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2023 NBA Free Agency: Best Available Guards and Their Top Landing Spots

Eric Pincus

The NBA offseason has already begun for 22 of the 30 franchises. With a new collective bargaining agreement agreed a week ago, the NBA and NBPA averted a lockout while instituting several new rules to curtail the highest spenders. The changes will shock the system, especially some free agents expecting a big payday.

Stars will still get compensated, but money may not flow as easily this offseason as franchises try to adapt. Will that impact All-Stars like James Harden and Kyrie Irving? It might limit their options.

In Part I of three, who are the best available free-agent ball-handling guards, and where might they land this summer?

James Harden Stays in Philadelphia or Returns to Houston?

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James Harden provided a reminder of his star status in the Philadelphia 76ers' Game 1 win over the Boston Celtics. The veteran guard will be 34 by the start of next season, and while he has a $35.6 million player option for 2023-24, he's all but sure to explore free agency.

The Sixers can max him out at a starting salary of $46.9 million (up to $210 million over four years, limited by the over-38 rules and assuming a $134 million salary cap), but will they commit that much for that long?

The franchise can afford a significant tax bill in the immediate term since Tobias Harris will come off after this next season (heading into his final year at $39.3 million). Still, keeping payroll down won't be easy, with over $50 million per season committed to Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey expecting a healthy extension this offseason.

A shorter deal for Harden may appeal more to the franchise, but that may drive him to look elsewhere, including a potential return to the Houston Rockets. Houston has the cap room to offer a four-season $201.7 million maximum contract. While Philadelphia can beat that, that may be more than the franchise is willing to provide—and with no state taxes in Texas, Harden may net more with the Rockets.

If so, look for Houston to trade away some of their younger, developing players while trying to forge a competitive roster around Harden. Compared to Philadelphia, Houston has greater financial flexibility but no one on par with Embiid. But then, does Harden enjoy what he has with the 76ers, or is he looking to return to a comfortable Houston environment?

Kyrie Irving Needs Dallas; Dallas Needs Irving

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At first glance, the brief marriage between the Dallas Mavericks and Kyrie Irving ended poorly. The team didn't even make the play-in tournament. But the franchise knew it probably gave up too much to the Brooklyn Nets in the short term to have a viable postseason. The goal was to pair All-Star Luka Dončić with a second playmaker, and Irving is that. The challenge will be filling around the duo, assuming Irving returns.

Irving is an unrestricted free agent but how many teams will be willing to invest in the mercurial guard? He's already 31 years old and has a reputation for being a challenge to manage.

Most of the teams that have spending power have younger, impressionable rosters or are just poor fits, like the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz. The franchises that need a veteran guard to help make a postseason run just don't have the kind of money Irving has earned.

The one that could, the Los Angeles Lakers, would need to pivot away from several of its own free agents and, even then, wouldn't be able to reach the maximum figure the Mavericks can offer ($46.9 million for up to five years).

Dallas gave up too much to acquire Irving to let him walk now. Irving needs the Mavericks because they may be the only team willing to pay him what he feels he's worth. In theory, it's Dallas with the leverage. The Mavs may concede on price but in exchange for a shorter deal.

Fred VanVleet Ready to Move on from Toronto?

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The buzz surrounding the Toronto Raptors in NBA circles is that the franchise will go in a different direction this offseason with its roster. Nick Nurse is out as head coach. The team explored trades for most of its roster at the deadline, not to make deals but to gauge the market this summer.

But don't write off a VanVleet reunion entirely. The 29-year-old guard has a $22.8 million player option for 2023-24. Most around the league expect him to opt out to either re-sign with the Raptors or move on entirely.

VanVleet may be able to get Jalen Brunson-level dollars ($26 million per season), but his best path to a playoff contender could be to opt in and extend. Under the incoming rules, VanVleet can sign an extension in July as part of a trade with a starting salary for 2024-25 as high as $32 million. That would open the door to a longer list of teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns or Brooklyn Nets.

Otherwise, he may find viable suitors as an unrestricted free agent in the Jazz, Magic or Rockets. The Mavericks might have enough spending room without Christian Wood and Irving (and others, likely via trade or waiver).

D'Angelo Russell Back with the LA Lakers?

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The Los Angeles Lakers turned their season around at the deadline. Once a team seemingly destined for the lottery, the franchise is one of the eight remaining teams in pursuit of a title.

Russell has been a welcome fit alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the viable floor spacer Russell Westbrook couldn't be for the team. L.A. may not offer as much as he's currently earning ($31.4 million in the final year of his deal), but Russell could earn a similar deal to Jalen Brunson's $26 million-per-year contract

The Lakers will have to mind the rest of their roster to avoid significant tax penalties with the new rules, but that shouldn't get in the way of bringing back the 27-year-old guard. Russell could look for more elsewhere but may find the market is sparse.

Most of the teams that could use him can't afford him. The teams with money that may need a point guard include the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. Houston may prefer Kevin Porter Jr. over Russell, assuming James Harden doesn't join the franchise. The Magic, who have several young guards like Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony, may not target Russell.

A return to Los Angeles seems inevitable.

Can Austin Reaves Get an Arenas Offer?

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Austin Reaves went quickly from an undrafted player on a two-way contract in 2021 to a playoff starter with the Lakers in 2023. Because he's finishing up his second year with the team, L.A. doesn't have his full rights. Fortunately for the Lakers, the Arenas rule limits what other franchises can offer Reaves as a restricted free agent.

The Lakers can pay him a salary starting in the $11-12 million range (to be determined by the end of June) for two to four years. That's on par with what others can offer via the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, and Los Angeles has the right of first refusal.

But teams with cap room can offer a much larger four-year deal that could reach as high as $98.7 million. The Lakers would only owe Reaves about $12 million per season for the first two years, jumping to $37-39 million over the final two.

Can Reaves get that kind of offer or, more realistically, one in the Bogdan Bogdanović price range ($17 million per season)? It's feasible that a competing franchise like the Spurs would be willing to throw an offer sheet at Reaves? At worst, they don't get the player but put a higher number on the Lakers' books moving forward.

Others who could look to do the same include the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers. At 6'5", Reaves is capable both on the ball as a lead guard and off the ball as a shooter. Expect him back with L.A. next season, but another team could make the process more difficult and expensive.

Where to for Russell Westbrook?

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Russell Westbrook is looking at a reduction in pay this coming season. The Jazz have a $46.3 million dead-money cap hit on their books after taking him on in a trade from the Lakers. After a buyout, Westbrook helped restore his value with a successful run in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

But the Clippers don't have Westbrook's rights. They are capable of paying him just 120 percent above the minimum. Given L.A.'s massive payroll and incoming rule changes, the team won't have its taxpayer mid-level exception ($5 million starting salary). Westbrook could re-sign and wait a year for early Bird rights that could pay in the $12 million range in 2024.

Instead, look for Westbrook to seek an opportunity elsewhere on a team with cap space or a non-taxpayer mid-level exception (roughly $12.2 million). The Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets may have that kind of money. The cap-space teams may not be as likely to target the 34-year-old guard.

A Relatively Underwhelming List Of Free Agents

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The list of starting-caliber ball-handling guards drops off pretty quickly. The list of unrestricted players isn't very long, and the quality isn't incredibly overwhelming.

Jevon Carter may opt out of his final year ($2.2 million) with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers likely hope to retain Dennis Schröder, though they don't have the rights to pay him much more than the minimum.

Look for the Miami Heat to retain Gabe Vincent, while Dennis Smith Jr. may have found a home in Charlotte.

Others of note include Reggie Jackson, Shake Milton, Ty Jerome, Cory Joseph, Aaron Holiday, Raul Neto, Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn, among others. Talen Horton-Tucker may opt in to his final year at $11 million or explore free agency after a solid finish to the season.

Others like Cameron Payne, Jose Alvarado, De'Anthony Melton, Jordan McLaughlin and Markelle Fultz are almost certain to be kept by their respective teams despite being on non- or partially guaranteed salaries.

The New York Knicks must decide on Derrick Rose's $16 million team option. While he's unlikely to play with the team next season, the franchise may need to opt him in to use his salary for an offseason trade.

In addition to Reaves with the Lakers, several young free agents will be restricted this offseason (assuming their respective teams issue qualifying offers).

Tre Jones of the San Antonio Spurs and Ayo Dosunmu of the Chicago Bulls are likely returnees. Others, some on two-way contracts, include Dalano Banton (Raptors), Xavier Moon (Clippers), Gabe York (Indiana), Scotty Pippen Jr. (Lakers), McKinley Wright IV (Dallas), Collin Gillespie (Denver), Théo Maledon (Charlotte), JD Davison (Boston Celtics), Trevor Hudgins (Houston), and Jeff Dowtin (Toronto).


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