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What to Watch for in NBA Free Agency

All eyes are on the fate of Lob City and Gordon Hayward, but there are plenty of other players who could make significant changes to the league’s complexion

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This year’s free-agency period is the calm between two storms. There are no potential signings that could change the balance of power in the NBA in the way Kevin Durant did last summer or LeBron James could next year. Durant is technically on the market again this season, but he’s going to re-sign with the Warriors, as will Steph Curry. The only question is whether either takes enough of a pay cut to help Golden State re-sign Andre Iguodala, whose defensive versatility, playmaking, and veteran presence in the locker room is a huge part of what makes the Warriors tick. The luxury tax bill coming the Warriors’ way might end up breaking them apart, but that’s still a few years down the line.

For now, the rest of the league has to make decisions in the shadow of the Goliath in Golden State. With the exception of the Cavs, who have the threat of LeBron’s departure hanging over their heads, every other team has to ask themselves how much they should invest in the present if their chances of winning a championship are a few years off. Teams with superstars in their prime like the Spurs and the Rockets won’t back off the throttle, but franchises like the Celtics with the option to build a contender for 2020 will have to think long and hard about how much of their future to sacrifice for the now. While Durant and Curry both have lengthy injury histories, Golden State conceivably has enough depth and star power to survive without one of them for extended time, even if another superteam should emerge.

To be sure, competing for championships is not on the radar of most NBA teams in a given year, regardless of who is on top. The majority of the league is just trying to get better on a year-to-year basis, and if that process ends with a 50-win team capable of winning one or two playoff series, there are worse fates. A number of franchises are trying to sneak back into the postseason, and others are hoping merely for respectability. There shouldn’t be quite as many bottoming out and playing for lottery balls as there have been in recent years, which is good news for the players hitting the market this summer. The money won’t be quite as free as it was last year, when the new TV contract created a massive salary cap boom, but plenty of guys will still get paid.

Everyone has different goals in free agency, and different outcomes that constitute success. With that in mind, here are the six groups of players to track over the next few weeks:

The Clippers

Does it make sense to renew Lob City for a seventh season? The Clippers can point to injuries derailing them over the past few years, but even when they are healthy, they have made coming up short in the playoffs an annual tradition. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick are unrestricted free agents, and all three will receive huge offers from other teams. Jerry West left a cushy gig in Golden State in part because he wanted a new challenge, and he certainly took on one when he came to Los Angeles as a consultant.

The problem for the Clippers is that if they re-sign all of their free agents, they won’t have room under the salary cap to make any other moves. Even if they keep only two of the three, they won’t be able to do anything to replace the one they lost. Paul and Griffin have never been particularly close off the court, so it will be fascinating to track how much their decisions affect the other. Could Doc Rivers sell Paul on being the sole star in Los Angeles for a year and teaming up with LeBron in 2018? Or, assuming those teams could clear the cap space to sign him, would he want a fresh start in Houston or San Antonio? Would Blake be interested in being a full-time point forward for a younger and faster version of the Clippers? He could take a similar role in Miami, a franchise in an equally appealing market with a better history of winning.

The most likely scenario might be the least interesting. Paul, as the head of the National Basketball Players Association, negotiated a change to the CBA that allows him to receive a five-year max contract worth upward of $200 million that he couldn’t sign anywhere else, while Griffin’s many injuries might make other teams wary of giving him a contract that would take him through the end of his prime. Steve Ballmer, meanwhile, probably doesn’t want to initiate a rebuild while he’s in the middle of financing a new stadium in Inglewood. Like so many other long-running shows in Hollywood, staying together makes the most financial sense for everyone, even if they have been creatively bankrupt for years.

The Stars

The player everyone will be watching at the start of free agency is Gordon Hayward, who made his first All-Star team last season and has the fate of several franchises in his hands. If he leaves, Utah’s painstaking rebuilding process will get stopped cold in its tracks, and the Jazz will suddenly have a lot of tough decisions to make about the rest of their team. Boston is seemingly confident it will be able to sign him, which would allow them to go all in and package some of their trade assets for Paul George. The dark horse in the Hayward sweepstakes, like they are for every major free agent, is Miami. Pat Riley is Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross, and South Beach is a more pleasant place to live than Salt Lake City or Boston. (Sorry, Bill and Kevin.)

The star most likely to change teams this summer might be Paul Millsap, the only player left in Atlanta from the starting five that won 60 games two seasons ago. Millsap is a 32-year-old without many years left as an elite player, but he’s one of the most versatile forwards in the NBA, a high-level scorer, facilitator, and defender who can fit into almost any lineup or scheme. The Hawks almost traded Millsap last season, and they just dumped Dwight Howard for pennies on the dollar, so it’s hard to see them being able to persuade him to stay, unless they throw a massive sum of money at him, which probably won’t happen. Millsap would look really good next to Nikola Jokic or James Harden, and he would be a great replacement for Blake next to CP3.

Kyle Lowry (AP Images)
Kyle Lowry (AP Images)

The Point Guards

Even if we don’t count Paul, who is in a category of his own, the point-guard market will be absolutely flooded this offseason. Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday, and Jeff Teague will all be available, while teams looking for more of a complementary piece could chase Patty Mills, Shaun Livingston, Derrick Rose, or Darren Collison. The guy in the best position is Holiday, since the Pelicans will be capped out even if he leaves and they have gone all in on building a team around Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. He has all the leverage in negotiations with New Orleans, which means that even his lengthy injury history won’t stop them from backing up the Brink’s truck.

The problem for the other point guards is that the number of potential suitors is drying up. After the 2017 draft, four teams have likely taken themselves off the board: The Nets will want to see what they have in D’Angelo Russell, while the Sixers, Kings, and Mavericks just drafted Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr., respectively. Brooklyn and Philadelphia were expected to set the market when it comes to bidding for a new point guard, and they might now be content to sign a caretaker who can relieve some of the pressure off their young guards without competing with them for minutes.

Lowry is the heart and soul of the Raptors, but they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the East, and may want to retool around DeMar DeRozan rather than hand out huge sums of money to keep their team together. Houston, his former team, is reportedly trying to clear the decks to sign a star, and he could be a much better version of Patrick Beverley. Hill had a solid season in Utah when he was healthy, but he might be their third priority this offseason behind re-signing Hayward and Joe Ingles; he could be intriguing in Minnesota (if they trade Ricky Rubio), or San Antonio, where he spent his first few seasons. Teague’s status depends on what happens with Paul George, and what the Pacers get back for him in a trade. If all of this ends with Lance Stephenson running point full time, everyone wins.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (AP Images)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (AP Images)

The Restricted Free Agents

Handicapping restricted free agency is always tricky. It’s in the best interests of the original teams to act like they will match any offer their players receive, while the teams hunting for restricted free agents often wait until a little later in the process before making their moves, since signing them to a contract means tying up a huge chunk of their salary cap space for a couple of days. RFAs don’t change teams often, but even when they don’t, the contracts they sign can have a huge impact on their original team. One example is Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City.

The best three on the market are Otto Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Nerlens Noel. The Mavs traded for Noel at the deadline and view him as their center of the future, so there’s little chance he’ll go anywhere. Porter will probably stay with the Wizards, unless they can use him in a sign-and-trade for Paul George. Caldwell-Pope will be the most difficult decision of the three, since the Pistons just drafted a shooting guard in the lottery (Luke Kennard) and signing KCP would push their payroll well north of $100 million, even though they have little chance of contending for a title anytime soon.

Teams looking to make slightly less expensive purchases have a lot of options to sort through. There’s Mason Plumlee, a starting-caliber center stuck behind Nikola Jokic in Denver; Jonathon Simmons and Kelly Olynyk, two of the breakout stars of this year’s playoffs; wings of all shapes and skill sets in Joe Ingles, Tim Hardaway Jr., Andre Roberson, Shabazz Muhammad, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Tony Snell; two power forwards who started on playoff teams (Nikola Mirotic and JaMychal Green); and reclamation projects like Alex Len and Ben McLemore.

James Johnson (AP Images)
James Johnson (AP Images)

The Plan B’s

The player in the best position to take advantage of teams who strike out in free agency is Danilo Gallinari, who declined a $16.1 million player option in his contract to hit the market. Gallo has never been a standout defensive player, but he’s a multidimensional 6-foot-10 forward coming off a season in which he averaged 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game on 44.7 percent shooting, including 38.9 percent from 3. While Denver would love to re-sign him, he would be an option to replace Hayward in Utah, team up with Paul in Los Angeles if Blake leaves, or slide into the hole at power forward in Boston.

Another Swiss army knife waiting on what the top free agents decide is James Johnson, who revitalized his career with a great all-around season in Miami. Johnson averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and 3-point percentage, and he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the league. He’s one of the only players capable of matching up defensively with LeBron and Durant, and he could be an interesting wild card for a fringe contender. Rudy Gay and Patrick Patterson are also options at the forward positions, although Gay is a 30-year-old coming off an Achilles injury while Patterson is a fairly one-dimensional shooter best suited to a bench role.

Two cast-offs from Oklahoma City last summer — Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters — could make a splash as well. The Raptors will probably want to re-sign Ibaka after they traded for him at the deadline, but they have a big roster crunch in the frontcourt. Waiters had a breakthrough season in Miami, where he began living up to the offensive potential that made him a top-five pick. They both have holes in their games, but their time with the Thunder is proof they can be key pieces on a championship-caliber team, and they could end up rounding out the rotation of a contender.

The Bargain Bin

Teams that can afford to be patient and wait out the initial rush of free agents should be able to sign some pretty useful players at a relative discount. A good example is what happened last year, when the Spurs watched centers like Timofey Mozgov, Bismack Biyombo, and Joakim Noah sign massive contracts and then swooped in and grabbed Dewayne Dedmon, who ended up being more valuable than any of them. Dedmon exercised a player option to be a free agent again, but the relatively limited number of teams looking for big men might mean he’ll get underpaid in relation to some of his peers.

What should really concern the rest of the league is that the Warriors could end up being even better next season if they are able to pick up the right ring-chasing veterans. Imagine Nene, who had a great postseason for the Rockets, in the Zaza Pachulia role; the seemingly ageless Vince Carter in Ian Clark’s spot; or even Taj Gibson, a 32-year-old who may have missed his chance to sign a big contract in free agency, taking over for David West. For all the people who made fun of West for signing in Golden State, he certainly seemed happy with his decision. The Warriors can’t offer money, but they can offer everything else. In NBA free agency, more often than not, the rich just get richer.