Late June is arguably the most exciting time in the NBA. Right before the start of free agency, just about every fan has devised a way for their team to build the new superpower to compete with Golden State.
We at The Crossover encourage people to indulge in their fantasies (responsibly, of course), so I’ve been tasked with playing matchmaker for some of my favorite free agents. Basically, while we can still dream of cool signings before the inevitable onslaught of veteran minimum deals from cap-space-strapped teams, here are where I’d like to see some capable players land this offseason.
Paul George, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s possible Paul George’s stock took a little bit of a hit last season. His offense came and went in the playoffs, and the Thunder’s season ultimately finished the same way it did the year before Sam Presti put together the “Big Three” of PG, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. George is still an incredibly capable player, and it’s not unfair to say OKC’s shortcomings are more easily blamed on Westbrook and Anthony than George. At his worst, George is an elite 3-and-D player. At his best, he falls just short of being a superstar. But if George is the second- or third-best player on your roster, you’re well on your way way to building a superteam.
Enter: The Sixers. Philly was shown its shortcomings during its loss to the Celtics in the playoffs. Marco Belinelli struggled to stay on the court, Robert Covington’s shooting cratered, and Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid clearly needed another dynamic talent to help ease the burden. George is the perfect fit for this team. He won’t be asked to do too much, but he’ll also be playing with unselfish, still-entering-their-prime stars. George won’t be required to be The Man every night, and he’d likely feast on open looks created by Simmons and Embiid. Philly already had an absurdly efficient offense down the stretch of the regular season. Adding George (and maybe another disgruntled two-way wing a little south of George) could truly turn the Sixers into a juggernaut.
DeMarcus Cousins, Dallas Mavericks
Look, there aren’t many teams with cap space this offseason, even fewer who need centers, and maybe the Mavs want to tank for another year or two. But I like Boogie to Dallas for a few reasons. First off, the Pelicans probably shouldn’t pay him. Anthony Davis looked to be at his peak powers without Cousins down the stretch of last season, and A.D. realistically needs to be playing center surrounded by shooters instead of another high-usage big.
Dallas is a team that typically avoids straight-up tanking, and it has a massive hole at center. A Dirk-Boogie frontline would be comical defensively, so that tandem probably wouldn’t see much playing time. But Boogie running the floor with Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic has the makings of a fun offense, something the Mavs haven’t had in ages. If Dallas can get Cousins on a shorter-term max-ish contract—say two or three years—it’s absolutely worth the gamble. Rick Carlisle can be gruff, but he could also put together an explosive offense when given the right talent. If Cousins and Carlisle can co-exist, this move wouldn’t make the Mavs contenders, but it would make them a pain in the ass to defend every single night.
Will Barton, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers declined Lance Stephenson’s option and ESPN's Chris Haynes reported they are already taking a look at Will Barton, who has been a difference maker for the Nuggets. Barton makes so much sense in Indy. He can come off the bench and thrive in that role, adding a scoring punch to second units. Where I like him most is finishing games with Victor Oladipo. Barton can handle the ball, which takes pressure off of Oladipo in late-game situations. The Pacers didn’t really have an answer for the Cavs’ hard traps of Oladipo in the first round of the playoffs. Barton can act as a release valve in those situations, and he’s adept at creating his own offense while also opening up lanes for others. The Pacers are going to open up a decent amount of cap space this summer. They likely won’t land any big fish, but adding Barton and one other solid role player could put the Pacers comfortably into the top half of the East.
Aaron Gordon, L.A. Lakers
This is all part of my dream offseason for Los Angeles. Let’s say the Lakers are able to land LeBron and trade for Kawhi, but they can’t get Paul George. In that case, I want them to max Aaron Gordon, Jedi mind trick the Magic into not matching the contract, and unleash Gordon at center where he’s destined to thrive. I don’t think Orlando is going to work out for Gordon. He seems like a perfect fit as a smallball five, but he’s been cast on the perimeter for too much of his career, and now the Magic have to work in Mo Bamba.
If you somehow had a team of Lonzo, LeBron, Kawhi and Gordon, you would be putting together a fastbreak highlight reel for the ages. I still think Gordon has the athleticism to succeed in this era of basketball, he just needs to be encouraged to be something of a Baby Draymond at center. I’m not sure if Gordon is the piece that would make the Lakers a contender to beat the Warriors (even if they did add LeBron and Kawhi), but damn it, it would be fun as hell to watch that squad run up and down the court and dunk their way to 60 wins.
Wayne Ellington, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ellington set the record for three pointers hit by a bench player last season, finishing sixth in threes for a Heat team that became dangerously reliant on his offense. Allowing Ellington to play his best requires some measure of patience from a head coach, one who will have to be committed to dribble-handoffs and off-ball screening. The good news is the result can often be a barrage of threes, and a team like the Wolves could certainly use that kind of boost. Playing off a star like Jimmy Butler could do wonders for Ellington. And Minnesota could use the spacing alongside Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins.
Ellington fared decently on defense during the regular season too, though he was exposed in the playoffs. Still, Ellington would likely be a more effective bench piece than Jamal Crawford was last season, and he’s the kind of role player whose skills would be amplified playing with better talent. Affording him could be tricky for Minny, but if the Wolves could convince him to come in on the mid-level for a couple years, they would be adding a strong dose of outside shooting to a team that finished dead last in three-point field goals made last season.
Garrett Temple, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are somehow always short on wings, and Temple is potentially a lowish-cost signing who could pay dividends surrounded by stars. If Paul George returns here, OKC is going to be tax-strapped and making moves will be difficult. And Temple would have to decline an $8 million option to become a free agent. But we’re matchmaking and I want to see this happen.
Temple is a solid three-point shooter (over 37% three of the last four seasons) and brings enough defense to be a valuable 3-and-D guy for a team like OKC. Maybe he can be something of an answer when teams ignore Andre Roberson during the playoffs. Maybe he can play alongside Roberson when OKC takes Melo off the floor. The Thunder—like every team, really—desperately need multi-positional players who don’t have glaring holes in their game. Temple isn’t perfect, but for a team that may not have many options, OKC could do a lot worse—and it has in the past.