1 Free Agent Every NBA Team Should Already Be Thinking About

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    Please disregard the officially official, made-to-go viral, categorically combative stances held by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

    It is never, nor will it ever be, too early to talk about NBA free agency.

    The stakes are particularly high this summer. More than one-third of the league has a path to max space, and a handful of megastars are considered genuine flight risks, including the cranky-pants-wearing Durant and Irving.

    Our suggested targets for every team juggle all of the necessary factors: projected cap space, roster needs, team direction and, most critically, plausibility. Players overwhelmingly likely to stay in their current digs remained off-limits (think: Klay Thompson), and markets not known for sweeping big names off their feet weren’t encouraged to chase headlining names no matter how much cap space they have (Atlanta!) or how sexy the potential fit (Sacramento!).

    Free agents with wandering eyes who are too valuable to replace were assigned to their incumbent squads. It had to be this way. But fear not: We’re into teams lusting after OPPs (other peoples’ players), so we’ve included additional out-of-house targets in those situations depending on the outcomes to our primary cases. 

    We did the same whenever listing a max-contract candidate for a rival team. Stealing outside stars is almost always a long shot, and once more, we wanted to make sure you received your maximum fill of OPPs.

    Finally, in the spirit of keeping things fresh, no free agent earned more than two nods as the featured suggestion. You can thank me later, after you’ve decided whether to hate me, too.

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    Noah Vonleh will come as a disappointment for any fans hoping the Atlanta Hawks make a major splash. They have the cap space to do more. 

    Atlanta could win the lottery, grab the Dallas Mavericks’ pick at No. 6 (top-five protection) and still have the bandwidth to max out a free agent with no more than nine years of experience (i.e. non-Kevin Durant division). That’s flexibility at its finest. The Hawks just don’t need to use it.

    This team remains in the early stages of a rebuild. Throwing money at someone who doesn’t jibe with its timeline is disingenuous to the cause.

    Tossing a max contract at Kristaps Porzingis would be acceptable, but the Mavericks didn’t absorb Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, surrender Dennis Smith Jr. and give up two first-round picks just to let him walk for nothing. They’ll match whatever overtures come his way, assuming he even needs to go offer-sheet shopping.

    Noah Vonleh fits the same mold, albeit in a much smaller capacity. The Hawks need a big who isn’t pigeonholed to one position beside John Collins—someone who spaces the floor around his rim runs and makes up for his if shoddy defense in the middle.

    That doesn’t describe Vonleh to a T. Opponents are shooting over 64 percent against him at the basket, and he’s canning under 34 percent of his threes. But he’s more than those lukewarm numbers. He is fairly portable on defense and doesn’t need to have the ball or work from the dunker’s spot at the other end. And at 23, he fits within Atlanta’s youth movement—particularly if he’s open to signing a one- or two-year pact.

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    Kyrie Irving initially seemed like he would become the Boston Celtics’ Klay Thompson: a borderline sure thing. He declared his intention to re-sign with the team in October. The questions should’ve ended then.

    And they did…for a while. But then the New York Knicks went nuclear in advance of the trade deadline, flipping cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas for Dennis Smith Jr., two first-round picks and, above all, a clear path to dual max slots. 

    One of those spots is earmarked for Kevin Durant, because obviously. The other is being tied to Irving, and while he’s none too happy about the fans, media and anonymous sources messing with his Qi, he hasn’t yet seized the opportunity to turn his free agency into a non-story.

    “Ask me July 1,” he said ahead of the Celtics’ Feb. 1 game against the Knicks, per ESPN.com’s Ian Begley. Pressed further about his October sentiments, he continued to walk them back:

    “I think it was just the excitement. Feeling emotionally invested, coming off an injury last season, trying to prove something, trying to be very much of a team-oriented player, which I am naturally. But at the end of the day, like I said, I’ve spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do in terms [of] making my decisions and trying to validate through the media, through other personnel, managers, anybody in this business, and I don’t owe anybody s–t.”

    Alarms shouldn’t be violently sounding in Boston. The Celtics can dangle a fifth year in front of Irving, and their chances of re-signing him exponentially increase if they swing a trade for Anthony Davis. 

    At the same time, they should be mildly concerned. They don’t have the spending power to replace Irving. Re-sign Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier in that scenario, and the Celtics could still profile as taxpayers unless Al Horford declines his player option or they make a cost-cutting move. At best, they’d be looking at the full mid-level exception ($9.2 million) and not much else.

    Free-Agency Target if Kyrie Stays: Markieff Morris

    Free-Agency Target if Kyrie Leaves: Jeremy Lin

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    Jimmy Butler’s selection did not come without hesitation. Signing him accelerates the Brooklyn Nets’ timeline in a very un-Sean Marks way. He turns 30 in September and has spent most of his career playing under Tom Thibodeau. The back end of his next deal, should he sign a four-year agreement, may not look so hot.

    Brooklyn has a good thing going. Just pursuing a star invites higher expectations. Surfing the second and third tiers for a playmaking 4 (Nikola Mirotic!) is safer.

    Then again, the Nets will be held to a higher standard no matter what. They’re a postseason lock. They have an All-Star in soon-to-be restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell. They reinvested in Spencer Dinwiddie. Brooklyn is already too good for tanking talk, and the culture it has established behind the scenes should speak to superstars at any stage of their career.

    Butler is the home-run swing of choice for a reason. He feels like an actual flight risk. Maybe the Philadelphia 76ers can de-dramatize his free agency by offering the full boat over five years, but he seems like a star who craves the pressure that comes with being the face of a franchise. He won’t bear the responsibility to its fullest alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

    The Nets promise a bigger role. Dinwiddie, Russell and Caris LeVert all matter to the grand scheme, but Butler is fifth on the Sixers in shot attempts per 36 minutes since the trade deadline. He won’t face the same pecking-order concessions in Brooklyn.

    He also maybe, possibly brings another star with him. He and Kyrie Irving have talked about playing together, and Kawhi Leonard shares his killer defensive mentality. The Nets must do some finagling to open up two maxes, but it wouldn’t be out of the question if they’re willing to renounce Russell.

    Not that Brooklyn needs another marquee name to entice Butler. It will be easier for him to be The Guy if he comes on his own. And unlike other teams, the Nets have effectively managed minutes while chasing a playoff berth. They can roll the dice on paying Butler into his mid-30s.

    It helps that landing him wouldn’t cost Russell. Greasing the wheels of an Allen Crabbe salary dump puts the Nets in Butler range, or they could renounce all their own free agents except for Russell and trim a few dollars elsewhere.

    Non-Max Free-Agency Target: Nikola Mirotic

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    A five-year max contract for Kemba Walker would run the Charlotte Hornets about $189.7 million. He is not worth that money. He’ll be 29 entering next season, and undersized point guards who’ve shouldered massive workloads throughout their prime don’t tend to age well.

    Whether this prevents the Hornets from offering Walker the full monty is another matter. They don’t have the leverage to play hardball. He probably shaves a little off the top if they dangle a fifth year, but they cannot expect much more. His four-year, $48 million extension turned into a bargain, so this is his first real windfall, and Charlotte’s outlook isn’t rosy enough to preach the benefits of sacrifice.

    Walker could demand the whole five-year shebang, and that still wouldn’t give the Hornets license to walk away. Losing him for nothing is a nightmare scenario. They should’ve traded him prior to one of the past two deadlines if they’re not prepared to bankroll his next deal.

    The good news: Walker isn’t looking to leave. The bad news: Charlotte doesn’t have the wiggle room to improve the roster around him if he stays.

    Floating cap holds for Walker and Jeremy Lamb drags the Hornets into the luxury tax if Bismack Biyombo (definitely), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (probably) and Marvin Williams (definitely probably) pick up their player options. Letting Lamb walk doesn’t change the calculus.

    Walker’s cap hold is $14.7 million less than his max salary—roughly the amount of Lamb’s own hold ($14.2 million). The Hornets can work with Walker’s lower number to maximize their transactional leeway, but they’ll be forced to reconcile luxury-tax issues whether Lamb stays or goes. 

    Inflating the payroll while shedding talent is never a good thing. The Hornets are short on alternatives. Their safest course entails re-signing Walker at whatever price point and figuring out the rest later.

    They can hope to consolidate some of their salary in a trade and beef up the depth chart with bargain-bin possibilities. And if owner Michael Jordan feels like paying top dollar for a fringe-playoff squad, then Charlotte can expand its search to include mini-MLE ($5.3 million) candidates.

    Free-Agency Target if Kemba Stays: Thabo Sefolosha

    Free-agency Target if Kemba Leaves: Emmanuel Mudiay (restricted)

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    Adding Otto Porter’s $27.3 million salary to the 2019-20 payroll will not preclude the Chicago Bulls from becoming a mover and shaker in free agency. They’ll cakewalk their way to between $15 and $20 million in space depending on where they fall in the draft lottery.

    Some of that money has-to-has-to-has-to go toward a point guard. To be clear: All of it should not go to one player. The Bulls are not close enough to the Eastern Conference playoff gaggle.

    Squeezing every last ounce of flexibility from their books to concoct big-time pitches for Malcolm Brogdon- (restricted) and Terry Rozier-types (restricted) would be a mistake. Slinging multiyear deals to veterans would be equally misguided if they’re not signing at a discount. Someone like Cory Joseph is fine.

    Delon Wright strikes a nice balance. He will be 27 in April but won’t cost the moon even if the Memphis Grizzlies are trying to keep him. And whereas other teams might want more of a floor general, the Bulls can occupy the ground in between.

    Porter, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen should all be allowed to attack at will off the bounce. Denzel Valentine’s return from ankle surgery next season gives Chicago another ball-handler. Wendell Carter Jr. will eventually direct entire sets from the inside. The offense won’t want for secondary orchestrators.

    Wright is even a viable option should the Bulls draft Ja Morant or luck into Zion Williamson. He played extensively with other ball-dominant stars on the Toronto Raptors, so contributing to an offensive committee won’t come as a functional shock. His shaky three-point stroke is cause for some concern, but LaVine, Markkanen, Porter and a healthy Valentine arm the Bulls with the bare-minimum perimeter shooting needed to make it work.

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    Picking Furkan Korkmaz is not tongue-in-cheek. His selection is relative to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ payroll situation.

    They’re staring at nearly $150 million in salary obligations if they don’t ditch JR Smith ($3.9 million partial guarantee) and depending on where their draft pick lands. The luxury-tax concerns are real. Waiving Smith still leaves them inside the danger zone.

    Cleveland won’t let that stand. Owner Dan Gilbert isn’t paying the tax for a team in the infancy of a reset. Something, somewhere, will give. 

    Tristan Thompson will leave a bunch of money on the table in a buyout, or the Cavaliers will strike a trade, perhaps turning Kevin Love into a collection of cheaper assets. Whatever they do, though, won’t increase the depth of their offseason purse. They’ll be left to sort through the clearance rack.

    Korkmaz is a quality flier for a team short on wings. He doesn’t turn 22 until the end of July and was shooting almost 38 percent from distance in the 15 games leading up to his meniscus injury.

    Other teams can pay him more, but his stock is hardly through the roof. The Sixers already declined his fourth-year option, and league-wide interest should be curtailed following his right knee surgery. 

    As an aside, the Cavaliers need to hope their cap situation doesn’t cost them David Nwaba. He’s one of their most effective players when healthy, most notably at the defensive end. He’s 6’4″ but guards like he’s 6’9″. Non-Bird rights won’t be enough to keep him coming off his minimum salary. Cleveland will need to use one of its exceptions and pray that does the trick.

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    Khris Middleton is an “inevitable” target for the Dallas Mavericks, who are unlikely “to get in the mix” for the star-most tier of free agents, according to the New York TimesMarc Stein. That doesn’t mean they won’t have to pony up the same money for him.

    They will.

    Middleton is a max-contract candidate, with a starting salary at $32.7 million, in this summer’s market. Anything less doesn’t convince him to leave the Milwaukee Bucks, or conversely, make them think about letting him go.

    Peddling max money might even be a moot point. The Bucks are on track to finish with the league’s best record, and despite standout performances from Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, Middleton is their second-most valuable player. Milwaukee could be resigned to paying him whatever after salary-dumping Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson earlier this season.

    Dallas should give it a go anyway. Middleton is the ideal fit beside Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, who should not be considered a flight risk. He can create shots from scratch in the half court and is no stranger to playing off another lead ball-handler. Close to 56 percent of his made baskets are coming without an assist, a manageable number that’s also his career high.

    Dredging up max money will cost the Mavericks some equity. It gets even harder if their first-round pick falls in the top five and doesn’t convey to the Hawks. Send their selection to Atlanta, and they’re still a little more than $4 million shy when carrying holds for restricted free agents Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber.

    They can make up the gap by finding a taker for one of their expiring contracts (Courtney Lee, Dwight Powell), or by offloading some combination of their cheaper salaries.

    Non-Max Free-Agency Target: Bojan Bogdanovic

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    Picking up Paul Millsap’s team option would leave the Denver Nuggets with a salary sheet in the $120 million range—and that’s assuming they show Trey Lyles the door in restricted free agency. Fortunately, they don’t need much, if anything.

    Breakouts from Malik Beasley and Monte Morris have mitigated the need for another guard. And with the former logging time at the 3, plus Michael Porter Jr. in their back pocket, the Nuggets don’t need drastic upgrades to the wing rotation.

    DeMarre Carroll is their happy medium. He should fall within their price range whether they’re working with the non-taxpayer’s or mini MLE and isn’t someone who will eat into Porter’s development.

    Giving chase to Danny Green would be fine. He’s the far more reliable sniper and a dream fit for an offense spearheaded by Nikola Jokic. But the Nuggets will definitely need the full MLE to make a meaningful bid, and he doesn’t match up as cleanly against bigger 3s and isn’t capable of defending 4s.

    Besides, Carroll’s outside shooting isn’t exactly a concern. He’s canning almost 37 percent of his triples since Christmas and banging in over 41 percent of his wide-open treys on the season.

    For the minutes Denver would need him to play and the price they can afford to pay, he’s closer to the ideal addition than not.

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    Turning soon-to-be free agents Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson into more cost-controlled players (and picks) allows the Pistons to think a little bigger over the offseason. They’re not going to have cap space, but they do have a path to using the full MLE while re-signing Ish Smith.

    Loading up on wings should remain the goal. Sniffing around a point guard like Cory Joseph or Jeremy Lin could be tempting, but Reggie Jackson perked up leading into the All-Star break, and Detroit still has Langston Galloway on the books for another year. Bringing back Smith will cost less than seeking outside help.

    Iman Shumpert isn’t the highest-profile wing the Pistons can try poaching. DeMarre Carroll, Danny Green, Rodney Hood and Wesley Matthews could all reside within their price range if they have the full MLE. But Detroit needs more than one body to round out the roster, and Shumpert is less likely to command an entire exception.

    His price should only come down given a slumpy start with the Houston Rockets and the cold streak he finished on with the Sacramento Kings. He’s shooting under 33 percent from deep since the end of November and is not enough of a defensive difference-maker on bigger wings to justify playing when he’s dulling the offensive needle.

    Detroit doesn’t have the luxury of giving a damn. Shumpert is putting down close to 38 percent of his catch-and-fire threes on the season and would be the strongest defensive wing on the payroll aside from Bruce Brown. By targeting him or another stab in the dark like Thabo Sefolosha, they’d give themselves a better chance of also retaining Wayne Ellington (should his three ball ever pick up).

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    Klay Thompson is a worthwhile pick here as well. The Warriors cannot afford to rub him the wrong way by asking for or expecting a discount. He becomes ever more critical to keeping their title window open if Kevin Durant leaves.

    And in case you haven’t heard, Durant might leave. As The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss wrote: 

    “Let us be frank, with the caveat that the choice lives inside the head of one guy who can and does change his mind: Insiders around the league think Kevin Durant is leaving the Warriors for the Knicks. Most people within the Warriors either think Durant is leaving or profess not to know one way or the other.

    “His teammates recognize this reality, can handle it and merely want one outcome: Win a championship, absent too much drama. The main concern, at the moment, is whether he’ll commit in the short term to what he may have already left in the long term.”

    Durant did not take kindly to these musings, even though “He gone-isms” are in the majority. Poll a bunch of NBA fans and media members, and most will guess he’s headed to the Knicks or at least not returning to the Warriors.

    Golden State needs to operate as if Durant’s mind is undecided or capable of being changed. He’s too dang good. The Warriors will contend for a championship without him if they keep Thompson, but they won’t enter 2019-20 with that same air of inevitability.

    Losing Durant doesn’t position them to access the full MLE, either. It could, but it will be tight. They’ll need to waive Shaun Livingston ($2 million partial guarantee) and punt on Kevon Looney (restricted) or hope his market once again craters.

    More likely than not, the Warriors will be left to lean on the taxpayer’s mid-level with or without Durant. That dollar could go further if he’s gone and they’re promising a starting spot. Rudy Gay is probably too ambitious, but Trevor Ariza might be more inclined to play at that pay grade if the Washington Wizards don’t go full Washington Wizards. Golden State is free to focus on DeMarcus Cousins‘ replacement should KD stick around.

    Free-Agency Target if Durant Stays: Dewayne Dedmon/Thabo Sefolosha

    Free-Agency Target if Durant Leaves: Trevor Ariza

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    Identifying the right target for the Rockets is difficult without knowing their intentions.

    Getting off Brandon Knight’s contract helped them not only duck the tax this season, but in 2019-20. And while they won’t quite enjoy the head space to spend the full MLE, they’ll have a meaningful chunk of money if they want to add an impact player.

    Accessing that non-taxpayer’s MLE becomes a realistic possibility if they reroute Nene (player option) and aren’t married to re-signing Kenneth Faried, Gerald Green, Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert, et al. That could, in turn, put them in play for a more expensive wing—someone from the Trevor Ariza/DeMarre Carroll/Danny Green/Wesley Matthews tier.

    Part of the mini-MLE might get the Rockets there, too. Matthews and Danny Green would be unreachable, but Ariza, Carroll and other wings in their mid-to-late 30s have less certain price points. But even this presupposes the Rockets are prepared to pay a cent of luxury taxes. That’s quite the leap.

    Owner Tilman Fertitta talked a big game in September, but Houston’s actions are those of a cost-aware team. As Danny Leroux unpacked for The Athletic, this season’s salary-shedding did not come in the face of repeater-tax liability. The Rockets weren’t in danger of hitting that threshold until 2021-22 at the absolute earliest. That goalpost now moves to 2022-23—and only if Houston pays the tax in every season up to and including 2022-23 itself.

    Maybe that renders the Rockets more likely to spend on a singular talent this summer. They haven’t earned that benefit of the doubt. They seem more likely to divvy up their primary exception, whatever it may be. And with the number of holes they’ll need to fill, that removes the flashier possibilities from consideration. (If they prove us wrong, Carroll would be a great get.)

    Wilson Chandler has once again dealt with injuries and didn’t impress during his time with the Sixers, but he is shooting 39 percent from deep and can, in theory, defend positions 2 through 4. Signing him shouldn’t eat up a majority of the Rockets’ MLE, which frees them to make other non-minimum additions.

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    There will be a push for the Indiana Pacers to fire up the max-contract machine. It’s not unfounded.

    Seldom do teams contending for a top-five record have an open-ended invite to franchise-altering cap space. The Pacers are sitting pretty even after accounting for the first year of Myles Turner’s extension. Depleting their base of non-guaranteed deals and incumbent free agents gets them past the $45 million marker if their draft position holds firm.

    Indulging that flexibility is almost certainly off the table. Indiana’s own free agents aren’t throwaways. Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young specifically would be huge losses. The Pacers could pay one of them about $13.5 million to start and come close to offering a 30 percent max ($32.7 million), but that still comes at the expense of their depth.

    Embracing that opportunity cost isn’t worth the trouble. The Pacers cannot be sure of when Victor Oladipo will return from his ruptured right quad tendon next season or how he’ll fare thereafter. Talent consolidation comes with a greater risk until he’s back.

    Looking at Malcolm Brogdon flirts with the best of both worlds. Two of Indiana’s point guards, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, are headed for free agency, and depending on Brogdon’s market, the Pacers might have the scratch to sign him while re-upping Bogdanovic, Young and one of their floor general.

    That makes for some tight number-crunching. Giving Brogdon $15 million would leave Indy with approximately $30 million to split between Bogdanovic, Young and Collison or Joseph. That math might undersell the price projections of everyone, and Milwaukee has matching rights on its Oscar Nunez lookalike.

    But Brogdon is more likely to become collateral damage of the Bucks’ rising roster costs. Eric Bledsoe has already agreed to a four-year, $70 million extension, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and Khris Middleton could command the max. Spending a lot of money to keep Brogdon might ring hollow with Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fold.

    Indiana doesn’t face that dilemma when pairing him with Oladipo. Most of Brogdon’s made buckets come off assists, and he’s shooting better than 43 percent on spot-up threes. The Pacers could use a true wing more, and it probably takes more than $15 million to get him out of Milwaukee. But the combo-forward market lacks pizzazz after the main offseason squeezes, none of which are likely Indiana-bound. Brogdon has the size to defend some 3s anyway. His arrival doesn’t clash with the development of Aaron Holiday and should, at the bare minimum, help the Pacers afford Bogdanovic and Young.

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    The Los Angeles Clippers’ fondness for Kawhi Leonard would be the NBA’s worst-kept secret if it were supposed to be a secret at all. They’re not trying to hide their interest, determination or, for that matter, confidence. They have attended his games ad nauseam this season, and some within the organization already have him fitted for a Clippers jersey.

    “Every time I’m in the Clippers orbit all season long, they’re confident in terms of getting Kawhi Leonard,” the New York Times‘ Marc Stein told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. “You feel it when you’re around them. They think they’re getting Kawhi.”

    Expecting the Clippers to change course is futile. The Raptors are genuine title contenders, but Leonard is already a champion and remains unreadable. Who knows what will drive his free-agency decision. Toronto can offer him more money, but if long-term security were his chief priority, he never would have forced his way off the San Antonio Spurs.

    Hollywood’s other team arguably checks all of Leonard’s potential boxes. The Clippers are waaay closer to his Riverside and Moreno Valley, California, roots than Toronto. They can offer him the chance to play with a co-star if they unload Danilo Gallinari’s contract. And that star won’t be LeBron James, which apparently matters, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor.

    Give it up for the Raptors. They’ve made it so that Leonard cannot spin a possible departure into a financial or basketball decision. But that’s not enough to write off the Clippers. They loom in a Kevin Durant-to-New York type of feeling.

    Non-Max Free-Agency Target: Noah Vonleh

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    Trust The Process…of Elimination.

    Much like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler reportedly isn’t interested in joining forces with LeBron James, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. This disinclination is negligible for the Los Angeles Lakers’ purposes. The odds of them wooing another free agent from the superstar pool are that discouraging. Let’s break it down by case:

  • Kevin Durant: Good luck convincing him a move to the Lakers won’t be seen as jumping from Stephen Curry‘s bandwagon to James’ coattails.
  • Kawhi Leonard: If there were ever a player who definitely doesn’t want to play with LeBron, it is Kawhi “Fun Guy, But in a Stoic, Mum’s-the-Word Sort of Way” Leonard.
  • Kyrie Irving: Yes, he apologized to James for his stubbornness in Cleveland. Big whoop. The Celtics are better than the Lakers, and the media circus that follows a reunion with James would dwarf whatever frenzy he’d face by joining the Knicks.
  • Klay Thompson: Keep dreaming. Golden State would need to lowball him for another team to become a remote possibility.

Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker could be more gettable targets. They’re also consolation prizes to other stars on the board. 

That leaves Butler. His purported stance on playing with James doesn’t seem so unnavigable when pitted against the pitfalls of pursuing his superstar peers. The Lakers can guarantee he’ll remain their No. 2 option even if they trade for Anthony Davis. He’s not assured of being more than a third wheel in Philly.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter to him. Butler is playing well with the Sixers. A longer contract and proximity to the NBA Finals could keep him in Philly. But the Lakers are going to chase everybody. Coupled with a lack of ties to the Knicks, Butler’s situation gives them an opening they won’t get from anyone else.

Non-Max Free-Agency Target: DeMarcus Cousins 

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    Mario Hezonja is the consummate shrug-emoji selection. He is, in essence, the pick for a team that won’t be a major free-agency player.

    Rebuilding squads should always be in the market for 25-and-under talents who don’t have the leverage to broker big-league deals. Hezonja hasn’t fared well enough with the Knicks to demand a multiyear pact at a sizable salary.

    Scooping up another top-seven prospect in the draft could prompt the Grizzlies to push for a playoff berth next year around said rookie, Mike Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas. That doesn’t change their free-agency scope. Their salary-cap projections are strained either way.

    Assuming Valanciunas and CJ Miles exercise their player options, the Grizzlies will need to waive Avery Bradley ($2 million partial guarantee) to ensure they can both evade the tax and match offer sheets for Delon Wright. They can take steps to cut costs in other ways, but they’re not digging up the room to make a substantial dent on the market.

    Pawning off Chandler Parsons’ $25.1 million salary without taking back any money wouldn’t even necessarily save them from acting as a capped-out squad. Just as well, too.

    Memphis isn’t a premier destination, and the Grizzlies shouldn’t be in the business of doling out long-term pacts. They need to be trafficking in affordable, small-picture fliers. As someone who can be moved around the wing spots, a 24-year-old Hezonja is right up their alley. 

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    The Miami Heat’s unofficial slogan for the 2019 offseason parallels their informal mantra from last summer: Dream small, and think smaller.

    Sending Tyler Johnson to the Phoenix Suns didn’t get them under this year’s luxury tax, but it came pretty close. And they can still duck it if Kelly Olynyk doesn’t qualify for his playing-time bonus (very possible) and they miss the playoffs (also very possible), as Heat Hoops’ Albert Nahmad explained.

    Pay the tax, don’t pay the tax, it doesn’t really matter. The Heat aren’t doing much this summer. They yet again profile as a taxpayer even if they waive Ryan Anderson ($15.6 million partial guarantee). But the Johnson trade did give them a roadmap to skirting that $132 million line altogether.

    Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside can do the work for them by declining a player option. Neither is especially likely to do that. Using a sweetener to dump one of their many unsavory salaries would get it done, but they don’t have the expendable assets or players to render that a palatable scenario.

    Miami can instead waive Anderson and stretch his partial guarantee over the next three seasons. That gets the payroll somewhat comfortably below the tax, with a (very) few million shekels to spare for Rodney McGruder’s free agency (restricted).

    Moral of the story: The Heat will be shopping in the clearance section this summer—doubly so if, as team president Pat Riley said, they’re planning to get busy in 2020. On the bright side, Justin Holiday has mostly bombed since arriving in Memphis. Miami needs another body on the wings, particularly if Justise Winslow is going to remain the de facto point guard. Holiday fits that 2-3 bill.

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Khris Middleton’s free agency isn’t a matter of how much the Bucks will pay him. They know he’ll fetch the max, or something close to it. 

    “Does he love Milwaukee enough to re-sign? Yes,” Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. “Enough to give us a real discount? No.”

    Milwaukee has prepared for this exact moment. Getting off Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson and extending Eric Bledsoe has loosely positioned the team to pay Middleton the max without entering the tax or nuking its core.

    Inserting a $32.7 million hold for Middleton gives the Bucks more than $20 million to divvy up between Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic if they waive George Hill ($1 million guarantee) and depending on Bledsoe’s starting salary. That aggregative number climbs if they excise non-guarantees for Sterling Brown (no way), Pat Connaughton (maybe) and Christian Wood (maybe).

    Things are going to get prickly. That money isn’t enough to keep both Brogdon and Mirotic, and the Bucks have to think about a new contract for Brook Lopez, a non-Bird free agent who should mandate they knife into their mid-level exception.

    Paying the tax is unavoidable if Milwaukee wants to keep the entire group together. A commitment to staying beneath spells the departure of at least one key free agent, or a trade that offloads Ersan Ilyasova or Tony Snell.

    Middleton isn’t at risk of becoming a tough cut. He’s neither a conventional co-star nor fully adjusted to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense, but 27-year-old cross-position defenders who can stroke spot-up threes, create their own shots and initiate half-court sets are the dream standard. Milwaukee cannot afford to make him anything other than its most pressing priority.

    Free-Agency Target if Middleton Stays: Brook Lopez (he’s a non-Bird FA and integral to how the Bucks play, so yeah, this counts)

    Free-Agency Target if Middleton Leaves: Garrett Temple

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Now that they’re no longer responsible for footing the bill on Jimmy Butler’s next contract, the Minnesota Timberwolves have plenty of maneuverability under the luxury tax. Assuming Jeff Teague picks up his player option, they can re-sign Tyus Jones (restricted) or Derrick Rose (Early Bird) while retaining access to the full MLE.

    Good luck figuring out what that means.

    Minnesota is trapped in this weird space between rebuilding and playoff contention. Reinvesting in a core that might not make the postseason would feel odd, but tearing it down and starting anew is a big, if unreasonable, ask with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins on max deals.

    Toeing both lines is the smart call in the absence of conclusive direction. The Timberwolves should neither stock up on empty veterans nor sit on the sidelines. They need to find a balance.

    Dorian Finney-Smith is their golden mean. He’s hitting enough of his catch-and-shoot treys (35 percent) to satisfy the three-and-D requirements but won’t be so expensive that his contract devolves into near-immovable should he go bust. 

    Restricted free agents are inherently difficult to poach for teams touting more than mid-level money, so the Timberwolves will be working from a deficit. But the Mavericks may not choose to exercise their matching rights on a multiyear offer before they know what they have in the Luka Doncic-Kristaps Porzingis partnership. Finney-Smith’s status in Dallas is at least uncertain enough for the Timberwolves to give him a looksy.

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Pinpointing a free-agent target for the New Orleans Pelicans verges on impossible without knowing where they send Anthony Davis. His next destination has a direct impact on their biggest needs and cap flexibility.

    Rolling with a should-be inexpensive point guard plays it safe. Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore are the only members of the Pelicans backcourt under guaranteed contract for next season, and both could become trade bait as part of a post-Davis rebuild. 

    Holding on to them doesn’t mess with this logic. Nor does ending up with another floor general—say, Lonzo Ball or Dennis Smith Jr.—as part of a Davis package. Holiday spends more time as an off-guard, and Moore gets plenty of reps at small forward. 

    Tyus Jones doesn’t need to start, which also helps. He hasn’t yet shown the offensive chops to be considered in that vein and isn’t going to make so much that New Orleans feels guilty about bringing him off the bench. 

    Left ankle issues have inhibited his progress this season, but the Timberwolves don’t seem attached to him. Though he’s getting more run now, he’s their third point guard when the roster is at full capacity.

    That bodes well for a Pelicans squad unable to offer more than mid-level money if they bring back Stanley Johnson (restricted) and Julius Randle (player option). Even that might be a stretch.

    Jones won’t net top dollar, but he’s one of the league’s most underrated backcourt defenders. He places third among all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Exploring another placeholder contract for Elfrid Payton may wind up being cheaper.

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Real Knicks fans will argue this is a terrible pick because Kevin Durant basically already plays for their team. This line of thought would typically warrant a well-actually scolding, but DICK’s Sporting Goods is selling his Warriors swingman jerseys for 75 percent off, so who am I to refute not-entirely-baseless logic?

    Still, Durant isn’t yet an official member of the Knicks. He counts. But it is worth mentioning that landing Durant alone doesn’t amount to a successful offseason.

    New York had a workable route to eking out max money without dealing Kristaps Porzingis. Clearing the way for a second superstar slot was the entire point of trading him to Dallas.

    Sure, the Knicks received a nice return, Porzingis has a checkered health bill, and he may not have been “psyched” by the prospect of playing with Durant, per ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. But he’s a top-20 type when fully healthy. A franchise that has spent the past two decades in shambles doesn’t just give up on this brand of cornerstone unless they know something we do not.

    That “something” in this case has to be the arrival of not on but two star free agents. The Knicks have no margin for error. They cannot settle for someone(s) from the fringe-star tier. And if they do come up empty-handed, they better plan to own it. Handing out big-money deals to consolation prizes would have shades of Amar’e Stoudemire circa 2010 and is therefore a no-go.

    Non-Max Free-Agency Target: Kelly Oubre Jr. (restricted)

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    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    Spacing remains the Oklahoma City Thunder’s greatest liability. They’ve quietly worked their way up to 17th in three-point efficiency—they’re second since Jan. 1—but that improvement rests on too many question-mark shooters knocking down buckets at career clips.

    Scouring the free-agent market will be a chore. Wing snipers usually cost a pretty penny, and the Thunder won’t have more than the mini MLE. And that’s if they even use it. They held onto most of it this year and could be prepared to do the same in 2019-20 after paying the repeater tax.

    Darius Miller might just end up within reach if the Thunder break open their piggy bank.

    He’s downing 39.4 percent of his long balls on seven attempts per 36 minutes since last season, but he’s not the defender his 6’8″ frame would suggest. He isn’t long for his size, doesn’t stand out on the boards and gets overpowered by bigger wings.

    Most teams would struggle to field a quality defense while using him as a small-ball 4. The Thunder aren’t one of them. They have the switchability and interior presences to move Miller across all three wing spots. So whereas many cost-conscious suitors will be reticent to exhaust what little spending power they have on him, Oklahoma City doesn’t need to be that frugal—unless, of course, stinginess is its stock setting.

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Acquiring Markelle Fultz shores up the Orlando Magic’s point guard rotation without actually shoring it up. He may not play again this season and is a total unknown, but they’re paying him more than $9.8 million next year. It doesn’t make sense to go after another floor general with D.J. Augustin also on the books for $7.3 million

    Plus, with Fultz in tow, Orlando is harder pressed to dredge up real buying power.

    Contract holds for Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic force the Magic to operate as a team over the cap. The prevailing presumption should be they’ll do just that. Keeping both past the trade deadline, along with their current playoff push, implies commitment beyond this year.

    Finding wings who can score off the dribble but don’t need to dominate the rock becomes all the more paramount if the Magic aren’t shaking up the roster. Neither Aaron Gordon nor Jonathan Isaac (showing offensive flashes!) qualifies.

    Rodney Hood does. His resume is littered with wild swings, but he’s shooting almost 37 percent from distance for his career and is comfortable attacking off the dribble. He’s dropping in nearly 38 percent of his pull-up threebies this season, though his efficiency comes on afterthought volume.   

    Orlando should be swayed regardless knowing it won’t take the world to get him. The Portland Trail Blazers don’t own his Bird rights, and their tax situation will make it difficult for them to compete with anyone hawking a majority portion of the full MLE.

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are getting passed over by design. They’re max-contract candidates, and Butler is listed elsewhere, but the context of their stays in Philly allows us to branch out.

    The Sixers forfeited key contributors and draft assets to get both knowing they’re in contract years. They don’t go that far if they’re not equally informed of either player’s openness to sticking around and fully prepared to pay them market value.

    Circumstances change all the time, and Butler is a name to watch if for no other reason than his kaleidoscopic personality. For now, the Sixers should be treated as favorites to keep him and Harris.

    Fleshing out the rest of the roster becomes a challenge if they’re gearing up to finance two maxes. They should still have the non-taxpayer’s MLE at their disposal if they waive Jonathon Simmons ($1 million partial guarantee) and renounce all other free agents except TJ McConnell and JJ Redick. But do they have the incumbent depth to spend that money on one player?

    Probably not. And yet, Danny Green is such a perfect fit the Sixers have to consider it. More than half of his looks this season are coming as spot-up threes, on which he’s shooting better than 45 percent, and he replaces a lot of the team-defense swag they lost in Robert Covington.

    Check out the 10 players Green has spent the most time guarding this season, in order of decreasing possessions: Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, Jamal Murray, Evan Fournier, Redick, Kyrie Irving, Malcolm Brogdon, Devin Booker, Joe Harris and Khris Middleton. The opposing offense is averaging about 1.08 points per possession when Green is guarding one of these players. That’s not bad considering the quality of talent.

    Making the numbers work for Green gets a little hairy if Butler and Harris nab maxes. The Sixers would need to sign Redick for less than his $15.9 million cap hold (likely) and keep McConnell at a reasonable price tag (not as likely). But the math is easier to solve if Butler and/or Harris don’t cost the full boat. At worst, it’s workable enough for Green to be on their not-out-of-the-question wish list.

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Tyler Johnson does not fix the Suns’ point guard problem. He does play a hand in limiting their ability to address it.

    Tying up $19.2 million in his player option and what could amount to $9.7 million in their next draft pick (if they win the lottery) comes close to capping out the Suns. Bake in holds for Richaun Holmes and Kelly Oubre Jr., and they’d have inside $6 million of room. 

    That number balloons if they don’t win the No. 1 pick, and they can noticeably increase it without jumping through too many hoops. Renouncing Oubre or Holmes, trading Josh Jackson or waiving and stretching Johnson arms them with various levels of additional flexibility.

    This isn’t to say the Suns should travel epic lengths solely for Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks can match any offer he receives, and going beyond  $12 to $15 million per year thrusts his next contract into hard-to-swallow territory.

    Brogdon is the ideal running mate at both ends of the floor for a team with ball-dominant studs and defensive liabilities on the perimeter, and he’s having a career year. But he turns 27 in December. It’s possible he has already peaked.

    Younger point guards could be more the Suns’ speed if they’re not sold on returning to relevance in the near term. The organization is in a state of disarray as it searches for someone to permanently head up basketball operations, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Brogdon’s age bracket is on the advanced side. He’s best served pitching in for a win-now window.

    Then again, the Suns conceded their gradual timeline by maxing out Devin Booker. Expediting the rebuild is now their responsibility. Brogdon does just that, but unlike Trevor Ariza, he’s still young enough to stomach another year or two of misses.

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Any fireworks the Blazers set off over the offseason are going to come on the trade market. As has become the norm, they project to be operating as taxpayers or cost-cutters. 

    Granted, they have a more open-ended forecast than in years past. Al-Farouq Aminu’s cap hold is what catapults them into the tax. They have ways around staying there that don’t include ditching him.

    Negotiating a smallish salary dump gets the Blazers under the tax if they’re not dead set on keeping Seth Curry (non-Bird), Rodney Hood (non-Bird) and Jake Layman (restricted). More preferably, if realistically, they could look to move off expiring deals for Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard or Evan Turner.

    Regardless, whatever they do most likely won’t upgrade their spending bracket. It will take serious work for them to wield the full MLE, and if they’re close enough to or over the tax, they could be pocket shy when it comes to using the mini MLE.

    Garrett Temple is an all-weather free-agency target. Last summer, yours truly pegged him as a name to watch for the Blazers this year. The thinking hasn’t changed.

    Portland forever needs wings who can dribble and don’t harm the offense’s spacing, and Temple isn’t due for a raise from his $8 million salary. He’s not the third star that gets this group over the championship hump, but again, that next step is only achievable via trade, if at all. With Hood a virtual goner, the Blazers would do well to snag a plug-and-play placeholder like Temple.

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Braver souls will implore the Kings to go after Bojan Bogdanovic. Housing two Bogdanovices under the same roof is worth five to seven extra wins at minimum, and five-B lineups of Buddy, Bogdan, Bojan, Barnes and Bagley is an alliteration goldmine.

    Unbridled optimists, meanwhile, will urge the Kings to skulk around the superstar ranks. That isn’t absurd on its face. Sacramento’s core is a basketball-fit orgy waiting to happen if Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard have the guts and gall to forsake convention.

    Realistically, though, the Kings should be lowering their sights. They have the room to accommodate a max salary if they renounce Willie Cauley-Stein, but their less-than-stellar track record precedes them. Sacramento probably still has to hawk above-market offers to get face time with household names.

    Marcus Morris is middle-ground city. Maybe the Kings have to overpay him, but he’s not getting Harrison Barnes money ($25.1 million player option), and they can afford to outbid the field.

    Morris’ skill set is an insta-fit beside Sacramento’s nucleus. He has the mobility to chase around 2s and 3s, along with the strength to pester 4s. Boston leans on him to harass fringe bigs—Blake Griffin, Pascal Siakam, Ben Simmons—but he’s spent ample time on truer wings. And though his torrid shooting has cooled, he’s still turning in one helluva season.

    Only three other players are scoring as much and hitting as many threes per 36 minutes while matching Morris’ effective field-goal percentage: Stephen Curry, Buddy Hield and Kyrie Irving.

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    San Antonio is tracking toward a far more on-brand offseason than last year, in that this summer should include zero superstar trade demands.

    What becomes of that blissful uneventfulness is a head-scratcher. The Spurs will have the full MLE to spend, but they’ll need to waive Pau Gasol ($6.7 million partial guarantee), renounce Rudy Gay (Early Bird) or trim some other money from their bottom line in a salary dump if they want to completely sidestep the tax.

    Put money on Gasol’s departure or another dump should San Antonio do anything of note. Gay is too important at both ends of the floor without having a replacement lined up, and the rotation is light on combo wings even with him in the fold.

    Searching the market for inexpensive additions to the 2-3-4 carousel should be the Spurs’ jam. They can try aiming for accomplished veterans, but without more than the non-taxpayer MLE, they’re bound to get leap-frogged by comfier gigs and larger offers.

    Stanley Johnson might even crawl beyond their price range. It typically takes overbids to whisk away restricted free agents. But the Pelicans shouldn’t be matching any substantive offers when they’re staring down the start to the post-Anthony Davis era.

    Pair their unique circumstances with Johnson’s flatlining offense, and the end result could be a low-cost project that has San Antonio written all over it. 

    Assistant general manager Brian Wright was on the Pistons staff when they drafted Johnson in 2015 and remains a “big supporter” of his, according to The Athletic’s Jabari Young. If the Spurs can get him for peanuts, his defensive versatility is worth trying to revamp his jumper.

    Assistant coach Chip Engelland already helped Kawhi Leonard. Maybe he can do the same for Johnson.

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Everything comes back to Kawhi Leonard for the Raptors.

    Re-signing him keeps a legitimate title contender intact. Toronto could justify staying in the tax to bring back Marc Gasol (player option) and Danny Green. Impact ring-chasers would consider signing at a discount. The Raptors could burn through their entire mini MLE without regard for tax implications. They could go for broke and cobble together their best Anthony Davis offer.

    The Clippers would be left to explore Plan Bogdanovic.

    Losing Leonard has long-term repercussions galore. Gasol (if he opts in), Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry become trade bait. The Raptors could also ride out next season with all of them, stay afloat in the East and reassess their position in 2020 when they’d have squeaky-clean books. 

    Either way, they’re not in line for any wiggle room. Subtracting Leonard’s money from the ledger doesn’t pull them beneath it, and there would be no replacing the player they lost even if it did.

    Toronto’s future, whatever it entails, is going to play out in-house.

    Free-Agency Target if Kawhi Stays: Garrett Temple

    Free-Agency Target if Kawhi Leaves: David Nwaba

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    Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

    Welcome to the most ambitious proposal of this entire exercise. 

    Zero apologies will be given. The Utah Jazz don’t play in a glamour market, but they have among the strongest basketball-fit arguments. The Knicks and Clippers are attempting to rally multiple stars in one shot. Utah already has two in place—and an enviable supporting cast around them to boot.

    Kemba Walker is the max-contract lock best suited to throw past trends by the wayside. He hasn’t given any indication he wants to leave Charlotte, but that could change if the Hornets miss the playoffs or get waxed in the first round.

    No other team promises a better safe haven than the Jazz. 

    Joining the Lakers amounts to syncing up with age-35-season LeBron James and maybe Anthony Davis. The Knicks, Nets and Clippers can pay another star, but not a third. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis make the Mavericks interesting, but the latter’s return from a torn left ACL leaves too much to chance.

    Utah has Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and a glaring need for another shot-creator. The ideal addition would be a combo forward who thrives off the bounce, but the Tobias Harris coalition took a seismic hit once the Clippers sent him to the Sixers. Looking at the potential alternatives, the Jazz are better off combing through the bargain bin or using a package built around Grayson Allen, Dante Exum and picks to net a more expensive player.

    Affording Walker doesn’t take much legwork. Waiving Derrick Favors and Raul Neto creates the requisite money if the Jazz finish 21st or lower in the draft order. (They’re currently 20th.) The decision date on Favors’ non-guaranteed deal doesn’t give them much time (July 6), but it won’t take long to get an idea of whether they’re in the running for Walker.

    Ambitious needs to be the Jazz’s default mode after failing to land Mike Conley at the trade deadline. They can about-face into a more modest blueprint if they strike out.

    Non-Max Free-Agency Target: Bojan Bogdanovic

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Washington’s focus can go in any number of directions. Settling on a point guard feels right in the end.

    The Wizards could use a little bit of everything, from table-setters to wings to bigs. But they want to re-sign Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green, per NBC Sports Washington’s Ben Standig, and they’ve already talked to Tomas Satoransky (restricted) about signing an extension, according to NBC Sport’s Washington’s Chase Hughes.

    Thomas Bryant (restricted) has also played his way into their future, and Dwight Howard isn’t declining his player option after an injury-riddled campaign. The Wizards should be set in the middle after accounting for Ian Mahinmi.

    Bringing back Satoransky fills part of the void left by John Wall (ruptured Achilles), which could keep him on the shelf through next season. Chasson Randle is doing things as well.

    But Jeremy Lin, while not helping the defense, puts a higher ceiling on the Wizards’ potential in the Eastern Conference without Wall. He replaces much of his dribble penetration, excels at getting to the free-throw line and has played off other ball-dominant scorers at almost every stop.

    Trading Otto Porter has opened the door for the Wizards to join the full-MLE ranks if they don’t pick up Jabari Parker’s team option. Lin won’t cost all of it, and he’s among the few options who could help carry the offense in Wall’s absence and potentially log time beside him upon his return.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Feb. 27. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk’s Andrew Bailey.

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