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The five most interesting teams of 2023 NBA free agency

The NBA Finals gave way to the NBA Draft, and now, with all 60 58 picks off the board and gradedunerringly, we’re sure, and in permanent ink — we move on to the start of the 2023 NBA offseason.

Well, OK: “start” is kind of a misnomer. After all, we’ve already seen trades that landed Bradley Beal in Phoenix, Kristaps Porziņģis in Boston, Marcus Smart in Memphis, Chris Paul in the Bay, Jordan Poole in Washington and John Collins in Salt Lake City. Oh, and a pre-free-agency extension that kept Naz Reid in Minnesota (and pushed the Timberwolves’ salary commitments to centers even further into “GDP of a robust global trade partner” territory).

Even with all that business conducted, though, there’s still an awful lot to sort out once the NBA’s annual free-agent feeding frenzy officially tips off at 6 p.m. ET Friday — still all sorts of tea leaves to read and smokescreens to sift through, still plenty of rumors and rumblings to parse, still plenty to dig into.

So let’s dig in, and let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams — to me! — entering the 2023 offseason, in context of the questions they will face and the possibilities that their answers might unlock.

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One caveat, up top: The Trail Blazers, perhaps counterintuitively, don’t appear on this list. We can take it as read that they are maybe the most important team to keep an eye on this offseason, because they — for at least the third straight summer — control the biggest and most valuable piece on the board. At the time of writing, though, Damian Lillard and Portland’s brass seem content to continue placidly staring at one another, and while inactivity can be narratively compelling in and of itself — shouts out to my man Samuel Beckett — I’m not sure it makes for wildly compelling writing. So, in this space, we’re going to make like Dame, wait around, and talk more about the Blazers when it feels like there’s actually something to talk about. Cool? Cool.

With that established, we begin with the team that’s got the most cash burning a hole in its pockets as the league calendar flips:

Houston Rockets

After a strong draft night that brought highly touted prospects Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore into the fold, Houston’s roster now features nine players aged 21 or younger. Right now, there’s only one Rocket older than 23: Jae’Sean Tate, age 27, a relative graybeard with all of three NBA seasons under his belt.

With Thompson, Whitmore, Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green — one of only eight NBA players in Stathead’s database to average more than 22 points per game by his age-20 season — on the perimeter, plus Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Şengün, Tari Eason and Usman Garuba up front, the Rockets have a ton of raw materials to use in forming their rotation. This summer, though, promises to be about transforming those raw materials into an honest-to-goodness professional basketball outfit. Because the Rockets have rarely resembled one of those lately.

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Ever since James Harden announced he wanted out of a situation that couldn’t “be fixed,” Houston has been something of a nonsense factory: scarcely organized, woefully undisciplined, either unable or unwilling to marshal consistent focus and effort. No team has lost more games over the last three seasons than the Rockets, who have ranked 27th, 30th and 29th in defensive efficiency in that span and who have finished dead last in the NBA in turnover rate in each of the last two seasons.

This has been, at base, an unserious organization. Enter Ime Udoka, who proved himself during his stint as the bench boss in Boston to be a serious operator willing to publicly and directly call out his locker room whenever he felt effort, focus and attention to detail were lacking. And he’s already made it clear that, after three years in which not much really mattered, playtime is over.

“A lot of the [playing] time and positions, those things have been given, so to speak, with the young guys,” Udoka told reporters Monday. “There’ll be changes now in Phase 2. We are adding some more young pieces, but also adding some veterans. So I think this will kind of raise the level of competition. Nothing is handed out anymore.”

So: Which veterans will the Rockets add with their league-high projected $60.9 million in cap space?

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With Harden now opting in to his deal with Philadelphia, the 76ers are working to find him a new home, which probably won't be with the Rockets. Instead, Houston has reportedly shifted its interest to other targets: Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez and under-no-circumstances-returning-to-the Memphis Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks. All three would represent foundational additions for the project of building a competent defense.

VanVleet is one of the league’s premier point-of-attack irritants, adept at staying in front of ball-handlers, navigating screens and pressuring passes; he led the NBA in deflections per game last season and was tied for second in steals per game. Lopez just finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team after leading the league in total blocks, holding opponents to microscopic 50.2% shooting at the rim (third-stingiest among 269 players to defend at least 100 up-close tries, according to Second Spectrum) and helping the Bucks to their third top-five finish in defensive efficiency in his five seasons in Milwaukee.

And as much as [Dillon] Brooks made himself a laughingstock and a 'poked bear, got mauled' meme during Memphis’ first-round flame-out against the Lakers, he’s still an All-Defensive Second Teamer who ranks among the league’s best big-wing stoppers.

And as much as Brooks made himself a laughingstock and a “poked bear, got mauled” meme during Memphis’ first-round flame-out against the Lakers, he’s still an All-Defensive Second Teamer who ranks among the league’s best big-wing stoppers. According to The BBall Index’s game charting, he was one of only six players last season ranked in the 95th percentile or higher in defensive positional versatility, average matchup difficulty, perimeter isolation defense and ball screen navigation. (The other five: OG Anunoby, Deni Avdija, Andrew Wiggins, Jaden McDaniels and Herb Jones.)

Importing that kind of defensive spine — and, in VanVleet and Lopez, an organizing principle of a table-setter plus a high-end stretch 5 to space the floor and open up driving lanes for Houston’s myriad slashers — won’t come cheap. Fischer reported this week that the Rockets would likely need to pony up a two-year, $80 million maximum-salaried contract to land VanVleet. You’d imagine they’d similarly need to offer a sizable raise over what the cap-strapped Bucks could offer to get Lopez to trade in championship contention in Milwaukee for a rebuilding project in Texas. And Marc Stein reported a “growing belief leaguewide” that Houston’s ready to offer Brooks a deal with an average annual salary higher than the $12.4 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception.

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How many of those guys will the Rockets actually get? Which young guys will survive Udoka’s proving ground and cement their spots in the remixed rotation moving forward? How does all this clay start to take shape? After several years of meandering aimlessly, it might be time for Houston to finally start answering some real questions.

“It’s just adding the right pieces, raising the whole level of the organization,” Udoka said Monday. “… It is Phase 2, and we’re looking forward to taking a big step.”

Speaking of big steps …

Toronto Raptors

… in which direction will Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and Co. take theirs? Because it feels like high time for an organization that’s been sort of jogging in place for the past year-plus to actually pick a path and start moving forward.

If Houston actually goes north of $40 million per year for VanVleet, will the Raptors — currently about $15 million below the salary cap with 11 players under contract before conducting any free-agent business — bite the bullet and blow into the tax to bring him back? If not, then, um, what exactly is the Raptors’ plan at the point?

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VanVleet has finished in the top five in minutes per game in each of the last three seasons. Some of that stemmed from former head coach Nick Nurse’s thrilling blend of masochism and lack of trust in his reserve corps. But it also had to do, at least partly, with the other options on offer — chiefly 2020 first-round pick Malachi Flynn, but also super-sized second-rounder Dalano Banton and an assortment of other two-way players and short-timers — failing to provide the sort of consistent play that might establish themselves as worthy of greater trust. If VanVleet goes, where does Toronto turn? Is Scottie Barnes ready to be a full-time point forward? Does new head coach Darko Rajaković give the likes of Flynn, Banton and Jeff Dowtin Jr. a second chance to make a first impression? Would the Raps go fishing for a short-term replacement with the $12.4 million non-taxpayer MLE? (The pickings there seem pretty slim.)

As much as the addition of sharpshooting rookie/top-flight content creator Gradey Dick figures to boost an oft-landlocked attack that’s ranked in the bottom third of the league in half-court offensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons, subtracting VanVleet seems like it would hurt even more. Then again, so might committing a salary north of a third of the cap for a small point guard who’s shouldered a massive workload over the past few seasons and is a career 40.2% shooter. Real Wambsgans of a pickle you’ve got there, Raps.

And what about Jakob Poeltl? Toronto sent the San Antonio Spurs a top-six-protected 2024 first-round pick for Poeltl at February’s trade deadline; you typically don’t ship out an asset like that for a mere rental. Sure enough, Stein reported Monday that a pair of his sources “expect the Raptors to re-sign Poeltl to a deal in the $20 million range annually.” Expectations have a way of shifting fast this time of year, though. Like, say, when another interested bidder flush with cash and already familiar with the big fella’s game decides to enter the market.

“Multiple league sources have said the San Antonio Spurs have inquired about the possibility of a reunion with Poeltl as a veteran centre alongside No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama,” Sportsnet’s Michael Grange reported Wednesday — a move that’d make a lot of sense for how the Spurs might want to build around their new centerpiece. “... ‘Free agency can get a little crazy and unpredictable,’ as one source put it. ‘I don’t think Poeltl’s [deal] is as done as people think.’”

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Speaking of famously undone deals: Whither Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby? The Raptors forwards were among the hottest names in the league ahead of the trade deadline, with a slew of suitors reportedly interested in trying to add Siakam’s scoring and versatility or Anunoby’s perimeter defense and catch-and-shoot marksmanship for the stretch run. After Toronto stood pat, though, the two draft-and-develop success stories now sit just one year away from being able to reach unrestricted free agency. With a new head coach and an opportunity to reorient the roster around Barnes, might the Raptors finally really consider moving off their foundational wings?

Maybe not. Multiple reports suggest that while Toronto might be listening to proposals, it remains reluctant to actually part with either Anunoby, who’s eligible for a four-year, $117.6 million extension in October, or Siakam, whose four-year max re-up could soar north of $180 million. Reports that the 29-year-old Siakam wouldn’t agree to extend his contract with whichever team traded for him only serve to muddy the waters … and, potentially, put the Raptors in position to just continue jogging in place, opening up the vault to bring back VanVleet and Poeltl, mostly running back the squad that underwhelmed last season and hoping for a better outcome than a play-in loss to a screaming youngster. If VanVleet gets that no-income-tax bag in Texas, though, all bets might be off.

“Not the easiest team to figure out,” as one league source told Grange. What else is new?

FILE - Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma gestures to teammates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on March 18, 2023, in Washington. Kuzma will be a free agent when the league's annual offseason shopping period starts next week. Kuzma has declined his $13 million player option with the Wizards for next season, a person with knowledge of his decision said Tuesday, June 20, 2023, meaning he will be a free agent. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side disclosed the move. (AP Photo/Jess Rapfogel, File)
Does Kyle Kuzma make sense for the Kings? (AP Photo/Jess Rapfogel, File)

Sacramento Kings

I touched on this a bit on draft night. Sacramento deciding to sacrifice a first-round pick to put itself in position to have more than $35 million in cap space raised a pretty big question: Who’s general manager Monte McNair planning to spend all that scratch on?

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Speculation immediately centered on Draymond Green, who declined his $27.5 million player option for next season in pursuit of a new multi-year deal worth significantly more. There were reasons to connect the dots: Sacramento head coach Mike Brown, the Warriors’ defensive coordinator, has a great relationship with Green, and a Kings team that finished 25th in points allowed per possession last season and hasn’t even cracked league-average on the defensive end since 2006 could certainly use an eight-time All-Defensive selection and former Defensive Player of the Year. It’s widely expected, though, that Green’s next bag will come from the only franchise he’s ever known: Fischer reports that “all indications continue to point to Green returning to” Golden State, with Stein adding that a three-year deal is likely in the offing.

If not Draymond, then who? One option who has “gained plenty of momentum as a potential Sacramento target,” according to Fisher, is Kyle Kuzma — the last man standing in rebuilding Washington, fresh off averaging a career high 21.2 points and 3.7 assists per game. Kuzma would be a strong replacement for veteran free agent Harrison Barnes, with Fischer reporting that the 27-year-old is “said to be searching for upward of $30 million in average annual salary,” though, does he provide the kind of defensive versatility and upside that the Kings need to prioritize in building around the All-NBA battery of Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox?

That, to me, felt like the biggest box that Sacramento needed to check after its stellar, drought-snapping season ended in a first-round exit at the hands of Golden State:

I don’t know if the Kings agree that their best path forward with this financial flexibility is searching for their version of what Aaron Gordon brought to Denver: a missing-piece defensive playmaker capable of guarding big wings, providing secondary rim protection next to a non-shot-blocking center and working well off the ball next to a facilitating 5. If they do, though, there might be a couple on the market. If word starts to filter out that Dame’s not long for the Pacific Northwest, would the Kings take a run at Jerami Grant, the dude who basically beta-tested that role in Denver before Gordon got there? If VanVleet leaves Toronto and the Raptors decide to take a step back, could the Kings — who owe Atlanta a lottery-protected 2024 first from last summer’s Kevin Huerter trade, but otherwise have a full complement of draft capital — get in the mix for Anunoby?

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Maybe not. Maybe the most prudent course of action with all that scratch is to renegotiate and extend Sabonis’ contract for “what’s expected to be in the ballpark of four years [and] $120 million,” according to Fischer, while bringing back Barnes and seeing what else might shake loose on the market. After such a transformative year, though, and in a West where nobody, save the defending champs, feels like a juggernaut in the making, who could blame the Kings if they felt compelled to dream a little bigger?

PORTLAND, OREGON - MARCH 17: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers passes the ball during the second quarter against the Boston Celtics at the Moda Center on March 17, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
It's no secret the Miami Heat are interested in Damian Lillard. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Miami Heat

Beal landed in Phoenix in part because the Heat, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, never made the Wizards an offer that Washington liked better than the one on the table from Phoenix. You don’t necessarily have to be Inspector Windhorst to figure out why Miami would do that.

The Heat are keeping their powder dry for Lillard, precisely the sort of shot-creating backcourt monster who’d nestle neatly between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Miami’s lineup and a mature veteran leader who seems like an absolute perfect fit in the serious, regimented, vaunted Heat culture. According to Sam Amick, Lillard “indeed has serious interest in joining the Heat,” though it’s unclear whether any package the Heat can put together would do much to tickle Portland’s fancy — especially if, as Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported Wednesday, the Blazers are “lukewarm on Tyler Herro,” who missed nearly all of Miami’s playoff run with a broken right hand and who’s about to start the four-year, $120 million extension he signed last summer.

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The Heat could build an alternate offer around financial relief — say, the expiring contracts of Kyle Lowry ($29.7 million) and Victor Oladipo ($9.7 million), plus draft picks (Miami owes the Thunder a lottery-protected 2025 first that becomes unprotected in 2026 if not conveyed by then, but can offer picks and swaps from 2027 through 2030). For the moment, though, the structure remains immaterial: According to Blazers general manager Joe Cronin, Portland remains committed to building a winner around Lillard, and according to Brian Windhorst, Dame “absolutely did not” request a trade out of Oregon when he and his agent met with Blazers brass this week, preferring instead to “wait around” and see what Portland can get done in the early stages of free agency before making any decisions.

While Lillard waits around and the Blazers work, though, how patient can the Heat be, considering all the other business they’ve got to sort out?

Miami’s already over the luxury tax line, and only an estimated $3.4 million below the second apron, with only nine players under contract. That doesn’t include three playoff starters: Kevin Love, a buyout addition who wound up being way more important than I expected throughout Miami’s remarkable playoff run; Gabe Vincent, who likely played himself into at least a $10 million per year raise over the $1.8 million he made last season; and Max Strus, who’s shot 37.6% from 3-point range on more than nine attempts per 36 minutes of floor time over the past two seasons and whose combination of on-the-move marksmanship and defensive toughness has made him a target for at least a handful of teams desperate for more shooting on the wing, according to Fischer.

Maybe Strus walks, and Miami responds by sliding Duncan Robinson, whose resurgence was key to the Heat’s Finals run, back into a starting spot on the wing. Even then, though, a team flirting with the second apron without any major additions figures to need some breathing room … which is why, as Barry Jackson reported, the Heat considered waiving and stretching the remainder of Lowry’s contract, spreading out the $29.7 million he’s owed over the next three seasons. That decision would clear about $19.8 million off Miami’s books this season, getting the Heat down under the luxury tax line and giving them access to the full $12.4 million non-taxpayer MLE, providing another pathway to bolstering their rotation. It would come at the cost of Lowry, though, who played a huge role in Miami’s playoff victories over the Bucks, Knicks and Celtics — and, perhaps more notably, at the cost of locking an immovable $9.9 million in dead money on Miami’s books for the 2023-24, ’24-25 and ’25-26 seasons. That might be why the Heat are reportedly leaning against the stretch option, preferring instead to hold onto Lowry as either a matching salary in a big trade or a member of the backcourt rotation next season.

Miami, then, sits at a somewhat precarious position, with the possibility that its Plan A can just continue to sit tight in Portland, its Plan B removes a valuable contributor with no guarantees of landing commensurate win-now talent with the MLE and a Plan C that would require nailing multiple minimum-salary signings — and it’s always a crapshoot when you’re shopping in the bargain bin. It’s a good bet, though, that Pat Riley, Andy Elisburg and Co. have worked way farther down the alphabet than any of us in search of every last opportunity to further fortify a roster that was somehow both outscored during the regular season and three wins away from a championship. And, if all else fails, the Heat can turn to good ol’ reliable Plan S: Hand Erik Spoelstra a mystery box full of ingredients that nobody else seemed to want, and watch the NBA’s most skilled “Chopped” champion once again turn it all into a gourmet meal come April, May and June.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 26: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks waits during player introductions prior to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Miami Heat at Fiserv Forum on April 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The Heat defeated the Bucks in overtime 128-126. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
There are just two seasons left before Giannis Antetokounmpo has the opportunity to exercise a $51.9 million player option for 2025-26 and three before he can hit unrestricted free agency outright. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Milwaukee Bucks

It’s very possible that this one doesn’t wind up being that interesting. Despite reported interest from the likes of the Kings and Rockets in the wake of his decision to decline his $40.4 million player option for next season, “all signs are pointing to” Khris Middleton reaching a new multi-year agreement to return to Milwaukee once free agency opens, according to Fischer.

That, you’d imagine, would result in a huge sigh of relief from Bucks fans who realize that the 31-year-old’s suffered through an injury-plagued past 14 months, but who are equally aware of just how vital his scoring, ball-handling and late-game playmaking are alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. And, perhaps more importantly, just how impossible it would be for Milwaukee to replace all of that with what promises to be exceptionally little financial flexibility, considering the Bucks, with just six players under contract, currently sit only $20.8 million under the cap — a number that will decrease if/when, as expected, they re-sign veteran swingman Jae Crowder, who played a mere 381 minutes for them after they forked over five second-round picks for him at the trade deadline.

Even if Middleton’s a lock, though, the status of Lopez looms (appropriately) large. The 35-year-old is “leaning toward” a Bucks return, according to Stein; if he joins Middleton in returning, Milwaukee retains its status among the favorites to win the 2024 NBA championship, even with an aging core, relatively little depth and scant sources of youth and athleticism (though rising sophomore MarJon Beauchamp and rookie wings Andre Jackson Jr. and Chris Livingston offer some hope there). That’s how good the Giannis-Middleton-Holiday-Lopez core is.

But … what if an interested suitor throws a bigger bag on the table that allows Lopez, who’s already got a ring, to land one last big score carrying him through age 37 or 38? Someone like the aforementioned Rockets, who could desperately use his rim protection and floor spacing to help Udoka make sense of the disparate pieces dotting that roster? Or San Antonio, reportedly looking to put a ballast big next to Big Vic? Hell, what about the Kings, if they strike out on the wing, deciding to dream enormous by taking a crack at supporting Sabonis with kind of a super-sized and more stable version of Myles Turner?

Maybe none of those options make sense to you — they don’t offer the chance to compete for championships, they don’t present the right fit for Lopez’s game, etc. But it only takes one monster bid to change the market enough to potentially change Lopez’s mind, and if Milwaukee can’t or won’t match the offer, are we suddenly talking about my dear friend Bobby Portis in the starting lineup? Is it Meyers Leonard time? Does Jon Horst have to start trying to finagle a sign-and-trade to get, I don’t know, Şengün or Zach Collins or whomever? And what might that do to the championship-contending chances of a Bucks team that, after all the drama surrounding the first Giannis supermax and the ring that followed, now finds itself staring down the barrel of extension eligibility yet again — with just two seasons left before Antetokounmpo has the opportunity to exercise a $51.9 million player option (whew!) for 2025-26 and three before he can hit unrestricted free agency outright?

Again: This might all pass quietly, with Middleton and Lopez coming back, Crowder joining them, and Milwaukee locking in the crunch-time core of what should be a championship contender. As the old saying among NBA GMs goes, though, “It only takes one a**hole” to wreck your best-laid plans; if someone does that by making Lopez an offer he can’t refuse, you’d best believe plenty of Bucks fans and executives alike will find themselves responding to the increased level of intrigue surrounding Milwaukee’s offseason with an increased level of profanity.

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