Some of the most high-profile players from the 2014 draft class are entering restricted free agency this summer, and the NBA still doesn’t know what to make of them. Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins are the only top-10 picks to sign extensions on their rookie contracts, and there are whispers that Minnesota already wants to trade Wiggins. The players from that draft are still largely unproven, which puts their teams in a bind. Either the team gives up on a young talent right as he is entering his prime, or it creates a liability by locking into a long-term deal with a player who can’t live up to that contract.
Restricted free agency is tricky. Since teams can match any contract offer their players receive, offer sheets extended by opposing teams are usually above market value. Some are extended with the expectation that they get matched, either as a favor to an agent or to force a rival to use up cap space. All sides involved are playing chicken, which is why contract standoffs can last well into the summer.
With so many teams still hamstrung from decisions they made in the windfall summer of 2016, there may not be many bidders for restricted free agents this offseason. As a result, some RFAs could sign a one-year qualifying offer in order to hit unrestricted free agency next summer. It’s a big risk. Nerlens Noel reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavs last summer, and he may end up getting a minimum contract following an injury-plagued season in which he was benched after repeatedly clashing with the Dallas coaching staff.
There are no easy answers. A team that spent four years developing a young talent can’t afford to lose that talent, but a player who hasn’t made much money can’t afford to turn down a long-term contract, either. With that in mind, here’s a look at the seven most interesting restricted-free-agency decisions this summer.
Clint Capela, Rockets
Capela outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the playoffs, but the holes in his game were exposed in Houston’s loss to Golden State in the Western Conference finals. Unlike most big men, Capela could hold his own on defense against the Warriors. His problems were on offense. Golden State switched every screen, preventing him from rolling to the rim, and he wasn’t able to take advantage of a smaller defender guarding him. Since he couldn’t space the floor, either, Houston was at its best with P.J. Tucker at the 5 in the series.
Those issues would be nitpicking for the rest of the league, but Rockets GM Daryl Morey will have to weigh them carefully. As Morey has admitted in the past, he makes every decision through the lens of beating the Warriors. And even if he doesn’t lure LeBron James to Houston, he’s still going to be low on cash this offseason. Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza are free agents, and Houston is no closer to getting rid of Ryan Anderson’s onerous contract. Can the Rockets really afford to give a huge deal to a player who averaged only 10.3 points a game against Golden State in the Western Conference finals?
Unfortunately for the Rockets, matching up with the Warriors is the least of most noncontenders’ worries. The Mavs are a young team desperate to get back into the playoffs, and Capela would be the perfect fit next to Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. If Dallas pursues him aggressively, that could force Houston to make a decision before it knows whether they are out of the LeBron sweepstakes. The Rockets probably have to re-sign Capela since they have no way to replace his skill set. They just have to hope he still has room to grow on offense.
Marcus Smart, Celtics
Smart is one of the only players in Boston remaining from the team that played in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, and he was one of the keys to the Celtics’ unlikely playoff run in 2018. While he’s an unreliable shooter who tries to do too much on offense, he’s also one of the best defensive players in the league. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he’s capable of switching screens and guarding players at all five positions. Smart is the perfect fit as an energy player off the bench for the Celtics, but he may want a bigger role (and the paycheck that comes with it) on a team without as much elite talent in front of him.
Celtics GM Danny Ainge rarely lets a player walk for nothing. However, something has to give: He already has three players (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford) on max contracts and two more (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) who won’t be on rookie deals forever. The problem with a roster full of high draft picks is they all eventually need to be paid. A long-term deal for Smart might become a problem for Boston by the time it is up.
Smart would be a fascinating fit on the Pacers, an up-and-coming team looking to add players on the same timetable as Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner. Indiana has never been a free-agent destination, so the best use of the team’s cap space may be to splurge on a 24-year-old with room to grow. Smart may not be all that useful off the ball, but he would get more chances to create offense for the Pacers, who are looking for a legitimate second option behind Oladipo.
Julius Randle, Lakers
Even after posting massive numbers (19.5 points on 55.5 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game) after the All-Star break last season, Randle is still a low priority for the Lakers. They have cleared out enough cap space for two max contracts, and they won’t let Randle keep them out of the race for LeBron and Paul George. Much like Capela, he’s at the mercy of what the top players on the market decide unless he can convince another team to sign him to an offer sheet. Projecting Randle’s fit on most teams isn’t quite as simple, though.
For all his statistical production, Randle combines an inability to space the floor (career 25.7 percent 3-point shooter on 0.6 attempts per game) with an inability to protect the rim (0.5 career blocks per game). It’s not easy to find a lineup that makes sense with him. A team that plays him at the 5 would need a lot of good perimeter defenders in front of him to prevent him from having to clean up dribble penetration, while a team that plays him at the 4 would need a lot of good shooters around him to give him driving lanes to the basket.
The Lakers may not offer him a long-term contract even if they don’t sign LeBron and George, since they could still be in a great position to be a free-agent destination in 2019 if they keep their sheets clean. They’re one of the few teams who are willing and can afford to let young players walk for the chance to sign a star, banking on their reputation as a desirable place to play. They already punted on one no. 2 overall pick (D’Angelo Russell) to get ready for this summer. Randle may catch the eye of a team in need, but should Randle return for a year on his qualifying offer, he’ll have to prove to the Lakers that he can become the star they’re chasing in the first place.
Aaron Gordon, Magic
Orlando, more than any team on this list, may not have a choice when it comes to paying its RFA. The Magic have very little to show for a rebuilding effort that has stretched out for six seasons, and they just watched a player they gave up on two years ago (Victor Oladipo) turn himself into an All-Star. At the very least, they need more than what they ended up getting for Oladipo. Even if they don’t believe in Gordon, they may match an offer just to trade him down the line.
Gordon is coming off his best season in the NBA, when he averaged 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.3 assists a game, and shot a respectable 33.6 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game. Other than his remade jumper, the biggest change for him was becoming a full-time 4, a position that allowed him to use his speed and athleticism to get around bigger and slower players. Gordon is not good enough to thrive regardless of situation. Like most young players, he needs to be in the right role with the right teammates around him.
The long-term issue for Orlando is that their past two lottery picks (Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba) might push Gordon back to the 3. The Magic have been tripling down on length and athleticism at every position, and they don’t have the shooters and playmakers to maximize Gordon’s talents. His ability to put the ball on the floor, make plays on the move, switch screens, and defend players at all five positions would make him a fascinating fit as a small-ball 5 on a good team. He may just never get the chance to play that role for the Magic.
Jabari Parker, Bucks
There would be questions about Jabari even if he hadn’t torn the ACL in his left knee twice in his four NBA seasons. Parker’s margin for error is small. Since he doesn’t play much defense or move the ball particularly well, he helps his team only when he can be a dominant individual scorer, and the Bucks already have two big-time scorers in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Jabari was hit-or-miss in their first-round loss to Boston; he scored no more than two points in two games and had at least 16 in three others.
To be fair, no player would be at 100 percent after coming back from consecutive devastating injuries. But there are also no guarantees that Parker will return to the player he was before. He had been coming into his own before the second ACL tear in 2016-17, averaging 20.1 points on 49 percent shooting, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game. He was starting to figure out how to play off Giannis, even though then–head coach Jason Kidd never went to über-small lineups with Giannis at the 5 and Jabari at the 4 that would have been unguardable.
This is not just a basketball decision for the Bucks. Giannis has three years left on his contract, and they don’t want him to think they are cheap. Even if letting Jabari walk is the best move for them in terms of maintaining flexibility, flexibility is a hard thing to sell to a player who sees a former teammate putting up massive numbers on another team. The last thing Milwaukee wants to do is repeat the same mistakes that Oklahoma City made with James Harden. “Jabari ain’t going nowhere,” Antetokounmpo said during his exit interview in late April. If their superstar believes in Jabari, the Bucks may have to keep him.
Zach LaVine, Bulls
The Bucks aren’t the only team weighing what to do with an RFA coming off a torn ACL. LaVine came to the Bulls as part of the Jimmy Butler trade, and he did just enough in his 24 games with them last season to force a tough decision. LaVine averaged 16.7 points a game on 38.3 percent shooting, looking like a future star on some nights and like a guy coming off a knee injury on others. He would have to be a much better player to be worth a long-term contract, and there’s reason to think he will be in his second year back.
LaVine had turned into a dynamic scorer in his final season in Minnesota, averaging 18.9 points a game on 45.9 percent shooting. He’s an elite shooter, and he’s such a good athlete that even a slowed-down version would still be faster than most of the league. The question is whether he can add anything else to his game. He’s a score-first player who doesn’t get to the line much, which makes it hard for him to be efficient, and his thin frame makes defense an issue.
After trading for LaVine and Kris Dunn, and drafting Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Chandler Hutchison, Chicago now has an interesting young player at all five positions. What the Bulls need to figure out is how many can become stars. Lauri showed flashes as a rookie, but he can’t turn the Bulls around by himself. LaVine might have the highest ceiling of the other four players, but he probably has the lowest floor, as well. At the moment, it’s unclear how much Chicago believes in him. We will have a better idea in a few weeks.
Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers
Nurkic is probably the player on this list most likely to sign the one-year tender. There’s not much demand for lumbering centers who don’t have a perimeter game around the NBA, while Portland has invested heavily in Zach Collins, the no. 10 overall pick in last year’s draft, as its center of the future. The Blazers need Nurkic back to stay afloat in the Western Conference, but they probably don’t want to commit to him long term, and it’s unlikely that any other team will force their hand.
Nurkic turned the Blazers around two years ago, when they acquired him in a deadline deal with the Nuggets. He’s a better interior defender than any of their other big men in the Damian Lillard era, and he’s fairly skilled on offense, with the ability to score out of the post and pick apart a defense when they send double-teams. Nurkic is the perfect center for the way the game was played a decade ago, and it’s understandable that he would want to be paid like one.
Unfortunately for Nurkic, Portland’s first-round loss to New Orleans was a textbook example of how the game has changed. The Pelicans started Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic up front, and he couldn’t defend either stretch big man on the perimeter. On the other end of the floor, they blitzed Lillard and C.J. McCollum when they came off screens and dared Nurkic to beat them in four-on-three situations. For as good as he was in the regular season, he just couldn’t keep up when the game speeded up in the postseason. It’s hard to see anyone being willing to pay him big money after seeing that.