One Burning Question for Every Team in NBA Free Agency

How should the Lakers build around LeBron and AD? What are the Clippers selling? And where do the Celtics go from here? We examine the biggest questions of the NBA summer.
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Are you wildly unprepared for the NBA offseason? Might you have an imminent need to have a vastly important discussion about very specific team-related topics as June 30 approaches? Look no further. 

With free agency set to tip off, we ask (and answer) one burning question for all 30 teams.

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Atlanta Hawks: Stay put or keep adding?

The Hawks project to have just under $13 million in cap space. In midst of a youth movement, Atlanta won’t want to eat up valuable minutes for their recent draftees, but they do have a need at center and for a backup point guard. Look for them to try and make another move or two using the available room.

Boston Celtics: Now what?

It doesn’t seem like Kyrie Irving or Al Horford is coming back. The Celtics can stay competitive with a big addition, but the question is who. Kemba Walker or Nikola Vucevic would help move the needle. But bottom line, without a step forward from Jayson Tatum, Boston might end up treading water.

Brooklyn Nets: Is a second star coming?

All signs seem to be pointing toward Kyrie Irving joining the Nets. That’s nice, but the real question is whether he can bring another star teammate (cough, KD, cough), which could potentially alter the long-term trajectory of the league. The Nets can create space for two max deals, and are one of the teams to watch closely as the next week rolls on.

Charlotte Hornets: How much is Kemba Walker really worth?

There are so many suitors for Kemba Walker—particularly with Kyrie Irving seemingly set to come off the market quickly—that Charlotte’s chances of retaining him may end up hinging on whether they offer him a supermax contract. The flipside: investing that much cash in the 29-year-old point guard may cripple their flexibility to improve the roster around him. It’s a tricky spot.

Chicago Bulls: Anyone want to play here?

Chicago has some money to spend, but no glaring positional holes to address. Can they tempt a worthy addition who fits with the age of their team? Is there a veteran or two that can stabilize the rotation? They’re nowhere close to contention, so expectations should be tempered.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Can they flip an expiring contract or two?

The Cavs project to be in the luxury tax with 13 guaranteed deals currently on the roster. Many of those contracts expire in 2020 (and J.R. Smith is owed only a small guarantee if waived before June 30), meaning Cleveland can at least offer short-term relief to other teams looking to get off long-term money. Barring a Kevin Love deal, the Cavs have to stay patient and try to find smaller victories on the trade market.

Dallas Mavericks: Is paying Kristaps Porzingis smart?

That question is already kind of anachronistic—the Mavs went all-in to get him, and were always going to pony up big to keep Porzingis—but $158 million is a lot to invest in a 7-footer with an injury history. Dallas is reportedly into adding another star, but would likely have to create some more space to do it (they can sign someone into room and go over the cap to sign Porzingis). The Mavericks seem intent on accelerating their timeline, with Luka Doncic just 20 years old and still improving.

Denver Nuggets: What’s the best way to pay Paul Millsap?

The Nuggets have a $30 million option on Millsap for next season, and being that he was a key piece of a very good team, Denver should aim to keep him. They could, preferably, try to sign him to a longer extension at a lower annual salary number. Keeping him makes it unlikely they’ll have cap room, but the Nuggets are certainly justified in running things back.

Detroit Pistons: Can they make real improvements?

As it stands, the Pistons are operating with only their cap exceptions to add free agents, and whether they’d actually want to dip into the luxury tax to add a veteran or two and re-sign backup guard Ish Smith is worth wondering.

Golden State Warriors: What does continuity cost?

Kevin Durant is injured and opting out, looking for a max contract. Klay Thompson is injured and looking for a max contract. The vibe has long been that Durant is leaving; keeping Thompson will be costly. To keep their dynasty moving forward, the Warriors are going to have to pay up anyway, but do so with little room to improve the roster otherwise, as usual.

Houston Rockets: Is there an avenue to a third star?

Indications are the Rockets have A) tried to overcome the reported James Harden/Chris Paul rift and B) are now pining to add Jimmy Butler to the mix via sign-and-trade. That situation likely means two of Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker would be on the move.

Indiana Pacers: How does Oladipo’s injury impact the plan?

The Pacers are going to be without Victor Oladipo for at least the first part of this season, and it’ll take him some time to work back to full strength, meaning it may not be wise to go all-in on this year. They can create about $34 million in room, but free agents like Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph could be headed elsewhere. Indiana has been tied to Ricky Rubio, but we’ll see how aggressive they try to get as spenders.

L.A. Clippers: How real is what they’re selling?

The Clippers have been building toward this offseason for a while now, with a pathway to creating two max contract slots and eyes on Kawhi Leonard (and whoever else wants to join him). L.A. has turned itself into a very desirable free-agent landing spot on paper—now we’ll see how real that narrative is. If they don’t get Leonard, will they settle for second-tier stars? Or do they keep waiting things out?

Los Angeles Lakers: Who else is coming?

Landing Anthony Davis to play with LeBron James is nice, but the Lakers only have one other legitimate rotation player (Kyle Kuzma). They’ll have to either find their way to max cap space to entice a third star, or they’ll have to use their room creatively to build out a team that can contend this season. Both might be tall tasks.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is re-signing Jonas Valanciunas actually a good idea?

The Grizzlies seem poised to pay up to keep Jonas Valanciunas, the primary return in the Marc Gasol trade. The thing is that a long-term deal for the 27-year-old center doesn’t quite fit their timeline, or the fast-paced style of play Memphis seems set to adopt with Ja Morant at the helm. The Grizz managed fairly well in offloading Mike Conley for decent value. Now, they ought to avoid shooting themselves in the foot with long-term free agent commitments.

Miami Heat: What trade options are available?

Count Miami among the teams with the tightest payroll situations. They have a good deal of expiring money on the books, putting them in a better situation for next summer, but their hands are also somewhat tied right now. They could attempt to maneuver their way into roster improvements using those expirings, or deal into someone else’s cap space, but it may come at a long-term cost, as well. 

Milwaukee Bucks: Can they keep their core together?

Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon (who’s restricted) and Brook Lopez figure to be among the most coveted free agents on the market. Milwaukee can sell continuity and go over the cap to keep some of their guys, but it’s going to get pricy. Those three guys figure to be the priorities, with George Hill likely to be waived to save money and Nikola Mirotic potentially the odd man out. The Bucks have to keep building on this season, but might be hard-pressed to do so.

Minnesota Timberwolves: What are they up to?

There’s been buzz about the Timberwolves angling for restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, but it may take some gymnastics to actually sign him, given Minnesota’s lack of a clean pathway to cap room. They’d have to find a way off of a big contract or two, ideally sending their guys into other people’s cap space. Improving the roster in general will take some creativity here.

New Orleans Pelicans: What’s the best use of their cap space?

The Pelicans will have about $33 million in room to work with, but they’ve already filled out a good chunk of their presumptive rotation with their three first-rounders (including Zion Williamson) and the return from the Anthony Davis haul. New Orleans wants to compete, but their young guys are going to need minutes. Whether it’s adding veterans via free agency or absorbing them via trade, the Pelicans have to build a strong locker room while also positioning themselves for the future.

New York Knicks: Um, is there a backup plan?

The hard truth is that the Knicks may fail to catch a big fish this summer. They’re going to have to pay somebody. They’ll need to do it responsibly to try and stay flexible going forward. It could be another long year if New York leans on young talent again.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Is there a meaningful move to make?

OKC has the league’s highest payroll coming into free agency, but they can’t really afford to just run it back based on past results. Ideally, the Thunder would find a way to flip current players (like Steven Adams) into some form of roster upgrade. Whether that deal is actually out there bears skepticism.

Orlando Magic: Can they keep their vets around?

Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross were huge parts of Orlando’s success last season. After making the playoffs, there’s a case for paying to keep them around while the Magic’s young talent develops. But there’s a real market for both players. Orlando has to focus on internal growth, and can only justify spending to a point.

Philadelphia 76ers: Will going all-in on stars backfire?

The public stance has been that the Sixers fully intend to keep Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris; executing that plan might be the tricky part. If Butler wants out—and it seems like he’ll explore that—at some point, Philly becomes better off acquiescing to a sign-and-trade and getting some stuff back. Harris could also depart if the Sixers don’t put up a big enough offer. Bottom line, they’ll have to find the best pathway to staying competitive around the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons duo.

Phoenix Suns: What, exactly, are they doing?

After a puzzling draft night that saw the Suns walk out with Cam Johnson, Ty Jerome and (via trade) Dario Saric, as well as dealing T.J. Warren (essentially for cap relief), Phoenix’s next steps will offer a better indicator of what, exactly, their plan is. They’ll probably have to match a big offer on Kelly Oubre if they want to keep him. They don’t have a ton of room to use. Wait and see on this.

Portland Trail Blazers: Where are the bargains?

Portland will likely have the taxpayer midlevel and bi-annual exceptions to spend, which is, to say, not much. Trading for Kent Bazemore gives them some extra shooting, and rookie Nassir Little adds a little depth on the wing, but Portland could use help up front and at forward, and has a shot at contending in the West if all goes well.

Sacramento Kings: Can the cap space lead to an upgrade?

The Kings are not a traditional free agent hotspot, but they do have some good young pieces in place, and have a lot of money to offer now that Harrison Barnes has opted out. They may re-sign Barnes long-term, which could be prudent given the circumstances. Willie Cauley-Stein could stay as a restricted free agent. But we’ll see if their cap room (as much as $60 million if both guys depart) adds up to anything more than cursory additions. Sacramento could theoretically be a playoff team next year with the right moves.

San Antonio Spurs: Is real frontcourt help attainable?

It appears the Spurs want to keep Rudy Gay, but they could still use additional depth up front with their guard-heavy roster, and will likely have to use their exception to find it. San Antonio is still an attractive place to play for veterans, but it doesn’t have the same instant-contention allure of old. They’ll need to find help somehow.

Toronto Raptors: Kawhi?

The Raptors just won the championship. In all likelihood they will not do so again without Kawhi Leonard. If he stays, Toronto is back in action. If not, their contingency plans become a fascinating subplot.

Utah Jazz: Can they flip Derrick Favors for more help?

Utah is taking newly-acquired Mike Conley’s deal into cap room, limiting their spending power and meaning Favors’s contract (which becomes fully guaranteed July 6) might be more useful to them as a trade chip for something bigger. Surely, combining Favors and/or Dante Exum’s salaries to improve the rotation would be ideal for the Jazz, who have big designs on next season.

Washington Wizards: How do they build around Bradley Beal?

The Wizards aren’t exactly operating from a position of strength, as they’re over the salary cap and John Wall is injured, but they seem prepared to commit more money to Beal long-term. Keeping their best player is good, but winning big with serious financial limitations is a tall task. They have three restricted free agents—Tomas Satoransky, Thomas Bryant and Bobby Portis—to deal with before any bargain free agent opportunities can come into play.