10 NBA Free Agents Who Need a Change of Scenery

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2022

10 NBA Free Agents Who Need a Change of Scenery

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    Sometimes, the grass is, in fact, greener on the other side.

    Like in the case of these 2022 NBA free agents.

    Switching teams can make sense for any number of reasons. Other suitors might pay more, offer a better fit or have the bandwidth to promise a more prominent or steadier role.

    Every so often, it's just flat-out time for a change. Things get stale. Or awkward. Or even contentious.

    This exercise will cover free agents from every nook and cranny of the It's Time for a Change Club. In many cases, the impetus for a player leaving will be symbiotic. First and foremost, though, we're approaching this from the view of the free agents themselves.

    It doesn't matter if their incumbent teams will want to keep them. As of now, their futures seem better off in the hands of another organization.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns (Restricted)

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    Including Deandre Ayton feels counterintuitive. The Phoenix Suns will not be better off without him unless they use him in a sign-and-trade to significantly upgrade their roster. And he may not necessarily be better off outside of Phoenix unless he refines his self-creation and learns to play with oomph more often than "most of the time but not all the time for some reason."

    Still, despite the uncertainty of what comes next for both sides, it just feels like Ayton and the Suns need to go their separate ways.

    Sources told Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer that head coach Monty Williams isn't fond of Ayton, and that the Suns don't view him—or basically any other center—as worth $30-plus million per year. Combine this with Ayton never seeming fully content with his role inside the offense, and the awkwardness isn't just palpable; it's overwhelming.

    Bruised egos aren't enough to dissolve a mutually beneficial marriage, and the Suns cannot afford to let Ayton walk for nothing. They also may be hard-pressed to trade him. If they max him out as part of any deal, base-year compensation makes it so they can't take back more than $19.1ish million even though he'll count as $30.5 million of inbound salary for his next team.

    Making the money work is an obstacle. It isn't impossible. And if Ayton wants to be more than a third option on offense or just play for a team that doesn't hesitate to pay him like a star, he's better off working with Phoenix to find himself a more desirable situation.

    Best Potential Fits: Detroit, Portland, San Antonio

Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic (Restricted)

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    Mo Bamba is coming off a season that should be considered a massive individual win. He not only appeared in a career-high 71 games and knocked down a personal-best 38.1 percent of his threes on higher volume, but he did so predominantly as a member of the Orlando Magic's starting lineup, playing beside another big in Wendell Carter Jr.

    Somewhat ironically, Bamba's front-line partnership with WCJ contributes to his needing a new team.

    The Magic are about to be brimming with bigs. They signed Carter to a four-year extension, Jonathan Isaac (ACL) will probably play basketball next season, and the team will inevitably use the No. 1 pick on Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren or Jabari Smith Jr.—all of whom are very tall humans.

    Maybe Orlando is willing to start next year with the Bamba-Carter frontcourt and unafraid to use a healthy Isaac at the 3. Invariably, though, it'll pivot to whoever arrives with the No. 1 pick. Bamba is better off joining a team with more incentive to pay him—and on which he won't top out as the third or fourth big.

    Best Potential Fits: Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Toronto

Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets (Restricted)

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    Smart teams with huge chunks of minutes available at center should be looking to rescue Nic Claxton from a Brooklyn Nets squad that has failed to make him the rotation constant he deserves to be.

    To be fair: Spotty availability has dogged the 23-year-old through his first three seasons. The Nets couldn't play him when he wasn't healthy, and head coach Steve Nash turned him almost entirely loose by the end of 2021-22.

    That's still not good enough. Claxton should be on a team that has the stomach for development. The Nets will not be that team so long as they're attempting to contend. And while Claxton remains their best option at center, bar none, Brooklyn's roster isn't conducive to guaranteeing him minutes.

    A healthy Ben Simmons ensures the Nets will always have one non-shooter on the floor. That number mushrooms to two if they re-sign Bruce Brown (unrestricted) and his 40.4 percent clip from three this season proves to be an anomaly. Brooklyn will occasionally, if not frequently, find itself needing to favor frontcourt setups that feature a floor-spacer at the 5.

    Stretching defenses outside of the paint is not Claxton's game. He has more offensive depth to explore—including a baby hook shot—but not a big-time jumper. Brooklyn will want him back anyway. His five-position switchability is legit. But sticking around with an organization that can assure neither consistent nor optimal usage isn't what's best for him.

    Best Potential Fits: Charlotte, Dallas, Oklahoma City

Isaiah Hartenstein, LA Clippers

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    Isaiah Hartenstein can stay on the L.A. Clippers without major issue. He flourished for their second unit after earning the team's final roster spot, filling gaps with his rim protection, passing and feathery finishing.

    Opponents shot 47.5 percent against him at the hoop—the stingiest mark among 163 players to challenge at least 150 attempts. And his 19.3 assist rate ranked sixth among centers who averaged 15 or more minutes per game. He isn't a detonative lob threat, but he can finish tough catch-and-lay-ins above the rim and has some outside range. He nailed 14 of his 30 three-point attempts (46.7 percent) and found nylon on almost 59 percent of his floaters (55-of-93).

    Insisting Hartenstein shop around doesn't quite track with his performance. But this isn't about his fit. It's about his role—and his pay grade.

    The Clippers have Ivica Zubac to man the middle, along with a roster and wing rotation that demand they indulge no-big lineups. Hartenstein's responsibility will be forever capped with L.A., even if it decides to prioritize him over Zubac (2023 free agent).

    Other suitors should be offering Hartenstein more money to boot. The 24-year-old is a non-Bird free agent, so the Clippers cannot give him more than the mini mid-level exception ($6.4 million). And that's assuming they're prepared to hand him all of it. They may not want to burn it all on a big when they have a clear but overblown need for a floor general.

    Best Potential Fits: Brooklyn, Dallas, Philadelphia

Gary Harris, Orlando Magic

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    Gary Harris isn't a bad fit for the Magic. They remain light on two-way players, and his offensive revival came on a roster that should be significantly less talented than the one they'll field next season.

    But, like, the Harris from this past year belongs on a contender.

    He just averaged 11.1 points while splashing 38.4 percent of his threes and shooting 49.5 percent on drives. He also converted 71.4 percent of his attempts off cuts—an impressive feat given the tight confines in which the Magic's offense existed.

    Throw in the time he spent matching up with primary guards, and Harris has at minimum done enough to regain his three-and-D billing. And going on 28 in September, there's still a chance he'll remain something more.

    Staying in Orlando is fine. It might even pay more, since the Magic have his Bird rights. But the best version of Harris is built for X-factor duty on playoff and championship hopefuls.

    Best Potential Fits: Cleveland, Denver, New Orleans

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

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    Mitchell Robinson is working with staff members from the New York Knicks ahead of his unrestricted free agency, according to SNY's Ian Begley. That's cool and all, but both sides could stand to reevaluate their fit together.

    Flickers of defensive brilliance are peppered throughout Robinson's game. His fouling isn't as big of an issue, though his interest and aggression level seem to vacillate by possession, and he can party-crash opponent plays from pretty much anywhere on the floor. 

    Robinson's offensive bandwidth is finite but not unworkable. He can finish at an admirable clip around the basket; just don't task him with putting the ball on the floor, or with spraying passes to teammates on rolls to the hoop or with any sort of decision-making whatsoever. It's a niche skill set—one that doesn't quite mesh with the Knicks.

    New York doesn't devote nearly enough volume to its roll men to properly use Robinson. This idea that he needs a jumper is blasphemous, but the Knicks could use a floor-spacer at the 5 if they're going to run sets through Julius Randle. And Robinson, for his part, should be on a team built to perfect his role in the half court, give him more room to navigate off screens and has more interest getting out in transition.

    Best Potential Fits: Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit

Dennis Schroder, Houston Rockets

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    Dennis Schroder will not be wildly out of place if he returns to the Houston Rockets. They could use a veteran floor general if they still prefer to pay John Wall to do absolutely nothing, and he will be afforded a more powerful offensive license on a rebuilding squad that actually plays him than a playoff hopeful or title contender.

    It doesn't take long before that logic starts to ring hollow, if not feel outright forced.

    Schroder turns 29 in September. He didn't play nearly well enough this season to warrant a steep long-term investment on the open market and is running out of time to prove he's worth one. His stock will receive the biggest boon if he plays an impactful and efficient role on a good team as part of a larger ecosystem than if he stat-stuffs for a full year in Houston.

    This all presumes the Rockets let him stat-stuff. They may not. Jalen Green is the focal point of the offense, and guards like Josh Christopher and Kevin Porter Jr. are far more important to the bigger picture. Eric Gordon will also eat into Schroder's opportunity if Houston doesn't trade him, and the team could feasibly draft a guard with the No. 17 pick from Brooklyn. (It's guaranteed to take a big at No. 3.)

    Staying with the Rockets most likely won't be the smartest financial play either. They don't have his Bird rights or cap space. The most they can offer him is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($10.3 million), and unless they're peddling that over four years, he stands to increase his long-term earning potential by taking the mini MLE or less from a better team prowling for downhill juice and secondary ball-handling in the half court.

    Best Potential Fits: L.A. Clippers, Milwaukee, Phoenix

Juan Toscano-Anderson, Golden State Warriors (Restricted)

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    Though the Golden State Warriors are the springboard Juan Toscano-Anderson used to stick in the NBA, their partnership no longer carries the same weight. He's found himself on the outskirts of their rotation without any clear path back into it next season—unless Gary Payton II, Damion Lee, Otto Porter Jr. all leave in free agency and Jonathan Kuminga's role isn't expanded in Year 2.

    So, yeah, it's time for a change.

    Don't read too much into JTA's position within Golden State's hierarchy. He capably switches across every position and hustles to contest plays in transition and when pitching in around the basket. He just needs to land with a team that can withstand his offensive vanishing acts.

    Golden State can't handle JTA's shooting hesitance in many of its lineup combinations, and his sub-60 percent clip from the charity is genuinely concerning. Suitors that have the flexibility to tilt toward defense could stumble into a bargain, and he isn't as much of an offensive liability if you tap into his off-ball movement, quick passing and capacity to soup up lineups beside a non-center at the 5.

    Best Potential Fits: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Utah

Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs (Restricted)

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    Lonnie Walker IV closed the regular season on a heater—a blistering stretch that just so happened to coincide with Derrick White's departure and the San Antonio Spurs also giving him more agency within bench units.

    Over his last 19 games, Walker averaged 15.7 points while burying 46.4 percent of his pull-up treys and shooting over 77 percent inside the restricted area. His assist numbers won't always reflect it, but when he's at his best, he's whipping touch passes and kicking out to spotters going downhill. Only three other players matched his assist rate (12.1) and field-goal percentage (52.5) on as many drives (406) while posting a turnover rate below 6.5: Malcolm Brogdon, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.

    But this stretch of success isn't proof of Walker's long-term fit in San Antonio. The Spurs have guard-swingman types to spare in Dejounte Murray, Devin Vassell, Tre Jones, Josh Primo, Josh Richardson and even Romeo Langford. Chances are they'll add another (or more) with one of their three first-round picks.

    A crowded pecking order isn't the end of the world, but it's not exactly helpful. Walker is a streaky player who leaves much to be desired on defense and should be on a team inclined to ride out his thorniest spells. With all of their perimeter alternatives, the Spurs aren't that.

    Best Potential Fits: Boston, Memphis, Toronto

Yuta Watanabe, Toronto Raptors

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    Yuta Watanabe apparently wants to re-sign with the Toronto Raptors. That makes some sense. Toronto is where he's had the most staying power.

    Circumstances change, though.

    Toronto couldn't find regular playing time for him in the rotation this season. His ebbing outside shooting didn't help matters. Nor did head coach Nick Nurse's penchant for riding his top players. Ditto for Scottie Barnes' emergence. But a 6'9" wing who can switch across four positions is right up the Raptors' alley. If they didn't meaningfully utilize him this season, when OG Anunoby missed 34 games, what's going to change next year?

    No, Watanabe isn't a future star hiding in plain sight. But his game typifies complementary variety. He can get by overaggressive defenders on the perimeter; is big and strong enough to finish over or through contact; moves extremely well without the ball; hold up against power wings attacking downhill; lock down the middle of the floor away from the ball; and brings a sneaky level of help around the basket.

    Teams with limited spending power should be interested in taking a flier. Watanabe can step in and fill minutes at either forward spot right away.

    Best Potential Fits: Miami, Sacramento, Utah


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead 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.