Realistic Landing Spots Top Free Agents Should Avoid
Let's agree to stop lamenting the lack of star power in this year's NBA free-agency class. There will still be marquee names who both think about changing teams and actually do change teams. They just need to make sure they're avoiding pitfall alternatives.
That's where we come in.
Nobody asked for our help, but we're offering it anyway. We have isolated the biggest flight risks among the best free agents and cobbled together reasonably plausible destinations that don't profile as the cleanest on-court fit.
Singling out these awkward landing spots isn't meant as a potshot. There are just more sensible partnerships for each free agent to consider.
Taking stock of this year's free-agent landscape always lends itself to a modicum of disappointment. The Association's summertime festivities are a caps-lock, italics, bold-text event every year because of the potential for marquee names to leave incumbent digs and play elsewhere.
This offseason's crop of available players is lighter than usual on those red-carpet relocations. Extensions for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Jrue Holiday, LeBron James, etc. obliterated free agency's star power, and the pool is further thinned out by headlining talents who aren't genuine flight risks.
The latter factored into which names are selected here. The following players seem overwhelmingly unlikely to leave their current squads:
- John Collins (restricted): Is Atlanta really going to let him walk?
- Kawhi Leonard (player option): Would he leave the team he chose to join in 2019 without any clear-cut upgrade in situation or fit on the market?
- Chris Paul (player option): Why flee a team you handpicked as a trade destination that made the Finals (and could very well win)?
Maybe one, two or all of these players wind up forcing their way to a different squad. Yours truly will apologize if and when that becomes the case. For now, their exits don't seem worth discussing.
Lonzo Ball: Dallas Mavericks
Restricted free agents worth a damn aren't typically flight risks. Incumbent teams can match whatever offers they receive, and franchises aren't in the business of letting valuable early 20-somethings leave for nothing.
Lonzo Ball is at once the rule and the exception. The Athletic's Sam Amick noted back in March that Lonzo is hoping to secure $20 million annually in his next deal. He might get it. He averaged 15.3 points and 6.0 assists while hitting 39.8 percent of his 8.6 three-point attempts per game after his name ambled into the early-season trade talk.
Ponying up that much for Lonzo leaves the New Orleans Pelicans facing luxury-tax concerns if they don't cut money elsewhere or let restricted free agent Josh Hart walk for nothing. Rising roster costs could convince them to flinch at the most expensive bids or travel great lengths to work with Lonzo on sign-and-trade scenarios.
Either way, whether Lonzo is inking an offer sheet as leverage or actually trying to orchestrate his exit from New Orleans, he's better off steering clear of the Dallas Mavericks.
His fit beside Luka Doncic would be partially divine. He can rain wide-open threes off Doncic's bullying drives. But the Mavericks need a second primary shot creator more than anything. Anyone they pay $20 million or more per year will be saddled with a lion's share of that workload. That isn't Lonzo's game.
Defenses don't yet have to meticulously plan against his off-the-dribble jumper, and he isn't an aggressive downhill attacker. Among everyone who finished 200 drives this season, his 37.9 percent clip in those situations ranked 163rd. The Mavs' half-court attack would run into problems during the minutes he logs without Doncic, and his overall playmaking will be capped unless they commit to getting out in transition after ranking dead last in transition frequency this past season. (Perhaps head coach Rick Carlisle's departure changes that by default.)
Dallas would be wise to funnel its cap space—up to $30-plus million if they renounce all its own free agents and Josh Richardson declines his player option—into other names for these same reasons. But the market isn't brimming with alternatives. Miss on Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry, and the well quickly dries up. And with Doncic about to sign a max extension, this is the last offseason in which they can tout mega flexibility for some time. They might be inclined to make a splash simply because they can. Lonzo should just try to ensure he's not it.
Mike Conley: New York Knicks
Mike Conley almost crept into the list of exclusions. The Utah Jazz just finished with the best regular-season record and seem prepared to do—read:pay—whatever it takes to keep him, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick.
Still, Conley turns 34 in October, and the opportunity to go down as a one-franchise player evaporated when the Memphis Grizzlies traded him. He may be more open to leaving Utah, particularly if he doesn't see a ready-made path for the Jazz to break through the Western Conference's postseason gauntlet.
Gauging the New York Knicks' interest feels like a no-brainer. They have needed a point guard for roughly forever, can have league-best cap space if they please and are coming off a season in which they shattered win-loss expectations and laid the foundation of an actual, appealing-to-the-outside-eye culture.
And yet, joining the Knicks is akin to signing up for an all-everythingish role. This isn't a "Tom Thibodeau is anti-cartilage" joke—though, soon-to-be 34-year-olds should most definitely consider whether they're up to playing 38-plus minutes during a mid-February regular-season game. This is more about the fragility of New York's most recent success story.
Julius Randle's ascendance is authentic, and RJ Barrett flashed legitimate and substantive improvement at both ends of the floor. The Knicks don't have any sustainable go-tos aside from them. And this presumes Randle's career year is even replicable. Second-team All-NBA is a lofty standard by which to measure him going forward. If he's even fractionally worse than, say, one of the league's 25 to 30 best players, New York's ecosystem will struggle to survive.
Propping up an entire offense isn't Conley's wheelhouse. It could have been at one time; Memphis just seldom used him in that way. But now? Going on 34? After missing a combined 46 regular-season games, plus some playoff time, over the past two years while dealing with knee and hamstring issues? Pass.
Maybe the Knicks come in with the best, most lucrative offer. Whatever. Conley will have other cap-space squads offering him a small ransom, not to mention his own team. He is better off landing somewhere he won't potentially have to serve as the be-all setup man or crunch-time engine.
DeMar DeRozan: L.A. Lakers
DeMar DeRozan isn't landing with the Los Angeles Lakers unless he accepts a massive pay cut or he works out a sign-and-trade with the San Antonio Spurs. The latter feels eminently feasible.
San Antonio is approaching a semi-organic reset point with DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all hitting the open market. Leaning into a fuller-scale youth movement has its merits, and Los Angeles can build prospective packages around Kyle Kuzma, short-term salary fodder and the No. 22 pick (after the draft) to both make the money work and whet the Spurs' whistle.
The Lakers likewise have ample reasons to angle for a bigger free-agency swing. Chief among them: They still need supplementary playmakers and shot creators. Dennis Schroder has so far not looked like the answer.
DeRozan, in theory, addresses that need. He has played like a floor general since before getting traded from the Toronto Raptors, which uniquely qualifies him to spearhead the LeBron James-less lineups that have ranked inside the 25th and 19th percentiles, respectively, in half-court efficiency over the past two years
At the same time, DeRozan's recent success—he averaged 21.6 points and 6.9 assists on 59.1 true shooting last season—has been predicated on the Spurs surrounding him with just enough spacing and off-ball weapons to accentuate his inside-the-arc proclivities.
Even if DeRozan can adequately float no-LeBron units, he'd still have to grapple with minimum breathing room in starter-heavy arrangements that, based off how the past two seasons have played out, will include Anthony Davis alongside another big. Unless the Lakers noticeably change up the supporting cast, he should seek out a destination better suited to maximizing his offensive armory.
Spencer Dinwiddie: Miami Heat
Teams willing to look past Spencer Dinwiddie's recovery from a partially right torn ACL stand to get one of the league's more understated initiators. He keeps defenses on tilt with varying cadence and directions, has the vision to pilot lineups devoid of other playmakers and manufactures easy offense with his rim pressure and the shooting fouls that come with it.
Operating in tandem with other ball-handlers is also not out of the question. Dinwiddie is a shaky shooter (career 31.8 percent from three), but he has done it often in Brooklyn. He just needs room to maneuver.
And right now, the Miami Heat don't have it.
Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler combined to shoot 24.5 percent from three (27-of-110) last season, and both posted an effective field-goal percentage south of 46 on all jumpers. Dinwiddie brings a lot of the offensive qualities the Heat could use to soup-up their attack in the event their cap space—a little over $20 million projected—cannot bag glitzier names, but the offensive dynamics between he and their two best players would be murky at best and unworkable at worst.
None of this matters if Miami doesn't show interest. But we know it'll look to go big-game hunting. In this market, Dinwiddie qualifies.
For his part, though, he needs to end up somewhere that forecasts as a less complicated offensive fit. In other words: somewhere he doesn't have to spend so much time off the ball.
Kyle Lowry: Philadelphia 76ers
Kyle Lowry's fit with the Philadelphia 76ers hits the right functional and emotional notes. They need someone through whom they can run a portion of the crunch-time offense, and he is from Philly. This should be a Utopian fit.
And if we were turning back time to the March 25 trade deadline, it would be. But getting Lowry to the Sixers now requires too much collateral damage.
Signing him outright is off the table. Philly has only the mini mid-level exception ($5.9 million) to throw at him. Acquiring him demands a sign-and-trade, and while the Raptors should be amenable after nearly moving him in March, the Sixers' financials make the transaction virtually impossible.
Getting Lowry would hard cap them at the $143 million apron. They already owe over $100 million combined to Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons. Paying Lowry between $20 and $25 million as part of a sign-and-trade leaves them with $120 to $125 million committed to just four players. This number climbs to $128 to $128 to $133 million if you factor in Seth Curry, and that isn't enough room below the hard cap with which to work.
Cutting costs via possible trades with the Raptors isn't a realistic proposition. The Sixers will struggle to find salary-matching tools unless they guarantee George Hill's salary or send out one of Harris or Simmons. If you're Toronto, why take back Harris? If you're Philly, you can't jettison Simmons and only get back Lowry.
The Sixers can always aim for a three-team scenario that simultaneously reroutes Simmons for other players and assets while increasing their wiggle room beneath the hard cap. At that point, though, should Lowry really tether what's left of his post-prime peak to a team overhauling its roster or further short-circuiting its depth—especially when the health of Philly's best player remains something of a day-to-day mystery box?