The NBA Draft is just days away and shortly after the next crop of NBA players learn where they’ll be starting their careers, free agency will arrive as teams jockey for position to make a leap next season.
Every team has different needs and financial situations coming into the offseason, and as such free agency rankings from a wide view does little to provide insight into the players who will headline each team’s wishlist. Here, we’re going to try and take a more narrow view for each team, taking into account their roster needs, franchise situation (contender, hopeful contender, rebuild, etc.), and the money they have to offer to pick out the free agent we think will be atop their free agent board when August arrives.
We already looked at the West, so now we will shift focus to the East, going from worst to first based on last year’s standings to pick out a free agent for each team who is not one of their own.
Detroit Pistons: Doug McDermott (UFA, Pacers)
The Pistons will have a pretty full roster after the Draft and they won’t have much money to spend in free agency, thanks in large part to the $30 million in dead cap being eaten up by Blake Griffin’s buyout. As such, the focus right now is on the future even if the goal is to be better in 2021-22 than they were last year, and that should mean looking to surround the presumptive No. 1 pick, Cade Cunningham, with players who can help him out. When you have a rookie taking the reins on offense, it helps to have quality shooting around them and with the mid-level the Pistons could look to swipe Doug McDermott away from their divisional rival in Indiana. McDermott is an elite three-point shooter (40.7 percent last year) and has some secondary creation abilities, but really he’d be there to space the floor and give Cunningham (and last year’s top pick Killian Hayes) more space to operate.
Orlando Magic: JaMychal Green (UFA, Nuggets)
The Magic have to figure out someone that can play on the wing for them and, preferably, someone who offers some positional versatility at the 3/4 spot. McDermott could honestly also be a target for Orlando, but ideally they get someone that can be a connector with defensive versatility and Green would certainly bring that. I’m not sure the mid-level is going to be enough to get him to Orlando, as he may very well have those kinds of offers from elsewhere (including Denver where he just declined his player option for just over $7 million). Still, he is the type of player Orlando could use no matter what they do at 5 and 8 in the Draft, and they would be thrilled if they could convince him to join their young team.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Alex Caruso (UFA, Lakers)
The Cavs are one of the hardest teams to figure out in this exercise, as they could go in a lot of different ways this offseason. Their first priority is re-signing Jarrett Allen, and at No. 3 in the Draft they are likely to take Evan Mobley, which means there won’t be a need at center. They could probably use some big wing depth, particularly with Kevin Love’s future very much in doubt, but there aren’t a lot of guys that fit their timetable out there. If Collin Sexton is indeed the odd man out of their young backcourt trio, then adding a backup point guard would make a lot of sense and Caruso provides some needed defensive versatility. Whether they can convince him to come to Cleveland is very much in doubt, but the Cavs interest in Caruso has been reported already and he makes a lot more sense than many of the other free agent point guards on the market at their price range.
Toronto Raptors: Jarrett Allen (RFA, Cavaliers)
The Raptors are going to be a fascinating team to watch this summer, as they could be big players in free agency, with north of $20 million to play with in cap room, and on the trade market with the No. 4 pick and Pascal Siakam making for a tantalizing package should they go big game hunting to really shake things up. Whatever they do, they have to address their frontcourt situation and find an upgrade at center and there’s no better possibility at that spot than Allen. As mentioned above, the Cavs will likely match most anything the Raptors could offer, but they should absolutely try to get an offer sheet in there just in case Cleveland gets cold feet. Should Allen be unavailable, the attention for Toronto likely shifts to Richaun Holmes of the Kings, as they could certainly out-bid Sacramento’s Early Bird offer and lure Holmes away from NorCal.
Chicago Bulls: Lonzo Ball (RFA, Pelicans)
The Bulls want to upgrade their point guard spot and I don’t think they can earnestly get in the Spencer Dinwiddie sweepstakes because it would require them cutting both Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, but Lonzo Ball could very well end up closer to their price range (while only needing to rid themselves of Satoransky). Ball would bring them a quality point of attack defender that they desperately need and his game being predicated on pushing the ball in transition and not creating too much for himself as a scorer could pair nicely with Zach LaVine. It’ll be very interesting to see what Ball’s market looks like, but Chicago would be a snug fit for both sides.
Charlotte Hornets: Richaun Holmes (UFA, Kings)
The Hornets clear need, as of this moment, is at center. They have to address that this summer and try to get younger, and Holmes feels like a really good fit for what Charlotte likes to do, coming from a Kings squad that likewise pushes the tempo. Holmes should have a robust market — as mentioned earlier, Toronto should also be in on him — and deservedly so. He’s become a very good starting center in Sacramento and after Jarrett Allen gets locked in either in Cleveland or somewhere else, Holmes immediately becomes the top center on the market. The Hornets could use that kind of presence to try and take another step next season into the playoffs, and should have a strong offer to make.
Indiana Pacers: Alec Burks (UFA, Knicks)
Indiana’s roster is pretty much locked in to what it is until they make a trade. Should they move Myles Turner, then the need in the frontcourt becomes bigger and that’s where they may look to allocate their MLE money. For now, I don’t think they would be wrong to look to add some more scoring punch off the bench given how last season went — although, the hope is TJ Warren’s return mitigates that need considerably. If they want to go that way, Burks could be a nice option to add to the bench in place of Doug McDermott if he doesn’t return. Burks is likewise a terrific three-point shooter and has some secondary creation ability, which Indiana could use.
Washington Wizards: TJ McConnell (UFA, Pacers)
We’ll apparently know this week whether the Wizards are going to suddenly be shopping Bradley Beal or not, but until word breaks that something has changed and he wants out, the goal continues to be fighting for a playoff spot in the nation’s capital. The Wizards could use an upgrade at backup point guard over Ish Smith, and with just the MLE at their disposal to make significant additions, this could be the team that makes a run at TJ McConnell. The Wizards also could use some frontcourt depth, but Daniel Gafford’s emergence last season they might be more inclined to spend the MLE on a backup point guard and use the bi-annual exception and minimums to fill out the rest. Pretty much every guard at the MLE and below level requires you to pick between offense and defense. McConnell is definitely a defensive choice, but Washington could certainly use someone capable of applying pressure at the point of attack.
Boston Celtics: Cameron Payne (UFA, Suns)
Boston is going to look into pretty much any mid-level type point guard out there after trading Kemba Walker for Al Horford, as they have to make a point guard signing this offseason. They could use another creator in that spot, and Payne would give them that if he can be pried out of Phoenix by the full mid-level. He’s about as balanced a point guard option as there is at the MLE level and Boston would do well to add him if the plan is to run it back with mostly the same group in Ime Udoka’s first season. He showed he can be a positive contributor on a contender with the Suns, and Boston could hope he can bring their bench unit some much needed energy.
Miami Heat: Kyle Lowry (UFA, Raptors)
The Heat wanted Lowry on the trade market but weren’t willing to part with enough to pry him from Toronto. Part of the reason for that is they knew they could make a run at him in free agency. The fit between Lowry and the Heat is clear. They want to upgrade their point guard position from the Dragic/Nunn pairing and Lowry brings them the two-way ability they crave in a veteran package. Lowry obviously wants to be part of a contender, and despite a stepback season for Miami last year, he still would likely see them as one of the few teams that can make him a significant offer while also bringing him the chance to compete for a title.
Atlanta Hawks: Paul Millsap (UFA, Nuggets)
Atlanta seemed fairly set at the center position with Clint Capela and the late emergence of rookie Onyeka Okongwu, but with Okongwu’s shoulder surgery keeping him out likely until mid-January, the Hawks are going to need to address frontcourt depth before adding another . As mentioned previously, there aren’t a ton of great options but for a hopeful contender looking for a stopgap, the Hawks could do worse than bringing back an old friend. Millsap’s ties to Atlanta are still strong with a gym he owns in the city and, if any team is going to be able to get him out of Denver without throwing a bunch of money at him, the Hawks would seem to be the one. Atlanta’s biggest priority is going to be bringing back John Collins and they would have to be committed to small-ball to make this work, but for two-way ability that keeps them afloat in the East race, I’m not sure they could do much better than Millsap.
New York Knicks: Spencer Dinwiddie (UFA, Nets)
The Knicks have the most cap space of any team this summer, but I think they’ll look to spread that around to a few players rather than signing a big veteran max type guy. A big reason for that is, I don’t think any of the veteran max type guys on the market are going to be interested in the Knicks even coming off a surprising run to the 4-seed. I’m sure they’ll put the necessary phone calls in on guys like Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul, but I don’t see either of those leaving their current teams for the Knicks. As such, I think they look a tier down and hope Spencer Dinwiddie’s return from an ACL tear sees him return to form. Dinwiddie would reportedly like to go home to L.A., but that seems highly unlikely to be a possibility, so staying in New York would seem like the next best option. He would bring them some dynamic backcourt scoring that we saw the Knicks desperately need in their playoff series with Atlanta, while leaving them room to add a couple other quality players on the market should they choose to — or leave them max money for next summer to go star hunting.
Milwaukee Bucks: Austin Rivers (UFA, Nuggets)/Daniel Theis (UFA, Bulls)
I’m going to cheat here and put two answers because everything about the Bucks offseason is going to depend on whether they can get Bobby Portis back on the taxpayer mid-level. If the answer is yes, then the clear need is a backup ball-handler/creator upgrade over Jeff Teague, and Rivers might be the best available at their price range (aka, the minimum). If the answer is no and Portis walks, then they have to go find a reserve center that would be available for $5.9 million. If they could get Theis for that number, that would be an absolute heist (Theist?) in terms of impact at that figure. I don’t think Theis will go for that cheap, but coming off making $5 million in Boston and Chicago, it’s possible and is certainly the best-case scenario for the champs if Portis leaves.
Brooklyn Nets: JJ Redick (UFA, Mavericks)
I feel pretty confident that, at the least, Jeff Green and Bruce Brown will be back in Brooklyn (and maybe Blake Griffin), which means they can use their taxpayer MLE on a bit of a luxury signing. No one is more of a luxury signing for the Nets than JJ Redick, as they already have Joe Harris and Landry Shamet, but they also could use some more guard depth with the inevitability that they’ll see some guys miss some time. There isn’t a great option for them in terms of a ball-handler/shooter at that price and we know Redick wants desperately to be in Brooklyn, so he’d probably be more than happy to take the discount to chase a ring and be at home.
Philadelphia 76ers: Patty Mills (UFA, Spurs)
The Sixers have the full MLE at their disposal which gives them a leg up on their fellow top East contenders in terms of adding a bigger impact player without requiring them to take a big discount, and I’m not sure there’s a player-team combo in free agency that makes more sense than Mills to the Sixers. Obviously the Sixers offseason is dictated by whether they look to make a major shakeup and trade Ben Simmons, but no matter what they do, Mills fits the profile of what they need tremendously. The Sixers may need another shooter if Danny Green leaves, although they’ll want to retain him as well, but mostly what they need is another on-ball creator who can space the floor and Mills has to be at the top of the list for them at that need.