Believe it or not, the start of 2023 NBA free agency is right around the corner. And with the vast majority of the league already in offseason mode, it's time for us hoops heads to start seriously thinking about it.
And what better way to do prep for #TransactionSeason than by cobbling together an ambitious free-agency target for every single team?
Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes and Dan Favale will be your guides throughout this tour. And just so we're clear, "ambitious" doesn't mean batcrap bonkers.
Salary-cap sheets and spending power for every squad will be taken into account. We're either looking at the best player a team can hope to land outright or proposing sign-and-trade hypotheticals where it's both feasible and appropriate.
Our one other ground rule: Every free agent will only be selected once. Variety's the spice of life and all that.
To the Ambitiousness Indulger 5000!
Atlanta Hawks: Kevin Love
The Atlanta Hawks may have the green light to improve the roster from ownership, but financial constraints, including a payroll projected to be eight figures above the luxury tax, will limit their options. The team's willingness to spend could also take a hit after possible rookie-scale extensions for Onyeka Okongwu and Saddiq Bey.
If Atlanta uses its taxpayer midlevel exception, it should prioritize a frontcourt shooter who can improve its 30th-ranked long-range attempt rate. Head coach Quin Snyder's Utah Jazz teams routinely ranked in the top 10 in three-point frequency, which suggests he'd know what to do with a sniper at the 4.
Kevin Love, a rare buyout player to make a major impact on his new team, is frequently starting for the indefatigable Miami Heat in the 2023 playoffs. Due to turn 35 in September, Love is limited defensively but has managed to stay on the floor year after year on the strength of his offensive game. A career 37.0 percent shooter from distance and still a brilliant passer and defensive rebounder, Love could give Atlanta everything it needs in a 20-minute-per-game reserve, pairing perfectly with either Clint Capela or Okongwu up front.
Assuming Atlanta finally moves John Collins, there should be plenty of minutes available.
Boston Celtics: Lonnie Walker IV
When the Boston Celtics' offense turns out sickeningly ineffective stretches, the symptoms are always the same: aimlessness, indecision and an alarming disregard for ball security. Head coach Joe Mazzulla's harshest critics would suggest an occasional timeout as a course of treatment, but maybe the addition of a head-down, bucket-hungry guard could also help.
Lonnie Walker IV is a breathtaking open-floor athlete who can also get to his pull-up jumper at will against a set defense. Ask Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors how tough it can be to handle Walker when he's on a heater.
The 24-year-old guard isn't much of a passer, but he also doesn't give the rock away, ranking in the 86th percentile among wings in turnover rate this past season. Walker averaged 18.2 points per 36 minutes in 2022-23 and sits at 16.9 for his career.
Walker started 32 games for the Los Angeles Lakers this past season and has provided timely playoff help. He made $6.5 million on the one-year deal he inked with L.A. and may have priced himself out of Boston's range, which tops out at the mini midlevel exception of $5 million. But we're being ambitious, and Walker's aggressive, decisive style could cure what ails the Celtics' offense.
Brooklyn Nets: Georges Niang
The Brooklyn Nets' plan to send multiple rangy wings at Joel Embiid worked well in their first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. But while the strategy highlighted Brooklyn's wealth of defenders, it wasn't enough to avoid a quick elimination. The Nets couldn't generate enough points on the other end.
That's a predictable result when you trade away a pair of all-time bucket-getters in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant during the season.
With the $5 million taxpayer MLE likely to be their top spending tool, it won't be easy for the Nets to address their scoring needs.
Georges Niang might be as good as it gets.
Perhaps a reserve heading into his age-30 season seems underwhelming, but Niang is a career 40.3 percent shooter from deep. He's also durable, having logged at least 66 games in each of the last four years. Comfortable in the Utah Jazz's motion-based "advantage" offense under Quin Snyder and the Philadelphia 76ers' pick-and-roll heavy sets, Niang is a plug-and-play spacer who would improve the Nets' 20th-ranked three-point accuracy after the All-Star break.
Charlotte Hornets: Kristaps Porziņģis
He's not a lob threat, and the Charlotte Hornets already have a pair of young centers under contract in Mark Williams and Nick Richards. But Kristaps Porziņģis would be a wildly intriguing dream-big option to pair with LaMelo Ball and whomever the Charlotte Hornets select at No. 2 in the 2023 draft.
To clear the space for KP, the Hornets would likely need to renounce their rights on free agents PJ Washington and Kelly Oubre Jr.—and this all assumes Porziņģis will decline his $36 million player option with the Washington Wizards to hit free agency in the first place.
The Hornets could also get creative with sign-and-trade packages, and one could imagine the Wizards eyeing Washington as a frontcourt replacement if Kyle Kuzma signs elsewhere after declining his own player option.
Porziņģis comes with a checkered injury history, and there's always a danger in spending big on a player coming off a career season. But if Michael Jordan sells the team, a new owner might be motivated to make a splashy signing. In a thin free-agent crop, snagging Porziņģis would count as a cannonball off the high dive.
Chicago Bulls: Gabe Vincent
The Miami Heat are right up against the second luxury tax apron without accounting for a single dollar going to Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Kevin Love, Cody Zeller, Omer Yurtseven or Udonis Haslem next year. Though they have Bird rights on both Strus and Vincent, their top two retention priorities in that group of free agents, it simply may not be financially feasible to keep both.
That's where the Chicago Bulls should swoop in and offer Vincent their full mid-level exception, which starts at $12.2 million in 2023-24 and can run for up to four years with five percent raises.
Chicago has Alex Caruso under contract, but that's about it in terms of reliable point guards. Coby White will be a restricted free agent, and Patrick Beverley witll join Ayo Dosunmu on the unrestricted market.
Vincent is only a 33.9 percent three-point shooter for his career, and he doesn't have the distribution instincts of a pure facilitator. But his postseason run with the Heat has been defined by a level of two-way play that is undeniably starting-caliber. The only question is whether the Heat will beat the Bulls' MLE offer and dive deeper into the tax in the process.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Harrison Barnes
The full midlevel exception probably won't be enough to secure the services of Harrison Barnes, who made $18.3 million this past season with the Sacramento Kings. The Cleveland Cavaliers have to hope that teams have Barnes' shaky postseason play top of mind, and that they'll ignore his general steadiness at a key position over the last several seasons.
Cleveland needs a forward with size who can keep defenses honest as a spot-up threat and hold up when guarding opposing wings. Barnes is already 30 and probably profiles best as a true power forward, but he would be a significant upgrade on what the Cavs trotted out at the 3 a year ago.
While Barnes' 36.8 percent hit rate on catch-and-shoot threes slightly underwhelms, Cleveland should note he hit 42.4 percent of those looks in 2021-22 and 42.1 percent in 2020-21. Durability helps Barnes' case as well; he played all 82 games last season and 77 the year prior. He's missed more than 10 games in a campaign just once during his 11-year career.
Bruce Brown Jr. and Josh Hart would be great alternatives here, but they're both younger and potentially in higher demand. If the Cavs are going to get a bargain with their MLE, Barnes is the more likely option.
Dallas Mavericks: Dillon Brooks
The scope and ambition of the Dallas Mavericks' free-agency wish list changes significantly if Kyrie Irving leaves. Let's assume he stays, even though he gets flat-out cranky when we do such things.
The Mavs ponied up their best defender (Dorian Finney-Smith) and an unprotected 2029 first-rounder to get Kyrie. You don't pay that premium if you're not willing to pony up and most certainly if you think he's a legitimate flight risk.
Maxing out Kyrie most likely leaves Dallas with the mini mid-level ($7 million) to dangle unless it trims salary elsewhere. The team's mandate is simple: get defense.
It'd be nice if that defense comes attached to shooting. Dillon Brooks will certainly shoot...just not efficiently. But finite spenders can't be choosy. And as it stands, Brooks might be a touch too ambitious.
Sure, the Memphis Grizzlies already told him to hit the bricks. But he is feisty as hell on the less glamorous end. Brooks can reasonably match up across four positions and just made an All-Defensive team. Other suitors could be willing to offer the non-taxpayer mid-level ($11.4 million).
Even so, it never hurts to try. Brooks is among the most damaging offensive players in existence. Maybe his market craters. If it doesn't, Dallas can promise serious minutes on a team that's supposed to be good. And because the Mavs can withstand his offensive implosions, Brooks' role will be more of a constant than if he joins a team that needs him to score efficiently.
Denver Nuggets: Bruce Brown (Player Option)
Retaining your own free agents isn't typically considered ambitious. The Denver Nuggets' eventual re-courting of Bruce Brown is different.
Without his Bird rights or cap space, they cannot offer him more than $7.7 million in 2023-24. That's only a hair more than the mini mid-level exception ($7 million)—and, frankly, nowhere near Brown's actual market value. He has done everything from providing rim pressure to running point to checking some truly difficult defensive assignments. Most of his utility has translated to the postseason, his slumping three-point clip (28.9 percent) notwithstanding.
Plenty of teams peddling the bigger MLE ($11.4 million) should be interested in his services. The Nuggets cannot compete with four-year offers that approach $50 million (or more). Their best contract will peak at a notch above $30 million.
And yet, Denver just made it to the Finals. It might win the whole damn thing. Maybe Brown pulls a Nicolas Batum and Bobby Portis Jr., signs for less next season and then inks a much larger deal using Early Bird rights in 2024.
Knowing how critical he is to the team's success, the Nuggets will certainly be open to it. They better hope Brown is, too.
Detroit Pistons: Cameron Johnson
Somebody needs to test the Brooklyn Nets' tolerance on salary matching.
The Detroit Pistons have both the positional need and spending power to make Brooklyn think hard about the worth of restricted free agent Cameron Johnson.
With HoopsHype's Michael Scotto reporting NBA executives expect Johnson to "earn a deal in the neighborhood of four years, $90 million," Detroit could use its cap-space stockpile to fire a four-year offer sheet worth well over $100 million at the 27-year-old sharpshooter. The Pistons could renounce rights on Hamidou Diallo and Cory Joseph to clear nearly $30 million in room, but they probably won't even need all of their potentially available cash to beat the market (and the Nets) on a deal for Johnson.
The Pistons already have Bojan Bogdanović earning $20 million next season, but nobody has ever criticized a roster for having too many offensively skilled combo forwards. Johnson is a career 39.3 percent marksman from deep, and he's shown the ability to guard 3s and 4s effectively. He and Bogdanović could combine with Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham to produce a dangerous attack, something the Pistons should prioritize after finishing 29th in offensive efficiency.
Golden State Warriors: Torrey Craig
Pick a free agent, any free agent, who's capable of ranking seventh to ninth in total minutes played on the Golden State Warriors. They are going to be an ambitious target.
You can thank the new collective bargaining agreement.
Golden State is going to blow by the second luxury-tax apron without some seismic salary-shedding. Among other things, this means the Warriors won't have access to their mid-level exception. They are, effectively, minimum-salary-or-bust.
Torrey Craig is mega ambitious by these standards.
Yes, his place inside the Phoenix Suns rotation waned during the playoffs. But Craig started 60 games during the regular season while knocking down 39.7 percent of his threes (4.7 attempts per 36 minutes), party-crashing the offensive glass and defending across the 2, 3 and 4 spots.
Some team, somewhere, should be open to throwing most or all of the mini mid-level ($7 million) Craig's way. But does the chance to play a potentially higher-minute role on the Warriors, who desperately need a combo forward if Jonathan Kuminga isn't part of the present, make any sort of difference?
Houston Rockets: James Harden (Player Option)
Um, duh. The Houston Rockets are on track for nearly $60 million in cap space, and as NBA Insider Marc Stein recently reiterated, they remain interested in reuniting with James Harden.
I could lament poetic about the upside-down logic of potentially maxing out a soon-to-be 34-year-old when you're galaxies away from title contention. I could. But I won't.
That concern is implied—and prevalent. But Houston has the financial flexibility, prospects and future draft picks to transform its roster into a product befitting Harden's timeline.
And look, the Rockets are clearly going to try accelerating their timeline regardless of what I—or you—think. Oklahoma City controls their 2024 and 2026 first-rounders (top-four protection) and has the right to swap selections with them in 2025 (top-10 protection). Houston has every incentive to prioritize improvement by leaps and bounds.
Whether Harden qualifies as ambitious is somewhat debatable. He is a flashy name who'll cost serious coin, but he's almost exclusively been linked to the Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. His range of destinations may not be particularly expansive.
Then again, sources told Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes that Harden "will only entertain suitors that present a competitive roster and the basketball freedom for the star to be himself." The Rockets can guarantee the latter. The former will require overhauling their roster—an endeavor as ambitious as it is plausible.
Indiana Pacers: Draymond Green
We haven't gotten completely out of pocket yet, but the Indiana Pacers and Draymond Green provide the opportunity to stretch the definition of "ambitious targets" to its absolute limit.
There's ample room to nitpick the likelihood of Green landing with the Pacers. He'd have to decline his $27.6 million player option, decide to ditch the only team he's ever known and chose to pass over multiple contenders to sign with an up-and-coming small-market franchise. The odds of all that happening are ridiculously long.
That said, there's no doubt Green would fit perfectly into Indy's starting and closing unit. The Pacers have talent and shooting just about everywhere but the 4, they play an uptempo and dynamic offensive style and head coach Rick Carlisle has proved during his second tenure with the Pacers that he can adapt tactics to fit talent.
Green is most comfortable and effective in lineups that feature superstar point guards with elite vision and shooting skill, ideally operating in a five-out set that highlights his passing and general versatility. In Indiana, Tyrese Haliburton could fill the Stephen Curry role while Myles Turner offers the across-the-lineup stretch that brings out the best version of Green.
Indiana could use some of its $27.6 million in cap space to offer Green an enticing four-year deal worth between $100-120 million.
LA Clippers: Dennis Schröder
Welcome to another round of "This team is about to cruise past the second luxury-tax apron and will only be able to land players using minimum contracts so any free agent worth a friggin' damn counts as ambitious," L.A. Clippers Edition.
Russell Westbrook can technically be slotted here. The Clippers don't have his Bird rights, and he played enviably for an undermanned roster in the first-round of the playoffs. But Kevin Durant won't be on the opposing side every night. L.A. cannot bet on regularly having the most inspired version of Westbrook. He also remains an iffy fit on those (admittedly infrequent) occasions when both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are available.
Dennis Schröder is a cleaner option. If his body of work with the Los Angeles Lakers is any indication, he will imbue the rotation with more consistent point-of-attack defense. And though Westbrook fared better from the floor as a member of the Clippers, Schröder is historically the more reliable three-point and mid-range shooter.
Will he sign another minimum contract? That's an entirely separate matter. Schröder played well enough in the postseason to bag more. If he can't get the mini mid-level, then certainly the room mid-level ($5.9 million) or bi-annual exception ($4.5 million) should be in play. But the Clippers can offer minutes and, ostensibly, a title window. That may carry cachet.
Los Angeles Lakers: Gary Trent Jr. (Player Option)
There are levels to how aggressive the Los Angeles Lakers can get in free agency. They could have substantial cap space. They could have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. They could be limited to the mini MLE. Everything hinges on how they handle their own free agents.
Cap space feels out of the question. Generating enough to make a difference requires getting rid of pretty much everyone except Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Austin Reaves (small cap hold), Jarred Vanderbilt (non-guaranteed) and Max Christie. The Lakers already plan to match whatever offer Rui Hachimura receives in restricted free agency, according to The Athletic's Jovan Buha. That kills the cap-space scenario.
"But what if it means getting Kyrie Irving?!" Yeah, sure. The Lakers probably consider it. But they could jettison everyone except for LeBron and AD and still wouldn't have enough room to float Kyrie's max salary ($46.9 million).
Targeting a higher-end shooter who can disrupt on defense, even if he over-gambles, via sign-and-trade is aggressive enough. The Lakers should have the wiggle room to fit Hachimura, Reaves and Gary Trent Jr. under the hard cap. D'Angelo Russell is a different story. He'll probably have to land in the $20 million-per-year range to make it feasible.
Trent's next salary will be a deciding factor, as well. The Lakers shouldn't have any major issues cobbling together the assets necessary if he's leaving Toronto anyway. Malik Beasley's expiring contract plus the No. 17 pick is a good place to start—if not finish.
Memphis Grizzlies: Khris Middleton (Player Option)
How's this for ambitious?
Virtually nobody expects the Milwaukee Bucks to let Khris Middleton walk. And the Memphis Grizzlies don't have an effortless path to the cap space required to poach him. But the Bucks are getting expensive—arguably untenably expensive. And the Grizzlies have the assets to enter sign-and-trade negotiations, including digestible salaries, intriguing youngsters and picks.
Do they also have the stomach to #goforit? The answer in recent offseasons has been "no." They've preferred to bank on internal development. But their void on the wings doesn't just endure; it has grown larger.
A knee injury to start the year rendered Ziaire Williams an afterthought throughout the season. And Memphis has already shown Dillon Brooks the door. Desmond Bane, Luke Kennard, David Roddy and John Konchar are its primary wing options now. And not all of them, if any of them, are actual wings.
Middleton fits exactly what the Grizzlies need: a two-level perimeter scorer who juices the half-court offense but doesn't need to dominate the ball and works seamlessly alongside Bane, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. (His importance will also skyrocket if Morant is forced to serve a lengthy suspension after appearing to flash a gun on Instagram Live for the second time.)
Matching money in a sign-and-trade will be harder if Middleton nets a salary in line with his $40.4 million player option. But it seems more likely that he'll accept less on an annual basis in exchange for a more lucrative long-term windfall.
Miami Heat: Nickeil Alexander-Walker
Traded twice in his first four seasons and facing the possibility of the Minnesota Timberwolves opting not to make him a $7 million qualifying offer, Nickeil Alexander-Walker already has the profile of a Miami Heat reclamation project.
So let's send him to the ultimate "get right" destination and trust that Miami will harness the flashes of elite on-ball defense and eyebrow-raising offensive aggression the 6'6" wing hasn't yet put to use with enough consistency.
The Heat may only have a portion of their mini midlevel exception to spend, and that might not be enough if another opportunistic team comes over the top in unrestricted free agency. After all, it's not like NAW's physical tools are hard to spot. It should also be noted that if the Wolves extend him a qualifying offer, he'd be a restricted free agenc, allowing Minnesota to match any offer sheet he signs.
Everything would have to break right for the Heat to land him, but the payoff could be immense. And all things being equal, Alexander-Walker might be wise to choose Miami over every other suitor. Considering his draft pedigree (17th overall in 2019), there's no reason #HeatCulture couldn't turn him into the next Gabe Vincent or Max Strus.
Milwaukee Bucks: T.J. Warren
Even if Brook Lopez gets only a modest raise on last year's $13.9 million and Khris MIddleton re-signs on a new deal that pays him slightly less than his $40.4 million player option, the Milwaukee Bucks will almost certainly exceed the second luxury tax apron and have only the minimum to offer free agents. With a glaring need on the wing, the league's most coveted role-playing position, that limits the 2021 champs' options.
The availability of a rotation (and possibly even starting) role on a contender should broaden the market a bit, but the only way Milwaukee has a shot to add a difference-maker is to target long shots, reclamation projects and injury risks.
All three of those descriptors fit T.J. Warren, who averaged 19.8 points per game for the Indiana Pacers in 2019-20 but has battled foot problems and decline ever since. He missed all of 2021-22 and split 42 mostly underwhelming games between the Nets and Phoenix Suns last season. Ahead of his age-30 campaign, the combo forward should be attractive to the Bucks on a veteran's minimum salary.
The best version of Warren once offered a high-teens scoring average defined by self-sufficient mid-range pull-ups and enough three-point stretch to keep defenders close. He even shook off the one-way reputation of his early career and developed defensively in his peak years with Indiana. If he's got any of that game left, the Bucks could snare themselves a major bargain.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Max Strus
The Minnesota Timberwolves roster appears wildly expensive on the surface. And they're certainly not cheap. Guaranteeing Mike Conley's full salary will leave them with $101.4 million committed to him, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, while both extension eligible, are still on their first contracts. That deflates the payroll. Depending on Naz Reid's market, Minnesota could have the runway to re-sign him and spend the non-taxpayer mid-level exception.
Needs abound up and down the roster. Wing shooting should top the to-do list. The Timberwolves were 14th in three-point accuracy this past season. That's fine. But "fine" won't cut it if they're going to float the Twin Towers model up front.
Max Strus can come right in and launch triples—tough, in-motion threes. His outside clip dipped to 35 percent during the regular season but has climbed above 36 percent in the playoffs and is even higher when he's firing off the catch.
Dangling the non-taxpayer mid-level may not be enough to pry him away from the Miami Heat. But they're already approaching the second luxury-tax apron before factoring in the raises Strus and Gabe Vincent are tracking toward. One of them, if not both of them, should be gettable.
New Orleans Pelicans: Brook Lopez
Pairing Zion Williamson with a center who stretches the floor and protects the basket is the dream. And this fantasy just so happens to describe Brook Lopez.
Myles Turner trades will keep populating the New Orleans Pelicans speculation mill. Having just turned 26, he is the more sensible fit for the #Timeline. But Lopez, 35, is aging like Paul Rudd. He just drilled 37.4 percent of his treys while showcasing outside-in floor navigation that fueled his career-high 63.7 percent clip from inside the arc.
Lopez's rim protection continues to speak for itself. Among 115 players who made at least five appearances and challenged at least three point-blank attempts per game, only Bismack Biyombo and Jaren Jackson Jr. allowed opponents to shoot a lower percentage. Lopez finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting for a reason.
Yanking him away from the Milwaukee Bucks will be a challenge, assuming it's even possible. New Orleans can use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception if it's willing to dip ever so slightly into the tax or cut costs elsewhere. But that doesn't actually matter. The bigger MLE would represent a pay cut for Lopez.
Any successful courtship involves a sign-and-trade. The Pelicans can make it work if they're willing to hard cap themselves, and if the Bucks and Lopez are both game. New Orleans has the expiring deals of Larry Nance Jr. and Jonas Valančiūnas to start the money-matching process, along with plenty of draft equity—including some of Milwaukee's own future picks.
New York Knicks: Seth Curry
No playoff team canned a lower percentage of their three-point shots than the New York Knicks (the Chicago Bulls don't count because play-in games are erased from history). Cite their lack of secondary playmaking, ankle injuries to virtually every key piece of the rotation or whatever else you like, but 29.6 percent shooting from distance was the main reason New York's postseason run ended in the conference semifinals.
Seth Curry can help with that.
The 32-year-old guard shot 40.5 percent from deep for the Nets last season and ranks fifth all-time (among players with at least 1,500 career attempts) at a scorching 43.5 percent.
Curry has his defensive limitations and isn't going to do much facilitating, but he's a five-alarm fire off the ball—exactly the kind of attention-grabber New York's offense needs to unclog the lane and capitalize on kickouts when Mitchell Robinson inhales offensive boards.
The Knicks have their full MLE to offer Curry, who made $8.5 million with Brooklyn last year. That should be enough to land perhaps the best pure shooter on the market.
Oklahoma City Thunder: P.J. Washington (Restricted)
Few teams are better positioned to make a galactic leap next season than the Oklahoma City Thunder. They will enter 2023-24 with a core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, Kenrich Williams, a healthy Chet Holmgren, the No. 12 pick...and whomever they sign with their $30-plus million in cap space.
History tells us the Thunder won't do anything extravagant with their slush fund. I am begging executive vice president Sam Presti to reconsider. If Holmgren is even half of the player he's supposed to be, Oklahoma City is a combo forward-type away from mucking up the entire Western Conference.
Which brings us to P.J. Washington. While he's mostly plug-and-play, his armory lends itself to more creativity. Around 80 percent of his made buckets came off assists this season, but that's by far and away a career low.
LaMelo Ball's limited availability coupled with Miles Bridges' absence after pleading no contest to felony domestic violence left the Charlotte Hornets to lean on him for more creation from the outside-in—above the break, at the nail, everywhere. Washington largely delivered. And though he shouldn't be your primary line of defense on the back line, he can rumble with many 3s as well as most 4s and tweener bigs. His fit beside Holmgren would verge on divine.
Charlotte should be ready to match most offer sheets. Emphasis on most. Oklahoma City has the cap space to make things uncomfortable.
Orlando Magic: Fred VanVleet
Odds are, the Orlando Magic must clear at least $23 million in cap space to acquire Fred VanVleet without the added complication of a sign-and-trade. FVV has a $22.8 million player option with the Toronto Raptors that he's likely to decline, and one would expect him to do so because he can get more than that in the first season of a new mutli-year deal.
The Magic have some wiggle room beyond their projected $22.5 million in cap space, though maxing out their spending power will come at a cost. One or more of Gary Harris, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz or Bol Bol could hit the chopping block. All four have full or partial non-guarantees on their 2023-24 salaries.
While the mechanics of acquiring him could be tricky, Orlando's need for VanVleet is not. This team needs a scoring threat in the backcourt–ideally one who can space the floor, initiate offense when necessary and, as a bonus, bring defensive intensity and deep playoff experience.
VanVleet ticks all those boxes, which is why he's been an obvious target for the Magic since before the trade deadline. Fultz has enjoyed a career resurrection in Orlando and might be the least likely waiver choice of the four listed above. Fortunately for the Magic, his size and defensive ability would make him a solid complement to FVV on the guard line.
Philadelphia 76ers: Donte DiVincenzo and Trey Lyles
Let's assume for the sake of argument that all the "James Harden to Houston" talk is real and not a leverage play designed to secure the biggest possible bag from the Philadelphia 76ers. In reality, that's a sucker's assumption. But we need it to make things interesting for the Sixers from a free-agency perspective.
If Harden bolts, Philly could have its full MLE and the bi-annual exception at its disposal. We're getting exceptionally bold and suggesting the Sixers should use those tools to land a pair of valuable rotation pieces.
Donte DiVincenzo is a slick off-ball disruptor and elite glass-crasher for his position, ranking in the 90th percentile in steal rate and 86th in offensive rebound rate among wings with the Warriors last year. He also drilled a career-best 39.7 percent of his treys.
Trey Lyles wasn't quite as accurate, hitting 36.3 percent of his triples for the Sacramento Kings. But he provided that stretch as a 4 and occasional small-ball 5. He'd give the Sixers a dimension they've never really had in relief of Joel Embiid: a true high-volume floor-spacer.
If Harden leaves, the Sixers can elevate Tyrese Maxey in the pecking order, surround him with more defense and spacing and hope the exchange ultimately produces a balanced, complete roster. Figuring out how to secure both DiVincenzo and Lyles with exceptions worth $12.2 million and $4.4 million, respectively, will be the tricky part.
Phoenix Suns: Josh Richardson
A lot about the Phoenix Suns' free-agency spending range remains unsettled. They could open up the non-taxpayer mid-level if they waive-and-stretch Chris Paul's partial guarantee ($15.8 million), or if they shed salary as part of a CP3 or Deandre Ayton trade. They could also brush up against the second luxury-tax apron if they keep CP3, guarantee Cameron Payne's salary and use Early Bird rights to re-sign Torrey Craig and Bismack Biyombo
For now, it's best to presume they'll figure out how to use the mini mid-level exception. And they're best served spending it on someone, anyone, who can provide a supporting two-way punch.
Josh Richardson fits the criteria, even if he's well removed from his halcyon days. He can still take on spot defensive reps at the point of attack while sponging up most wing assignments and will drop in enough threes to keep opponents on their heels and open the half-court for Phoenix's ball-handlers.
Adding someone who offers more rim pressure would be ideal. But the Suns aren't checking every box with a mini-MLE candidate. They need capable rotation fillers—not to mention potential wing replacements.
Phoenix already traded Mikal Bridges. Neither Craig nor Josh Okogie (non-Bird) is guaranteed to be back. The Suns can count themselves as lucky if Richardson tumbles into their price range.
Portland Trail Blazers: Naz Reid
What do the Portland Trail Blazers need more: a backup big or primary big?
The answer: Both.
Jusuf Nurkic doesn't cut the mustard on defense anymore, if he ever did. The Blazers need more jet fuel, at both ends, from their big-man spot.
Naz Reid has zip to spare. Though undersized, at 6'9", against many 5s, he makes up for it with lateral oomph, improving reads around the basket and the offensive skill set of a wing.
In his last 15 appearances before suffering a broken left wrist, Reid averaged more than 16 points while downing over 65 percent of his twos and 38 percent of his triples. He brandished a high-octane floor game all season, and it entered hyper drive by year's end. He can navigate tighter spaces with the ball and deliver physical finishes with either hand.
Slotting him at center comes with certain concessions. He will cede ground on the glass. Portland's rebounding threatens to crater when he and Jerami Grant (unrestricted) make up the frontline. But Reid takes and makes enough threes to slide down to the 4 when matchups call for it, and his size isn't as much of an issue if he's coming off the bench. Going on 24, he is also a quality fit for whatever timeline on which the Blazers are operating.
Whether he's a quality fit for the team's wallet remains to be seen. Portland needs at least the bigger mid-level to get in the room with him.
Sacramento Kings: Jerami Grant
Renouncing the rights to all their own free agents, including Harrison Barnes, leaves the Sacramento Kings with upwards of $20 million in cap space. That isn't enough to extract Jerami Grant from the Portland Trail Blazers, who seem like overwhelming favorites to re-sign him.
In the event Grant is willing to shop around, though, Sacramento has other cards to play.
Compensating another team to absorb the final two years and $24.9 million on Richaun Holmes' deal gets the Kings above the $30 million-in-cap-space threshold. They can also explore sign-and-trade scenarios if Grant forces the Blazers' hand.
Portland could always pay Grant enough to make this a non-issue. His max salary next season checks in at $40.2 million. Sacramento can't reasonably go that high independent of a sign-and-trade.
But the Kings are the better team, with a clearer path to (remaining near) the top of the Western Conference. Grant fills their biggest need as a combo forward who can stroke threes, run the floor, create in drips and drabs for himself and moonlight at the 5 in small-ball lineups that don't care about rebounding.
If the Blazers don't make good on their apparent promise to tailor the roster around Damian Lillard's timeline, the outcome to Grant's free agency will no longer feel fait accompli.
San Antonio Spurs: Austin Reaves (Restricted)
Ripping Austin Reaves away from the Los Angeles Lakers is an ambitious undertaking thanks to the Gilbert Arenas Rule. This is not to be confused with impossible.
The San Antonio Spurs can only offer Reaves a Year 1 salary worth the non-taxpayer mid-level. They can then give him a 5 percent raise in Year 2. His Year 3 salary, however, can mushroom all the way up to his max. From there, he's eligible for a 4.5 percent raise off that number in Year 4. His "max" contract this summer approaches $100 million over four seasons.
This isn't to say the Spurs should go that high. On the flip side, is an average annual salary of $25 million that egregious for a soon-to-be 25-year-old who just polished a pump-and-attack arsenal, put down 39.8 percent of his threes and shouldered some primary ball-handling responsibilities...in crunch time...of the NBA playoffs...for a team with LeBron James?
San Antonio could decide it needs a more dominant floor general. But the on-ball development of Devin Vassell coupled with Tre Jones (restricted) and winning the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes will allow for more flexible roster visions.
Perhaps the Spurs want to find out what they have in the current core-plus-Wemby before cannonballing into any expensive relationships. That's fair. But Reaves fits their timeline and is the type of player who adapts to those around him. I could think of much less productive ways to burn their $30-plus million in cap space.
Toronto Raptors: D'Angelo Russell
Ideally, the Toronto Raptors will bring back opt-out candidate Fred VanVleet for less than $30 million per season on a new deal. But if he expresses a desire to change venues, Toronto could work out a rare double sign-and-trade with the Los Angeles Lakers to land FVV's replacement.
D'Angelo Russell has been part of such an exchange before, when he came to the Golden State Warriors in a double S-and-T for Kevin Durant. If all parties involved agree and find ways to make the money work, Russell could wind up in Toronto, giving the Raptors the conventional pick-and-roll operator they've long lacked.
He won't match FVV's defensive intensity, and the Lakers' worry that they might "lose" him if they removed him from the first unit, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin, belies some level of selfishness on Russell's part. But Toronto can surround D-Lo with four excellent defenders who'd benefit from his individual scoring and playmaking.
Supported by versatile wings and buttressed on the back line by likely re-signee Jakob Poeltl, this might be the ideal situation for an offense-only point guard.
Perhaps most importantly, the market for VanVleet replacements is barren. Assuming Kyrie Irving returns to Dallas, there are almost no proven starters left among free-agent point guards. Russell isn't a perfect player, but he's probably the best available at the position.
Utah Jazz: Kyle Kuzma (Player Option)
Cap space is in ample supply for the Utah Jazz. They could clear over $50 million in spending power without much maneuvering. They could guarantee Kelly Olynyk's full salary, carry Jordan Clarkson's cap hold ($20-plus million) and still have over $20 million to burn. They could operate with an amount of money somewhere in between.
How the Jazz put their cap space to use is anyone's guess. Their rebuild is one season old. Shelling out money for impact players over the age of 25 isn't an obligation just because they flirted with play-in contention.
At the same time, Utah has the malleability to pony up for veterans without derailing its bigger picture. The Jazz don't need to prioritize a slow-burn rebuild with so many rival first-rounders under their belt,. They can look to actively plug holes in the rotation and render themselves peskier irritants in the short term.
Kyle Kuzma accomplishes just this. He isn't the most scintillating shooter, but Utah deploys spacey lineups that can capitalize on his attacking inside the arc. And though he skews more combo forward than conventional wing, a frontline featuring him, Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler is absolutely gigantic—and capable of jelling at both ends.
Attainability could be an issue, but not an unworkable one. The Jazz can try paying Kuzma outright or brokering a sign-and-trade with Washington. And after playing three seasons at the University of Utah, his familiarity with the market could lend a helping hand.
Washington Wizards: Kyrie Irving
Let's close this out with a wildly outlandish possibility that has just enough of a logical undergirding to pass muster. By, like, a hair.
The Washington Wizards need a point guard better than Monte Morris, but they have no money to sign one. They also have Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porziņģis ticketed for free agency via declined player options. So why not package up a re-signed Kuzma and another couple of assets in a sign-and-trade for Kyrie Irving?
Realistically, there are several reasons not to commit to Irving. But the Wizards have long been obsessed with short-term gains and playoff berths, and the Irving-Bradley Beal backcourt would give them a chance to compete offensively with any guard tandem in the league. Add Porziņģis' rim protection and stretch, and Washington could plausibly build a top-5 offense around its new three-man core.
The cost would be exorbitant, and Irving could sour on his team in a hurry. Washington may not care. The chance to add a massive talent and finally chase down that elusive No. 6 seed in the East could be worth any downside risk for a franchise looking to generate some buzz.
If you're willing to give Bradley Beal a quarter-billion dollars and a no-trade clause, nothing is too ambitious.