The Ideal Free Agent for Every Eliminated NBA Playoff Team
Though the NBA postseason marches on, thirteen clubs have already been sent home through the play-in and first round. Clearly, all of them need some roster work in order to better compete for a championship in the future, or else they'd still be competing.
Some of these teams need to make larger changes than others, but all of them can work towards addressing their flaws in free agency. As ever, role players make just as much of a difference in free agency as the stars. Just look at Jae Crowder draining threes in Phoenix or Danilo Gallinari shining in Atlanta.
So, for fans of these teams who are already looking towards the 2021-22 season, let's get a jump-start on offseason previews by spotlighting one impending free agent who'd be an ideal fit with each roster. Who knows, perhaps this one simple addition could be the difference between stagnation and winning a series.
Boston Celtics: Nemanja Bjelica
The Celtics have already undergone major overhaul after a disappointing season, moving Brad Stevens into the front office and saying goodbye to longtime executive Danny Ainge. Stevens now has to search for his replacement, and it appears he'll be trying to find a trade partner for Kemba Walker as well.
But while all of those aforementioned moves are meaningful, they do also feel like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. At the most basic level, Boston struggled last season because it lacked many NBA rotation-caliber players, so adding some of those in free agency should be a high priority this summer.
As a team without much cap space, the Celtics have to be incredibly judicious about who they pursue this summer, but Nemanja Bjelica seems like a good place to start. This is the same team that just played Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson together in 30 games, so they clearly need frontcourt spacing, and the Serbian provides that.
Though Bjelica struggled in 37 games this year with Sacramento and Miami, he stands 610" and is a career 38.7 percent shooter from range, a rare combination of height and distance accuracy. This is a good destination from Bjelica's perspective too, as he could regain his footing in a competent organization, assuming the front office hires a well-prepared coach.
Obviously, this potential signing isn't setting the Eastern Conference ablaze, but the Celtics have to start somewhere, and here's as good a place as any.
Charlotte Hornets: Richaun Holmes
With LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Devonte Graham set at guard and Gordon Hayward, Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington manning the forward spots, you have to imagine the Hornets will focus on acquiring a center this offseason. And while they're likely hoping for a few lucky bounces and USC's Evan Mobley, the odds of that occurring are long, so focusing on the free agent market is a more sound strategy.
Though he's coming off a career year and both player and team have said the right things, Richaun Holmes' future in Sacramento seems tenuous. Per James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area, the big man is requesting a contract around four years and $80 million. Those particular terms might be an overpay, but even a slightly smaller deal would put the Kings over the cap. Seeing as how Sacramento is not close to contention, paying the luxury tax next year would be a major unforced error, so Holmes' departure, unfortunately for Kings fans, seems likely.
However, with Ball, Graham, Bridges and Washington all still on rookie contracts, the Hornets aren't as cash-strapped, and look ready to take the next step towards contention. Adding Holmes wouldn't vault this team straight into playoff mainstay territory, but his ferocity around the rim, neverending motor and winning mentality would surely rub off on the Hornets the way that LaMelo's exciting passing did last season.
This time next year, they might be threatening a contender ahead of schedule like the Hawks are now.
Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
As the Mavericks' first-round series with the Clippers wound down, Luka Doncic's supporting cast—most notably Kristaps Porzingis—largely failed him. However, if anybody besides Luka deserves praise for their performance against Los Angeles, it should be Tim Hardaway Jr.
Is Hardaway a perfect player? No. He wasn't even very good defensively against the Clippers, getting absolutely smoked by their various talented scorers. But the shooting guard was able to stay on the court because he lived up to his positional description and shot the lights out.
The Michigan alum hoisted more threes than anybody on either team besides Doncic and actually increased his efficiency from beyond the arc compared to the regular season, making 40.4 percent from distance in the seven-game series against a 39.1 percent showing in the 2020-21 campaign. Though Hardaway was fairly good in last year's bubble playoffs against the Clippers as well, this was a very clear improvement and bodes well for his future in Dallas.
The Mavericks have some work to do this offseason. Rumblings of a Kemba Walker-for-Porzingis deal are interesting in theory, and finding a taker for Josh Richardson should also be on GM Donnie Nelson's to-do list. But re-signing Hardaway must be a top priority in Dallas. He's become a fairly dependable secondary option, and considering how shaky many of the Mavericks' players looked in the playoffs, the team should lock up the few incumbent players who already fit with Luka.
Denver Nuggets: Alec Burks
Chalking up the Nuggets' sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns to injuries and general exhaustion from an extra short offseason is reasonable. That's not an excuse for GM Tim Connelly to maintain the status quo, though. We saw throughout the Western Conference Semifinals just how few players on Denver's roster were capable of generating offense beyond Nikola Jokic and (occasionally) Michael Porter Jr., and Jamal Murray's eventual return next spring won't solve that gaping hole entirely.
The Nuggets' starting lineup shouldn't be altered, but they do need to upgrade their bench guard spots. With Murray and Will Barton out for the first two games of the Conference Semifinals, rookie Facundo Campazzo and newly-acquired Austin Rivers were slotted into the starting lineup, and that is unacceptable for a playoff matchup.
Alec Burks, on the other hand, feels a little more respectable. After injuries derailed the first few years of his career, the off-guard has found his niche as a second-unit gunner, recently posting a career-best effective field goal percentage for the upstart Knicks and posting their best playoffs net rating swing among rotation players by a country mile. He's also well-versed in the off-ball actions necessary to excel next to Jokic and Murray, grading out well in spot-up, cutter and handoff play-types this season.
With major extensions potentially in line for Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson over the next few seasons, Burks might be a cap casualty in the Big Apple. If he indeed is, Denver must swoop on in and add him to its battle-tested rotation.
Golden State Warriors: Trevor Ariza
Stephen Curry's last two months were undeniably thrilling, but the fact that his heroics failed to result in a playoff berth underscores the ticking clock on Golden State's window to win its fourth title of the decade. Klay Thompson's return will be emotional and exciting, but his form is very much a question, while players like Andrew Wiggins and James Wiseman aren't centerpieces of a contender.
Unless the Warriors luck into a top-five pick, the future is murky, so they should commit to making the most of their future Hall of Famers' remaining prime years.
Golden State's young role players impressed over the last weeks of the regular season, but to maximize its chances of title contention, the franchise should pursue battle-tested veterans this offseason. Ariza, of course, fits that description. He's made the playoffs 10 times in 17 years, winning the 2009 title with Kobe Bryant's Lakers, and is extremely proven and respected.
Despite taking nearly a year off from NBA basketball, the 35-year-old was third on the Heat in net rating this season while guarding everybody from Damian Lillard to Myles Turner. Though not as spry as the Warriors' erstwhile wing defenders, Ariza could approximate the Kevin Durants and Andre Iguodalas of old while benefiting greatly from Curry and Thompson's offensive magnetism as well.
The Warriors' 2021-22 season depends on Thompson's health more than anything else, but considering how much younger the supporting cast has become since the 2019 Finals, adding some wisdom to the roster is necessary.
Indiana Pacers: Tony Snell
We still have yet to see the new-and-improved Pacers in full, as T.J. Warren suffered a stress fracture in his foot after just four games and the team acquired Caris LeVert in the James Harden deal. A potential lineup featuring Malcolm Brogdon, LeVert, Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner has pretty high potential.
But Warren's absence exposed an alarmingly shallow bench. By the end of the season, fringe NBA players like Goga Bitadze, Kelan Martin and JaKarr Sampson were getting rotation minutes, and though Indiana nearly made the playoffs anyway, it'll need more stability off the pine to make any noise in the postseason.
With the small-market Pacers likely unable to lure any marquee free agents, they should focus on known quantities, of which Tony Snell is one. For someone who's started nearly 300 games in his NBA career, Snell flies awfully under the radar, but there's a reason why teams continue to sign him despite uninspiring stats—he plays within himself and contributes to winning.
For instance, on a youthful Atlanta Hawks team decimated by injuries, Snell stepped up, starting 23 games, shooting 56.9 percent from three on 2.3 attempts per game, and shadowing players as varied as Damian Lillard, Duncan Robinson and Michael Porter Jr. (to varying degrees of success, admittedly). Asking him to start full-time probably won't end well if you're trying to contend for anything serious, but on this Pacers team, Snell would be an eighth or ninth man, and could thrive in that situation.
Los Angeles Lakers: Alex Caruso
Sure, the Lakers underachieved on a surface level. Going home in the first round months after winning a title isn't ideal. But for all we know, it was just the combination of injuries and an unusually short offseason that did this team in.
The front office will likely pursue flashy trades and free agents because that's the expectation for the NBA's flagship franchise, but it should also take steps to reestablish the Lakers' defense-first identity which was so powerful in the bubble. One way to do that is to recommit to a beloved role player.
We're way past the point where Alex Caruso is a semi-ironic fan favorite. The guard established himself as a rotation member during the 2020 title run and remains integral to Frank Vogel's team, particularly on the defensive end. The 27-year-old's surprising athleticism has also been well-documented, and he's a career 37.7 percent three-point shooter. In other words, Caruso does everything you want from a bench guard.
Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer recently reported that the Lakers believe Caruso will re-sign because he loves playing with LeBron, and while such unprompted bravado is typical of the Purple and Gold, an extension does make sense for both sides. Los Angeles can recommit to this current core, and Caruso can extend his legacy as a Derek Fisher-esque mainstay alongside the franchise's stars.
The Bald Mamba was already vital to one title pursuit, and it would be exciting to see him continue making clutch plays.
Memphis Grizzlies: Duncan Robinson
Though they were thumped by the Jazz in five games, the Memphis Grizzlies should feel great about their team. Led by Ja Morant, they defeated Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in a winner-take-all scenario, stole Game 1 in Utah and were competitive in several eventual first-round losses. For a team that's among the youngest in the NBA, you can't ask for much more in a playoff debut.
One particularly exciting aspect of this current Grizzlies group is that so many of their most promising players are on rookie contracts. Between Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman and De'Anthony Melton, GM Zach Kleiman has assembled a deep young core. Among other things, this means that there's cap space to burn and big-name free agents to pursue.
Though he's expected to earn over $20 million annually on his next deal, Duncan Robinson would be a fantastic get. He'd be a clean fit in Memphis, providing elite spacing next to Morant— a subpar shooter— while competing hard on defense and bringing the Heat's rigorous training to a Grizzlies organization that's known for embracing such hard-nosed principles.
Is there positional overlap between Robinson and Dillon Brooks? Perhaps. But while Brooks proved his worth to this franchise over the past few months, he'll need to stop fouling willy-nilly to be his best self. Robinson's already there, though, and could provide invaluable leadership on and off the court to this burgeoning contender.
Miami Heat: Otto Porter Jr.
After turning back into a pumpkin against the Bucks, the Heat need some roster overhaul if they want to win another title before Pat Riley retires. And since it's foolish to even dream about Kawhi Leonard's offseason plans, Miami can look for low-risk, high-reward players instead, one of whom is Otto Porter Jr.
Given that Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala are both free agents and each is at least 35 years old, Miami will need a new 3-and-D wing very soon, and it should pursue a short term deal with Porter as a replacement.
It seems like a long time ago at this point, but Porter was once one of the league's rising two-way wings. Over his last two full seasons with the Wizards, the Georgetown alum averaged 14.1 points per game on 50.9 percent overall shooting while leading the team in defensive rating during the 2017-18 campaign. His career has gotten waylaid through injuries and less-than-generous team situations in Chicago and Orlando since departing the District, but that only makes the Heat a more sensible landing spot.
Get Porter healthy, training in Miami's famously regimented system, and watch him return to form as an elite shooting, hard-nosed defending wing, increasing the team's offensive margin for error and teaming with Jimmy Butler as one of the NBA's pre-eminent defensive wing duos. If he can do that, then perhaps a more appealing long-term deal is in the cards for the 28-year-old, from the Heat or anybody else.
New York Knicks: Dennis Schroder
Dennis Schroder's relationship with the Lakers turned frosty after he rejected a contract extension, and after the point guard underperformed against the Warriors and Suns in the playoffs, it probably hasn't improved. Los Angeles may want to keep him, given that LeBron James is aging and it has no other starting-caliber point guards on the roster, but Schroder has stated that he'd like a “fair deal.” Language like that usually suggests a player who doesn't leave much room for negotiation.
Enter the league's other biggest market.
Though the Knicks are coming off a subpar postseason showing, let's not forget how impressive they were at every point prior to the playoffs. Schroder might not be the franchise point guard that fans have been dreaming about for decades, but he's clearly an upgrade over the Elfrid Payton/Derrick Rose/Immanuel Quickley trio from a playmaking perspective and can split time on the ball with Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.
This fit really hinges on spacing, as Schroder's been wildly inconsistent from distance throughout his career, but if New York looks more like the sweet-shooting club that ranked third in three-point efficiency this regular season and less like the one that shot 34.2 percent from three against the Hawks, then that weakness can be minimized.
Historically, Schroder has been more effective as one of several playmakers on a team rather than the primary one. Signing with the Knicks would fit the former mold, and hopefully put him in a position to succeed.
Portland Trail Blazers: Torrey Craig
Like with the Celtics and a few other teams here, big changes might be on the horizon for the Blazers. After their second consecutive first-round exit and fifth in seven years, coach Terry Stotts was recently let go, and Damian Lillard has been outspoken (though not effectively) in the days since the team's elimination.
However, considering the team's small-market status and lack of salary cap space, these potential franchise-changing moves are likely to occur either via a trade of CJ McCollum or Jusuf Nurkic or through Jody Allen finally selling the franchise. So, we're digging pretty deep to find a meaningful free agent.
After starting the year deep on the Bucks' bench, Torrey Craig was traded to the Suns at the trade deadline and quickly emerged. He's got Phoenix's second-best defensive rating during the playoffs, a better playoff net rating than Devin Booker, and is relentless on both ends (why was he out of the rotation in Milwaukee?). Craig isn't exactly an offensive star, but if the Blazers signed him, he'd benefit from being in Lillard's orbit while shadowing the opponent's best scorer. Think an even lower-maintenance version of Robert Covington or Moe Harkless.
After breaking out for the Suns, it would make sense for them to keep Craig. He's exactly the kind of role player that makes a difference in the pursuit of a title. But if they decide to let him go for whatever reason, then the Blazers should be first in line to sign the veteran stopper.
San Antonio Spurs: Lauri Markkanen
The Spurs have already been linked to Lauri Markkanen, and such a move would make sense for both sides. After breaking out early in his career, Markkanen has been passed over in the Bulls' big man rotation by Nikola Vucevic, Patrick Williams and Thaddeus Young, while San Antonio's only big man of note is Jakob Poeltl, a non-shooter. For a player in need of greener pastures and a team looking to finally reload after several years of fringe playoff status, this is a perfect marriage.
One of the reasons why the Spurs have been so successful under Gregg Popovich's leadership is that he is excellent at highlighting players' strengths and minimizing their weaknesses, prior expectations be damned. In the case of Markkanen, this could mean that Popovich doesn't see a former seventh overall pick who once headlined a trade for Jimmy Butler; he sees a sniper who opens up the court for Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson.
And to the 24-year-old's credit, he took this year's demotion in stride, posting a career-best effective field goal percentage despite rumors of unhappiness and a rather inconsistent roster. Markkanen still might consider himself an NBA starter, but it does seem like he's now trying to find his best possible role rather than attempting to fulfill top-10, franchise player-level potential.
Between Popovich's coaching strength and Markkanen's recent willingness to make the best of a tough situation, all signs point to this being a relatively seamless fit.
Washington Wizards: T.J. McConnell
Though they were significantly better than the 2019-20 team on defense, the Washington Wizards still need major help on that end. Acquiring Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline was a step in the right direction, but they can't rely so heavily on his rim protection. The perimeter defense still needs to be addressed.
Much like Alex Caruso, T.J. McConnell started his career as a cult hero, winning the hearts of countless Philadelphians during the heyday of the 76ers' Process years, but has progressed from that status to being a valued contributor on both ends. McConnell usually ranks among the league's best in assist-turnover ratio, recording 3.38 dimes for every miscue this season, and recently became a top-tier on-ball pest as well.
The Arizona alum ranked second in the NBA in steals per game and even became the sixth player ever to manage a points/assists/steals triple-double this season, joining players like Clyde Drexler and Kevin Johnson in the hallowed club. McConnell isn't much of a shooter, which is somewhat problematic here given that the Wizards are well below-average in that department, but at least he knows his strengths and plays to them at all times.
With Ish Smith and Raul Neto both impending free agents, Washington will be looking for Russell Westbrook's backup this offseason. If the team chooses to browse the open market rather than drafting that player, then McConnell's high basketball IQ and unceasing motor make him the best available option.