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.
2016-17 record: 43-39, eliminated in the first round
Millsap is testing the free-agent market, and with every other member of the 2015 starting five that won 60 games together now gone, the 32-year-old may pursue greener NBA pastures, too. Atlanta might as well have posted an “under construction” sign outside Philips Arena after trading Dwight Howard for some Charlotte Hornets debris last week, so the Hawks aren’t really hard-selling Millsap.
(Ironically, the Hawks quite literally revealed plans for a Philips Arena renovation on Wednesday.)
If Millsap walks, there’s not much sense in Atlanta making any serious commitments to veterans Ilyasova, Sefolosha, Humphries and Calderon. In which case, the Hawks will have money to spend in free agency, but the problem is finding big-name talents who will commit to a team that has almost half its salary cap tied up in Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Miles Plumlee stock through 2020.
After a banner year, Hardaway will receive significant offers in restricted free agency, and Muscala will have suitors to a lesser degree, so the Hawks must decide whether either is worth adding long-term to an already overpaid young core. Sans Millsap, this group is headed for the lottery, and new GM Travis Schlenk would be best suited filling out the roster with short-term deals and a flier or two on still-young free agents with high upside, maintaining cap flexibility and collecting pingpong balls.
2016-17 record: 36-46
Unrestricted free agents: Ramon Sessions, Brian Roberts
Restricted free agents: Christian Wood
With Howard’s $23.5 million salary added to a swarm of Hornets making between $12-24 million for the next two seasons — Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker (who, believe it or not, is the lowest-paid member of that sextet) — Charlotte also enters free agency over the salary cap. So, owner Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho will do their best to recruit reclamation projects with non-taxpayer mid-level and bi-annual exceptions and minimum contracts.
The addition of Howard means Charlotte will more than likely continue its tradition of making the playoffs (and being eliminated in the first round) every other year since 2013. Jeremy Lamb is under contract for this year and next, and recent first-round picks Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk are under the Hornets’ control moving forward. Their core is set, for better or worse, so they can take free agents Sessions, Roberts and Wood or leave them. None of that trio contributed much to last year’s roster.
Depth at any position isn’t as much of an issue as top-end talent, but the Hornets could use help behind Walker and on the wings. Charlotte has had mixed success with journeymen Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson, Jeremy Lin and Roy Hibbert in free agency over the years, and Jordan has a certain allure for veteran players looking to resurrect their value. How many they hit on this season will determine how frisky they are as a road playoff seed, but best not to commit long-term to anyone else.
2016-17 record: 41-41
Unrestricted free agents: Udonis Haslem, Luke Babbit, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Willie Reed
Restricted free agents: None
With Chris Bosh off the books, Pat Riley has max cap space in Miami, and that’s generally a dangerous proposition for the NBA. The Heat will primarily compete with the Celtics in trying to lure Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin from the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, selling South Beach and a chance to vie in the East to every big-name player looking for a change this summer.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who finished second in Coach of the Year voting, and a roster that finished the second half of last season with a 30-11 record are some strong selling points. That roster also got significant contributions out of Johnson and Waiters, who will be in high demand after career years.
Because the Heat do not own full Bird Rights on Johnson or Waiters, the decision on them comes down to signing both to eight-figure salaries or letting them walk and chasing a star. Riley will chase the star every time. Committing the available cap space to a pair of non-stars for several seasons wouldn’t be prudent in Miami, where the Heat can always get a meeting with anyone who matters.
The Heat will hope to add Hayward or Griffin to a core that already includes Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and a handful of under-25 talents led by Justise Winslow. Regardless of whether they land a big-name free agent this summer, Riley will seek to sign the next Waiters and Johnson willing to come to Miami for below market value and let Spoelstra do the rest until it’s time to chase the next star.
2016-17 record: 29-53
Unrestricted free agents: Jodie Meeks, Jeff Green
Restricted free agents: Damjan Rudez
Back in early April, when the Magic signed Argentine wing Patricio Garino, Orlando’s offseason plans were broadcast to the world in a picture on Twitter. A week later, the Magic fired general manager Rob Hennigan, so we may never know whether he would have pulled off that Aaron Gordon for Dario Saric trade, sought Luol Deng’s contract(!) or landed any of the many hybrid and spread bigs on his list.
New GM John Hammond has experience building veteran-laden middle-of-the-road teams coached by Scott Skiles, which was also Hennigan’s Magic plan over the past several years, but Hammond is also an architect of one of the NBA’s grandest experiments — a freakishly long, athletic young squadron that appears on the verge of real contention in Milwaukee — so there may be hope for Orlando yet.
There’s work to be done, and the only thing they should absolutely not do is exactly what they did last year: Trade their young talent and draft picks for Serge Ibaka’s expiring contract and two years of Jodie Meeks, then sign vets Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin for a combined $40 million per season. That is nowhere close to a long-term plan for success. I’m not even sure what that is.
Instead, the new Magic brass has to evaluate what they can salvage from the wreckage. That means showcasing Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Nikola Vucevic and Biyomobo — all of whom are signed for the next two years — in hopes of unloading their contracts for pieces that might still be around when (if?) Orlando is good. It also means heavy minutes for recent first-round picks Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, to determine whether they’re worth keeping around or trade bait as well.
The only untouchable is this year’s No. 6 overall pick Jonathan Isaac, who should also see significant playing time. So, preserve what little cap space you have, try to create more for the future, stockpile picks, ensure your own is a high lottery one in 2018 and for the love of all things basketball do not spend your money on high-priced low-ceiling free agents who might win you a couple extra games.
2016-17 record: 49-33, eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals
Unrestricted free agents: Brandon Jennings
Restricted free agents: Otto Porter Jr., Bojan Bogdanovic, Trey Burke
The Wizards are cash-strapped with borderline All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal signing a max contract last summer, definite All-Star point guard John Wall now eligible for a super-max extension and the bruising frontcourt tandem of Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris due another $20 million combined next season. Last year’s $64 million deal for Ian Mahinmi didn’t help the bottom line, either.
That leaves general manager Ernie Grunfeld with few options in free agency beyond the taxpayer mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. And while Wall may be pushing to trade for Paul George, Washington’s dearth of talent beyond its starting five leaves precious few assets for the Wizards to offer in return.
All of which makes the decision on Porter’s impending free agency a difficult one. The former No. 3 pick enjoyed a career year in his fourth NBA season, and now at worse looks to be a talented 3-and-D swingman with a long career ahead of him. He will have suitors driving up his salary on the open market, and the Wizards have little choice but to match the highest offer, because they do not have the money to find a commensurate replacement in free agency, and to lose him would be a step back.
At the same rate, signing Porter to a market-value salary locks this group in for at least two more seasons, meaning Grunfeld will once again be scrambling to fill out a bench that even Wall conceded was the team’s “downfall” in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics.
Second-year wing Kelly Oubre Jr. showed promise, the Wizards added capable backup point guard Tim Frazier for a second-round pick on draft day, and they will hope to retain Bogdanovic, who they dealt their first-round pick for at the trade deadline. That still leaves an awful lot of work to do with little money to spend, which unfortunately means relying on Grunfeld to find cheap depth at all positions. Regardless, I’d just as soon let Brandon Jennings walk, because he was abysmal in Washington.
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