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For most NBA teams, the stretch run of the regular season is a time for playoff-seeding tussles and meaningful games galore. A few squads can even use the final turn to rest up in advance of post-April championship pushes.
To others, though, these next few weeks are just a reminder that free agency cannot get here fast enough.
Hello, Esteemed Tankers.
Not all of the Association’s nadir enthusiasts are indifferent to what happens between now and year’s end. Deliberate losing demands skill and painstaking preparation. This season’s race to the bottom is overcrowded and vicious, and the most committed participants will spend what remains of their schedule jostling for better lottery odds.
But teams entrenched in the NBA’s basement can already begin dreaming about free agency. Their short-term fates have been laid bare, so the focus shifts to big-picture agendas. They have license to eye their targets before the rest of the league.
Identifying the most pressing summertime priority for every bottom-feeder can be difficult prior to the draft. But we have a general idea of the timeline they’re following, the cap sheets they’re working with and what might happen during June’s prospect pageant. That allows for some educated speculation.
Squads like the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers won’t qualify for this subset. Since they don’t control their own first-round picks, they have no incentive to tank.
Late-season epiphany-havers such as the Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons will be similarly discarded. They’ve spent at least 80 percent of the season trying to exist outside of this bubble. Any 11th-hour free-falls they may design aren’t enough for them to gain entry.
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Picking up a combo wing to share larger perimeter assignments with Taurean Prince isn’t a bad idea for the Atlanta Hawks. But they have DeAndre’ Bembry to play around with, and Kent Bazemore likewise lingers until they find a home for the final two years and $37.4 million left on his contract.
Targeting a playmaking 4 is equally intriguing. Prince is more of a 3 who dabbles at power forward for the time being, and the Hawks are no strangers to rolling out John Collins at the 5. Close to half of the rookie’s minutes have come at center, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Those lineups should be running roughshod over opposing defenses. Only, they aren’t. Atlanta is posting a sub-100 offensive rating with Collins manning the 5, per Cleaning The Glass.
Adding a crafty 4 to these ensembles should help the numbers turn. And the Hawks have the money to make waves. They’ll wake up on July 1 with more than $18 million in spending power. They’ll have even more than that if Dewayne Dedmon and/or Mike Muscala decline their player options.
Using Collins as a full-time center is too much of a risk at this juncture. He lacks the experience making reads around the rim or outmaneuvering burlier bigs on the glass to anchor an above-average defense. The Hawks are vomiting up more than 113 points per 100 possessions when he’s the lone tower.
Besides, they’re tracking toward Marvin Bagley III/Michael Porter Jr./Jaren Jackson Jr. territory on draft night. That’ll take care of their combo-wing or off-the-bounce-4 needs. Depending on where they land, the Hawks might pick up someone who can fill both voids.
Beefing up their rim protection via the draft will be harder. Deandre Ayton is a work in progress on defense, and they’ll likely need a top-two selection to get him. Choosing Mohamed Bamba in the top three—or even top five—feels like a reach. Jackson racked up 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes at Michigan State, but his across-the-map defensive tools will frequently drag him away from the hoop.
Turning to the free-agent market for a shot-swatting specialist offers more of an immediate upgrade. And it won’t matter who Atlanta drafts if Dedmon opts to explore free agency.
The Hawks are not allowing a ton of looks inside the restricted area. They have bigger problems dissuading corner threes. But they don’t employ a patented deterrent. Their defensive shot profile is predicated more on scheme than talent. And with the league drowning in bigs, rim protection is bound to come cheaper.
Potential Targets: Clint Capela (restricted); Ed Davis; Nerlens Noel; Lucas Nogueira (restricted); Jusuf Nurkic (restricted)
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Obvious needs are the best.
Feast your eyes on the physical makeup of the Chicago Bulls’ swingmen and wing corps:
- Antonio Blackeney (two-way contract): 6’4″
- Justin Holiday: 6’6″
- Zach Lavine (restricted): 6’5″
- David Nwaba (restricted): 6’4″
- Denzel Valentine: 6’6″
- Paul Zipser (non-guaranteed): 6’8″
Some of the Bulls’ point guards can hang tough defending up a position. Kris Dunn is asphyxiation personified, and the 6’4″ Jerian Grant falls on the taller end of the floor-general spectrum.
Nwaba deserves an extra shout-out here as well. He’s listed under 6’5″, but he pesters wings and the occasional small-ball 4 like he’s 6’8″ going on 6’10”. Chicago hasn’t shied away from sticking him on larger assignments.
Once more, with feeling: This still isn’t ideal. Nwaba is a restricted free agent, Dunn isn’t Marcus Smart and none of the other alternative options are more than average on defense.
The Bulls will have an opportunity to fill some of their gaps in the draft. Mikal Bridges should still be on the board if they don’t move closer to the bottom, and they aren’t yet out of the running for Luka Doncic or Michael Porter.
But one switch-most-things prospect isn’t enough if the Bulls want to build up their defense. They’ll have cash to burn while floating LaVine’s cap hold—perhaps more than $20 million. They must be judicious in their offseason spending, since they aren’t in position to successfully complete the rare insta-turnaround, but that doesn’t prevent them from sniffing around B-list wings.
Potential Targets: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Rodney Hood (restricted); Jerami Grant; Josh Huestis
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Riffing on the Dallas Mavericks’ annual pursuit of centers is too easy. It gets boring.
Also: Filling out the 5-spot isn’t their most pressing need.
Dirk Nowitzki soaks up ample time at center these days, and by law, we aren’t allowed to assume he’ll retire…ever. Dwight Powell is officially legit and hardly gets stationed at the 4 anymore. Salah Mejri (restricted) won’t cost a fortune to retain. The Nerlens Noel experiment isn’t over yet.
Reeling in a combo wing does more for the Mavericks’ immediate and long-term outlooks—whichever they wind up favoring this summer.
They don’t need a pigeonholed swingman, per se, but Seth Curry (Early Bird free agent) hasn’t played this year, and Wesley Matthews’ season-ending right leg injury is a concern. They don’t technically need a wheelhouse 3 with Harrison Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith in town, but both should be earning plenty of spin at the 4.
Pandering to cross-position logistics for Barnes and Finney-Smith alone is already a delicate balance with Nowitzki, Powell and Maxi Kleber (non-guaranteed) in the fold. Adding another 4-5 man to the rotation only complicates matters. That includes Aaron Gordon.
Dallas is expected to be among the teams that give him a look, according to Sporting News’ Sean Deveney. Though the Orlando Magic will almost assuredly match whatever offer sheet Gordon signs in restricted free agency, the Mavericks have a fairly clear path to $20 million in space.
But for all his physical tools, Gordon shouldn’t be chasing arounds 2s and 3s regularly. The Magic have been there, tried that, and they pivoted away from it accordingly. He’s a defensive question mark even at the 4 and the 5.
Shifting attention to truer wings makes more sense. The Mavericks have the money to chase both young fliers and proven veterans, and they can adjust their scope depending on who they scoop up in the draft and whether they’re interested in expediting their rebuild.
Potential Targets: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Rodney Hood (restricted); James Ennis; Luc Mbah a Moute; Glenn Robinson III
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No silver-tongue snark here.
Holding onto Tyreke Evans past the trade deadline will go down as a colossal failure for the Memphis Grizzlies if they don’t re-sign him this summer. Letting their best player from this season walk for nothing would be inexcusable when they don’t have the cap space to adequately replace him.
Deeming last-minute offers for his services insufficient—as general manager Chris Wallace did at the trade deadline—doesn’t let them off the hook. This clearly wasn’t a matter of the Grizzlies being forced to take on long-term salary as part of any deal. There would have been more talk about a potential buyout if they only passed on moving him for financial reasons.
Memphis wants him. That much is clear. It might not be the right call, but the Grizzlies are married to him now. They don’t fire head coach David Fizdale roughly two breaths into his second season if they’re interested in about-facing away from the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol era. They’ll take this season’s top-three pick, add it to their veteran base and hope that propels them back into the Western Conference’ playoff fray.
Keeping Evans is pivotal to any accelerated reboot. Luckily for the Grizzlies, this summer won’t be kind to non-max stars. That should offset them not owning his Bird rights. Part or all of their mid-level exception (projected to be roughly $8.6 million if they duck the tax) should be right in line with his market value.
Except, other teams will have access to that same amount of coin as well. That makes Evans’ potential return a matter of personal preference. The Grizzlies can sweeten the pot by giving him an opt-out after one season and promising to re-sign him in 2019 using Early Bird rights, but he must buy into their direction for that to hold weight.
“How does Evans feel about his time in the organization and city?” the Commercial Appeal‘s Chris Herrington wrote following the trade deadline in February. “About his role going forward or the team’s prospects? About the awkward public push-and-pull of returning to the team after being sent away?”
The Grizzlies better cross their fingers that Evans isn’t turned off by this season’s onset drama, injury infestation and resulting tank. They can’t afford to be working from yet another position of weakness in contract negotiations.
Potential Targets: Tyreke Evans, duh.
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The New York Knicks need more of the most important asset in basketball. Total shocker.
Courtney Lee satisfies the three-and-D requirements, but he’s 32. He doesn’t share the Knicks’ timeline. Lance Thomas can line up against most wings and is knocking down more than 40 percent of his triples over the past three seasons, but he turns 30 in April, and his efficiency comes amid modest volume.
Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t meet even the most fundamental three-and-D standards. He’s shooting under 32 percent from beyond the arc this season, and the defensive boon he enjoyed with the Hawks has faded while logging more time against rival starters.
Michael Beasley isn’t a big-picture answer to anything for the Knicks. Damyean Dotson and Troy Williams are low-risk, medium-reward dice rolls. Frank Ntilikina defends like a wing, but he’s a hesitant three-point launcher with the sub-33 percent clip to prove it.
Leaning on the draft is the Knicks’ best chance of landing a sweet-shooting defensive do-gooder. They’re within range of selecting Mikal Bridges or Kevin Knox. Luka Doncic becomes a remote possibility if the Bulls, Kings, Mavericks and Nets close out the season on win-column tears.
Making a noticeable splash in free agency demands the Knicks chisel out more cap space. Stretching the final two years of Joakim Noah‘s contract over the next five won’t even do much if, as expected, Ron Baker ($4.5 million) and Enes Kanter ($18.6 million) exercise their player options.
In the event Kyle O’Quinn decides to explore free agency (player option) and the Knicks waive Noah, they can squeak past $12 million in wiggle room without cutting costs elsewhere. They’ll have to broker a veteran salary dump or two to open up building-block money.
Just as well, because with Kristaps Porzingis expected to be out until at least Christmas, the Knicks aren’t going anywhere special next season. Playing what few cards they have this summer hamstrings them a little later, when cap space will mean more to their immediate prospects.
For now, they should keep trafficking in cheapo trial-runners on the right side of 26 or 27 who might pack a harder-than-advertised punch.
Potential Targets: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Treveon Graham (restricted); Mario Hezonja; David Nwaba (restricted); Glenn Robinson III
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack make up the Magic’s entire point guard rotation. Seriously. Them. That’s it. They need another floor general after deciding a second-round pick was worth more than riding out Elfrid Payton’s restricted free-agent market.
Going point guard-less cannot be in the cards. The Magic don’t have do-everything ball-handlers who can shoulder high-volume workloads.
Evan Fournier and Jonathon Simmons are fine in small doses. Terrence Ross (when healthy) is an experimental option. Ditto on Mario Hezonja, who probably won’t even be on the team next year. Aaron Gordon doesn’t have the vision or pull-up chops to be an effective initiator. Rodney Purvis is a safety valve.
Looking to the draft for the answer is a similarly unpalatable option. Taking either of this year’s two best point guard prospects, Trae Young and Collin Sexton, inside the No. 5 would be a significant reach.
Free agency remains the Magic’s most efficient mode of point guard hunting—and that’s not saying much, because they’re not flush with cap space. As Orlando Magic Daily’s Philip Rossman-Reich wrote:
“That is perhaps one of the most disheartening things about the Magic’s current situation. They are bad. And bad full of young veterans and long contracts. They do not have the financial flexibility to help take on bad contracts to flip over the roster or go out in free agency and find the players they want there.
“Filling out needs is going to take some time. And a bit of patience. Or some tricky financial calculus in the trade market.”
The Magic will crawl past the cap if they carry Gordon’s contract hold ($16.5 million) and don’t waive Mack’s non-guaranteed deal. Unless they renounce Gordon or work some serious salary-dumping voodoo, they’re not dredging up more than mid-level money.
On the bright side, this summer isn’t the one to shell out prime-time money for point guards. The pool of available talent thins out considerably after ticketing Chris Paul for a return to the Houston Rockets and factoring in Isaiah Thomas’ post-injury slide.
Orlando will have the money necessary to enter the running for the best toned-down options. The bad news? So will almost everyone else.
Potential Targets: Dante Exum (restricted); Yogi Ferrell (restricted); Tim Frazier; Shane Larkin; Fred VanVleet (restricted)
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All signs point toward the Phoenix Suns being one of the NBA’s most aggressive offseason shoppers. They are among the scant few teams with relatively effortless paths to $20-plus million in play money and have the urgency to pay impact talent with Devin Booker due for a substantive raise by 2019-20.
Oh, and general manager Ryan McDonough also says so.
“There are certain core pieces that are starting to solidify,” he told AZCentral.com’s Scott Bordow in January. “I think we’d be foolish or naive to wait forever or be overly patient. We’ve been, I think, relatively disciplined with contracts we’ve given out in terms of length and dollars, but yeah, we’re planning on being one of five of six teams with a decent amount of cap space, and we’ll see if we can improve the team.”
Some will want the Suns linked to a defensive linchpin in the middle. Don’t be one of them.
If Phoenix wins the lottery and drafts Deandre Ayton, then so be it. Otherwise, actively investing in the frontcourt logjam verges on reckless. The Suns need to break up the Dragan Bender-Tyson Chandler-Marquese Chriss tricycle before favoring size—and this assumes Alex Len and Alan Williams (non-guaranteed) are history.
Shooting should be everything to this team. It doesn’t matter from where.
Point guard, on the wings, even up front—the Suns need spacing everywhere. They’re 22nd in three-point frequency, ground zero for outside accuracy and dead-last in spot-up efficiency. They need snipers to circle Booker drives and pick-and-rolls, and to open up cutting lanes.
Inking another shooting guard would be foolish with Booker in tow—unless he can be permanently moved to the 3. Surfing the point guard market has its merits. The Suns have the inside track on re-signing Elfrid Payton (restricted), but he’s nailing under 23 percent of his threebies since coming over from the Magic.
Sweet-shooting combo wings are never a foolish venture. They’ll preferably be defensive studs, but one-sided swag isn’t a deal-breaker. The rest of the league is hot for the same player archetype, and the Suns, frankly, should be desperate to acquire anyone with a half-competent stroke.
Potential Targets: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Wayne Ellington; Joe Harris; Doug McDermott (restricted); Fred VanVleet (restricted)
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Peruse the Sacramento Kings’ depth chart, and you’ll find no shortage of prospects at every turn:
- Point Guards: De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason III
- Wings: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson
- Bigs: Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles, Skal Labissiere
Bruno Caboclo and JaKarr Sampson can be thrown into the ring if we’re feeling generous. But we don’t need to be that benevolent. The Kings have enough projects on their hands.
Few of them have star ceilings. Fox is the only one as of now. Bogdanovic comes pretty close, but he’ll be 26 by the time his sophomore campaign tips off. He’s closer to his peak than most other newbies.
This sheer volume of youthful(ish) contributors encourages the Kings to approach the offseason without predetermined aims. They have the prospects to get by in every area, but not to the degree they should limit their interests.
Happy mediums like this are both a blessing and curse—particularly for the Kings. They have the personnel and proximity to over $20 million in offseason allowance to lust after talent at large, but can they be trusted with such extensive freedom?
Might they pay the wrong players, again, just like last summer?
Should they even be adding talent? Or should they instead be looking to lease out cap space in exchange for picks and cost-controlled assets?
Gauging the unwanted-salary landscape must absolutely be on the Kings’ to-do list. But they don’t have to sit out the free-agency festivities altogether. Ambitious offers for long-shot names, under the age of 25, who ooze building-block potential are worthwhile gambles.
Potential Targets: Kyle Anderson (restricted); Clint Capela (restricted); Aaron Gordon (restricted); Jabari Parker (restricted); Julius Randle (restricted)