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Checking in With the Teams We Aren’t Talking About (but Now Are)

These teams have few options heading into free agency, but every move counts

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

During the never-ending cycle of news and noise that comes out of free agency, there are always a few teams sidelined. Without assets or money to spend, or with Phil Jackson getting fired right before the action begins, some teams get an offseason that seems like little more than a white-noise machine, just a step above complete silence.

All these front offices can do is check that their phones aren’t on vibrate, or airplane mode, or do not disturb, and, like in Orlando, wait for a call back after putting out those Bismack Biyombo feelers. They aren’t talking much with other teams, so we don’t talk about them. But let’s take a minute to talk about the teams we aren’t talking about. What exactly is keeping these teams at Martin Scorsese–level Silence this offseason, and is there any hope for making moves before free agency begins this weekend?

Detroit Pistons

Why is no one talking about them?

To fully understand just how tied up the Pistons’ money is, consider this: Detroit is still paying Josh Smith — whom the organization waived in 2014 — to not be on its roster, and will be until 2020.

Even without Smith’s $5.3 million (courtesy of the stretch provision), the Pistons are already overcommitted in salary for the 2017–18 season. So much so that when the salary cap was announced to be just $99 million, lower than originally expected, a source inside the front office told the Free Press’s Vincent Ellis that it "won’t have a lot of effect on us." As it stands now, [shot] the team has already boiled over at $97 million in guaranteed salary. That sum [chaser] excludes restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

After four seasons on a rookie contract, Caldwell-Pope will no longer come cheap. In April, the Free Press reported that the Pistons were prepared to match any offer sheets for the 24-year-old guard, even a maximum contract. Though Caldwell-Pope’s points, rebounds, shooting percentage, minutes, and steals dipped this season, it’s fathomable that a team with money to spend (see: Nets, Brooklyn) will try to invest in his 3-and-D play.

Giving him the max wouldn’t leave such a bad taste if the Pistons had made the playoffs, as they expected to. After acquiring Ish Smith and Jon Leuer, Detroit entered the year with the bench pieces it so needed; but the team lost Reggie Jackson for 30 games to injury, Smith became a starter, and the Pistons finished an underwhelming 37–45.

Is there hope?

Now Stan Van Gundy has rookie Luke Kennard, the 12th overall draft pick that Detroit reportedly considered dealing for a "win-now" veteran, and little wiggle room.

"I like our team," Van Gundy said after the draft. "With better health and guys with a little better focus, we can be a lot better with the same group." The Pistons’ failure to upgrade the roster won’t be by choice, though the front office will have the $8.4 million midlevel exception and the $3.3 million biannual exception to spend. But Van Gundy’s quote is valid: This Pistons team, more than any other lottery squad not named the Sixers or Pelicans, could run it back with completely different results. And using that $8 million could go a long way for a bench piece — which, as Smith’s 32 starts in 2016–17 show, can be an investment that pays dividends.

Charlotte Hornets

Why is no one talking about them?

One man’s salary dump is another man’s treasure, or at least that’s how the Hornets see Dwight Howard. The Hawks took on the remaining three years of Miles Plumlee’s four-year, $50 million deal (a contract that was never destined to be anything but a salary dump, as it was immediately regretted by the Bucks, jettisoned to the Hornets, and unloaded to Atlanta all within a year) in exchange for the remaining two years and $47.3 million Dwight is owed.

With a payroll of $117 million, the Hornets are already well over the cap. But that’s not to blame on the deal entirely; after also trading Marco Belinelli down to Atlanta, the team comes out of the deal paying only $4.4 million more this season for the rights to a former Superman. Past mistakes (or overestimations) like the Nicolas Batum signing last summer, which will see him rake in an average of $24 million over five years, including a $27 million player option in 2020–21, keep the Hornets’ future inflexible. Next season, Batum — who, yes, is a fine second or third man on offense — will make more than Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Is there hope?

The luxury tax is materializing before the Hornets’ beady little eyes with $106.2 million in guaranteed contracts, but Howard’s acquisition and Malik Monk’s sharpshooting falling to them in the draft makes the team intriguing.

Charlotte has only the $8.4 million midlevel exception and the $3.3 million biannual exception to play with. A reliable backup for Kemba Walker would be ideal, and a few free-agent options are available, like Patty Mills. But Mills is the ceiling, and the 28-year-old will likely demand a higher salary to leave the Spurs than what the Hornets can pay.

Orlando Magic

Why is no one talking about them?

Orlando was the only team to not receive a single vote for anything during the NBA Awards. The Magic are attracting the same lack of attention in free agency, even with an achievable $15 million estimate in cap space.

That’s limited, but more than Detroit and Charlotte can offer. Still, it won’t pay for the name at the top of Orlando’s free-agency list (at least according to its infamous whiteboard), Paul Millsap. The Hawks veteran could get max offers, a figure even Atlanta isn’t willing to match. The name after Millsap is Andre Iguodala, who we know is still on the minds of the Magic front office after an ESPN report called the organization "interested." But the Magic were listed in that piece among other, better teams like the Jazz and Spurs. Iggy might be nearing retirement, but not the middle-of-Florida type, and the competition, especially Golden State, will likely beat out the Magic.

Is there hope?

Looking at new general manager John Hammond’s time with the Bucks is hope enough. Milwaukee drafted its way into the promising young organization it is today, and with Hammond now in Orlando, the Magic hope that selecting Jonathan Isaac is the start of something similar. The road will be a long and rainy one, though; Hammond will have to offset past mistakes before Orlando can get there. Trading away assets like Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to 11th overall pick Domantas Sabonis for a 56-game Serge Ibaka rental hurt more with the Magic’s overcommittal elsewhere. The organization will spend $51 million on Bismack Biyombo the next three years alone; he averaged six points on a positionally poor 53 percent shooting this season.

Atlanta Hawks

Why is no one talking about them?

The most movement out of the Atlanta franchise so far has been trading Ryan Kelly, who played in 16 games this season, to the Rockets for cash considerations in Houston’s blockbuster Chris Paul acquisition.

Roster centerpiece Paul Millsap is in the lead for dullest free agency of any player possibly commanding a maximum contract. Even the Hawks seem out on Millsap, reportedly either interested in a sign-and-trade or just letting another team pay outright to get him.

"Do we want to keep Paul? Sure," new general manager Travis Schlenk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The reality is, he might get better offers than we can make him."

The Hawks are stuck between a rebuild and a hard place: Having a talent like Millsap, even at 32 years old, is not easy to walk away from. He achieved career highs in nearly every category during his four seasons with Atlanta, including this year’s 18.1 points per game. And, just three playoffs ago, the Hawks were in the Eastern Conference finals. But this postseason brought clarity: Millsap alone is not enough to take the organization out of business class, and signing onto five more years at the highest price could be detrimental to the team’s future.

Millsap’s departure would bring direction, too, for the first time since Al Horford left in free agency. It’s unclear whether shipping Howard was the start of blowing it up, or just part of Schlenk’s philosophy to avoid bad contracts at any, uh, cost. But maxing Millsap would likely be a bad contract, and by proxy, letting him go puts the Hawks in full-rebuild mode.

Is there hope?

Schlenk has the credentials, after being a five-year assistant GM to 2017 Executive of the Year Bob Myers in Golden State, but might not have full clearance to pursue his vision. Hawks owner Tony Ressler said in late April that the team will make "every effort imaginable" to keep Millsap, and Mike Budenholzer, who was just demoted from the front office, called keeping the forward "without a doubt what is best for us." What the Hawks do with Millsap may also show who holds the reins in the front office.

Also in April, when Wes Wilcox was still GM and Budenholzer hadn’t yet been demoted from his role as president, Ressler told the AJC that the position is "what I say it is. … It has the loudest voice, not the final word. There’s a dramatic difference." Ressler has no interest in a rebuild, which leaves Atlanta — even with more money in cap holds than active contracts — with little latitude.