Free Agency Landing Spots for Players Not Named LeBron James or Paul George
While LeBron and a couple other stars occupy all the headlines, these "others" are good enough to impact the league's big picture...if they land in the right situation.
Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
The 2018 unrestricted free agent class is LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Chris Paul, handicapped DeMarcus Cousins, and then everybody else. Two of those stars are all but guaranteed to remain with their current team, so, boiled down, it’s literally depressing; a top-heavy pool mixed with a marketplace that isn’t exactly flush with cash.
What ensues over the next few weeks will resemble a summer movie slate that features one mega blockbuster, an appreciated award-season biopic, a 64-minute bomb that reveals what happens when The Rock fights a robot lion, and then a whole bunch of low-budget horror movies that summon cautious optimism from studios all around Hollywood.
Some of those horror movies will bust. Others will turn a profit. One or two will seem transformative and be deeply treasured by everyone who pays to see them in a theater. In some ways, they are the “everybody else” of 2018’s free agent class: players with intriguing expectations, solid reputations, and a bitter view of how much money they will make relative to what lesser colleagues made two summers ago. With few buyers leading to discounted price tags, most players may seek out short-term deals with teams that can spring them into 2019 looking for more money/years on their contract.
Analyzed in no particular order, here are a few predictions for some of the most intriguing leftovers of this free agency class.
J.J. Redick: Brooklyn Nets
Admission: This proposal was conceived and mostly written before the Brooklyn Nets sacrificed an undetermined amount of this summer's cap space by trading for Dwight Howard, but I’m still rolling with it for a few reasons we’ll get into later on.
The most likely scenario here feels like the Philadelphia 76ers will swing and miss trying to sign LeBron or George, stay above the cap, then re-sign Redick and some of their other free agents to short-term deals that don’t devour their flexibility in 2019. But unfortunate timing could make that difficult.
If James waits a week to make his decision, there’s a decent chance some team will approach Redick with a juicy proposition that requires his answer before Philadelphia knows how its cap situation will look. The type of team that may have enough confidence to do just that happens to be located where Redick lives. It’s hard to know where the Brooklyn Nets stand before they officially buy Howard out, but if they can get off either Jeremy Lin’s expiring deal or D’Angelo Russell, that number will rise, allowing them to structure a contract that declines annually.
Much like the Sixers were searching for an established veteran with a modern skill-set that actively boosts everyone who enters their orbit, the Nets don’t need to be shy about handsomely compensating Redick; a signing of this magnitude would raise the organization’s status and make them better.
Redick is more than a garnish. He’s still able to elevate everyone around him with the space he provides and the gut-punch transition threes he delivers. Kenny Atkinson’s offensive system can be lethal with shooters like him in it (Brooklyn ranked fifth in three-point rate in 2017 and jumped up to second last year when it increased by 4.2 percent.)
Avery Bradley: Los Angeles Lakers
So, this only makes sense if LeBron James and Paul George go there, too, because (when healthy) Bradley is damn good for the role he’d occupy beside two primary ball-handlers, on a team that’s solely focused on getting past the Golden State Warriors.
Nobody shuts Steph Curry down, be it a nimble seven-footer or a snarling guard, but there’s a reason why the Boston Celtics had relative success against the Warriors when Bradley was there. He stays low at all times, which gives him the balance to fight over screens and avoid the unnecessary switches that enable mismatches and a sliver of space for Curry to let the ball fly. Bradley isn’t perfect, and is small enough to be bullied down low, with a stubby wingspan that lessens his impact off the ball. But in a situation where his limited offensive game isn’t stretched thin—where he can focus on well-timed cuts along the baseline, corner threes, and flying off pin-downs—Bradley transforms into a thumb tack at the bottom of Curry’s foot.
The best and most crucial part for L.A. (or Houston or Cleveland or San Antonio or wherever LeBron goes) is Bradley’s contract expires during a spot in his career when it may be best for him to take a one-year discount for the sake of re-establishing his reputation inside a winning environment before he seeks the big-money contract his skills deserve. (If the Lakers—or any of those other suitors—don’t go above the tax, their available mid-level lets them give Bradley a one-year, $8.56 million deal. If they do, it’s $5.29 million.)
Bradley turns 28 in November. If he plays well in the postseason and factors into Golden State’s demise, teams will line up to pay him next summer.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: Houston Rockets
If the Rockets swing and miss on LeBron and George, KCP is a quality fit that can potentially replace Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Of course, that’d almost definitely require him accepting the taxpayer mid-level, which would be about $13 million less than he made last season in Los Angeles—a slight caveat that makes this partnership more fantasy than real life. Caldwell-Pope also may not be interested in the stress and uncertainty that accompanies another one-year deal.
That said, here’s what he told me last December: “I run the floor, I run the wing. Either get easy layups or transition threes.” That’s what Houston wants/needs. Caldwell-Pope can defend multiple positions and hit a career-high 39 percent of his threes last year, too. This increases his monetary draw among teams that won’t be able to leverage the availability of someone like Danny Green (who plans to opt in with the Spurs) too. But that doesn’t mean the Rockets shouldn’t try to get him.
Trevor Ariza: Sacramento Kings
"Past-his-prime wing who can really help a title contender but wants more money than any of them can reasonably pay" sounds like a perfect target for the Sacramento Kings. Ariza would be wise to seek a monstrous one or two-year deal, which could allow him to either re-enter the market next season or change teams before the trade deadline (or as a desirable buyout candidate after it passes). Or he could just ask for the most money possible and wake up, every morning, inside the NBA's closest thing to a haunted house.
I viewed a report of Ariza having one eye on the Golden State Warriors as a way to instill the fear of God in Daryl Morey when Houston sits down to negotiate his next contract, and it'll be tricky for Houston to pay the declining role player (he turns 33 in five days) what he may want, with Chris Paul and Clint Capela also needing to be fed.
Assuming Kosta Koufos, Iman Shumpert, and Garrett Temple opt into their contracts and Sacramento renounces its free agents, they'd be able to offer Ariza as much as $17 million next season, which is $1 million more than the Golden State Warriors owe Andre Iguodala.
Isaiah Thomas: Orlando Magic
Nobody needs to remind the NBA how much damage they’re can inflict more than this guy. Still only 29 years old, Thomas is one year [quietly mumbles] and a serious hip operation away from one of the most impressive offensive seasons in NBA history. Among point guards, Thomas placed in the 96th percentile in usage, 94th percentile for points per shot attempt, and 90th percentile for turnover rate.
Now, instead of money or stability, what Thomas and his representation should prioritize is an ideal situation where there are low expectations, minutes, and the ball in his hands as much as possible. The best fit, by far, is Orlando, where Thomas can arm himself with arguably the longest, most dynamic frontcourt in the league. The spacing won’t be what he enjoyed in Boston, but Thomas will join a team that desperately needs a zestful ball-handler to nourish their developing talent. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where Thomas doesn’t receive immense credit if this team is competitive.
Aaron Gordon, Jonathon Simmons, Jonathan Isaac, and Mo Bamba can help mitigate some of Thomas’s weaknesses on the defensive end, too, and even though D.J. Augustin is quietly coming off one of the better shooting performances any point guard had after the All-Star break, everyone would be better off with him in a backup role. Give Thomas the full mid-level for a year or two and see what happens!
(Plan B is the Denver Nuggets. Even though Denver already has Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, this situation has the potential to be so, so, so, so perfect for Thomas and an organization that’s desperate to make the playoffs next year. The timeline is a superior fit than Orlando, where the Magic may be fine developing young talent and adding another high lottery pick in next year’s draft. If the Nuggets go all in on one end, embrace transition, and start Thomas, Murray, Harris, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic, well, that unit would provide enough electricity to power all of Las Vegas.)
Derrick Favors: Dallas Mavericks
As dull and retrograde as it sometimes appears, I still look forward to summer vacations on Favors Beach, where, sadly, most homes initially constructed with a beautiful oceanfront view have spent the past few years boarding up their windows at an alarming rate. Favors Beach is never entirely uninhabitable, but right now it’s dreary enough to wonder if sun-sprinkled glory days are forever a thing of the past. Its current motto is “Where stubborn optimism meets recurring disappointment,” but I will never sell my imaginary condo there; paradise always feels right around the corner.
Derrick Favors quietly exhibited all he’s capable of last year, a season in which he jiggered his career back on track by re-establishing himself as a dependable finisher and sturdy defensive presence. The 26-year-old made 59.7 percent of his two-point shots (a career high) and shot 74 percent at the rim, a terrific mark that was 17 percent higher than his injury-riddled 2016-17. The Utah Jazz boasted a terrific defense whenever Favors took the court, and at the four by Rudy Gobert’s side, few tandems were more effective together during the entire postseason.
At his best, Favors dropped 20+16 on Steven Adams and the Thunder, in Oklahoma City, in a critical Game 2 win, and was +55 for the rest of the first round. But playing two traditional big men at the same time isn’t survivable against the league’s best teams when neither is comfortable on the perimeter. That muted Favors’s role in the second round, and removed him from Utah’s starting lineup for the final two games (after starting the first nine). The Houston Rockets had more talent and deserved to win that series regardless, but they also had a clear stylistic advantage, one that exposed Favors as a net negative.
Poor health has been a consistent issue, but last year Favors only missed five games. In a situation where he’s a full-time starting five, he can be more than a serviceable defensive anchor. The Mavericks need that exact piece—a bruising five who can impact the glass, protect the rim, finesse as a roll man, and not expect the ball—to round out their rebuild.
Favors can provide without disrupting the franchise’s sudden and exciting youth movement. In lineups where he’s the only big, alongside Dennis Smith Jr., and Luka Doncic, Dallas would have something to be seriously excited about.
Don’t overpay for Boogie Cousins when you can get a better defender with no rampant locker room concerns. And even if DeAndre Jordan opts out, Favors is three years younger. Surprisingly nimble in the open floor with great hands running through traffic, Favors can be a huge addition if Rick Carlisle finally unbuttons Dallas’s offense to let Doncic and Smith Jr. attack in transition. Investing something like $50 million over the next three years should go a long way. Favors Beach will be back and better than ever!
Wayne Ellington: Philadelphia 76ers
If they’re met with a worst-case scenario this summer—Redick leaves (to sign with Brooklyn, of course), LeBron and George go to Los Angeles—the 76ers need to chase someone like Wayne Ellington (who’s from Philadelphia) and turn him into a safety net. Stars are wonderful, but elite spacers are required on a team that has Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. That's exactly what Ellington is.