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NBA Free Agency Primer: Which Teams Should Go for It, and Which Teams Should Rebuild

As we head into free agency, several teams are going all in, while others are rebuilding. And teams are confused about their identity. With Kyrie, Kawhi, Kemba, and more on the market, here’s a look at the teams that should go big and some that should go home.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA has been bifurcated. There are teams that will stop at nothing and sacrifice everything to try to win right now, and there are teams that realize how far away they are from contending and have opted for a slow-and-steady rebuild. That leaves us with fewer franchises that work their way up from somewhere closer to the middle, such as the Portland Trail Blazers, a franchise that has preached at the church of continuity for years now, and finally had its faith rewarded with its first Western Conference finals appearance in two decades.

That kind of patience has never been the Los Angeles Lakers’ thing. They ended up functionally punting on the second half of last season, but with an aging LeBron James on the roster it’s no surprise that they stayed thirsty for Anthony Davis and paid a premium to acquire him from New Orleans. I heard some snickering from rival executives that general manager Rob Pelinka botched the details of the deal and thereby handicapped the Lakers as they try to fill out a roster.

Pelinka and the Lakers will have to get creative now. Media members and other league executives are curious how L.A. plans to allocate the available funds. Will the Lakers use most of it to grab one big(ish) name or will they chop it into smaller pieces and look for cheap(ish) role players? For reference, here’s what some unrestricted free agents made last season: Terrence Ross ($10.5 million), Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5 million, though he’s likely in line for a nice raise), JJ Redick ($12.25 million), and Ricky Rubio ($14.97 million). Grabbing even one or two midtier guys will rapidly deplete the Lakers bankroll—which is why it seems so unlikely that L.A. will find a way to convince Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, or Kyrie Irving to try their luck in Hollywood. They’d have to take a lot less. It just seems implausible—although, with LeBron’s son Bronny out here trying to IG reunions into existence, who knows how silly the NBA’s silly season might get. Either way, going this route still makes sense for L.A. They’re the Lakers; boom or bust are always their only options.

The trade was even better for New Orleans, for decidedly different reasons. AD wanted out. Now new executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin can give first overall pick Zion Williamson everything the Pelicans never gave Davis by transforming AD into an incredible haul. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart all fit with Williamson on the Pelicans’ new timeline, and they added Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker on draft night. And between the pick swap and future first-rounders that were included in the AD deal, the Pelicans essentially control the Lakers draft for the next half-decade, at which point LeBron will be … [does the math] … very old, making those picks potentially even more valuable. Not to mention that much of that deal will reap dividends when high schoolers are once again eligible for the draft, which is expected to happen in 2022. It’s late June but Griffin might have already locked up next season’s Executive of the Year honor.

In this league, you’re either going for broke or building slow. Los Angeles wants to hoist a trophy next June; New Orleans is taking the scenic route. That’s why the Utah Jazz traded for Mike Conley last week. The Jazz could’ve freed up around $33 million in cap space, but having money isn’t the same as being able to spend it. Lots of teams have lots of cap space this offseason, but as the Sixers learned a year ago, it’s not always easy to convince a free-agent superstar to let you write him a big, fat check. The Jazz bypassed that open-market uncertainty by adding Conley to their backcourt and parting ways with Rubio. In the process, they announced their intentions to contend right now.

With free agency rapidly approaching next week, some franchises might as well mash the gas pedal and follow the Lakers off the go-for-it cliff, while others would be wiser to pump the brakes and take a slower, more scenic route into the future.

Teams Who Are Going for It

Milwaukee Bucks: As anticipated, Khris Middleton declined his $13 million player option and became an unrestricted free agent. He’s expected to have plenty of suitors offer him a four-year max contract. The question is whether the Bucks will have to give him the full five-year max in order to retain his services. We saw how much Milwaukee improved under Mike Budenholzer’s system when the Bucks let Giannis Antetokounmpo do his thing while surrounded by shooters who can also defend. Middleton was a key to that transformation. Finding 3-and-D wings isn’t easy, and keeping Middleton in the mix is a must for Milwaukee despite the cost.

This brings us to Malcolm Brogdon. He’s a restricted free agent who figures to get a lot of attention. The question is how much and at what price? There have been whispers that Chicago and Boston are interested, and Philly could end up in the mix if one or both of its big free agents sign elsewhere. There will be plenty of other suitors. There’s a good chance that the Bucks find themselves in a situation similar to what happened to the Jazz with Gordon Hayward a few years ago, when they have to match a heavier-than-they’d-like offer sheet from another team to keep their player on board. The Bucks also have decisions to make on unrestricted free agents Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic. Under Budenholzer, Lopez became a prolific 3-point threat. He shot 512 3s last season, which was 17th overall in the NBA and first among centers, and made 36.5 percent. The man is going to get paid. If the Bucks aren’t the ones to pay him, that will leave Milwaukee with a big role to fill.

The Bucks gave themselves some financial options on draft night, but they still look like they’re headed for a big bill. Milwaukee awarded Eric Bledsoe a four-year, $70 million extension. Now it’ll have to pay Middleton, probably Brogdon, and a center, too. They’ve gone into the luxury tax only once in franchise history. That’s not surprising giving the market size, but avoiding the tax again this offseason will be difficult if not impossible. Time for the Bucks to ante up. They simply cannot waste Giannis’s prime years. Organizations like Golden State have shown us that constantly contending for a title is expensive. Six of the 10 teams with the highest payrolls last season made the playoffs; three of the conference finalists were in the top six, and the Raptors and Warriors were in the top four. Getting within grabbing distance of the Larry O’Brien Trophy requires owners to pay for the privilege. That’s where the Bucks are now, and they aren’t alone.

Brooklyn Nets: That was quick. General manager Sean Marks gets credit for making the Nets the new Sixers, accelerating their process, and getting them back to the playoffs faster than anyone anticipated. Now comes the hard part.

Kyrie Irving reportedly ghosted Boston, fired his agent, and signed with Roc Nation. Michael Yormark is the president of Roc Nation—and his twin brother, Brett, is CEO of the Nets. You don’t need to do too many calculations to see how this adds up. The Nets have two max slots available. Initially, the thinking leaguewide was that Irving and Kevin Durant would team up in New York—if not with the Nets, then with the Knicks. But when KD blew out his Achilles in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, that plan got thrown into flux. There has been some speculation that the Nets might be having second thoughts on Kyrie flying solo, but there are other players they could potentially pair with Irving. It’s possible they try to poach Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler from Philly, or try to convince Al Horford to relocate from Boston to Brooklyn.

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Three
D’Angelo Russell
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There are other complications here. According to Marc Stein, Spencer Dinwiddie has been instrumental in recruiting Kyrie. But there are only so many guards the Nets can reasonably keep, and only one ball to go around. The Nets had success last season playing fast and shooting 3s with Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and newly minted All-Star D’Angelo Russell. Adding Irving to that group seems untenable. The simple fix is probably to let Russell walk even though it was only two years ago that the Nets took on Timofey Mozgov’s bloated contract and surrendered the rights to Kyle Kuzma to rescue Russell from the Lakers. Letting Russell go might be painful—Karl-Anthony Towns is already openly recruiting his pal to join him in Minnesota, and Phoenix isn’t keeping its interest particularly quiet, though the Suns have been so erratic that it’s impossible to pin down their thinking—but Irving theoretically represents an upgrade, provided he can keep his galaxy brain impulses from short-circuiting the rest of the roster.

That’s a big if, but the Nets have a chance to get two max free agents and supercharge their already impressive reboot. You can’t pass that up, despite the potential pratfalls.

Philadelphia 76ers: It feels like the Sixers are forever having their most important offseason. Here we are again. We’re about to find out what kind of front office Elton Brand commands, and so far the returns aren’t exactly glowing.

The Sixers traded up with Boston—dangerous words—to take Matisse Thybulle in the first round, then offloaded most of their picks and Jonathon Simmons to shave a few dollars off their payroll. Brand told reporters he needs “every dollar I can get” so the Sixers can “go into free agency and get the players we need.” Perhaps, but he’ll never convince Process Twitter that passing up second-round lotto tickets to squirrel away money is smart. Besides, there’s an argument to be made that young talent on cheap rookie deals is exactly what a potentially capped-out team would want.

The only way Philly fans don’t break out the pitchforks now is if Brand pulls off the Run it Back high-wire act. At present, the Sixers have just six players under contract—Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith, Jonah Bolden, Shake Milton, and Haywood Highsmith. Two of those players are on two-way deals. There is a high degree of difficulty here and Brand is leaving a lot to chance.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three
Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Sixers boasted they had the best starting five east of Oakland, but three-fifths of that lineup are unrestricted free agents. Jimmy Butler was an integral part of the Sixers postseason; they put the ball in his hands and ran more pick-and-roll with him as the ball handler. As a consequence, that marginalized Simmons, reducing him to what was essentially the last offensive option, mainly operating as a floor-spacer/decoy in the dunker spot. (Simmons’s points, rebounds, assists, and shots per game all dipped significantly from the regular season to the playoffs, and his usage rate fell from 22.1 to 16.6.) Not surprisingly, Simmons wasn’t happy with that assignment and told Zach Lowe back in May, “that’s not my role,” and insisted he’s more valuable than that. Maybe. But bringing back Butler isn’t just a matter of giving him the full five-year max. It also has ripple effects that will determine how the Sixers play next season and beyond, and how they deploy Simmons, who is in line for a rookie extension.

And that’s if Butler even wants to stick around. A month ago, Rajon Rondo suggested Jimmy might want to get buckets elsewhere. There have lately been whispers around the league about the Rockets eyeing the Texas native—though that would take some creative maneuvering by Houston’s front office amid speculation that “there’s too much damn turmoil” in that organization—and with KD going down, there might be a new opportunity for Butler to leave Broad St. for Broadway and sign in New York.

Tobias Harris could also be on the move. Brooklyn has been mentioned in league circles as a potential landing spot. I’m higher on Butler than Harris after what we saw from both in the postseason—Harris periodically vanished at inopportune moments—but losing Harris would reflect poorly on a trade that already doesn’t look great. The Sixers gave the Clippers two first-round picks, including the juicy unprotected 2021 Heat pick, and they threw in JJ Redick starter kit Landry Shamet, who would have been a cheap and useful perimeter player for the next several seasons.

Even if they can convince both Butler and Harris to stay, filling out the rest of the roster is going to become extremely complicated. Embiid will make $27.5 million. With Butler and Harris on max deals ($32.7 million each), and Simmons making $8.1 million on the final year of his rookie deal, you’re already over $100 million. When Simmons’s rookie extension kicks in next offseason, team building will move into the skyscraper phase. Even bringing back someone like Redick at a number roughly equivalent to what he made last season will become challenging. And not bringing back Redick, when the Sixers were so frequently desperate for shooting during the season and postseason, is an equally terrifying thought.

Managing partner Josh Harris repeatedly said the Sixers are willing to open their checkbook and go into the luxury tax. That’s the smart(er) play here. It’s tough to find five starters that are as good as what the Sixers fielded. If they can bring them all back, they should—especially because they were one Kawhi Leonard bounce away from potentially advancing in the playoffs. Then they can worry about the rest of the roster later—and, likely, for a long time to come. The 2019 Transitive Property Champs don’t have a choice.

Dallas Mavericks: This is more of a hunch that would fall into a qualified “could be going for it” category. Mark Cuban has never been a patient owner, and he’s taken a lot of big swings over the years in free agency. Many of those have resulted in misses—Chris Bosh and the botched initial courtship of DeAndre Jordan come to mind. But in the case of Jordan, Cuban couldn’t help himself and went after the center last offseason, and signed him to a one-year, $22.9 million do-over deal even though Jordan was plainly in decline and not nearly the version Dallas would have gotten a couple of seasons earlier. Luka Doncic is only 20 years old. With him leading the way, the Mavericks could take a slow-and-steady approach into the future. That might be the smart play, but it feels like Cuban is probably a bit itchy at this point and ready to accelerate the timeline. The Mavericks missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and they haven’t made it out of the first round of the postseason since 2011—the year they won it all. When they traded two first-round picks to acquire a still-rehabbing Kristaps Porzingis, it seemed like the Mavs were signaling that they want to compete in 2019-20 rather than sitting out another campaign.

The Mavs have around $46 million in practical cap space available before addressing Porzingis’s restricted free agency. That’s probably not enough to woo Kyrie or Kemba, but it gets them close enough to the conversation that they could think about getting creative in order to free up more room, possibly by stretching Courtney Lee’s contract or letting one of their restricted free agents go. Al Horford would also be a good fit for Dallas. (At present, every team everywhere is rumored to be looking in Big Al’s direction.) There have also been whispers about the Mavs eyeing Butler. (The deeper we get into the offseason and the more teams pop up with potential interest in Butler, the less confident I become in the Sixers retaining him.) If the Mavericks add one more high-end player to go with their two young stars, Dallas instantly has a new big three and you’d have to lump them in with the rest of the overcrowded field of wannabe Western Conference contenders. It’s not that big a leap from here to there, and I’m betting Cuban will jump.

Teams Who Should Consider a Rebuild

Charlotte Hornets: By virtue of making the All-NBA team, Kemba Walker qualifies for a five-year supermax worth $221 million. That’s a lot more money. I added up the numbers and everything. It checks out. Which is why I was so flabbergasted when Walker recently said he’d take less money to stay in Charlotte. It’s an upside-down world. The only reason to stay in Charlotte would be to take more money, not less. If he wants to get less money, he should consider jumping to either team in L.A. or some other destination that might offer him a better chance at winning a championship, oh, I dunno, ever.

Kemba is pretty plainly the best player the organization has had in a long time, but this is a situation when they might be saved from themselves if he walks. Charlotte can finally hit a hard reset. If Walker stays and they pay him the supermax or whatever the impossible-to-fathom Kemba hometown discount might amount to, the Hornets will undoubtedly feel the need to put some semblance of a team around him to try to make the playoffs. But even if Walker stays, what’s the Hornets’ realistic ceiling? Charlotte has won more than 40 games just twice since Kemba entered the league in 2011-12, and they lost in the first round in both of their postseason appearances. The Hornets sniffed around the back end of a bad Eastern Conference playoff picture this past season and couldn’t get past the Magic and Pistons for the final slots, two teams that aren’t exactly juggernauts. Without Kemba around, at least the Hornets would be freed up to detonate any pretense of trying to compete.

Of course, in that scenario, the people entrusted with the rebuild would hardly inspire confidence. Michael Jordan’s reign has been rough. With Jordan in charge, the Hornets famously turned down a monster six-pick offer from the Celtics so they could draft Frank Kaminsky. That’s obviously insane in retrospect, but it was equally baffling at the time. I covered the 2015 NBA combine in Chicago. I’ll never forget one league executive describing Kaminsky’s wingspan as so short “he can’t reach into his pockets to fish out his wallet.” Now that I think about it, the Hornets should reboot everything from ownership on down. In the absence of that, they really ought to pick a lane here. They’d be in a stuck-in-the-middle category if we had one; it’s their natural and constant operations—which is the worst possible place for any NBA team to be. If they can’t actually contend for a championship—and no matter how long I squint at them, I can’t see that happening in the near future—then it makes more sense to bottom out today and plan for a better tomorrow.

Miami Heat: I will stipulate that this won’t happen. Pat Riley has always made his distaste known for anything even remotely resembling a rebuild. He grumbled about the Heat’s disappointing 2018-19 season and promised “there will be changes” as a result. In April, Riley told the South Florida Sun Sentinel there “may have been some slippage in some areas across the board” and vowed to “tighten the screws on a culture that sometimes erodes just a little bit.” To Riley’s mind, the worst possible thing the Heat could be is what they’ve become—irrelevant.

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets
Hassan Whiteside
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Despite all the tough talk about screw tightening, Riley admitted that the Heat probably won’t be able to fix what’s broken until the 2020 offseason. That has a lot to do with the Heat’s ugly cap situation. Goran Dragic picked up his $19.2 million player option for next year. Hassan Whiteside—who became unplayable against the Sixers two postseasons ago and wasn’t much better during this past regular season—did the same for $27.1 million next season. Giving Whiteside a max contract was indefensible, and it’s a major reason the Heat haven’t been able to live up to Riley’s standards. Riley has himself to blame. The good news is that they’ll be able to kick Whiteside to the curb when his contract expires next offseason. In the interim, instead of kidding themselves about what they’ve become—a team mired in the mediocre middle of the Eastern Conference since LeBron left them in the lurch—they should figure out a way to clear more money off the books while they’re waiting to bid adieu to Whiteside and Dragic. Maybe they can find takers for Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters (granted, that won’t be easy). At least they’ve got Josh Richardson on a sweetheart deal for at least the next two seasons. He’ll be 26 in September and already looks like the rare 3-and-D young wing that teams would love to build around. The aforementioned 2020 restart makes sense, though I fear Riley won’t have the patience to wait that long. Just consider his bizarre post-draft quote. He is clearly not handling this well. As one league exec put it, “Pat is dying inside right now.” Aren’t we all.

San Antonio Spurs: I hesitate to write this one. Last December, while the Spurs were scuffling and did not look like themselves at all, it seemed that no cavalry was coming for them and that it would finally be the year they missed the playoffs. Almost immediately thereafter, the Spurs stopped scuffling and looked like themselves again and naturally made the playoffs once more. The Spurs don’t need the cavalry to rescue them: They are the cavalry. That’s a lesson they have taught me over and over again for the better part of the past two decades.

But I am hard-headed and also, at some point, don’t the good times have to stop rolling? Gregg Popovich will return for his 24th season with the Spurs. San Antonio has made the playoffs in each of the past 22 seasons, which is tied for the longest streak in NBA history. Popovich has won five titles and is unquestionably one of the greatest coaches the league has ever known. He is also 70 years old and will coach USA Basketball through 2020. I checked a calendar.

San Antonio Spurs v Orlando Magic
Gregg Popovich
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

That’s next summer. After that, we’ll have all the same questions again about whether Pop will return to the Spurs. In the interim, San Antonio is in a weird spot when it comes to roster construction. Four of the Spurs’ best players last season are all older than 30: LaMarcus Aldridge (34 next month), Rudy Gay (33 in August), Patty Mills (31 in August), and DeMar DeRozan (30 in August; they should have a group birthday party). Gay is an unrestricted free agent this summer. DeRozan has a player option for 2020-21, and the Spurs might already be looking to reroute him somewhere else. Meanwhile, the team’s best young players—guards Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Bryn Forbes, as well as Jakob Poeltl—are all 26 or younger. San Antonio isn’t much of a free-agent destination (with the rare exception like Aldridge), despite being a contender for the past 20-plus years. It might be better to offload the older, more expensive players now while they still have some value and reboot this thing on the fly with younger, cheaper players who can help the organization transition from the end of the Popovich era into whatever comes after he decamps.

The Spurs will almost certainly now win 45-50 games and make the playoffs again. You’re welcome, Shea Serrano.

Boston Celtics: I admit this one is partly informed by my inner Philly troll rejoicing whenever something goes sideways for Boston and my buddies from there. Still. It was only a year ago that the Celtics seemed set to launch a dynasty that would last a decade. Now, after a disappointing season fraught with infighting, they’re just trying to keep it all from crumbling. You hate to see it.

It’s so apparent to everyone in Boston that Irving is gone that some of my friends are on Kyrie house watch. There’s a Ewing Theory case to be made that the Celtics are better off without him. And yet, for all the incessant drama, Boston had a plus-6.4 net rating with Irving on the floor but just a plus-0.8 net rating with him off it, per NBA.com. That’s a huge drop-off, and replacing his production won’t be easy. Same goes for Big Al, who declined to pick up his $30.1 million player option next season—ostensibly to get a contract with more years and possibly go someplace with a better chance of winning.

Maybe Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are ready to take on larger roles and be the guys who keep Boston near the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Maybe Gordon Hayward, who did not play well for long stretches of the season after recovering from a gruesome injury, starts to look like himself again. But getting them help is going to require more nifty maneuvering from Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office. Boston’s draft-night moves point to the Celtics clearing cap space to go free-agent shopping. If Irving, Horford, and Terry Rozier walk, and the Celtics renounce the rest of their free agents, Boston could have around $34 million available. According to Shams Charania, the Celtics are eyeing Nikola Vucevic. Even if Rozier sticks around, is adding Vucevic enough to buoy Boston?

The Celtics might be better off taking the NBA’s version of a gap year. Instead of trying to cram a round superstar—I like Vucevic a lot, but we are taking some serious liberties with that word if that’s Boston’s big move—into a square slot to complement what they have, it might be smarter to take a step back in the standings with cheaper/younger in-house personnel and start looking a few years down the road again. That’s obviously not what Ainge had in mind when he stockpiled all those draft picks in the hopes of flipping them for AD or some other top-tier talent this offseason. But sometimes you wait too long to pull the trigger, and by the time you’re ready to take aim, the target has moved. That feels like the predicament the Celtics currently find themselves in.

Besides, doesn’t it kind of feel like Boston actually enjoys the perpetual remodel? Maybe another reboot would be good for everyone. As my Ringer teammate Dan Devine recently wondered, if Kyrie and Boston part company as expected and they have to hit the reset button once more, will the Celtics become fun again? You should read the story. Dan is very good and very smart. And honestly, who among us can say for sure what will happen to the Celtics in a post-Kyrie world?

But to answer Dan’s question: No.