1 Ambitious Free-Agent Target for Every NBA TeamMay 10, 2022
1 Ambitious Free-Agent Target for Every NBA Team
This summer's NBA free-agency class doesn't lend itself to grand ambitions. Genuine star power is in short supply, and you can count the number of teams with access to max spending power on one hand.
We're taking the reins of each team and swinging for the fences anyway.
Do not confuse "ambitious" in this case to mean "every squad should pursue paths to signing Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine or Deandre Ayton." This brand of keyboard GMing aims to balance aggression with feasibility.
Free-agent targets will be suggested relative to each team's cap sheet, roster needs and stylistic leanings. Suitors with meaningful space will for the most part be tethered to big names, because such cases are so few we need—we must—make the most of them. Pretty much everybody else will be shopping on the margins with the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.3 million), mini mid-level exception ($6.4 million), bi-annual exception ($4.1 million) or lesser offers.
Incumbent free agents will not be eligible for this exercise. That's not as fun. But presumed commitments to players who teams want back will absolutely factor into their spending power and, therefore, the outside free agent chosen for them.
Atlanta Hawks: Victor Oladipo
Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk sounds like someone ready to shake up a roster he largely kept intact last offseason. The most substantive of those changes, though, will have to come via trade(s).
Kevin Huerter and Trae Young will be entering the first year of their respective extensions next season. Even if the Hawks waive Danilo Gallinari ($5 million guaranteed), they'll be working with the nontaxpayer mid-level. The math gets tighter if they hold onto him for salary-matching purposes on the trade market, or if they're married to bringing back Delon Wright.
Victor Oladipo is probably the ceiling on Atlanta's talent acquisition. His injury history is no doubt troublesome; he's averaged under 25 appearances per season over the past four years. But he's shown flashes of being the same downhill threat and capable defender since returning from his most recent right leg issue.
Slotting him alongside Young serves dual purposes. Oladipo's defensive peak is still useful (just ask James Harden), and he invites the Hawks to get their megastar floor general moving off the ball in the minutes they log together.
Clamor for higher-end (or historically healthier) options if you please. They aren't in Atlanta's price bracket. Oladipo is high-risk, high-reward and, equally important, presumably lower cost.
Boston Celtics: Ricky Rubio
Outfitting the Boston Celtics with a more quote-unquote traditional point guard isn't totally necessary. Jayson Tatum and a healthy Marcus Smart do a good job running the offense, and the meat and potatoes of the rotation is loaded with high-IQ talent and understated tertiary passers.
Some extra direction still couldn't hurt, and offensive-stewardship-on-the-potential-cheap doesn't get much better than Ricky Rubio.
Latching on to a 31-year-old who just tore his left ACL for the second time in his career carries implicit risk. In this case, it's also the entire point.
Boston won't have access to the bigger mid-level exception unless it waives and stretches the $14.5 million guarantee on Al Horford's 2022-23 salary. But he has become so valuable on both sides of the floor and could plausibly see his guarantee increase to $19.5 million if the Celtics win this year's title. There's a very real chance they just keep his entire $26.5 million expiring contract on the books.
Dependable playmakers seldom cost under $7 million per year, but Rubio's timeline for return remains unclear. He had surgery at the end of December. A nine-month recovery would put him back in September—right around training camp. The Celtics are among the potential suitors who can slow-play his integration. And while he wouldn't do anything for their floor spacing, his passing on the move fits what they need, and his defensive activity fits what they've already built.
Brooklyn Nets: Pat Connaughton (Player Option)
Close your eyes and point at a quality free agent. You'll probably land on someone considered an ambitious target for the Brooklyn Nets.
Team governor Joseph Tsai just shelled out more than $260 million in player salary and luxury-tax payments for a squad that got unequivocally trucked in the first round. You're not obligated to pinch pennies for billionaires, but finances are part of team-building alchemy. Will he allow Brooklyn to continue spending haphazardly? Especially when Kyrie Irving (player option) could be on course for a raise?
Whatever their spending power, the Nets need to prioritize players who leave their mark on both ends of the court. I'm steering clear of bigs for this exercise. Brooklyn can and should re-sign Nicolas Claxton and has a tantalizing prospect in Day'Ron Sharpe.
Shoring up the perimeter is a bigger deal. Ben Simmons just had back surgery and won't have played NBA basketball in over a year by the time next season tips off. A healthy Joe Harris and Kevin Durant can be rock solid-to-better defenders but aren't every-possession stoppers. Bruce Brown, a free agent himself, cannot be your primary safety net.
Pat Connaughton would add some much-needed defensive depth without compromising the offensive structure. The Milwaukee Bucks have used him to guard four positions, and he's shooting 38.5 percent from deep over the past two years while showcasing intuitive off-ball movement.
Granted, Connaughton's player option complicates matters. Next season's $5.7 million salary is right in line with what should be his per-year market. But opting out allows him to broker a longer-term deal that guarantees more money.
Charlotte Hornets: Nicolas Claxton (Restricted)
Operation "Sign a Legitimate Center Already, Dammit!" is off and running for the Charlotte Hornets.
Adding a marquee big will require an all-in trade. This year's crop of free-agent centers is devoid of entrenched or could-be stars aside from Deandre Ayton, and Charlotte will only have the non-taxpayer mid-level to burn.
Bagging Nicolas Claxton at or below that $10.3 million starting point would be a massive victory. He isn't a defensive system unto himself, but he's a nuisance around the basket, and his comfort guarding on the perimeter is almost unparalleled for a big.
Out of 82 players standing 6'10" or taller who logged at least 100 minutes this season, just Franz Wagner spent a larger share of his defensive possessions on point guards, according to BBall Index. Last year, Claxton finished No. 2 among 85 players meeting the same criteria, trailing only Ben Simmons.
Some might bemoan the 23-year-old's lackluster rebounding. That's fair. It also comes with the territory of spending so much time defending away from the basket. More to the point, the Hornets aren't going to cure everything that ails their defense with one player, not even if that player is Rudy Gobert. And they certainly aren't unearthing a panacea at $10 million or less per year.
Whether the Brooklyn Nets let Claxton walk for MLE money is a matter of course. They might. Next season's tax bill is once again through the roof, and Claxton hasn't exactly been a billboard for every-night availability over the past three years.
Chicago Bulls: P.J. Tucker (Player Option)
Pretty please, with sugar on top, remember the spirit of this exercise. If poaching P.J. Tucker from the Miami Heat doesn't qualify as ambitious for a team without operable cap space, then what does?
Chief among the Chicago Bulls' extensive list of needs is wing depth, accessory shooting and better backup-center minutes. Tucker effectively addresses all three. He remains a borderline every-position defender, drilled 41.5 percent of his threes this season and can sponge up reps as a small-ball 5. The Miami Heat even have him making actual decisions with the ball on offense.
Prying him away from an organization captained by Pat Riley is a harrowing endeavor. There's also no guarantee a 37-year-old Tucker turns down a $7.4 million player option. But his short-term market should be around the non-taxpayer MLE after all he did for the Heat this season.
Chicago can separate itself by dangling the entire thing. Miami may not do the same. It already has big money devoted to Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson, with a pricey extension for Tyler Herro on deck.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Gary Harris
Plenty of people will push for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land another floor general to deploy behind Darius Garland. Friend-of-the-franchise Ricky Rubio just so happens to be available, too.
Neither Collin Sexton (restricted) nor Caris LeVert checks the primary-playmaker box. They do, however, exist. And if both of them are back next season, Cleveland shouldn't be devoting a lion's share, let alone all, of its non-taxpayer mid-level on a backup for Garland.
That money should be earmarked for a wing who can open space in the half court. Gary Harris fits that bill once more. He's coming off a bounce-back year for the Orlando Magic in which he downed 38.4 percent of his threes, finished at an above-average rate on cuts and converted nearly 50 percent of his looks on drives.
At least one contender will be offering him the entire mini mid-level. (Sup, Denver Nuggets?) The Cavs will have the bigger MLE even if they pay a small ransom for Sexton. Harris' plunging outside clip in recent years might leave them wary, but he offsets some of the concern as a pesky on-ball defender across the 1, 2 and 3 spots.
Dallas Mavericks: Isaiah Hartenstein
Dreaming any bigger doesn't track with the Dallas Mavericks' cap sheet. They forecast as a luxury-tax team next season without baking in a monumental raise for Jalen Brunson. Their wish list must top out at players who can be nabbed for the mini mid-level exception, if not the bi-annual exception.
Dallas can count itself lucky if Hartenstein falls within this range. It's hard to believe he was at one time fighting for a roster spot with the L.A. Clippers. And no, this isn't the benefit of hindsight at play. His passing, in-between touch and defensive awareness away from the ball were on full display with Cleveland to finish 2020-21.
Hartenstein proceeded to up the ante with the Clippers. They experimented with some outside shooting and expanded his decision-making responsibility within the second unit. The added workload looked good on him.
Opponents shot 47.5 percent against him at the rim—the stingiest mark among 163 players to challenge at least 150 point-blank attempts. And his 19.3 assist rate ranked sixth among all centers who averaged 15 or more minutes per game.
The Mavs might prefer more of a vertical lob threat and generational defensive anchor alongside Luka Doncic. (Cough, Rudy Gobert, cough.) But Hartenstein can finish alley-oops, even if he's not dunking them, and dropped in over 59 percent of his floaters with the Clippers for good measure. He's an upgrade over Dwight Powell who won't break Dallas' (shallow) bank of trade assets.
Denver Nuggets: Bruce Brown
Putting Gary Harris here is fair. Attempting to reel him in with the mini mid-level registers as ambitious after the season he just put together. But it's a little less aggressive for the Denver Nuggets. He has a preexisting relationship with the franchise—and established, next-level synergy with Nikola Jokic.
Bruce Brown is the loftier target, in no small part because he covers a larger portion of the positional assembly line. He spent almost equal time covering 1s, 2s and 3s this season while more than dabbling in reps against 4s and some 5s, according to BBall Index.
Working him into the rotation would provide relief for the perpetually overextended Aaron Gordon. It would also tighten up the units that try to get away with Jeff Green or Zeke Nnaji at center.
Denver's interest in Brown might waver if it doesn't buy into this season's 40.4 percent clip from deep. That efficiency came on just 94 attempts, more than two-thirds of which went completely uncontested. The Nuggets can get over any skepticism. A healthy Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. mitigate any congestion, and Brown counteracts outside limitations with eyes-wide-open passing and rebounding that belies his size.
Detroit Pistons: Anfernee Simons (Restricted)
Sorry, Detroit Pistons. You have very little say in this matter. You're in line for nearly $27 million in cap space, with the potential to drum up outright max room, making you the second-most flexible team of the summer.
Rules dictate you must be linked to one of the few mega-expensive free agents.
Others will plop Deandre Ayton (restricted) or Miles Bridges (restricted) into this spot. The Pistons' lottery odds won't let me. They have a 40.1 percent chance of landing a top-three pick and the big-man prospect that is overwhelmingly likely to come with it.
Finding a primary scorer on Cade Cunningham's timeline will be the bigger difference-maker. Anfernee Simons is a near-perfect fit—and not just because basically everyone is a near-perfect fit alongside Cunningham.
Simons has ample experience playing both on and away from the ball and is coming off a caps-lock BREAKOUT campaign. The Portland Trail Blazers transitioned him into more of a fulcrum role midway through December, and he responded by averaging 20.7 points and 4.9 assists while burying 41.4 percent of his 9.8 three-point attempts over the course of his final 35 games.
Bringing Simons to Detroit won't be cheap. The Blazers can match any offer he receives and have every reason to after shipping out CJ McCollum and Norman Powell. But the Pistons can make the decision uncomfortable by shedding some payroll.
This isn't as reckless as it sounds. Simons doesn't turn 23 until June. Either the Pistons get their backcourt running mate of the future for Cunningham, or they inflate Portland's cost of talent retention at a time when Damian Lillard's long-term future with the franchise feels at least somewhat unsettled.
Golden State Warriors: Caleb Martin (Restricted)
Bargain-bin contracts have played a pivotal role in shaping the Golden State Warriors' rotation. They now risk losing a bunch of them.
Andre Iguodala, Damion Lee, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson are on minimum deals and slated for free agency. Golden State only has full Bird rights on Lee, and with no more than the taxpayer mid-level to spare, it's especially vulnerable to losing GP2 and Otto.
Caleb Martin can help fill whatever void is left on the perimeter or elevate a wing rotation untouched. He is a mission-critical part of the Miami Heat's buzz-saw bench, routinely picking up the toughest defensive assignments across all non-center slots while rounding out his offensive game to become the consummate complement. His 70 percent clip at the rim was a career high and included a 55.1 percent conversion rate on drives, and he buried 41.3 percent of his 155 three-point attempts.
Various other teams can offer Martin more money. That includes the Heat. They don't have his Bird rights, but Martin's first-year max salary tops out at the non-taxpayer mid-level. Miami should have enough breathing room beneath the apron to go that high unless it needs to fork over a ton of money for Victor Oladipo and P.J. Tucker (player option).
That could absolutely happen. Or the Heat could be scared off by the prospect of tacking Tyler Herro's extension onto salaries for Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson in the coming years. The Warriors should be monitoring the situation like a vulture wrapping up a 96-hour fast.
Houston Rockets: Jalen Brunson
Paying a soon-to-be 26-year-old point guard would be an atypical move for an organization in the infancy of a rebuild. The Houston Rockets should not be above it.
Let's get this out of the way: They do not have cap space. But they have useful veterans in Christian Wood and Eric Gordon who will be intriguing acquisitions in a sign-and-trade. The Dallas Mavericks, specifically, could use both of them.
Pushing the Rockets to pursue a higher-end center who fortifies their rim protection has merit. But their lottery odds have them ticketed for a top-three pick and the likely selection of a big.
Brunson can come in right away and make the game easier for the kids. Kevin Porter Jr. is overstretched as more than a microwave scorer and secondary playmaker, and the Rockets shouldn't risk overtaxing Jalen Green. Brunson has plenty of experience working off Luka Doncic and gives the offense a steadying downhill presence who can spray the ball to shooters.
Meeting his price tag shouldn't scare Houston. He isn't ancient, the Rockets don't need him to be their No. 1, and his next contract will run out right around when it's time to pay Green.
Indiana Pacers: Kyle Anderson
Kyle Anderson seems like a toned-down option for an Indiana Pacers team that can chisel out $25-plus million in cap space if they renounce all their own free agents. Welcome to the summer of 2022, folks.
Also: The Pacers are hard to read. Marc Stein reported on his substack they have "definitely left the impression around the league that they're going to trade Malcolm Brogdon." That doesn't read like an organization gearing up for an all-out pursuit of the sixth seed after a one-year stay in the upper lottery.
None of the glitziest targets seem like remote possibilities to boot. Forget about the tier including Bradley Beal (player option), James Harden (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option) and Zach LaVine. Going all-out for Deandre Ayton (restricted) doesn't compute unless they're dumping Myles Turner.
Miles Bridges (restricted) would make more sense if his outside shot didn't regress and he offered more substance with his defensive switchability. Jalen Brunson and Anfernee Simons are slot-and-play fits next to the infinitely scalable Tyrese Haliburton, but the Pacers should probably hash out Brogdon's future first.
Slo Mo is sooo Indiana—not so splashy to shift their entire fortune, but an ambitious enough addition on the wings to matter. He remains a stout defender across the 2-3-4 positions and juices the offense with secondary playmaking and some in-between finesse, albeit not so much this past season.
Anderson's, let's call it, methodical cadence doesn't perfectly mesh with a team housing a bunch of players who should run. But head coach Rick Carlisle loves him some half-speed basketball, and Anderson has at times provided a nice change of pace for the blisteringly fast Memphis Grizzlies.
Los Angeles Clippers: Delon Wright
This idea that the L.A. Clippers need a floor general is overblown. They have more than their fair share of secondary setup men with Paul George, a healthy Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann, with a dash of Luke Kennard and Amir Coffey (restricted).
That's not to say they shouldn't target someone at point guard. Said person just doesn't have to be an actual floor general.
Someone like Delon Wright is ideal. His half-court game management is B to B-plus material when afforded space to operate. The Clippers can give him that in spades. His aversion to personal volume—6.7 shot attempts per 36 minutes this season—is a non-issue when surrounded by so many willing scorers.
A 6'5" frame lets him take on the defensive workload of a wing, and in recent years, his teams have even used him for spot coverage on bigger forwards. He could be the perfect 1-man in the Clippers' no-big lineups.
Not surprisingly, Wright's market price is the primary roadblock to any union. L.A. only has the mini mid-level at its disposal. He could cost more, and even if he doesn't, the Clippers may need part of their mini MLE to keep Coffey.
Los Angeles Lakers: Damion Lee
Los Angeles Lakers fans might be expecting a household-ier name. That's a bummer. The mini mid-level is the Lakers' top spending tool, and they'll likely have to pony that up if they're re-signing Malik Monk (non-Bird).
A case can also be made that they shouldn't invest their MLE in a singular player. Their need for depth is that dire. Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook (player option), Kendrick Nunn (player option), Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves (non-guaranteed) make up their projected cap sheet heading into the offseason. The Lakers will have serious shopping to do even if they pick up Stanley Johnson's team option.
Damion Lee can deepen the rotation on a beggar's dime. He wasn't as much of a staple in the Golden State Warriors rotation to close this season, but his usage is extremely plug-and-go. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote:
"The veteran wing has averaged 20.6 minutes per game for the Warriors during his four years with the team, and he's been a reliable source of three-point shooting (35.7 percent for his career) and solid perimeter defense. A sharp off-ball mover, Lee ranked in the 81st percentile in points per possession on cuts this season. Though his numbers dipped a bit from deep in 2021-22, he also shot 40.5 percent on spot-up threes a year ago. Adding to the package, Lee has ranked in the top quartile at his position in defensive rebound rate during every year of his career."
Shooting? And defense? From the same player? For someone possibly low profile enough to slip through to the minimum-salary ranks? Inject it all right into the Lakers' depth chart. They need it.
Memphis Grizzlies: Lonnie Walker IV (Restricted)
Lonnie Walker IV won't turn heads among the Memphis Grizzlies faithful if they're assuming the team renounces all of their own free agents and cruises into the offseason with a $23-plus million slush fund. Visions of Bradley Beal or Zach LaVine sign-and-trades will pop up under those circumstances.
Going nuclear isn't the Grizzlies' style, though. They seem more likely to retain at least one of Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones and then bank on continued internal growth from Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Ziaire Williams and two first-round prospects.
If they're prepared to break character, then by all means, they should be poking around the LaVine or—go with me—Miles Bridges markets. Yet even then, any star acquisition seems more likely to take place outside of free agency, in a straight-up trade.
Necessary preamble over.
Memphis will be better off operating as an over-the-cap team or with mid-end cap space if it wishes to re-sign Anderson and/or Jones. That spending threshold should empower them to roll the dice on a younger scoring threat with swing potential.
Walker has the chops to meet those criteria. He is a perpetual seesaw who vacillates between vanishing acts and the shot selection of a self-assured superstar, but this season felt different. He closed out the year on a tear, averaging 15.7 points while converting 46.4 percent of his pull-up treys and shooting over 73 percent inside the restricted area.
At only 23, Walker just so happens to jell with the Grizzlies' now-and-later timeline. And he shouldn't cost the world to extricate from San Antonio. Restricted free agents tend to come with inflated price tags, but the Spurs already have a slew of guard-swingman types on the docket.
Miami Heat: T.J. Warren
Giving Victor Oladipo the opportunity to come along slowly following a major right leg injury worked out pretty well for the Miami Heat. Why not try something similar with T.J. Warren?
By the time next season begins, it'll have been almost two years since Warren participated in an NBA game. A broken left foot derailed what was a highly entertaining mid-career rise with the Indiana Pacers.
That won't prevent him from having a list of admirers this summer. The wing market is uninspiring, and Warren peaked in Indiana as someone who splashed threes, elevated his floor attacks and dramatically improved his one-on-one defense. Maybe the non-taxpayer mid-level is a stretch for him. The mini MLE shouldn't be.
Miami should have the coin to rival the most competitive bids. Their front office features an assembly of salary-cap wizardry, and they'll be far enough below the apron to unlock the bigger MLE if P.J. Tucker picks up his player option. That changes if Oladipo fetches semi-serious money in his next deal and they're the ones bankrolling it, but having only the mini MLE shouldn't take them entirely out of the running.
Warren could become a real priority depending on how the rest of Miami's offseason shakes out. Oladipo and Caleb Martin (restricted) are both free agents. So is Markieff Morris, who has barely played since returning from a neck injury. Duncan Robinson is also in the throes of a down year and basically out of the playoff rotation at this writing.
Stir in the expected 15 to 25 annual absences from Jimmy Butler, not to mention Tucker's ability to test free agency, and Miami will invariably have minutes to spare on the wings. A healthy Warren would look good filling them.
Milwaukee Bucks: Otto Porter Jr.
Otto Porter Jr. has likely earned himself a raise off the one-year minimum deal he signed with the Golden State Warriors last offseason. His three-point touch has been nonexistent in the playoffs—since the beginning of February, really—but he nailed over 40.4 percent of his triples through his first 43 appearances while finishing a career-high 72 percent of his looks at the rim.
This amounts to juuust enough complementary offense to ride Porter's defensive optionality. He is a fierce rebounder for his size and holds his own against burlier 4s. Golden State's defense has even tasked him with spot duty against some 5s.
Select teams desperate for frontline help from non-bigs might consider inflating Porter's market to the non-taxpayer mid-level. That feels impulsive and like a misuse of resources. Suitors with the mini MLE seem like viable landing spots.
Sign up the Milwaukee Bucks for an Otto Porter experiment. He is not P.J. Tucker. But having another larger wing on the roster with the defensive stamina and standstill stroke necessary to optimize the Giannis Antetokounmpo-and-no-bigs arrangements would be positively massive—particularly come playoff time.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Chris Boucher
Mapping out a target for the Minnesota Timberwolves is a brain-bender. They appear on the cusp of mucking up the Western Conference yet also so far away after digging into the problem spots on the roster.
Process of elimination gets us here, to Chris Boucher.
Upgrading from Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards isn't possible. The same goes for D'Angelo Russell. You're not getting someone better for the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Blockbuster moves will be limited to trades.
That leaves us with a soft landing on the 3 and 4 spots. Demanding a new frontline partner for Towns is an insult to Jarred Vanderbilt's caffeine-high energy and defense. But the Timberwolves could stand to jazz up their rim protection and rebounding while opening up the floor.
Boucher accomplishes almost all of that. Going from Vanderbilt to him in the starting five most likely counts as a lateral move on the defensive glass, but Boucher's overall utility is more dynamic.
He is a peppier presence around the rim and injected more poise and control into the frenetic speed with which he guards in space and contests every shot attempt under the sun. His above-the-break shooting slumped this past year, but he still hit 42.9 percent of his corner triples.
Adding Boucher and bringing Vanderbilt off the bench also enables head coach Chris Finch to limit the amount of time Jaden McDaniels spends at the 4, where he's usually giving up strength. Boucher can cannibalize some of the backup-center minutes if Naz Reid isn't cutting it, as well.
New Orleans Pelicans: Gary Payton II
A healthy Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum allow the New Orleans Pelicans to go any number of directions with their mid-level exception this summer. Looking Gary Payton II's way is my vote.
Suffering a fractured left elbow against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Semifinals shouldn't torch his appeal. Payton is the quintessential point guard for a team that doesn't need or want to saddle the 1 spot with a ton of on-ball usage.
The Pelicans are that team. Zion, Ingram and McCollum will handle running the offense, and Jonas Valanciunas provides yet another self-creation option inside the arc. Payton can fill the offensive gaps around them with duck-ins to the basket and a three-point stroke that doesn't shrink the floor (35.8 percent on 120 attempts).
Working him into a defense that already has Herb Jones would be patently unfair to 29 other franchises. Both The Mitten and Not On Herb are First Team All Everywhere. Like Jones, Payton can often check the opposition's best player, and New Orleans will cobble together some truly stifling perimeter rotations with them, Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado.
Poaching Payton from the Golden State Warriors is ambitious but plausible. They can offer him 105 percent of the league's average annual salary, but their luxury-tax situation could preclude them from spending on GP2 when Kevon Looney is also hitting the market. New Orleans is just a teensy salary dump away from having the leeway below the apron to open up the non-taxpayer mid-level.
New York Knicks: Bradley Beal (Player Option)
Something needs to give for the New York Knicks after a season in which they dipped from the playoff picture and remained noncommittal to a specific direction. Are they rebuilding? Attempting to fast-track Eastern Conference contention? They need to pick one already.
Catering to both is unrealistic. The Knicks don't have the personnel for it. They're barren of a certifiable star and have, for now, just one face-of-the-franchise prospect in RJ Barret. Their offseason needs to be more decisive—more clarifying.
Predicting a pivot into a full-scale youth movement doesn't sit right. The Knicks have seldom acted like that team. They are linked to hypothetical superstar trade pursuits more than conventional rebuilds.
Which brings us to Bradley Beal (player option).
He wants to stay with the Washington Wizards. We get it. But things change. The Wizards could flinch at paying him nearly $250 million over the next half-decade. He could desire a team better positioned for a leap. (Whether New York outstrips Washington in that department is debatable.)
At any rate, if Beal wants to consider moving on, the Knicks should try finagling their way into sign-and-trade talks. A finite cap space market all but guarantees Beal won't ink his next deal with a new team outright, and New York has the requisite middle-rung contracts, incumbent prospects and draft-pick equity to restock Washington's asset cupboard.
Acquiring Beal isn't a ticket to contention. Let's make that clear. But he can front an entire offense, his next contract will take him straight through his prime, and he's someone good enough and young enough (29 in June) to attract other stars down the line.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Mitchell Robinson
More than a few will chuckle at the idea of the Oklahoma City Thunder signing a potentially useful player without an attached draft-pick haul. And, look, there's some merit to the snark.
Oklahoma City currently has 13 players who should be under contract for next season when forecasting how player options, team options and non-guarantees will pan out. That number can jump to 15—all before factoring in the four picks they hold inside the top 34 of the draft.
Complicating this math by actively chasing players on the open market may not be in the cards. But the Thunder could use a larger human to man the 5 spot, and if they don't land inside the top three of the draft, Mitchell Robinson is a practical answer.
Chasing him neither breaks the bank nor the rebuild. Even the best version of Robinson won't make Oklahoma City "too good," and at 24, he's operating within the same window as the rest of the franchise. The Thunder don't project to have meaningful space and are better off using the non-taxpayer mid-level as their primary spending tool. Robinson might get more. He might not. His career has been one long roller-coaster ride, equal parts frustrating, tantalizing and confusing experience.
Incomplete projects shouldn't scare the Thunder. On the contrary, they should be this team's bread and butter. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey deserve a big who can catch lobs out of the pick-and-roll. Robinson gives them one. Plus, he still has the sheen of a defensive mystery box who covers unfathomable ground and makes impossible reads.
Orlando Magic: Miles Bridges (Restricted)
Mandatory spending-big-because-they-can alert.
The Orlando Magic will have a mostly unobstructed path to $28-plus million in space even if they end up winning the No. 1 pick, putting them among the scant few teams that can field hot-and-heavy bids to the sexiest names. And unlike some other squads in their position, they can almost indiscriminately throw money at the top prizes.
Jalen Suggs is the only player currently on the roster whose presence has any business shaping Orlando's priorities. Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Cole Anthony are all working off standout seasons. None of them are tent-pole-star prospects. Jonathan Isaac hasn't played since Aug 2, 2020. He is not someone the Magic can afford to build around until—or rather, unless—he proves otherwise.
Pinpointing a name for Orlando still isn't easy. This roster at once needs and has a little bit of everything.
Sounds like a Miles Bridges destination to me.
Bridges has the offensive ball skills and vertical pop to adapt his game across varying roles. Ditto for his defensive bandwidth; his actual stances leave much to be desired, but he can switch across a multitude of spots. The Magic can pair him with Isaac or Carter up front. Or they can try playing all three. They can even skew super big with Wagner-Bridges-Isaac-Carter lineups.
Nothing changes if Orlando ends up in the top three of the draft and selects Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith. Bridges is moldable, at both ends, and has the runway to level up with a more reliable three-ball. Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets have no other choice than to match any offer he receives. The Magic have the flexibility and wholesale, at-large need for talent to find out.
Philadelphia 76ers: Nicolas Batum (Player Option)
Improving on the margins should be an obsession for the Philadelphia 76ers. Their relative shallowness has haunted them more than James Harden's inconsistent play—which still includes supernatural vision and passing.
There is a world in which the Sixers remain far enough below the luxury-tax apron and open up the larger mid-level. Whether that's worth hard-capping themselves depends on how many impactful players they snare with that money.
Nicolas Batum should be gettable for no matter what version of the MLE the Sixers have to dangle. His player option is much less ($3.3 million), and he's 33.
Expecting him to leave the L.A. Clippers might be moot. He definitely accepted less to stay with them last summer, and they can use Early Bird rights to sign him for up to 105 percent of the league's average salary. But the acquisitions of Norman Powell and the recently extended Robert Covington, plus the emergence of Amir Coffey (restricted) and return of Kawhi Leonard, could render Batum nonessential.
Philly should hope it does. Batum doesn't initiate the offense as often anymore, but he keeps the ball moving and has knocked down 40.2 percent of his triples the past two seasons. His defensive portability also still covers the point of attack. No one on the Clippers this season soaked up more reps against No. 1 options, according to BBall Index.
Bonus benefit: Batum wants to play with Joel Embiid. So if he does leave L.A., he should be open to talking shop with Philly.
Phoenix Suns: Thaddeus Young
Thaddeus Young was a trendy trade target for the Phoenix Suns entering this season. Let's run the concept back.
Beefing up the frontcourt isn't as much of a priority anymore. Deandre Ayton (restricted) is on the star track, the Suns should be able to re-sign the ever-useful JaVale McGee, and Bismack Biyombo has churned out some nice moments. Dario Saric exists, too. He should be returning from his torn right ACL next season.
Still, the Suns are short on concrete needs, unless you're overly concerned with wrinkles in their rebounding presence. As the most well-rounded team in the league already, they might as well keep loading up on basketball IQ and defensive workaholics.
Young provides both. Phoenix can get away using him at the 4 when Ayton is in the middle, and he noticeably jacks up their ability to downsize without shaking the defense—something that becomes much more valuable should McGee leave or Saric take a step back following his ACL injury. And if Young bangs in 50 percent of his corner threes like he did for the Toronto Raptors, even better.
Price point shouldn't be an obstacle—in theory. The Suns might be able to max out Ayton and stay far enough beneath the luxury-tax apron to tap into the bigger mid-level. Not that they'll need it for Young. He turns 34 in June. The mini MLE, if not less, should cover the cost of admission into his market.
Portland Trail Blazers: Deandre Ayton (Restricted)
Interim general manager Joe Cronin believes the Portland Trail Blazers' 2021-22 campaign will be more gap year than the advent of a gradual rebuilding project. Taken at face value, this is a major blow for authors of hypothetical Damian Lillard trades. It also implies an obligation to make a major splash over the offseason.
Testing the Phoenix Suns' willingness to max out Deandre Ayton is a good place to start. The absence of an extension always inferred some indecision at the top. Team governor Robert Sarver isn't exactly known as a big spender, and Phoenix has allocated serious money to Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Chris Paul, with a Cam Johnson extension potentially on the horizon.
Failing to extend Ayton isn't going to save the Suns any money. He has only cemented his max-deal candidacy. His defensive value is more comprehensive. He is essentially matchup-proof, excels at all levels and functions basically like the point guard of the defense in the half court. His offensive impact, meanwhile, is broader. He is an expert play-finisher and opportunistic rebounder, but he's peppered in better touch on hook shots (66 percent) and jumpers (50.6 percent).
Portland must spruce up the books to meet Ayton's $30.5 million max. It shouldn't take much. The Blazers can carry Dame, Josh Hart, this year's lottery pick and Anfernee Simons' hold and creep above $30 million in space if they jettison some of their smaller salaries.
Maybe holding onto the CJ McCollum trade exception—which must be renounced to maximize cap space—is more valuable. Or perhaps the Suns would facilitate a sign-and-trade if they really won't pay Ayton. Truth be told, they can and should and probably must match whatever offer he gets. But Ayton is a perfect match for Dame and Simons and doesn't turn 24 until the end of July. He's exactly the type of big fish Portland should be looking to hook.
Sacramento Kings: Cody Martin (Restricted)
Please don't ask me what the Sacramento Kings are doing, or what they intend to do, or in what direction they're actually traveling. I have no idea. No one outside the organization does. Not really.
Here's what we do know: Any team founded around De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis needs to pig out on wing shooting and defense. The Kings...haven't done that yet. Harrison Barnes isn't so much a wing; he's just a no-brainer fit. Justin Holiday is fine. Donte DiVincenzo hasn't looked the same, at either end, since his most recent left ankle injury. He's also a restricted free agent.
Oh, and so is Cody Martin. His malleability on defense verges on divine. He isn't a shutdown stopper, but he can cover both ends of a pick-and-roll, matching up with smalls, wings and even some bigs. Among everyone who recorded at least 1,500 minutes this season, Scottie Barnes was the only one to score higher in BBall Index's defensive role versatility.
Lineups with both Martin and Davion Mitchell could inflict some real damage. Spacing could be tough if Sabonis and Fox are on the floor at the same time, but Martin just shot 38.4 percent from long range on 159 attempts and is an adept passer out of pump-and-drives.
The Charlotte Hornets have match rights on Martin, and the Kings cannot go above mid-level-exception money (as of now). It shouldn't take that much to wedge him free. Charlotte is getting more expensive by the year, and the prospect of paying Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier with LaMelo Ball's extension and the search for a core big man looming will invariably force a tightening of the purse strings elsewhere.
San Antonio Spurs: Zach LaVine
Settling on Zach LaVine for the San Antonio Spurs entailed laboring through a super scientific process inundated with spreadsheet formulas.
Well that, or Dejounte Murray tweeted a since-deleted picture of Zach LaVine photoshopped in a Spurs jersey. I'll let you decide.
Just so we're clear: San Antonio has a need for LaVine. Its enviable perimeter depth doesn't include an off-the-dribble shot-maker matching his range or comfort level with the ultra-difficult. His chemistry alongside Murray should be instantaneous. LaVine effectively toggles between self-creation and off-ball gravitational pull, and Murray can tackle the tougher backcourt defensive assignments without fail.
Affording LaVine's max salary ($36.6 million) will take some extra steps. San Antonio can sniff $30 million in room by renouncing Lonnie Walker IV (restricted). Waiving Zach Collins before his guarantee date (June 28) just about makes up the difference, though that'd take some foresight on the Spurs' behalf. They could try engaging the Chicago Bulls in sign-and-trade talks for the second consecutive summer, as well.
Will LaVine consider leaving the Windy City? Are the Spurs prepared to spend money like a team on a more immediate timeline? Who knows. But with so little cap space around the NBA, San Antonio might as well throw its weight at a star who appreciably improves its standing within the Western Conference and only turned 27 this past March.
Toronto Raptors: Amir Coffey (Restricted)
Head coach Nick Nurse wants the Toronto Raptors to keep stockpiling wings. Surprise, surprise.
Toronto will be best served using the non-taxpayer mid-level, giving it more maneuverability than most. Not that it particularly matters. Every team wants the exact archetype of player the Raptors covet, and the wing market this summer is painfully thin.
Amir Coffey seems right up Toronto's alley, a target who blurs the line between flier and older prospect. He doesn't convey a sense of urgency as a soon-to-be 25-year-old reserve, but he's not an afterthought project meant only for rebuilding squads.
The L.A. Clippers shifted Coffey between defensive assignments at the 2, 3 and 4 without hesitation. That is sooo the Raptors' vibe. His offense isn't what you'd call high volume, but he connected on 37.8 percent of his threes and 54.2 percent of his twos this season, including a 53.3 percent clip on drives. Coffey is comfortable slipping through cracks in set defenses and can make plays on-ball when given enough room to turn corners and see passing lanes.
Whisking Coffey out of Los Angeles shouldn't be too tough. The Clippers have his Bird rights but they've got wings to spare (still) following the Robert Covington extension and the eventual return of Kawhi Leonard and potential re-signing of Nicolas Batum (player option).
Utah Jazz: Juan Toscano-Anderson
Wholesale decisions need to be made by the Utah Jazz before we get a real feel for what they'll do in free agency.
Will they trade Rudy Gobert? Donovan Mitchell? Mike Conley? Anybody else? And if they deal a core piece, are they rebuilding? Or trying to remain competitive? Could running it back be fair game?
Juan Toscano-Anderson aligns with any iteration of the Jazz that cares about winning. They still need to load up on defensive competence, preferably in the form of versatility.
Don't let his place on the outskirts of Golden State's playoff rotation fool you. JTA is someone who can switch across every position while playing with off-the-charts energy that shines when getting back in transition or helping out around the hoop.
Extracting consistent offensive performances out of him is a chore. JTA can be an effective shooter, slasher and driver but needs to be more aggressive. Deft passing erases some of the passivity, but his performance at the foul line became a problem this season, too (57.1 percent).
Utah can get over it. Defensive upgrades who don't torpedo the offense aren't available willy-nilly for the taxpayer mid-level exception or less. JTA may be.
Washington Wizards: Tyus Jones
Figuring out the future of Bradley Beal will be the first order of business for the Washington Wizards leading into free agency. Everything else they do must be built out from there. He alone is their direction.
The prevailing assumption should be that he stays—on a five-year deal worth more than $247 million, no less—until anything else actually happens. He wouldn't still be in Washington if either party was dead set on exploring their alternatives.
Sticking with Beal then means the Wizards must continue their search for a point guard that fits beside him. The answer was neither Spencer Dinwiddie nor Russell Westbrook nor, for that matter, John Wall.
Tyus Jones might be. He is decidedly lower key, someone who needn't be prescribed a certain number of touches and shots, and who will defend his butt off. Jones has a nifty in-between game and never—never—squanders possessions. He is now the only player in NBA history to post an assist rate north of 25 and turnover percentage below eight in the same season.
Cost could be an issue, like always. The Wizards will have the bigger MLE, but the Memphis Grizzlies can offer more. Whether they will is a different story. Ponying up $10-plus million per year for Ja Morant's backup is a lot. Washington, on the other hand, has a greater need and can promise him a starting spot.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.