The NBA free-agency landscape: Who can spend, who can’t and who’s in limbo

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This offseason is poised to be arguably the biggest summer the NBA has ever seen. Sure, Kevin Durant’s recent Achilles tendon injury puts a bit of a cloud over the proceedings, but it’s still going to be an offseason of remarkable change. And this is without factoring in Anthony Davis, who isn’t a free agent but is likely headed to a new team via trade.

To understand where players might go, it’s important to understand the landscape of the NBA as free agency opens. The two biggest markets in the league are going to come out swinging, as all four New York and Los Angeles teams are near the top in available cap space. That alone makes for an exciting summer. And with a third of the league having close to enough space for a max contract offer — combined with the quality of this free-agent class — it’s unlike anything we’ve seen.

NBA teams are slotting into one of three categories: spenders, swing teams and capped out — and it’s almost an even split. Below is a sense of which teams are certain to spend money this summer, which teams to keep an eye on, and which teams are probably making moves only around the fringes.

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An Anthony Davis trade could have a major impact on the free-agent market. (AP Photo/Scott Threlkeld)
An Anthony Davis trade could have a major impact on the free-agent market. (AP Photo/Scott Threlkeld)

Spenders

New York Knicks – The Knicks project to have just shy of $74 million in cap space this summer. They’ll be in the mix for every major free agent.

Brooklyn Nets – After dumping Allen Crabbe’s contract, the Nets have put themselves in the range to offer two max deals with a projected $67.5 million in space. Brooklyn is competing with their New York brethren for all the same guys.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers have at least $53 million to spend this summer. If they can move Danilo Gallinari’s contract, they’ve got enough space to make two max offers.

Indiana Pacers – While not a major free-agent destination, the Pacers have incredible flexibility this summer with $44 million in space. They’ll be in the mix for both undervalued free agents and adding players via trade.

Sacramento Kings – The Kings’ young players made big strides last season. They gave up some cap space when they acquired Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline, but still have over $38 million to add to their youthful core.

Utah Jazz – Like Indiana, Utah has never been a prime spot for free agents. But with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell locked in long term, the Jazz should get a long look with their $33 million in cap space.

Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers are further down the list than some think with about $32.5 million in available space. But that’s enough to add a max free agent and then still chase a star trade by piling together the salaries of their young players.

Dallas Mavericks – Even with a big cap hold for restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs have over $29 million to spend. That’s going to get them good players to pair with young building blocks Porzingis and Luka Doncic.

Atlanta Hawks – The Hawks are still in asset-accumulation mode, which is why they took on Allen Crabbe’s contract in their deal with the Nets. With almost $25 million left in cap space, general manager Travis Schlenk can eat another bad contract or two for even more assets down the line.

Chicago Bulls – The Bulls are outside of max contract range. But with $20.8 million to spend and a better-than-you-think roster, Chicago will be a player this summer.

The Nuggets have to make some decisions about Paul Millsap. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
The Nuggets have to make some decisions about Paul Millsap. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Swing teams

Denver Nuggets – This one depends on what happens with Paul Millsap. If Denver declines its team option for Millsap, it will have almost $17 million to spend. If not, it’s completely capped out. Either way, the Nuggets will probably use some of that $17 million to re-sign Millsap.

New Orleans Pelicans – It’s all about how much money the Pelicans take back in a deal for Anthony Davis. With Davis on the roster, the Pels have about $15 million in space. If they take back the minimum in a Davis trade, they’ll climb to well over $20 million. Combine that with the package they get for Davis, and things get interesting.

Charlotte Hornets – This one is tough for fans in the Queen City. If they want a cleaner cap sheet, then that means free agent Kemba Walker needs to go. If they want Kemba to stay, the team is capped out for the foreseeable future.

Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis began the teardown of the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Grizzlies when they dealt Marc Gasol at the deadline. If the Grizzlies don’t eat too much money in a possible Mike Conley deal, they can have over $30 million in space. But like Atlanta, the Grizzlies are in asset-accumulation mode.

Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks could have around $30 million or so in cap space, but that would mean all their free agents — Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic — left town. As it stands, the Bucks expect to stay over the cap and to try to keep as much of their roster together as possible.

Orlando Magic – It’s pretty simple for the Magic: Keep Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and the team is over the cap. If they walk, Orlando has about $21 million to spend.

Philadelphia 76ers – If the Sixers have cap space, that means the offseason went sideways. They can get to $60 million in space, but that would mean they lost Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick. Instead, expect Philly to stay over the cap and try to keep those three around and to fill out the roster via exceptions.

Phoenix Suns – Despite being at the bottom of the standings, the cap sheet in Phoenix is a little messy. They’ve got another year of Tyler Johnson on the books at $19.2 million, plus Devin Booker’s max extension kicks in next season. If all of their free agents leave, the Suns will have around $23 million to spend. If not, they stay over the cap.

Capped out

Golden State Warriors – The Warriors currently have one of the more expensive rosters in the NBA. Even if Kevin Durant leaves, they are way over the cap. The only path to space is parting ways with Durant and Klay Thompson. That’s way down on the list of options for Golden State.

Boston Celtics – Kyrie Irving might leave, but that doesn’t open up cap space for Boston. They’ve still got Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris as free agents. And Gordon Hayward is on the books for $32.7 million. No cap space for the Celtics this summer.

Toronto Raptors – Even if Kawhi Leonard decides one year north of the border was enough for him, the Raptors won’t have cap space. Big contracts for Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka ensure that.

Washington Wizards – John Wall’s supermax contract looms over all. The only way the Wizards have any flexibility is if they blow it all up and trade Bradley Beal.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins is on a max deal and Karl-Anthony Towns’ own max extension starts next season. Combine that with a few other eight-figure deals and the Wolves are well over the cap.

Oklahoma City Thunder – We all know the story here: Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams have the Thunder almost to the cap. It’s a season of further moves around the edges for OKC.

Houston Rockets – There’s been a lot of buzz that Houston is making major changes this summer. It won’t come via free agency. The Rockets are well over the cap due to the contracts of James Harden and Chris Paul. Any changes GM Daryl Morey makes are coming via trades.

Portland Trail Blazers – The Blazers have been capped out for what feels like forever, even if it has only been a few years. Investing big dollars in role players around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has kept the Blazers in the playoffs, but outside of the range to add a third big name around their franchise guards.

Miami Heat – The Heat are a summer away from being free-agent players again. They would have to dump several deals for straight cap space to get in the game this offseason. But they don’t have the assets to attach to those contracts to pull that off.

Detroit Pistons – In 2020, Reggie Jackson comes off the books, along with a couple of other questionable contracts. The Pistons can then look to retool around their All-Star bigs in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. Until then, it’s minor moves for Detroit.

Cleveland Cavaliers – After losing LeBron James a year ago, the Cavs bet on retaining Kevin Love on a huge extension as the path forward. A year later, Cleveland is willing to up their salary by taking on bad contracts for future picks. Expect more of the same this summer.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs don’t have any truly bad contracts. But they’ve got several deals on the bigger side. That limits things for at least another year in San Antonio. Expect the Spurs to keep things chugging along around a solid combo of vets and young players under team control.

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