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Eric Gay/Associated Press
As Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey professed months before NBA bubble play began July 30, front offices around the league have been plotting their offseason wish lists far ahead of Oct. 18—free agency’s tentative start date.
For the teams eliminated from the Orlando, Florida, area’s playoff tournament, free agency represents an opportunity to take the next step toward challenging this year’s final four of the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. Though a possibly reduced salary cap could make that avenue of improvement difficult, we’ve seen plenty of front offices get creative in acquiring players.
Of the 12 playoff teams eliminated in 2020, which free-agent acquisition makes the most sense, and how could they acquire him given minimal flexibility? Let’s find out!
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Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Signing Kevin Durant’s former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate might require Serge Ibaka to take a discount—the Brooklyn Nets are projected to be in the luxury tax—but the fit is inarguable. With Kyrie Irving and Durant entrenched as the primary playmakers, the team needs to acquire defenders who can space the floor, and the big man perfectly fits that mold.
Ibaka graded in the 90th percentile in interior defense in 2019-20, according to BBall Index. The two-time block champion and three-time All-Defensive teamer also put up his best season in scoring and second-best in effective field-goal percentage while hitting 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts for the Toronto Raptors in 2019-20.
While normally a team would pony up plenty of dough for the modern, floor-spacing big who can defend the rim, Ibaka’s age (31 on Sept. 18) may scare those with cap space from giving him multiple guaranteed years. Besides, after spending the bulk of his career in Oklahoma City and Toronto, Ibaka may have grown accustomed to playing on contending teams.
Ibaka appears to remain close to Durant. A four-year mid-level agreement placing Ibaka at the 4 would allow Durant to move back to his more natural position at the 3 while allowing the Nets to go small.
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Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press
The Dallas Mavericks’ window for contention prematurely opened thanks to Luka Doncic’s sensational regular- and postseason performances. The Slovenian phenom became just the fourth player ever to accrue 3,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 900 assists in his first two seasons, joining Oscar Robertson, LeBron James and Grant Hill.
Despite a severe ankle sprain and the loss of Kristaps Porzingis, he went toe-to-toe with the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, in the first round before losing in six games to the Clippers.
While Doncic elevated the play of those around him, the Mavs still need ancillary playmaking. Orlando’s Evan Fournier fits the bill. Because of the NBA’s revenue losses, salary space throughout the league could dissipate, causing Fournier to pick up his player option ($17.2 million) for 2020-21. However, the Magic are in a tight spot financially and might not make Fournier a multiple-year offer if he tests free agency.
He should do so after his best season in both scoring and efficiency. Fournier is both a threat from deep and in the pick-and-roll and can supplement playmaking when Doncic rests.
The Mavericks have little beyond the mid-level exception to entice Fournier, which undoubtedly would be too low. However, they could make a multiple-year offer if the Magic are willing to take on the last year of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s deal ($19 million player option). The next first-round pick the Mavs could trade is their 2025 first-rounder, but they have Golden State’s second-round selection in 2020.
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Steve Dykes/Associated Press
After a seven-game bloodbath in Round 1 against the Thunder, the Houston Rockets appeared to have little left to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. Russell Westbrook was disappointing, which could be attributed to quad injuries and his bout with COVID-19.
Still, following head coach Mike D’Antoni’s departure, the Rockets might move on from a star or two. If they hang on to much of their roster and Morey in the front office, getting a big who can move out to the perimeter could be the play.
While 6’5″ P.J. Tucker has improved his value as the league’s smallest starting center, the Rockets saw just how devastating a player like Anthony Davis can be against a player of Tucker’s size. A competent big with additional length and ability to space the floor may have proven more effective.
Meyers Leonard could give them that boost.
Leonard generally takes shots in two places: at the rim and from three. From beyond the arc, he graded in the 92nd percentile among bigs at 41.4 percent. At the rim, he graded in the 94th percentile. As a result, he was one of 10 players to finish with at least a 62.2 effective field-goal percentage (among those who had attempted one three-pointer per game).
On defense, Leonard isn’t the rim protector Clint Capela was, but he still graded in the 79th percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions. The help defense of Tucker and Robert Covington should afford some assistance on that end.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
In Domantas Sabonis’ absence (foot), the Miami Heat swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Despite their continued success, the Pacers have question marks surrounding Myles Turner and Sabonis’ long-term fit, the vacant head coaching position and how they’ll fill Jeremy Lamb’s minutes following a torn ACL that could sideline him for all of 2020-21.
But before the league’s March 11 suspension, the Pacers had a .600 winning percentage, roughly a 49-win season over 82 games.
The Pacers’ avenue for contention is open. They still have movable pieces in the form of future picks, Victor Oladipo’s expiring contract and Turner. They could package the two for a max-level player, offload them for a lucrative haul from a team like the Nets or run it back with a mid-level free agent and renewed vigor in 2020-21.
One such mid-level candidate is Christian Wood. The 24-year-old journeyman was sensational over the last 15 games of the regular season for the Detroit Pistons, racking up 22.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.0 block and 0.9 steals per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the field and 41.0 percent from three.
Wood is a springy big who can enact the run-and-gun style of head coaching candidate Mike D’Antoni, whom the Pacers might hire, per the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Keith Pompey. Wood’s defense is questionable; however, he placed in the 95th percentile in team scoring differential per 100 possessions, boosted by a 74th percentile rating as a member of the 22nd-ranked defense.
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Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press
Up 3-1 in the Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Clippers fell apart despite holding substantial leads in the second half of each of their next three games—all losses. After what can only be considered a disastrous collapse, the Clippers may be desperate in 2020-21.
With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George headed for free agency, the Clippers must do all they can to convince the two superstars to stay. Signing the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Montrezl Harrell should be a priority. Re-signing Marcus Morris Sr. after dealing three picks, including two first-rounders, seems like another near lock.
Still, the Clippers need an upgrade at point guard and a 5 who can properly challenge bigs such as Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis. They could have only the taxpayer’s mid-level exception at their disposal. With limited resources, the best addition Los Angeles can make will probably be in the frontcourt. Tristan Thompson should meet the Clippers’ budget.
Amid a rebuild, the Cleveland Cavaliers still focused on increasing Thompson’s involvement, granting him his most minutes per game since 2013-14. As a result, Thompson put up arguably his best season yet. With Andre Drummond alongside Kevin Love in Cleveland, re-signing Thompson won’t be a priority.
While noted for his talent on the boards and the defensive end, Thompson’s offensive game has steadily improved as well. He emerged as an underrated passer in 2019-20, ranking in the 99th percentile in assist points per 75 possessions and the 100th percentile in potential assists per 100 passes, according to BBall Index.
His primary role would be to man the boards and mitigate the impact of the Western Conference’s best bigs. While he lacks the athleticism to stay with them, his physicality should wear them down and keep them away from second-chance opportunities. It’d be a modest addition but maybe the best the Clippers can hope for given their potential financial limitations and lack of draft assets.
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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
Outside the Los Angeles Clippers, arguably no team left the bubble with greater disappointment than the Milwaukee Bucks. After advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks suffered a gentleman’s sweep at the Miami Heat’s hands.
Milwaukee may face the daunting proposition of getting better via trade with few if any desirable contracts to move.
If the Bucks can’t make a swap, they’ll have minimal means to add talent via free agency. With $130.6 million already on the books for next season, per Spotrac, they face decisions on free agents Pat Connaughton and Kyle Korver.
One veteran scorer who could provide shotmaking at a low cost is Philadelphia’s Alec Burks. During 66 games in Golden State and Philadelphia, Burks put up his best statistical season, scoring 15.0 points and grabbing 4.3 rebounds per contest while shooting 38.5 percent from three.
A complementary scorer off the bench of Burks’ ilk won’t move mountains but could provide the offense the Bucks desperately need in their biggest games.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Thanks to some shrewd negotiating from general manager Sam Presti, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit in an enviable position. After unloading two franchise players in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder suffered no ill effects, instead finishing fifth in the Western Conference while arming themselves with an embarrassment of riches in draft picks and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Thunder could replicate that success, but given Chris Paul’s possible farewell message to fans and the departure of head coach Billy Donovan, it appears a rebuild is coming.
Should OKC move Paul to a team with ample cap space like Miami or New York, the Thunder could free enough money to become active in free agency. Having earned a ticket to the playoffs in 11 of the last 12 seasons, they don’t seem like they’d tank or absorb unwanted contracts for more picks.
Instead, Presti could pivot to a free agent like Fred VanVleet to replace Paul, or he could go after the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Malik Beasley.
Beasley would take an exorbitant offer given his restricted status, but the Thunder could be in a position to do just that. Beasley was having a good year in Denver before a Feb. 5 trade to Minnesota, and in 14 games with the Timberwolves, his stats jumped off the page.
Beasley averaged 20.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 42.6 percent from three on 8.2 attempts during that stretch. Those numbers would put him in rare company. Only JJ Redick and Davis Bertans averaged better than 15 points per game while shooting above 42 percent from three in 2019-20.
A backcourt pairing of Gilgeous-Alexander and Beasley could set the Thunder up nicely while weakening a conference opponent.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
One thing is certain: After three years of mediocrity and with no definitive method of improving via free agency or trade, Orlando Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond have to take risks.
It’s no secret what they’ve missed over the past few seasons. They’ve got plenty of length in the frontcourt, even while Jonathan Isaac rehabs from a torn ACL. With Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, Nikola Vucevic and last year’s first-round pick, Chuma Okeke, in tow, the Magic need to focus on finding a volume scorer, specifically on the wing.
With Fournier’s potential free agency, the offense that finished 23rd in 2019-20 might be further depleted. Paying him seems unwise, after his horrid playoff performance against Milwaukee. Fournier put up just 12.8 points per game on 35.1 percent shooting while posting a negative-10.4 plus/minus. This is not the production the Magic are paying him $17 million annually to produce.
Like Fournier, DeMar DeRozan has a player option for 2020-21. According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, the 31-year-old intends to decline it. If that is the case, the San Antonio Spurs would be wise to get some value for him if they can.
Suppose the Magic can negotiate a sign-and-trade at a reduced annual cost for multiple years. In that case, they could match salaries with Fournier (assuming he picks up his player option) and this season’s 15th pick to negotiate a deal.
DeRozan is a high-volume scorer who grades in the 85th percentile in points per shot attempt and the 90th percentile from mid-range.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich unearthed another interesting wrinkle that may expand DeRozan’s effectiveness, moving him to the 4 for 29 percent of his minutes. Magic skipper Steve Clifford experimented with three-guard lineups throughout the last season, and DeRozan’s flexibility in the lineup may expand the Magic’s offensive ceiling.
A move like this could open up the floor and negate some of his shooting woes from distance while giving the Magic a boost in scoring.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Bringing in significant talent at any price above minimum will be a challenge for the Philadelphia 76ers. With close to max-level numbers at four positions, the Sixers are one of the teams most likely to go into luxury-tax territory next season.
However, that hasn’t been a problem for them recently, as they found a way to sign Tobias Harris and Al Horford to significant deals.
The 76ers were 20th in scoring last season, and their offensive rating in their opening-round sweep at Boston’s hands was a woeful 105.0. A sharp-shooting upgrade like Joe Harris could give the 76ers the lift they desperately need. In a down season by his standards, Harris finished in the 86th percentile in points per shot attempt after finishing in the 99th and 96th percentiles in previous seasons.
At 6’6″ and with his penchant for off-ball movement, Harris closely resembles a JJ Redick or Tyler Herro. However, Harris’ versatility goes unnoticed as the Nets placed him at small forward for 80 percent of his minutes in 2019-20.
Alongside switchable defenders Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, Harris could provide the Sixers with versatility on both ends and allow for small-ball lineups.
The Nets may hesitate to let Harris walk on a four-year mid-level-type offer. The 76ers could offer Richardson and this year’s 21st overall pick to cement a sign-and-trade.
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Steve Dykes/Associated Press
The Portland Trail Blazers were can’t-miss television as their late-season surge propelled them past the Memphis Grizzlies and into the playoffs. Their run of fortune quickly ended there in a five-game route by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite the return of Jusuf Nurkic from a broken leg, the Blazers are a long way off from contending for Western Conference supremacy. To start, they need a playmaking boost to alleviate pressure from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Danilo Gallinari fits that bill.
Gallo was one of the league’s most lethal scoring bigs in 2019-20, putting in 18.7 points per game while shooting 40.5 percent from three. He has graded in the 74th percentile or better in points per shot attempt in every season of his career but one. With Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside both impending free agents, a modern big like Gallo would immediately upgrade the frontcourt.
Acquiring him would be tricky thanks in part to a possibly descending salary cap in 2020 and the salaries already assigned to Lillard, McCollum, Trevor Ariza and Nurkic. Luckily for Portland, the Thunder appear to be entering a rebuild and may be willing to take on salary in exchange for draft assets.
Zach Collins and Rodney Hood (player option) plus draft assets would do the trick might do the trick.
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Matt York/Associated Press
Complacency isn’t in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s repertoire.
He doesn’t need cap space or lottery selections to build a championship-caliber roster. In the past five years, he has discovered undrafted rookies in VanVleet, Terence Davis and three-point ace Matt Thomas. He’s developed late-first-round picks into blue-chip players in OG Anunoby (23rd overall) and Pascal Siakam (27th overall). He dumped Greivis Vasquez for Norman Powell and a future first-rounder (Anunoby).
The man can find talent anywhere. And he’s not afraid to take risks.
One season after losing the Finals MVP, Leonard, as well as the league’s third-best three-point shooter, Danny Green, Ujiri wasn’t content with engaging in a rebuild. He extended Kyle Lowry’s contract and brought in free agents Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson to support his young studs.
Now, Ujiri faces yet another fork in the road: pay for aging big men in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka or re-sign VanVleet and find a lower-cost option in the frontcourt?
One such option could be restricted free agent Dario Saric. After bouncing from Philadelphia to Minnesota to Phoenix, Saric looks like a sixth man with the Suns.
With a healthy Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson on the wing, there is no place for Saric in the starting lineup. Once Kelly Oubre Jr. returns from a torn meniscus, those 24.7 minutes per game may be slashed further.
“I feel better when I’m starting,” Saric said in a Zoom call with media. “Maybe it’s just natural; maybe it’s just in my head.”
The Raptors can offer more than the mid-level exception—they can offer him starter’s minutes at center alongside Siakam.
Saric would make for an ideal fit in Toronto. He can offer complementary playmaking as an underrated passer. The modern big can roll to the basket and kick, and he shot 35.7 percent from three-point range. Over his last 15 games, Saric emerged as the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 14.7 points, and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent from three.
If Ujiri can pry Saric away, the Raptors might be set in the frontcourt for the foreseeable future.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
The Utah Jazz missed Bojan Bogdanovic in the bubble and couldn’t beat the Denver Nuggets in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss in the Western Conference Semifinals.
However, there was another glaring hole in the Jazz lineup, and that was behind Rudy Gobert. Ed Davis was brought in as a low-cost option to complement the starting center and should have filled the role admirably. Davis graded in the 87th percentile as an interior defender in each of the four season before 2019-20, according to BBall Index.
The Jazz were 12.6 points worse with Gobert off the floor, which ranked him in the 97th percentile.
Like Gobert, Favors anchored the Pelicans defense and brought it respectability. The team allowed 5.6 fewer points per 100 opponent possessions, which ranked Favors in the 86th percentile.
The Pelicans were a bottom-10 team on the defensive end through 2019-20 largely due to Favors’ extended absence (personal reasons) through the first part of their schedule. Once he returned, his physicality and intelligence made the Pelicans a top-10 defense through the final 44 games.
Though Favors, 29, could look to score his last sizable payday with someone willing to give him the full mid-level exception, Tony Jones of The Athletic reported on his podcast there would be mutual interest in his returning to Utah.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.