Wednesday October 21st, 2015

The lesson of the last few years of free agency has been that players want to win, although in reality, perhaps it always was that way. What true superstar free agent has ever defected to a bad team in a good market when a better option to win was available?

Perhaps the overemphasis on markets began with Shaquille O’Neal joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, but even that Lakers team had won 53 games the year before and featured a solid young core of Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell, Nick Van Exel, and Eddie Jones. 

Based on the history, it seems unlikely that bad teams in good markets like the Lakers, Knicks, and Nets will lure premium free agents next summer, as none of those teams project to sniff the playoffs this season. The Mavericks have had ample space the last few years as well, but failed to land any game-changing free agents of their own, and do not have much of a young core to appeal to 2016's big free agents.

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Instead some of the most attractive destinations this summer have largely been off the radar for premium free agents in years past. In this unique year where the majority of the league will have maximum cap space, the chance to grow with an outstanding young core could be the trump card. That is not to say that market does not matter at all—and it still will play into these decisions to a degree—but the greatest differentiator is a chance to win.

The Cap

The NBA currently projects the salary cap to jump to $89 million for the 2016–17 season, a $19 million boost over 2015–16 due to the influx of money from the league’s new national TV contracts. But that is an estimate; this time last year, the 2015–16 cap (which eventually settled at $70 million) was projected at a mere $66.3 million. The $89 million cap projection could grow by up to a few million more if teams do not spend enough this year (which could happen given the slow spend rate so far in 2015–16), or if actual revenue exceeds projections.

For purposes of this column, all cap projections will be based on the $89 million cap, meaning a $25.1 million max salary for a player with seven to nine years of experience, and $21 million for a player with fewer than six years of experience.

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The Free Agents

Before the 2015 free agency period, the best players were expected to ink one-year deals to take advantage of the impending cap bonanza. But those free agents chose the bird instead. The shortest contract signed by a big free agent (excluding LeBron James’s unique situation in Cleveland) was Greg Monroe’s two-year deal with a third-year player option.

The result is a weaker 2016 crop than anyone anticipated. The group is especially weak at point guard, and only average at the wing and big positions. Kevin Durant is the only true superstar available, with Dwight Howard, Al Horford, and Mike Conley the only other All-Star-level players.

With so much money in the league, competition for the best free agents will be deep. Which destinations could prove most intriguing to these potential free agents?

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks finally are on the free agent map after signing Greg Monroe, their first major score in recent years. With a new arena on the way and loads of talent with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jabari Parker, Milwaukee could become a destination. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Bucks is that they have too much talent, with a young starter at every position and no clear hole for a free agent to fill. Looking ahead, the Bucks could most likely use an improvement at point guard, where Michael Carter-Williams’s tepid outside shooting is a poor fit for their creators in the frontcourt. But like last summer's free agent class, point guard is extremely weak beyond Mike Conley, who insiders believe is a lock to re-sign in Memphis.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, its best chance to use cap space is this coming summer, when three-fifths of the starting lineup will still be toiling on cheap rookie contracts. By the summer of 2017, a presumed max extension for Antetokounmpo and a possible extension for Carter-Williams would cut into their space.

Without a clear slot in the starting lineup for an available star, the Bucks might be more of a destination for second-tier free agents who can fill in the depth (and particularly the shooting) around their young players. But if free agents want to win, the breadth of young talent in Milwaukee may be unparalleled.

New Orleans Pelicans

Like a few other destinations on this list, New Orleans has never attracted a premium free agent. On the other hand, Anthony Davis might be one of the five best players ever through age 22, and the Pels are scheduled for $20.2 million in space next summer. New Orleans also will have Omer Asik, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, and a few other role players under contract.

Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson are going to be free agents. If the Pels have a successful season, the strategy could well be to stay over the cap and re-sign them with Bird rights under the rationale that their cap space could not buy two equivalent players on the open market. If they go in another direction though, the Pelicans certainly could open up max space with the ability to move smaller salaries like Alexis Ajinca or Dante Cunningham, if needed.

Dare NBA fans dream of the combination of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis? It seems unlikely, but a killer season for New Orleans—and Davis in particular—could change that, or at least appeal to free agents in the second tier. To exceed expectations this year, the Pels will need an immediate turnaround from their roster’s ill health of the past few years, and that continues to be a problem

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Miami Heat

Miami mortgaged the future by trading two first-round picks for Goran Dragic at last year’s trade deadline, but its present may also prove fleeting. With Wade at 33 years old, Chris Bosh at 31, Luol Deng at 30, and even Dragic entering his prime years at 29, this season could well be Miami’s best of the next few unless it can garner significant reinforcements in free agency next summer.

Dragic was far better in Miami after the trade from Phoenix. Even without Bosh, Dragic took over 40% of his shots with the Heat within three feet of the rim (outstanding for a point guard), and converted them at his typical percentage in the high 60s. Paired with a pick-and-pop partner in Bosh who defenses will not want to leave (the two didn’t play a single minute together due to Bosh’s diagnosis of pulmonary embolisms), Dragic can get downhill to the basket even more often. That tantalizing combination harkens back to Dragic’s halcyon 2013–14 season, when he and Channing Frye formed perhaps the most devastating pick-and-pop combo in the league.

Miami could be armed with as much as $36.3 million in cap space next season. Durant, of course, is the pie-in-the-sky target, but signing him likely means losing unrestricted free agent Whiteside, since Miami will have to eat into its cap space to re-sign him.

Coming off a minimum salary, Whiteside’s cap hold will be a miniscule $980,431. If he had been around at least three years, Miami could sit on his cap hold while signing other free agents, then exceed the cap to sign him for anything up to the maximum—much like the Bucks did with Khris Middleton, and the Celtics with Jae Crowder this past offseason. 

But because he has only played for the Heat during the last two seasons, they can only exceed the cap up to the Early Bird exception, which is the greater of 175% of his prior salary or the Estimated Average Player Salary—likely to be around $6 million next season. That won’t be enough to retain Whiteside unless he suffers a disastrous year, so anything the Heat pay him will eat into its cap space to sign other players. If he plays like he did last year while keeping his head on straight, Whiteside could command a maximum contract starting at $21 million on the open market.

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That is to say nothing of Wade. After taking a one-year, $20 million contract to stay in Miami, Wade is closer to being made whole after opting out of the last two years and $44 million of his contract in 2014 and signing for $15 million to help the organization reload. That still leaves the organization about $9 million in the red to him though, and that’s on top of his future market value. 

The Heat will be depending on Wade taking $15 million or less just to re-sign Whiteside if he requires the max. If they want to pay Durant his $25.1 million max, that limits Wade to a contract starting at about $11 million per season, while also letting Whiteside walk. And those numbers do not include re-signing Deng, so the Heat would need Winslow to be ready to really contribute on the wing as a second-year man.

Quite a few gymnastics will be required simply to keep Wade happy and retain Whiteside, not to mention signing anyone else, but a deep run in the East playoffs would make convincing everyone to take the needed discounts a lot more palatable.

Washington Wizards

Last alphabetically but not (they hope) in Kevin Durant’s heart, the Wizards’ chances to convince him to defect seem pretty daunting. Not only do they need to look as if they could win a championship in the very near future, but they need to make their odds look better than Durant’s current employer in Oklahoma City. With Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and a ton of depth already in place for the Thunder, that will be a tall order.

Still, the Wizards’ task is not impossible in the weaker East. With breakout seasons from John Wall (age 25), Bradley Beal (22), and Otto Porter (22), Washington could make a run to the Eastern Conference finals before a presumed loss to Cleveland. If the Wizards, as appears likely, elect to retain Beal’s cap hold of $14.2 million rather than extending him (anything above a $14.2 million starting salary for next year reduces their cap space), they could have a maximum of $31.5 million in space.

As is the case for most teams with cap space, depth will be an issue after acquiring a primary max free agent target. The rest of the roster will consist of Wall, Beal, Porter, Marcin Gortat, and Kelly Oubre. While starting Durant and Porter at forwards would make for an unstoppable starting lineup, roster depth could be a problem.

The Wizards would have a mere $6.4 million in remaining cap space, the $2.9 million room exception, their 2016 first-rounder, and minimum contracts to fill out the roster—in a year where cap space will buy far less than it used to. In particular, the Room and Minimum exceptions will have far less buying power when free agents have the option of substantially higher contracts elsewhere. 

Nevertheless, in any of the reasonable Durant defection scenarios, the Wizards likely offer the “best second-best player” in Wall, and the hometown appeal.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have not been discussed at all as a 2016 free-agent destination, but with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol as potential free agents (the latter has a $7.8 million player option that likely will be below his market value), Chicago could have a little over $20 million in cap space if it moves on from those two.

Without them, the Bulls would have a huge hole at center, but very good depth at the other positions if the year goes well. 

Derrick Rose is a perpetual health risk, but if he can stay on the court, he should have a very nice season with the space provided in Fred Hoiberg’s offense. Jimmy Butler is already an established star, and Nikola Mirotic could join him this year. The Bulls will also need to hope for health from Taj Gibson, but he could make up three quarters of a dynamic frontcourt rotation with Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis. The development of Tony Snell and Doug McDermott also is key. 

If all of the aforementioned players look like solid rotation pieces or better, a potential free agent could join a much deeper team than the typical stripped-down, cap-space hoarder. The Bulls are also poised to add a second first-round pick if Sacramento finishes outside the top 10. If the cap goes up more than the expected $89 million, or the Bulls move a smaller piece like Mike Dunleavy, they could get to max cap space for a seven-to-nine year free agent.

Dark Horses

• The Utah Jazz project at over $30 million in space this summer with no free agents among their core. A run to the lower rungs of the West playoff bracket and growth from young stars Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors could make Utah an attractive destination. But like the Bucks, the Jazz project to need an upgrade at 2016 free agency’s weakest position: point guard. Taking on salary via a trade for an established lead guard by packaging some of their young players and future picks might be a better use of Utah’s space.

• Boston does not have an established star, but with their depth, the Celtics could garner as high as a 4-seed in the East playoffs if everything goes right for them and wrong for their competitors. They project for $18 million or so in cap space with the non-guaranteed contracts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko and cap holds for Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, and their myriad 2016 first-rounders on the books. Waiving Johnson and Jerebko by July 3, 2016 will open up another $17 million in space, and another $12 million would be available by renouncing Zeller and Sullinger, assuming they aren’t given rookie extensions this fall. The C’s could potentially offer two premium free agents the chance to join forces with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Kelly Olynyk.

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• The Lakers (projected $63 million in possible space), Nets ($35 million), and Knicks ($17-$30 million depending on if Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams opt in to their player options) will have space, but they are unlikely to offer a potential path to title contention. The Lakers could convince two stars to join them, but even if they paired, say, Durant and Horford, this probably is not a championship-level team absent amazing development from youngsters D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle. The Nets (come play with Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez!) and Knicks have even less of a path to free agent relevance, although the Knicks could conceivably carve out a niche if Carmelo Anthony returns to the height of his powers (unlikely at age 31) and Kristaps Porzingis progresses more quickly than anticipated.

• The Pacers are another team with traditionally little free agent gravitas, but they could have nearly $30 million in room. With a new pace-and-space style, Indiana is one of the bigger wildcards this year if Paul George can prove he’s all the way back and George Hill can consolidate his remarkable improvement in the second half of last season.

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