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Down on the quality and potential chaos within this year’s NBA free-agency class? Don’t be.
Because what this summer’s market lacks in available star power, it makes up for with middle-class intrigue and unpredictability.
Very few teams will have appreciable cap space, which is a potential bummer. But it also opens up sign-and-trade possibilities and creates unknowable price points for non-max formalities. Increasingly expensive squads, meanwhile, may find it difficult to retain impact players coming off bargain-bin contracts. Some well-known names who are returning from injuries and need to reboot their stock are hitting the open market, as well.
Never mind the stars who control their own fate or don’t profile as mega-flight risks (Bradley Beal, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Zach LaVine). And forget the restricted free agents who so clearly shouldn’t be going anywhere (Deandre Ayton, Miles Bridges, Anfernee Simons).
This exercise aims instead to find the best fits for the most intriguing mystery boxes—the good to potentially exceptional players without defined markets or no-brainer destinations.
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Best Fits: Dallas, Detroit, Washington
Jalen Brunson benefits perhaps more than anyone from a free-agency landscape light on star power. Filter out all the household names who probably aren’t going anywhere, and he stands to emerge as the best player realistically available.
That noise you’re hearing is a resounding “cha-ching!”
Sticking with the Dallas Mavericks might be the most likely outcome. He has emerged as their unquestionably second-best player, someone they just can’t afford to lose, and they can offer the chance to get him puh-aid without his having to run his own team.
The Detroit Pistons loom as the most logical fit if the Mavs aren’t willing to pony up. They are among four teams with effortless access to $25-plus million in space, and Cade Cunningham’s positionless style and build allow Brunson to take on a higher-profile role without actually moving into the face-of-the-franchise spotlight.
Backing up the Brink’s truck for a going-on-26-year-old point guard doesn’t perfectly jibe with the Pistons’ timeline. But Brunson plays a brand of basketball that won’t infringe upon the development of those around him, and loading up on downhill threats who double as strong decision-makers should help streamline the game for the kids.
Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard should try to join these sweepstakes, too. He’s obligated to find a point guard who complements Bradley Beal if the team plans on keeping the latter, and if we’re being brutally honest, peak Brunson is a cleaner fit beside him than Spencer Dinwiddie, Russell Westbrook and John Wall.
The Wizards will not enter the summer with any cap space. That’s not an unsolvable problem. Sign-and-trades could become standard for anyone netting significantly more than the mid-level exception, and Washington can float packages built around some combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Daniel Gafford, Kyle Kuzma and, depending on how desperately the team wants Brunson, Deni Avdija.
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Best Fits: Atlanta, Miami, Toronto
Right knee and quad issues have limited Victor Oladipo to just 96 regular-season appearances over the past four years, a track record of spotty availability that will remain at the forefront of his free agency. But he has flashed enough full-strength form during the Miami Heat’s playoff push to expand his market, if not beyond mid-level-exception territory, then certainly to more teams within it.
Staying put makes a lot of sense. The Heat have Oladipo’s Bird rights and will almost never need him to be more than their fourth- or fifth-best player.
Miami also has Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson on big-money deals, with Tyler Herro’s inevitably lucrative extension right around the corner. The math starts to get tight if Oladipo is looking for a multiyear commitment worth at or above the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception ($10.4 million)—especially if P.J. Tucker declines his player option and the team (rightfully) makes him a priority.
The Atlanta Hawks could most definitely use the idea of Oladipo, a combo guard who jazzes up their minutes without Trae Young while also strengthening the defense and half-court ball-handling alongside him. Whether they can stomach his injury risk is a separate matter. Bringing back Delon Wright could be the cheaper and more bankable option.
Slotting a healthy Oladipo into the Toronto Raptors’ lineup might be the most functionally intriguing hypothetical. They need another established offensive option who can dabble in half-court initiation, and his defense at full speed (see: possessions in which he defended James Harden during the semifinals) fits their ultra-disruptive motif.
Neither Atlanta nor Toronto will be a cap-space squad. Both should have the wiggle room to offer the full MLE, as well as the breathing room under the apron to consider sign-and-trade scenarios with Miami.
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Best Fits: Cleveland, Houston, Washington
Everything from Collin Sexton’s price point to his eventual landing spot is just fascinating. A torn left meniscus cost him most of this season, and even before then, the 24.3 points and 4.4 assists he averaged during the 2020-21 campaign weren’t widely revered.
I will push back on the “Sexton is empty calories” sentiment until the end of time. Players don’t clear 24 points while downing more than 50 percent of their twos and 37 percent of their threes by accident. He might not be lead-playmaker material, but his passing downhill showed signs of a breakthrough before this season, and there’s no shame in being a tertiary creator who’s capable of scoring in bunches as an off-guard.
Sections of the internet don’t believe the Cleveland Cavaliers have room for Sexton, Darius Garland (extension-eligible) and Caris LeVert. General manager Mike Gansey disagrees. As he told reporters at the start of March, per The Athletic’s Kelsey Russo: “I mean, based on what we’ve seen this year, you can’t have enough playmakers and ball-handlers.”
He is, in fact, correct. Also: LeVert is entering the final year of his own deal. The Cavs don’t have to be locked into a Garland-Sexton-LeVert trio for eternity.
Matching whatever offer(s) Sexton receives is actually the responsible call. Even if he’s not part of the long-term core, he’s too valuable to let walk for nothing. They’re better off keeping him and figuring out how to move him later or try to get the sign-and-trade wheels moving over the summer.
Granted, finding alternative fits for Sexton isn’t a mindless endeavor. Any team paying him needs to already have a superior No. 1 (and maybe No. 2) option on the table. The Wizards are almost an obligatory inclusion. They need to turn over every rock in search of a backcourt running mate for Bradley Beal. Sexton’s off-ball shooting should work well next to him, and he can do enough drive-and-dishing to alleviate some of the playmaking burden.
It might be a little early for the Houston Rockets to explore expensive sign-and-trades. But the Kevin Porter Jr.-as-point-guard experiment flatlined long ago. Sexton poses a nifty offensive fit next to Jalen Green, and at 23, he hasn’t aged out of the rebuilding process.
Cleveland will need to facilitate any agreement between Sexton and Houston or Washington. Neither has cap space. But Wizards have wings to spare (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija), and the Rockets can build proposals around Eric Gordon and any of the lower-level firsts they’re owed in the future.
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Best Fits: Golden State, New Orleans, Portland
Gary Payton II has gone from a fringe NBA player to starting key postseason games for what might be the title favorite. Wonderfully mind-melting stuff. And a fractured left elbow doesn’t change what should be a pretty robust market.
Re-signing with the Golden State Warriors would be ideal for both player and team. Payton is best deployed as a defensive eclipse tasked with flying in for cuts and uncorking a modest number of threes at the other end. Golden State’s offensive hierarchy ensures he won’t ever be overstretched.
And yet, the Warriors may not have the scratch—or luxury-tax stomach—to get another deal done. Without Payton’s Bird rights, their best offer will top out at the mini mid-level exception.
Will they balk at shelling out $6.4 million per year when staring at what could be another nine-figure tax bill? Complicated still: Is the mini MLE even enough to keep Payton? Cap-space teams probably aren’t prepared to fork over breathtaking amounts of money, but there should at least be a few admirers willing to dangle the bigger mid-level.
The New Orleans Pelicans should be on that list. Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson allow them to target point guards who don’t forecast as primary floor generals, and Payton hit juuust enough of his threes this season (35.8 percent on 120 attempts) to hope his addition doesn’t shrink the floor. Any floor-balance tradeoff is also worth paring him and Herb Jones on defense. (Related: Imagine?!?)
Shooting, rim protection and at-large defense have to top the Portland Trail Blazers’ to-do list if they’re bent on retooling around Damian Lillard. Payton for sure checks the latter box, and he should enjoy a steady diet of quality standstill looks catching passes from Dame and Anfernee Simons (restricted).
To be sure: Payton cannot be the move of the Blazers’ offseason. Something along the lines of a Myles Turner or Jerami Grant trade is more befitting of that label. But Payton is among the best possible, and most sensible, finishing touches.
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Best Fits: Chicago, Cleveland, Sacramento
By the time next season tips off, it will have been nearly two years since T.J. Warren appeared in his last game. A fracture in his left foot cost him most of the past two years and stalled a mid-career rise with the Indiana Pacers.
Speaking of which: Feel free to bemoan the Pacers’ absence from the “Best Fits” umbrella. But they’re reportedly inclined to trade Malcolm Brogdon over the offseason, according to Marc Stein, a leaning that suggests they’re more open to a gradual rebuild. Bringing back Warren, who turns 29 in September, goes firmly against that grain.
Hashing out a market for his services is very much stab-in-the-dark stuff. Teams shouldn’t need cap space to sign him, but will his market retreat to mini-mid-level-exception territory ($6.4 million)? I’m betting no. Wings who can stroke threes, have improved their one-on-one defense and previously shown they’re capable of putting the ball on the deck ooze value, even at their most distressed.
Limiting the scope to teams with the nontaxpayer MLE (or more) is a nice middle ground.
The Chicago Bulls desperately need another 3-4 who spaces the floor and should be able to access their $10.4 million chip while maxing out Zach LaVine. The Cavs need wings and shooters, period. And they have the surrounding defensive reinforcements to ease Warren into the fold. Their MLE spending power, though, is tied to how much Collin Sexton gets in his next deal (assuming he stays).
So long as the Sacramento Kings wish to optimize the hazy direction they’ve carved out with Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox headlining the roster, they also need to stock up on wings and shooting. Lineups featuring both Warren and Harrison Barnes would significantly open up the team’s defensive malleability.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass . Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math’s Adam Fromal.