The NBA Draft is less than a week away and shortly after the next crop of NBA players learn where they’ll be starting their careers, free agency will arrive as teams jockey for position to make a leap next season.
Every team has different needs and financial situations coming into the offseason, and as such free agency rankings from a wide view does little to provide insight into the players who will headline each team’s wishlist. Here, we’re going to try and take a more narrow view for each team, taking into account their roster needs, franchise situation (contender, hopeful contender, rebuild, etc.), and the money they have to offer to pick out the free agent we think will be atop their free agent board when August arrives.
To start, we’ll look at the West, going from worst to first based on last year’s standings to pick out a free agent for each team who is not one of their own.
Houston Rockets: Lauri Markkanen (RFA, Bulls)
Things are rather bleak in Houston at the moment, and one would expect them to be looking to move veterans like Eric Gordon and D.J. Augustin in trades to open up more opportunity for young players. They also don’t have much cap space, so they can’t go after any of the top free agents, but maybe they take a flier on someone like Bulls RFA Lauri Markkanen, who Chicago seems unlikely to want to match much on. The Rockets are a team that could offer Markannen a mid-level type deal and that might be the best he can find on the market this summer. There aren’t a ton of great options for Houston, who are in the unfortunate situation of being a bad team without cap space to even try to overpay for young guys in hopes they blossom, but Markkanen is theoretically a fit next to Christian Wood and could be happy just to be in a new place.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Talen Horton-Tucker (RFA, Lakers)
The Thunder are going to have lots of money they need to spend and don’t really have any specific need beyond playing for upside. This isn’t a free agent class that has a lot of players that fit the bill here, and they aren’t going to be a preferred destination for anyone, so we land with Talen Horton-Tucker, who if nothing else fits OKC’s timeframe better than any free agent on the market at just 20 years old. The Thunder could put up the type of contract for THT that would make the Lakers balk at matching, and can offer him a much more significant role in a place where, while he won’t be competing for anything close to a title, would also come without the stress of needing to develop while contributing to a top contender.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Otto Porter Jr. (UFA, Magic)
I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what Otto Porter Jr.’s market is going to be, as he has barely played recently (42 games in two seasons). As such, it’s possible that he could be available for a bargain and is the type of upside player on the wing that the Timberwolves could use, and with Minnesota not having anything but the mid-level to offer, that’s maybe the best they can hope for. If Porter can stay healthy and regain the form he showed after being dealt to Chicago in 2018, this is a home run for the Timberwolves to add more wing depth and versatility as someone who can play some four. If it’s on a short-term deal, it mitigates the risk and Minnesota is in a position where it might be worth taking a swing.
New Orleans Pelicans: Devonte’ Graham (RFA, Hornets)
With the likelihood that they’re just going to let their own RFAs (Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart) walk, New Orleans’ focus this summer is on upgrading their point guard position. There’s been reported interest from the Pelicans in Kyle Lowry, but as great a fit as that would be for New Orleans, it’s just hard for me to see Lowry being seriously interested in the Pelicans given the other possible options. Graham, however, fits their timeline a little better and still would provide the upgrade in terms of offensive playmaking, creation, and shooting that they want to find. Whether their $16 million in space is enough to get Graham out of Charlotte remains to be seen, but I think that would be a terrific landing spot for Graham and a good, more realistic outcome for the Pelicans to upgrade their backcourt.
Sacramento Kings: Montrezl Harrell (Player Option, Lakers)
The real answer here is “keep Richaun Holmes,” but the Kings may not be able to do that, as they only have his early Bird rights, which means they can only offer him a deal in the $11-12 million a year range. That might not top what Holmes gets on the open market, particularly in a year that is very light on starting-caliber big men. Should Holmes walk, all the Kings really have at their disposal is the mid-level (just above $9 million), which isn’t a lot, but they can offer a significant role. That might be enough to persuade someone like Montrezl Harrell, who has clearly been frustrated by his role on the Lakers on the same deal, to opt out and try, once again, to build a more robust free agent market for himself on a team where he’d have ample opportunity to play a more leading role.
San Antonio Spurs: John Collins (RFA, Hawks)
The Spurs’ interest in Collins isn’t a secret and they are one of the few teams that has the type of money to possibly pry Collins away from Atlanta. The Spurs can offer Collins his max and that might be enough to make the Hawks walk away from the table. San Antonio has a terrific young backcourt, but is staring at a significant hole at the power forward position. Collins would fit that need snugly, as well as their timeline which is to continue competing for playoff spots now, but keeping an eye on the future to really build into being a contender again.
Golden State Warriors: Nic Batum (UFA, Clippers)
The Warriors will look to do most of their damage this offseason via trades, with plenty of draft capital to move around to try and upgrade their roster around Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and a returning Klay Thompson. Whatever they do on the trade market, they still will need shooting and more quality veteran help, and with just the taxpayer mid-level ($5.9 million) at their disposal, I’m not sure they can do much better than Batum. He and Green could make for an awesome small-ball defensive pair, with plenty of savvy and strength, and where Green is a creator offensively, Batum was a lights-out shooter for the Clippers, something desperately needed in the Bay. L.A. will also try to bring Batum back at the same price, but with Kawhi out after ACL surgery, it’s possible Batum sees Golden State as the preferred option for next season.
Memphis Grizzlies: Tim Hardaway Jr. (UFA, Mavericks)
The Grizzlies are a fascinating team because they already have depth and are already good, but they certainly have needs in terms of boosting their ceiling. The good news is they’ll have money to do that with, as they’ll be in the $22 million range in cap space. The biggest need for the Grizzlies is scoring, as Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks are often asked to do everything in the creation space for Memphis and that’s a tall order for two guys to make it happen night in and night out. The Mavs have plenty of incentive to try and keep Hardaway, but the Grizzlies can make a handsome offer to him and he would be a snug fit in terms of providing some secondary creation as well as being another quality spot-up shooter.
Portland Trail Blazers: PJ Tucker (UFA, Bucks)
The Bucks will have their hands full trying to retain everyone from this past year, and the Blazers could try to pry Tucker away with a significant chunk of the mid-level that might be more than Milwaukee might be willing to offer. Portland’s biggest moves this summer are going to have to come via trade, but with re-signing Norman Powell as their focus in terms of their own free agents, adding another versatile wing/frontcourt defender would be a welcome sight for Damian Lillard. Defense has to be Portland’s focus this offseason, and with a free agency class that doesn’t have a ton of great options for a team like the Blazers, Tucker might be their most attainable target to fill that need.
Dallas Mavericks: Mike Conley (UFA, Jazz)
Utah has a lot of money allocated to next year’s team without re-signing Conley, and if a team like the Mavs were to come at him with a robust offer, it might be more than the Jazz would be willing to pay him to run things back. From Dallas’ perspective, Conley is an ideal point guard to pair alongside Luka Doncic, someone who has recent experience balancing creative duties with a young star in Donovan Mitchell, and his three-point shooting provides additional spacing next to Doncic. Dallas also has frontcourt needs to address as well, but there’s no doubt that they could use a steady hand and another creator next to Doncic, and if Conley is willing to look beyond Utah, there are few places that are a better fit for him than the Mavs.
Los Angeles Clippers: Jeff Green (UFA, Nets)
Look, the Clippers focus in free agency is figuring out how to keep as much of the 2020-21 squad on board, not adding players from other teams. Kawhi is the biggest piece of that, but Nic Batum and Reggie Jackson were huge for them on minimum deals and will require much more next year. The good news is they have Early Bird rights on Jackson, meaning they can bring him back for just north of $10 million, and given his post-playoffs presser, that seems like a fair bet. Batum, on the other hand, will have plenty of suitors at the same number they can offer at the tax-payer MLE and possibly above. If he walks, frontcourt help will be among the top priorities for the Clippers and they could do worse than adding Green, who would provide similar versatility although not the three-point shooting punch. Brooklyn probably can’t offer him much more than the minimum and if the Clippers were to bring their tax MLE to the table, they might draw him to L.A.
Denver Nuggets: Bobby Portis (Player Option, Bucks)
The Nuggets have a few really interesting decisions to make with their own free agents, and that’s going to determine where they look to spend with their mid-level. I feel it’s more likely they bring Will Barton back and try to work out a deal for Austin Rivers to return, shifting the focus to the frontcourt help. While Paul Millsap has been terrific for them over his tenure in Denver, they might look to splurge the full mid-level to pry Bobby Portis out of Milwaukee to see if he can bring the same magic with him to Denver. They could use that kind of energy in the frontcourt and scoring punch off the bench in the moments Jokic is on the bench.
Phoenix Suns: Nerlens Noel (UFA, Knicks)
Dario Saric was great as a small-ball five for Phoenix, but he’ll be out most of next season (if not all of it) after suffering his ACL injury. Bringing Chris Paul back is the first point of order for James Jones and the Suns, but after that attention has to shift to finding a capable backup for Deandre Ayton. Of the center options on the market, I’m not sure they can do a whole lot better than Noel, who would bring their bench unit some much-needed rim protection, even if you sacrifice some offense to have that defensive presence. Phoenix could be in on the Nic Batum sweepstakes as well, but I just can’t help but think that Noel would fit snugly into what Monty Williams wants for the identity of this team on the defensive end of the floor.
Utah Jazz: Torrey Craig (UFA, Phoenix)
Everything about this offseason in Utah hinges on whether they’re able to bring back Mike Conley or not, but the need, for now, is having another defender on the wing. If they re-sign Conley, it’s going to be very much an “add on the periphery” summer for the Jazz and Craig might be their best bet in terms of bang for their buck. A throwaway in the PJ Tucker trade, Craig ended up in Phoenix where he played an important role for the Suns as a bench defender (and solid three-point shooter), much as he did in Denver prior to falling out of the rotation. Utah could use that type of presence to mix into their wing/power forward rotation, and with potentially not a lot to spend, he would be a quality addition that wouldn’t run their tax bill too much higher.