Free agency is a complicated time full of misdirection, brief opportunities, and a whole lot of persuasion. We’ve put together these shopping lists to ensure every team stays on track.
San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 record: 61-21, eliminated in the Western Conference finals
Restricted free agents: Jonathon Simmons
For about 23 minutes, the Spurs put the fear of God into the Golden State Warriors. And then Kawhi Leonard landed on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, suffering his third left ankle sprain in a six-day span and ending his season, and that, as they say, was that. The Warriors rolled to a four-game sweep, leaving in their wake questions about what might have been and what comes next for a Spurs team that remains among the NBA’s elite, but still finds itself in transition.
The Spurs now inarguably belong to Leonard, an MVP finalist who took his game to new heights during the regular season and was even more of a holy terror in the playoffs before succumbing to a busted wheel. So long as he is ambulatory, the Spurs can be a title contender. He needs help, though, and a San Antonio braintrust led by general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich must figure out how to provide it while navigating some treacherous waters.
Tony Parker vows to be better than ever this season. The 35-year-old won’t get to start making good on that promise until January, though, as he works back from a ruptured left quadriceps tendon that leaves major questions about how effective he can be. We still don’t know whether we’ve seen the last of Manu Ginobili. Key reserve Patty Mills, an unrestricted free agent, could be in line for big offers elsewhere, and rumored target Chris Paul decided to head about 3 1/2 hours east of San Antonio instead. That leaves only 3-and-D man Danny Green, second-year point guard Dejounte Murray (who showed flashes in brief postseason deployment) and rookie Derrick White (who’s got a whale of a story) in line to be in the backcourt on opening night.
Leonard took steps forward as an initiator last season, but he’d still benefit from working with an ace point guard capable of working off the ball, too. If the Spurs were really looking to make a CP3-level splash with machinations like getting Pau Gasol to decline his player option for next season to create more financial flexibility and exploring the trade market for postseason disappointment LaMarcus Aldridge, would they be willing to go through the same process for Kyle Lowry? If not, San Antonio’s best bet might be trying to bring back Mills, or waiting out the point guard market to see if a reunion with forever Pop favorite George Hill might be in the cards. (There are also those pesky Derrick Rose rumors, which frankly don’t make much sense to me, but must at least be considered.)
The Spurs can match any offer sheet tendered to Simmons, an energetic, defensive-minded athlete who shined when pressed into duty as Leonard’s replacement late in the postseason. They might decide, though, that they’d be better served letting him walk rather than committing big money for a 28-year-old with a limited offensive game, and look to fill the hole on the wing by bringing over 2011 draft-and-stash Adam Hanga, a 6-foot-7 swingman who just earned recognition as the Euroleague’s best defender. The same might hold true of center Dewayne Dedmon, a key cog in San Antonio’s league-best regular-season defense who found himself out of the rotation by the end of the playoffs, and who might have a replacement waiting in 2015 first-rounder Nikola Milutinov, a 7-footer who plays for Greek power Olympiacos.
The Spurs don’t act rashly. They know how good a team they had last year and what might have been had Kawhi landed softly; they may choose to just spend their cap space trying to bring back as much of last year’s squad as possible, with an extra bell or whistle to bolster depth, and to run it back. But last year’s last year, the game’s only getting more fierce out West, and the Spurs are only two years removed from swinging for the fences for a star at a position of need. If Buford and Popovich see an opportunity to land a backcourt difference-maker who helps them match up with Golden State and Houston while easing the transition out of the Parker/Ginobili era, don’t be surprised if they act aggressively.
2016-17 record: 55-27, eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals
Unrestricted free agents: Nene
Restricted free agents: Bobby Brown, Troy Williams
Having added Paul to MVP runner-up James Harden in a Mike D’Antoni offense that should remain at or near the very top of the NBA in offensive efficiency, Morey now turns his attention slowing down the other best attacks in the West — namely, those in Golden State and San Antonio. He’ll keep Kevin Pritchard’s phone line burning up in pursuit of Paul George. He might try to bundle some of the non-guaranteed contracts he’s amassed with future draft picks and other assets to engage the Atlanta Hawks in a sign-and-trade for Paul Millsap, who could be a dynamite fit as a defensively versatile frontcourt partner for Clint Capela.
He could look to use the salary cap exceptions the Rockets retained by pulling off the CP3 deal before July 1 — the full midlevel exception of $8.4 million per year and the biannual exception of $3.2 million per year — on more frontcourt help, behind Capela and Ryan Anderson. As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe notes, the MLE might not quite be enough for the likes of JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson — two smart, capable defenders with some stretch to their games — but it might be enough to add several other veteran pieces interested in joining up with a contender. The BAE might be enough to bring back Nene, who was great in his first season in Houston before a season-ending injury in the playoffs.
Being able to put Paul or Harden on the floor at all times should ensure that the Rockets can score on just about anybody, even in the crucible of the postseason. Whether they can get import personnel to improve their capacity to get stops could be the difference between remaining a high-priced also-ran and becoming a real threat to rise to the top of the West.
2016-17 record: 43-39, eliminated in the first round
Unrestricted free agents: Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Vince Carter
Restricted free agents: JaMychal Green
This is, as friend of the program Geoff Calkins notes, a different kind of free-agency period for the Grizzlies. After spending recent years needing to focus their efforts primarily on bringing back one member of their core — Allen in 2013, Z-Bo in 2014, Marc Gasol in 2015 and Mike Conley last summer — Memphis now faces losing the two players who more than any other have defined the most successful era in franchise history, as well as a hard-nosed and versatile forward (the 27-year-old Green) who has earned his way into a starting role and a double-digit annual salary.
Much depends on how high that double-digit number is. Closer to $10 million a year, and the Grizzlies likely match it to keep Green next to Gasol, which might make it more likely that Randolph — getting up there in years, but largely excellent as a sixth man last season — seriously courts offers to assume a similar role on a contender elsewhere, loathe as he might be to leave the city where he’s become an icon. Closer to $15 million, and the Grizzlies probably need a new starting power forward, but might be better positioned to keep Z-Bo as a second-unit punisher.
And if Memphis is really only prepared to offer “The Grindfather” a veteran’s minimum deal, fearing a sharp decline for the offensively limited 36-year-old stopper … well, it seems like Allen’s camp wants to make it clear that won’t be enough to get it done:
Will be a strong market for Grizzlies' UFA/perennial DPOY candidate Tony Allen, still an elite wing defender. Likely to sign quickly.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 29, 2017
As painful as letting Allen go might be from a cultural perspective, the Grizzlies would probably be fine with it if they could find a suitable replacement at shooting guard who can actually shoot. Those won’t be easy to come by, though — seriously, check out the list of free-agent two-guards — and if another suitor swoops in on Green with an offer too rich for Memphis’ blood, there might be worse alternatives than running it back with the foundational tandem of Allen and Randolph for another year or two. Should Green and/or Randolph leave, it’d be awfully nice to see youngsters Jarell Martin and Deyonta Davis get a crack at filling their roles; this is, after all, why you use first-round and high-second-round picks.
From a structural standpoint, the Grizzlies’ needs remain what they’ve been since time immemorial: more wings who can shoot and make plays, and a backup point guard to remain afloat when Conley rests. If Shaun Livingston winds up squeezed out of Golden State, he’d be perfect; if not, the hope will be that Wade Baldwin IV and Andrew Harrison take significant steps forward in their second seasons. Barring major leaps forward, though, the Grizz could find themselves scouring the market and hoping to strike
gold silver bronze with point men like Aaron Brooks, Darren Collison and Shelvin Mack, or shooting guards like Rodney Stuckey, Randy Foye or the immortal Jason Terry.
Given the concerns at power forward and with perimeter playmaking, especially if Carter (still arguably Memphis’ best reserve wing at age 40) leaves town, the best possible addition they could make is a healthy Chandler Parsons. Given the way last year went, though, I’ll believe he’s good to go when I see it. This was always the danger when the Grizz decided to go all-in with max deals for Gasol, Conley and Parsons — that they’d wind up top-heavy and capped out, without the necessary flexibility to fill in the gaps. If Memphis can’t get Parsons right and can’t get creative in a hurry, their perennial playoff status might be on shaky ground.
New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 record: 34-48
Unrestricted free agents: Jrue Holiday, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas
Restricted free agents: None
The Pelicans probably have no choice but to open up the checkbook to retain Holiday when he hits the unrestricted market. If they don’t bring him back, they’ll only have about $13 million to find a replacement at the point. That’s not enough to afford someone capable of doing what Holiday does when he’s healthy — play very good defense at either guard spot, run the offense, space the floor, and complement the interior tandem of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
“When he’s healthy” is a pretty significant conditional. The 27-year-old has missed 122 games over his four-year tenure in New Orleans. But with former reserve Tim Frazier shipped out to the Washington Wizards, and no evident options on the market likely to be as productive as Holiday in New Orleans’ price range, locking him up is the Pelicans’ most significant order of business.
If they can keep Holiday in the fold, the other big issue is finding any sort of shooting on the wing that can open up room for Davis and Cousins. The problem: bringing back Holiday probably vaporizes the Pelicans’ cap space. (The lesson: be wary of paying eight figures for Omer Asik and Solomon Hill.) That means they’re going to be competing with the other teams trying to get sub-star wings to take their midlevel exception. A name to watch: Justin Holiday, a 6-foot-6 wing who played pretty well as a 3-and-D sort for the New York Knicks last season, and who also happens to be Jrue’s brother. They’d like to play together someday.
They do own all of their own future first-round picks — weirdly, right now the Pelicans are the only team in the NBA that’s not set to receive any future picks or send any out — and could go fishing on the trade market for floor-spacing defenders using a future No. 1 as bait. Might a Clippers team interested in asset accumulation think about redirecting the just-acquired Patrick Beverley?
Such later-for-now swaps can be dangerous, though. On one hand, Dell Demps and company need to all possibilities while staring down the barrel of losing Cousins in free agency next summer if they don’t become a viable playoff team. On the other, what if you start flipping future firsts to import present-day help, it still doesn’t work, Boogie leaves in a year anyway, and now you’re without a future asset that return help in keeping AD around long-term? These are tough questions, and the Pelicans are in a tough spot, with even a trio of Davis, Cousins and Holiday promising little in a brutal West.
2016-17 record: 33-49
Unrestricted free agents: Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Romo
Restricted free agents: Nerlens Noel
Dallas’ own free agents should be taken care of in short order. The Mavs will reportedly decline their $25 million option for Nowitzki in favor of giving him a new (and perhaps longer) deal. They also reportedly intend to lock down Noel, who posted strong per-minute numbers after coming over at February’s trade deadline and looks like the glass-clearing, rim-protecting, screen-and-rolling finisher in the middle they’ve needed whenever they haven’t had Tyson Chandler. (With apologies to Brandan Wright.)
Doing so might cost Mark Cuban a pretty penny, whether for the benefit of pre-empting the “multiple” maximum-salary-level suitors reportedly out there for the 23-year-old’s services, or in matching an offer sheet should Noel sign one. Even so, it seems likely Cuban won’t hesitate to pony up for Nerlens, in whose minutes Dallas allowed only 104.8 points per 100 possessions (equivalent to a top-10 full-season defensive rating) and outscored opponents by about the same per-possession margin as the playoff-bound Washington Wizards.
The Mavs have been trying for years to secure a center like Noel. Now that they have one, and an electric pick-and-roll point guard (No. 9 overall pick Dennis Smith Jr.) to go with him, it’s time to let the kids go to work, blessed by the floor-spacing of the eternal German and under the watchful eye of Rick Carlisle.
The hope is that Smith, an explosive playmaker out of North Carolina State with athleticism to burn and a nose for the rim, will help energize a Mavericks offense that played at the league’s second-slowest pace, ranked dead last in free-throw attempts, and finished 23rd among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency. They could stand to add some more firepower, but as Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News notes, bringing back Nowitzki and Noel likely means the Mavs will only have one roster spot to play with, and likely precious little salary cap space to use.
Maybe Donnie Nelson takes flyers on some undervalued potential two-way helpers, as he did successfully last summer with Seth Curry. (If his market’s chilly, someone like Langston Galloway might make sense.) But with the Mavs coming off an admitted tank and seemingly happy to develop their young core and celebrate Dirk rather than pushing for an immediate return to contention, it seems unlikely they’ll look to make any big moves.
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