touch and open-space drives will pique attention around the league. The Pacers must hope his price tag is within (their interpretation) of reason—and even then, they might need to trim salary to keep him.
Los Angeles Clippers: Derrick Rose
Others will want to focus on the Los Angeles Clippers' big-man rotation. That's not off-base. They could use a shiftier and spacier alternative to the (resoundingly good) Ivica Zubac and a healthier substitute for Serge Ibaka (player option).
Allocating their best spending tool—the mini mid-level exception—still feels icky. Ibaka might pick up his player option after dealing with back injuries, and the Clippers have small-ball combinations on which to lean.
Bulking up the point guard spot is the more pressing issue.
Patrick Beverley is not an on-ball playmaker (and has seen his minutes dwindle). Reggie Jackson is giving Los Angeles good minutes, but something's wrong when, in the year 2021, a title contender has to fret about Reggie Jackson fouling out in Game 2 of a second-round playoff series.
Bringing in Rajon Rondo hasn't fixed what ails the Clippers. He provides some offensive structure, but they need a dime-tosser who is also a threat to score and put defenses on tilt coming off screens. Relying on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to get the job done only gets you so far.
Derrick Rose is more the Clippers' speed. He also may have priced himself out of their range by averaging 14.9 points while drilling 50.9 percent of his twos and 41.1 percent of his threes after getting traded to New York. Title contenders in glitzy markets have a way of wooing talent on the cheap, but Los Angeles will need the Knicks to spend lavishly on a starrier point guard if it wants a genuine crack at Rose.
Los Angeles Lakers: Evan Fournier
Urging the Los Angeles Lakers to target Evan Fournier isn't just ambitious. It's whimsicial, arduous, optimistic and drunk all at once.
First and foremost: The Boston Celtics have to play ball, and they should want to keep Fournier themselves. But rising roster costs may leave them kowtowing to the bigger picture. Their direction is an obstacle, but not The Obstacle.
The Lakers claustrophobic cap sheet is the larger roadblock. Acquiring Fournier by way of sign-and-trade hard caps them, and they'll enter the offseason within $10 million of the luxury tax if Montrezl Harrell exercises his player option. That doesn't include holds for free agents Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted) and Dennis Schroder.
Re-signing the latter nukes any hope the Lakers have of doing more than stretching singles into doubles. He already turned down a four-year, $84 million extension and a slightly smaller number doesn't do Los Angeles much good.
Boston helps the cause if it wants Schroder in a double sign-and-trade. That's not likely. The Lakers instead need to hope the Celtics would take one or two of their mid-sized salaries (Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and this year's No. 22 pick as compensation.
Is Fournier worth that plus Los Angeles letting at least one of its other main free agents walk? Given how desperately they need three-point shooting and someone else comfortable putting the ball on the floor, um, yes.
Memphis Grizzlies: Duncan Robinson (Restricted)
Doubling down on the Memphis Grizzlies' current core is not without risk. The Western Conference is still brutal. They need to believe they're one non-star acquisition away from mucking up the top-five pecking order to even think about creating and using cap space.
Sign me up for the Grizzlies stepping out on a limb. They just finished over .500 during a season in which Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow missed most of the year and played well below expectations, Ja Morant missed time with a sprained ankle and Brandon Clarke fell out of the postseason rotation. Catering to the immediate term isn't some dereliction of duty. It's a fair reaction to the past two years and the room Memphis still has to grow from within.
Duncan Robinson is just the complementary flamethrower the Grizzlies need to elevate their Western Conference threat level. Their offense perked up later in the year, but they ranked 27th in three-point-attempt rate and 21st in accuracy from behind the rainbow. Robinson cooled off from his volcanic 2019-20 campaign, but that just means he converted 40.8 percent of his threes on 8.5 attempts per game and posted the third-highest effective field-goal percentage coming around screens among every player to attempt at least 50 shots in those situations.
Memphis needs help to get him. Other teams will be interested, and the Miami Heat have the rights to match any offer. Right now, the Grizzlies don't have the cap space to make anybody sweat—but they can, to the tune of around $22 million, if they decline Winslow's team option.
Miami Heat: Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Reasons abound for why the Miami Heat shouldn't waste their time giving chase to Kawhi Leonard. He chose to play for the Los Angeles Clippers. Those same Clippers are still in the title hunt. Los Angeles is closer to his home base of San Diego than Miami. Steve Ballmer ugly crying would be tough to watch.
Let's say that the Clippers don't win the title (possible!), and that Leonard wants a co-star better than Playoff P, someone closer to Regular Season P, but in the postseason. Let's then assume that Los Angeles is unable to materially upgrade the roster within its financial constraints, and that Leonard is willing to shop around, and that Miami doesn't mind missing out on other free agents while lusting after this pie-in-the-sky play.
The Heat, in that scenario, make a lot of sense.
Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler give him two co-stars instead of one, albeit they both turned in lamentable playoff performances this year. Making it to the conference finals remains easier in the East than the West, so long as you don't meet the Brooklyn Nets prior to Round 3. Miami is just as desirable a place to live as L.A.
It could totally happen...if Kawhi wills it to happen.
In addition to spurning the Clippers, he'd also have to force a sign-and-trade. The Heat cannot afford his max salary even if they strip down the roster to Adebayo, Butler, Precious Achiuwa, Tyler Herro and KZ Okplala (their only guaranteed contracts), and joining a bare-bones supporting cast defeats the purpose of why Leonard would bolt L.A. in the first place.
Failing the two-time MVP accepting a pay cut, Miami would have to go the sign-and-trade route. The Clippers would never accept Herro, Goran Dragic (team option), Andre Iguodala (team option) and draft picks for Leonard in a vacuum, but if he makes them believe he'll leave either way, they'd have no choice.
Milwaukee Bucks: Danny Green
Insisting the Milwaukee Bucks upgrade their shot-creation ranks has become an annual rite of passage. Landing Jrue Holiday satisfied last offseason's calls for change, but the obsession will reignite if they flame out in unspectacular fashion against the Brooklyn Nets.
Suggesting the Bucks try to, ambitiously, fill that void in free agency is laughable. They have the mini mid-level exception to work with, and that's assuming they spend it. (Aside: They better.) Even on the more optimistic end of the spectrum—Alec Burks? Patty Mills? Austin Rivers? Lou Williams?—no one they can reasonably get is reinventing their offensive fortunes.
Floor spacing and wing depth should take precedence in the absence of a high-impact shot creator. Donte DiVicenzo's left ankle injury has exposed their options outside the starting five, and Milwaukee could use another body to fill the 2/3 role to further incentivize deploying Giannis Antetokounmpo-as-the-lone-big combinations in certain arrangements
Danny Green would be a huge get for a team working with the mini MLE. He turns 34 later this month, but he can still lock up against non-stars and select stars across the 1, 2 and 3 spots, and his outside stroke, while sometimes streaky, remains decidedly above average.
The question looming over all this: Will he sign for that mini MLE? Green is earning $15.4 million this season, and the Philadelphia 76ers, along with many other teams, have the ability to pay him more.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Zach Collins (Restricted)
Coming up with free-agent targets, of any variety, is a prickly proposition for the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to the NBA draft. Their price range will be directly impacted by the outcome of the lottery.
Retain their own draft pick (top-three protection), and they will enter the offseason inside the luxury tax, leaving them, in theory, to operate with the mini mid-level. Convey their selection to Golden State, and they should have the breathing room to spend the bigger MLE.
Neither scenario will put the Timberwolves in play for the most glittery free agents. (They would, obviously, prefer the financial conundrum of paying another top-three pick.) Better teams will claim the most valuable veterans at either price point before them. Minnesota instead needs to get creative by targeting reclamation projects or distressed assets.
Zach Collins falls under the latter umbrella. Left shoulder and left ankle injuries have limited him to just 11 games over the past two seasons; he hasn't appeared in a game since the bubble.
Reading his market is impossible on the heels of such an extensive absence. He has shown he can stretch the floor while defending 4s and 5s, but not over protracted stretches.
Twenty-three-year-old two-way bigs—who can guard in space—are worth matching MLE-sized offer sheets, but the Portland Trail Blazers will cannonball deep into the luxury tax if they re-sign Norman Powell. Collins might be uniquely gettable, in which case he's worth a gamble to the Timberwolves, who could use him as a frontline partner for Karl-Anthony Towns and as a backup 5.
New Orleans Pelicans: JaMychal Green (Player Option)
Banking on JaMychal Green to hit free agency is a spicy assumption by itself. He has a $7.6 million player option. Will someone offer him the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception?
The New Orleans Pelicans should consider it—in the event they have it. Their cap sheet gets all sorts of hairy if they keep both Lonzo Ball (restricted) and Josh Hart (restricted). They could be up against the tax line depending on how much each player costs, and whether they reroute other contracts.
Going to Green with the mini MLE or less won't do anything. It's a pay cut. New Orleans is better off chasing his teammate, Louisiana native and surefire free agent Paul Millsap if that's the case.
Green is the better functional fit if the Pelicans can swing it. He is shooting 39.5 percent from deep over the past three seasons and never disrupts the offense with on-ball freelancing. He is just the type of affordable frontcourt partner New Orleans needs to maximize Point Zion Williamson.
Jaxson Hayes improved on defense as a sophomore and promises above-the-rim finishing, but he still cramps the floor. Adams does the same. The Pelicans offense found workarounds for most of the year, but Point Zion lost some of its luster in part because of half-court clogginess.
Stretching defenses becomes all the more important if another initiator isn't in place. Bledsoe isn't it. Speedster Kira Lewis Jr. remains a mystery box. Nickeil Alexander-Walker more of a north-south scorer than playmaker. Brandon Ingram is a secondary option. Leaning further into Zion the Offensive Engine would be a lot rosier long term beside someone like Green, even though it comes with a trade-off in size at the other end.
New York Knicks: Kyle Lowry
Dreaming big is easier for the New York Knicks than pretty much every other team. They have a straightforward path to more than $50 million in cap space. Some of that money will go toward incumbent free agents with Early and Non-Bird Rights, but they should have no trouble maintaining one max slot while keeping some combination—or all—of Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel.
Though this isn't the summer to have the much cash, the tippy-top of the point guard market is starrier than the available pool of wings and bigs. And yes, the Knicks still need a floor general.
Three options stand out above the rest given New York's spending power: Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul (option). Many will flock toward the latter. Knicks team president Leon Rose used to be Paul's agent, and he is the best of the three. But he'll be turning down a $44.2 million player option if he hits the open market and, presumably, cost more per year than the other two.
Lowry gets the nod because he's both ambitious and, ostensibly, more gettable than Conley. Utah is a championship contender. Toronto is going through the motions of self-reflection. Ipso facto: Lowry is more likey to leave.
He is also going to have options, many of which will include a better crack at a title. The Miami Heat can get to $20-plus million in cap space, and sign-and-trade possibilities with the Philadelphia 76ers loom. The Knicks can try swaying the proceedings in their favor by offering a shorter-term max or near-max—an inflated two-year deal that helps them immediately while leaving them with flexibility just as they're opening up the piggy bank for R.J. Barrett's next contract.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Gary Trent Jr. (Restricted)
Free agency doesn't forecast as a priority for the Oklahoma City Thunder despite the opportunity to wield a slush fund of more than $50 million. They have 34 picks over the next seven drafts and a boatload of clearance-rack contracts under organizational control. Roster spots could be in short supply in the coming years.
That shouldn't entirely preclude the Thunder from making waves. Taking expensive stabs at younger free agents has its advantages. Either they land someone who fits their timeline or drive up the price for a rival team. The trick is avoiding an Allen Crabbe circa 2016 free agency situation, wherein the overpay ages beyond poorly from the front office's view.
Gary Trent Jr. strikes a nice balance. The Thunder need to surround Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with more shooters—they were 28th in long-range efficiency—and he drilled 40.3 percent of his spot-up threes this season while hinting at some off-the-bounce pizzazz. He offers a touch of north-south speed when defenders close out too aggressively and nailed a respectable 35.5 percent of his pull-up treys on the year.
Stealing him from the Toronto Raptors may prove impossible. Serviceable restricted free agents are tough to poach. It could also be easier than usual. The Raptors might opt out of doubling down on their core if Kyle Lowry and team president Masai Ujiri leave.
Oklahoma City has the spare cash to make Toronto uncomfortable either way. Tendering a reckless offer sheet is never a good idea, but Trent doesn't turn 23 until January. The Thunder can justify spending on him.
Orlando Magic: Malik Monk (Restricted)
Free agency isn't likely to be much of a priority for the Orlando Magic. Their trade-deadline teardown has thrust them into an undefined rebuild, but a rebuild all the same, and they should have two high-ish first-rounders to drool over (their own and Chicago's top-four-protected pick).
Just as well, too. The Magic won't be a difference-making cap-space team without salary-dumping Gary Harris' expiring contract or Terrence Ross. They are, for now, most likely going to work with the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception.
Offering a contract to Malik Monk that starts under $10 million won't get the Charlotte Hornets to blink. Monk might not even bother signing it.
Prior to suffering a sprained right ankle near the end of the season, he tantalized with a 40-plus three-point clip, and an extra layer of shot creation. He drilled 37.2 percent of his pull-up triples, and his positional flexibility on defense belies his 6'3" frame.
Orlando at the very least needs Monk's brand of offensive jet fuel—that mix of creation and spacing. A healthy Markelle Fultz isn't providing it, and neither Cole Anthony nor R.J. Hampton has enough reps under his belt to guarantee he'll be that guy. Monk, at 23, is young enough that he fits the most gradual timeline.
Successfully bagging him almost assuredly requires a sign-and-trade. That could work. Building a package around Ross and Mo Bamba might get the Hornets' attention. Wendell Carter Jr. might be a touch too much for Orlando's tastes, but lower-level draft equity should be fair game.
Philadelphia 76ers: Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry trade talks between the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors reportedly reached the "one-yard line" before, inevitably, turning into nothing, according to Sportsnet's Michael Grange. Allow us to rekindle that fire on Philly's behalf.
Explaining Lowry's value to the Sixers takes, approximately, 0.3 nanoseconds. He is from Philadelphia, and they'll need an off-the-dribble shot-creator and -maker to level-up their half-court offense even if they finish this season with a title.
Coming up with feasible sign-and-trade scenarios isn't nearly as simple. Acquiring Lowry hard caps the Sixers, and they're close enough to the luxury tax that it matters.
Prospective deals likely begin with guaranteeing George Hill's $10 million salary. The rest depends on Lowry's next deal. If he's taking $20 million year, the Sixers need to come up with another $6 million-sh. And that's probably looking at the lower end on Lowry's market. Philly, in all likelihood, will need to dangle Seth Curry or sign-and-trade someone else back to Toronto (Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Mike Scott) to make the money work—plus whatever draft or prospect compensation (Tyrese Maxey? Matisse Thybulle?) the Raptors require.
It's a potentially steep price, one that could prevent the Sixers from keeping Danny Green, an important part of their rotation. Getting Lowry, though, is worth the opportunity cost.
Phoenix Suns: Nerlens Noel
Backup center is easily the Phoenix Suns' biggest problem spot. Cameron Payne has given the backcourt a steady electricity off the bench (he's a free agent this summer), and the team has options at the 2, 3 and 4 galore.
Filling the minutes behind Deandre Ayton, on the other hand, is proving thorny. (Granted, that's an improvement from when Ayton's minutes themselves were fickle.) Dario Saric-at-the-5 units smoked teams for most of the year but faded down the stretch, and he has been only intermittently playable during the postseason.
More Frank Kaminsky, another free agent, is not the answer. Jalen Smith has seen mostly garbage time. The Suns need to add another operable frontline body to the fold. That should be doable. It doesn't matter what version of the mid-level exception they'll be offering (depends largely on Chris Paul's player option and next contract).
Second-string bigs seldom break the bank. But Nerlens Noel is the best of that bunch. Never mind his stone hands. The Suns can generate enough spacing to give him freewheeling rolls to and uncontested lobs at the basket, and he's a workaholic on the offensive glass. His defense, though, is the primary draw.
Opponents shot just 51.7 percent against him at the rim, the sixth-stingiest mark among everyone who contested at least five point-blank looks per game. He has excellent hands both on and away from the ball and will capably cover the initiator and diver on pick-and-rolls. Phoenix would be lucky to add him to its reserve rotation—emphasis on lucky, given that he did enough with New York to earn a starting role or, potentially, more money elsewhere.
Portland Trail Blazers: Otto Porter Jr.
Second-unit defense is taking priority for the Portland Trail Blazers in the aftermath of head coach Terry Stotts' mutual exit.
As general manager Neil Olshey said, per NBC Sports' Jamie Hudson: "I do think that our bench this year gave me a window into knowing we have to have more impact defenders coming off our bench as opposed to just more scorers."
Olshey also mentioned the Blazers intend to re-sign Norman Powell. His next deal will leave them with little room under the tax, and they'll belly flop right into it if Derrick Jones Jr. picks up his player option and they want to re-sign Zach Collins (restricted).
That puts Portland's spending capacity around the mini mid-level. Whether they'd use it while possibly deep into the tax is debatable. The point stands no matter what: The Blazers can be more ambitious on the trade market than in free agency.
Otto Porter Jr. fits within that theme. Targeting a backup big isn't lofty enough, and it's not an ironclad need if Collins comes back. It'd behoove the Blazers next coach to try Derrick Jones Jr. at the 5 more often (if he doesn't opt out).
Injuries limited Porter's availability in Chicago, and he was uninspiring through three appearances in Orlando before incurring a left foot issue that cost him the rest of the season. But he's still just 28 years old and not terribly far removed from his peak, when he'd stroke spot-up threes and, more importantly, defend 2s, 3s and 4s.
Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes
Re-signing Richaun Holmes isn't just a matter of paying him. The Sacramento Kings have to make room for him.
Early Bird rights allow them to offer him 105 percent of the league's average salary—$10.5 millionish—before they have to use cap space. Holmes will cost more. He just averaged 14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists while downing 64.5 percent of his twos—all career highs.
His offensive game is both scalable and hard to neutralize. He sprints in transition and glides in the half court. His 1.3 points per possession as the roll man ranked in the 84th percentile, and he shot 37-of-45 on the break (82.2 percent). Cut off his path to the basket, and he'll bust out a nifty push shot. He converted 61.1 percent of his floaters.
Some team will offer him at least $12 million. As the best center on the market, he's probably looking at more like $15-plus million. The Kings may not want to spend that on a soon-to-be 28-year-old who, while solid on defense, is not a panacea to their leaky faucet. But losing him for nothing, when they could've flipped him at the trade deadline, is a crappier look than re-investing in a really good player.
Salary needs to be cut from the Kings' books for them to manufacture space. They'll be right around the cap line if their first-rounder holds at No. 8, effectively leaving them with three options: offload Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield or Marvin Bagley III and another player.
San Antonio Spurs: John Collins (Restricted)
Pursuing John Collins represents the antithesis of the San Antonio Spurs way. They have rarely been a franchise that entertains short cuts or star chases. LaMarcus Aldridge's arrival in 2015 is the lone recent exception.
But going after Collins jibes with the spirit of this exercise. It also aligns with the Spurs' flexibility and needs. They can cook up nearly $50 million in space this summer, and their small-potatoes investment in Jakob Poeltl permits them to spend on another big.
Zeroing in on Collins comes with the added bonus of playing him beside Poeltl for stretches. His three-point shooting is legit (40 percent over the past two seasons), and hes done a better job this year guarding 4s and providing help defense around the rim.
Lineups with Collins at the 5 would sing—on offense, anyway. He has some semblance of a floor game that renders him a mismatch against virtually every opposing center, and defenses will struggle to mitigate his lob lethality if San Antonio has at least three other shooters on the court.
Getting him from the Atlanta Hawks will take a max offer—and, perhaps, a palatable sign-and-trade scenario to boot. The Spurs can swing it. Their cap space is almost unrivaled, and surrendering money and assets for a 24-year-old fringe star hardly counts as short-circuiting the future.
Toronto Raptors: Spencer Dinwiddie (Player Option)
Pinpointing an ambitious free-agent target for the Toronto Raptors isn't a headache. It's a migraine.
Does Kyle Lowry stay? What does it mean if he leaves? Are they less likely to re-sign Gary Trent Jr.? More likely? What will they do with non-guaranteed salaries for Aron Baynes, Chris Boucher and Rodney Hood? Does team president Masai Ujiri come back? Do they rebuild if he leaves? Are they actually more likely to start over if he stays?
Lowry's future will be more than a determining factor than anything (I think). Using him as the Raptors' target makes me want to vomit, though. It infers he won't give them much of a thought in free agency. I'm not there yet.
Focusing on bigs doesn't do it for me, either. Khem Birch isn't re-signing for 120 percent of the minimum, but he shouldn't break the bank to keep. Toronto is also better off retaining Boucher and Baynes, not to mention use Pascal Siakam at the 5, rather than positioning itself to sign a big-money center who doesn't exist on this year's market. (I love you, Richaun Holmes.)
Spencer Dinwiddie works across most of the Raptors' offseason scenarios, save for the decision to rebuild. He's coming back from a torn right ACL, but that might actually make him more gettable. They can surely afford him if they operate with cap space should Lowry leave and they waive two from the Baynes-Boucher-Hood trio, but he's expendable enough to the Brooklyn Nets that sign-and-trade scenarios should be on the table if Lowry sticks around and the Raptors want to go for it.
Something like Hood and Baynes plus low-level draft equity actually makes sense for the Nets if Dinwiddie is expensive enough. For the Raptors, with or without Lowry, they could use a ball-handler who puts additional pressure on the rim, and nearly 40 percent of Dinwiddie's looks came at the basket in 2019-20. His ACL injury may bilk him of some speed, but he's always relied more on change of pace and direction than raw agility.
Utah Jazz: Otto Porter Jr.
Believe me, I did not venture into this exercise thinking Otto Porter Jr. would nab ambitious-target honors for even a single team, let alone two.
Blame the free-agent wing market. It is shallow—especially for teams without any real spending power.
Kudos to the Utah Jazz for reinvesting in its championship-contending core. They gave gargantuan extensions to Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell that kick in next season; paid serious money to reel in Bojan Bogdanovic and keep Jordan Clarkson; and unloaded significant assets to nab Mike Conley before the 2019-20 campaign. They are slated to pay the tax this year, no small feat for a small-market franchise.
Utah is also projected to pay it next season, depending on how much Conley costs in free agency. There's a chance the Jazz can dunk far enough beneath the apron to access the bigger mid-level exception, but it's more likely they enter the offseason in mini-MLE territory.
Porter is a natural candidate for their cash-strapped projection. They had interest in him during 2017 free agency and still need another bigger-wing defender (despite Bogdanovic doing the damn thing). Injuries and diminished shooting returns make Porter a risk, but the Jazz don't have the cash to actually lose huge. If he comes aboard, it'd be for mini-MLE money or less, with the intention of rebooting his value enough before his next foray into free agency.
Washington Wizards: Reggie Bullock
Reggie Bullock doesn't fit the bill for the Washington Wizards if they're planning to entertain Bradley Beal trades and a subsequent reset. They're not, according to The Athletic's Fred Katz, so their grandest ambitions should consist of signing a strong perimeter defender who can space the floor.
Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard better get in line. Plenty of other teams are in the same boat—too many—right down to Washington's budget. It has the non-taxpayer's mid-level and bi-annual exceptions at its disposal.
Dangling the MLE shouldn't be enough to pry Bullock from the New York Knicks, who have infinite cap space. But if they don't think he's worth around $10-plus million per year, or more likely, if they're dead set on keeping their books clear for 2022 free agency, the Wizards can distinguish themselves from the field with a four-year offer worth the full boat.
Not everyone will be comfortable giving the 30-year-old Bullock a four- or even three-season deal. That's the point. A longer-term commitment stands out.
Washington can do worse than gamble on a plug-and-play wing. Bullock shot 41 percent from long distance with the Knicks while spending more time guarding No. 1 options than anyone other than Elfrid Payton, per BBall Index.