Every NBA Team’s Toughest 2021 Free-Agency Decision | Bleacher Report

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Decisions, decisions.

    Every NBA team will make several over the 2021 offseason that could determine the direction of their franchise. Some are more critical than others, and those have our focus here.

    With a look-ahead at the upcoming free-agent frenzy, we have spotlighted the toughest call every club will need to make during the summer.

    From early extensions to expiring contracts and everything in between, here’s the biggest free-agent issue on the mind of each front office. 

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Whether due to optimistic outsiders or legitimate internal questions, John Collins’ name bounced around at the trade deadline like the spring-loaded big man does when he eyes an open path to the rim.

    The Atlanta Hawks didn’t end up moving him, but the mere mention of him highlighted the question marks around his upcoming restricted free agency. While he sees himself in the max-contract conversation, the club instead threw a $90 million extension offer his way before the season, which he predictably declined.

    So, what happens next? One would think a re-signing is in order, since there aren’t a lot of 23-year-olds walking around with career per-36-minutes averages of 20.8 points and 10.7 rebounds, plus a rapidly developing outside shot. Then again, the Hawks have already overloaded their frontcourt with the likes of Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, Danilo Gallinari and De’Andre Hunter, so they have options.

    They reportedly told inquiring teams at the deadline they “intend to match contract offers for Collins this summer,” per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, but it bears watching if anyone tests that commitment with a max offer sheet or something close to it.

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics needed scoring support, a shooter with size and secondary playmaking ability. They made a run at checking off all three boxes when they landed Evan Fournier at the trade deadline.

    While his numbers were bolstered by playing on the punchless Orlando Magic, he nevertheless arrived with per-game averages of 19.7 points, 3.7 assists and 2.8 threes on 38.8 percent shooting from deep. He also came attached to an expiring contract, though the Shamrocks made clear they viewed him as more than a rental.

    “We don’t acquire Evan with the idea that he’ll be with us just for this year,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said, per NBC Sports Boston’s Nick Goss. “We acquire him with the idea he could be here potentially for a long time, like all the players we acquire.”

    In a way, Boston has already committed to re-signing Fournier, since it has $132.3 million on next season’s payroll and therefore wouldn’t have an easy method of replacing him. But he’s off to a slow start with the Celtics (perhaps due to lingering symptoms from COVID-19), so it’s fair to assume even a plan to re-sign him would include a walk-away price point.

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    On first glance, it doesn’t seem like this should be hard. The Brooklyn Nets have their Big Three locked up for next season, Joe Harris is signed beyond that, and Spencer Dinwiddie’s $12.3 million player option is out of their control.

    Look under the hood, though, and it starts to get intriguing.

    Landry Shamet is extension-eligible this offseason, and his shot-making is an easy fit next to the stars. A handful of veterans are on expiring deals, including the quietly critical Jeff Green. Both will give Nets general manager Sean Marks plenty to think about.

    But Marks’ top issue to tackle will be figuring out Bruce Brown’s contractual worth. What he lacks in notable numbers (8.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists), he more than compensates for with versatility, insatiable energy and a little bit of nasty.

    “He literally does everything there is to do out there,” Nets head coach Steve Nash raved, per Forbes’ Mike Mazzeo.

    Brown is an excellent energizer and tenacious defender. He’s also limited offensively with no real outside shot to speak of (career 29.9 percent). Those players are nice to have—at the right price. The Nets won’t want to lose him, but they also can’t afford to overpay him since their roster is already costly.

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Charlotte Hornets wouldn’t be in the playoff hunt without the best season to date from Terry Rozier and a debut for the ages by LaMelo Ball. Both breakouts create big question marks for the other guards on the roster, specifically Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, who are each ticketed for restricted free agency this summer.

    Charlotte’s starting guard spots are covered, which probably caps what the club is willing to spend on Graham and Monk. If the market deems either worthy of a starting gig, the Hornets could quickly run short on funds to keep both.

    That could easily happen. Graham is one of six players with at least 700 assists and 300 three-pointers since the start of last season. Monk is pairing a personal-best 13.0 points per game (21.3 per 36 minutes) with career-high connection rates from the field (46.0) and from distance (43.1).

    They’ll catch the attention of guard-needy shoppers, which could put Charlotte in a tight spot. There probably isn’t room on the roster (or the payroll) for both Graham and Monk behind Ball and Rozier, so one likely needs to go.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    At a time in the not-so-distant past, this space would have been reserved for potential extension talks with Zach LaVine. But the fiery scoring guard made an All-Star leap, and while Chicago will surely offer as much as it can, executives believe LaVine will “let his deal lapse, become an unrestricted free agent and sign what will be a more lucrative multiyear max pact” in 2022, per B/R’s A. Sherrod Blakely.

    With LaVine’s future off the board, the easy choice is Lauri Markkanen’s restricted free agency.

    Drafted seventh overall in 2017, the 7-footer has dazzled at times as a jumbo sniper (career-high 38.5 percent from three this season). But he hasn’t moved the needle in other areas, and Chicago has pulled him from the starting group and lightened his load to a career-low 26.4 minutes per game. He’s also an awkward-at-best fit next to newcomer Nikola Vucevic, another skilled big with defensive limitations.

    “In the right kind of system, Markkanen could be a really good player,” an Eastern Conference executive told Blakely. “I don’t know if Chicago is it; it’s certainly not it if they think him and Vucevic can play together.”

    The Bulls paid a premium to land Vucevic, and they presumably see him as their best recruiting chip to keep LaVine around. That doesn’t necessarily mean Markkanen is definitely getting squeezed out, but if he’s hoping to cash out this summer, it almost certainly won’t happen in Chicago.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    If Brink’s truck drivers aren’t familiar with Jarrett Allen’s address, now would be the time to start studying the route.

    The fourth-year center will be showered with cash as a restricted free agent this offseason. If the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t ready to pay him beaucoup bucks, they should be ready to watch him walk out the door.

    Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor pegged Allen’s next deal at being worth “close to $100 million, maybe even a bit north of that.” Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes added Allen “will be open to all situations as he hopes to collect on his first major payday in the league.”

    Allen is a dynamic interior defender who protects the paint (1.5 blocks per game in Cleveland) and cleans the glass (9.9 rebounds). At the opposite end, he’s a low-maintenance contributor who adds vertical spacing as a lob threat and doesn’t need plays called for him.

    He clearly contributes to winning. But are those contributions worth $100-plus million? That’s for Cleveland to decide.

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks need this summer to be special. That will be trickier now that so many marquee players have pulled themselves out of the free-agent class with early extensions.

    The third-star search they hoped would end with Giannis Antetokounmpo instead carries on without a clear focus. The problem is that time is at a premium. Luka Doncic is approaching the final season of his rookie contract and will soon collect an absurd amount of money once his inevitable max extension begins.

    What Dallas must decipher, then, is whether anyone on the open market can turn its dynamic duo into a full-fledged Big Three. Kawhi Leonard is the pie-in-the-sky target, but he is “widely” expected to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, per Sam Amick and John Hollinger of The Athletic. DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry are theoretical targets, but are the Mavs in the market for 30-somethings when their franchise player is 22 years old?

    Dallas is expected “to make a significant offer” to John Collins, per B/R’s Jake Fischer, though it’s fair to question Collins’ credentials as a true third star. The same concern applies to the likes of Lonzo Ball and Norman Powell.

    This might come down to the Mavericks deciding between signing an imperfect “star” now or doing their offseason spending in-house and hoping an ideal option surfaces on the trade market sooner than later.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When Jamal Murray tore his left ACL, it threatened to derail the Denver Nuggets’ entire season. Michael Porter Jr. is a major reason why that hasn’t happened.

    Even after Monday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nuggets are 9-2 since Murray went down. Porter, who’s only in his second healthy NBA season after losing his would-be rookie year to a back injury, has effortlessly ascended to second-scorer status. His average outing in this stretch includes 25.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.9 three-pointers and a sizzling 56.9/49.4/81.3 shooting slash.

    He frankly looks like the player many expected he could be before back issues derailed his candidacy to be the top pick in his draft class. He actually might even be ahead of those expectations, as Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has elicited consistent defense from Porter that wasn’t guaranteed to come.

    Porter is extension-eligible this offseason, and it’s tempting to say the Nuggets should latch themselves to this rising star at the first opportunity. But he still doesn’t have the deepest body of work (110 career regular-season outings), and they could be careful with their funds after maxing out both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Some NBA trades take your breath away. Detroit’s pre-deadline deal for Hamidou Diallo elicited a yawn at most.

    It came nearly two weeks ahead of the actual cutoff date, so the hoops world wasn’t quite tracking transactions yet. It involved a pair of former second-rounders (Diallo, who was hurt at the time, for Svi Mykhailiuk) who weren’t super productive, so these weren’t household names. It featured a pair of squads sitting outside of the playoff picture (Diallo came from the Oklahoma City Thunder), so the leaguewide ramifications were nil.

    But the Pistons may have stumbled into the latest addition to their long-term core. Since Diallo landed in Detroit, he has powered up the Pistons with suffocating defense and relentless rim attacks, and they appear eager to see what else he’ll have in store down the road.

    “He’s an athletic young man who is just scratching the surface of what he can be in this league,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said, per The Athletic’s James L. Edwards III.

    Restricted free agency awaits the 22-year-old Diallo, who should be positioned for a hefty payday. Now, Detroit just needs to correctly gauge the price for an athletic, defense-first swingman with very little shooting touch (career 28.9 percent from three, 62.8 percent at the stripe). That’s easier said than done.

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    When Klay Thompson went down with a torn right Achilles tendon in November, it made sense for the Golden State Warriors to tab Kelly Oubre Jr. as his replacement. He could provide similar defensive flexibility, and while he wasn’t the same caliber of shooter, he was coming off his best sniping season (1.9 threes at a 35.2 percent clip).

    But his first go-round in Golden State hasn’t gone as planned, which begs the question of whether a second is in the works. His stats have dropped across the board, and he has one of the rotation’s worst net differentials, registering a 10.6-point swing in the wrong direction when he’s on the floor.

    Perhaps those ring as reasons to let him walk, but it’s complicated. Because the Warriors are already over next season’s projected luxury-tax line with a payroll of at least $153.1 million, they have no means of signing an eight-figure Oubre replacement.

    And if that sounds like a reason to keep him, we’d just point to the cartoon money bags it might cost to keep him—or, more accurately, a possible annual salary “north of $20 million annually,” as Connor Letourneau reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. Even if it’s #NotMyMoney, it’s still an absurd amount for someone having what most anyone would describe as a disappointing season.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The task list for Houston’s first post-James Harden offseason is pretty straightforward at the top.

    The first order of business is hoping like heck that the pingpong balls fall in their favor and keep their top-four protected pick away from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The next is calling around for any favors from the league and hoping someone will be generous enough to take the contracts of John Wall or Eric Gordon off their hands.

    It’s murky after that and will be until Houston picks a timeline for its rebuild. While it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Kelly Olynyk fits said schedule, the sweet-shooting big man might still have a (temporary) spot in Space City.

    “Where I can see Olynyk being part of the ‘future,’ in a roundabout way, is on what I call the ‘Meyers Leonard Plan,'” The Athletic’s John Hollinger wrote. “Much as the Heat signed Leonard in the 2020 offseason to have a contract available for use in a trade later in the season, I could see the Rockets attempting something similar with Olynyk’s Bird Rights.”

    If Olynyk maintains anything close to his level of play in Houston, he might attract a shooting-needy trade partner next season. Even while accounting for the inflation of playing stakes-free basketball for a bottom-feeder, the veteran big man is nevertheless impressing with averages of 18.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 threes while shooting 37.8 percent from deep across his first 21 contests with the club.

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    It seems strange calling T.J. McConnell a critical puzzle piece for the Pacers when he doesn’t have size (6’1″), hops (zero career dunks) or a reliable three-ball (102 career makes on 33.4 percent shooting across nearly six seasons).

    But how else do you describe someone who puts an extra pep in his teammates’ step and harasses opposing ball-handlers the full length of the floor? The stat sheet swears he’s invaluable. Of the 11 Indiana Pacers to log 400-plus minutes this season, his net differential is the highest (Indy plus-2.0 with him, minus-1.2 without).

    He’s clearly good in his role, but it isn’t the kind of role the Pacers should pay a premium for, especially when they already have six eight-figure salaries on next season’s books. There’s also an argument to be made that his presence on the roster impedes the developmental process of 2018 first-round pick Aaron Holiday, whose numbers are down across the board from last season.

    After a disappointing campaign, the Pacers will have plenty to think about this summer. Deciphering the right price for their plucky backup point guard will rank right among the trickiest calls.

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Allow us to make one quick request from the basketball gods: Please, please keep Nicolas Batum solely on good teams from here on out.

    The Swiss army knife swingman was almost guaranteed to disappoint when he inked a five-year, $120 million pact with the Charlotte Hornets in 2016. Even at his best, he didn’t produce as a star, and his glue-guy impact has only really mattered when he’s on a club competing for something of substance.

    His numbers were trapped in a tailspin the past few seasons, culminating in an injury-riddled 2019-20 season in which he averaged only 3.6 points on 34.6 percent shooting across 22 contests. That was enough for Charlotte to waive and stretch the $27.1 million he was owed for this season, which cleared his path to the Los Angeles Clippers.

    In L.A., he’s right back to being a gap-filler on a contender. His shooting rates have all recovered (45.6/40.8/85.2 slash line), and he’s averaging nearly three times as many assists (2.3) as turnovers (0.8).

    That should make the Clippers consider bringing Batum back in free agency, but they have a lot of heavy lifting slated for the summer, as Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson could all join him on the open market. Even if L.A. wants another round with Batum, it must decide whether his next contract is a luxury or a necessity.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In one season, Talen Horton-Tucker went from being a second-round afterthought to a possible building block for the Los Angeles Lakers. Long, crafty and effortlessly skilled on the offensive end, the 20-year-old has punched above his weight class and made real contributions to the club’s efforts to defend its title.

    He has a tantalizing future in front of him, especially for a veteran-heavy roster that’s light on high-upside youth. But other clubs can see that potential as well, and they could make things uncomfortable for the Lakers by sending a sizable offer sheet his way in restricted free agency.

    If teams are big enough believers in Horton-Tucker—or are dead set on disrupting L.A.—they could structure the offer sheet in a way that makes it painful for the Lakers to match.

    Since he’s an ‘Arenas Rule restricted free agent, the Lakers can pay up to about $10.3 million in the first year, while other franchises would be capped at about $9.5 million,” B/R’s Eric Pincus noted. “The rule is complex, allowing for a potential massive raise in the third and fourth years of a contract worth up to about $83 million.”

    Considering Horton-Tucker’s breakout campaign only includes per-game averages of 8.8 points and 2.6 assists, he probably won’t command that kind of coin. But the Lakers will have a tough call to make if someone slides a big number across his desk.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    In an ideal world, the Memphis Grizzlies wouldn’t have much to worry about this summer. Jaren Jackson Jr. would have established himself as a no-doubt max-contract candidate, and Justise Winslow’s $13 million team option for next season would be easily exercised.

    Well, one glance around the socially distanced, mask-filled FedExForum is more than enough to know we are not living an ideal existence. Injuries have painted an incomplete picture about Jackson’s full potential, and Winslow looks lost, but not in the way that Memphis can automatically rule out another go-round with him.

    Jackson is more central to this roster, though, with an importance that ranks above everyone not named Ja Morant. The combination of Jackson’s fiery three-point shooting (career 37.6 percent) and defensive versatility gives him a ceiling stretching to the last inch of a unicorn’s horn. But what happens if he’s merely a jumbo shooter who can’t control the paint?

    He gets jumpy as a shot-blocker, which can put him in foul trouble and pull him out of rebounding position. Speaking of which, he cleans the glass about as well as an oily rag (4.7 career rebounds per game). And while his smooth handle helps him slip around bigger, slower defenders, he hasn’t shown the ability to create shots for others (career 1.2 assists against 1.7 turnovers).

    There’s more good than bad, and since he’s still only 21 years old, the Grizzlies should want to keep him around. But he had a chance to earn a max payday this season and instead spent most of it rehabbing from a torn meniscus in his left knee. Now, it’s hard to tell what Memphis should offer and what he should realistically hope to get.

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The Miami Heat almost played it perfectly.

    Truth be told, they held up their end of the bargain by remaining in the championship race (if only on the fringes this season) while also keeping the coffers clear for an offseason whale hunt. But their lone miscalculation was the number of orcas in the ocean.

    The 2021 free-agent class had a chance to be historic, and Miami entertained dreams of reeling in the biggest and brightest among it. Instead, just about every big fish exited the pond with an early extension, and now it’s just Kawhi Leonard doing laps likely leading him back to L.A. and a lot of smaller, less exciting marine life around him.

    If Leonard is off the table and a Bradley Beal deal isn’t happening, where will Heat president Pat Riley turn next? Is Jimmy Butler’s buddy Kyle Lowry the best option? Does a John Collins offer sheet make sense? Should the Heat keep Victor Oladipo around? Will this be another year of short-term pacts and big dreams deferred?

    The Heat have a formidable foundation with Butler and Bam Adebayo as dual centerpieces. But the roster needs more, and it’s hard to say where to find it.

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    After extending both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, the Milwaukee Bucks already handled their big-ticket buying. Barring injury, nothing that happens this offseason will pull them out of the championship race.

    While they still need to make some fringe moves, the only decision with semi-sizable significance is a possible extension for 2018 first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo.

    Following a mostly quiet rookie campaign, the 6’4″ guard made himself a rotation regular last season and upped the ante by holding his own in the starting unit this season. What he might lack in long-term upside, he offsets with a slew of win-now traits, which hold obvious appeal for a club hoping to maximize its championship window.

    The question is whether DiVincenzo is comfortable staying in a complementary role and if he’s willing to accept the relatively modest pay rate that comes along with it. If he’s eyeing more opportunities, more money or more of both, Milwaukee could have trouble meeting his demands.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Jarred Vanderbilt has played 982 minutes this season. That’s 872 more than he received across his first two NBA campaigns combined.

    The fact he stands out as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ biggest free-agent decision shows how little they need to—and can—do this offseason. They already have 10 players and $127.7 million on the books for 2021-22, and they have no obvious reasons for not picking up the non-guaranteed pacts of Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell. Since we aren’t talking trades or the draft here, there just isn’t much to mention with Minnesota.

    Vanderbilt has had some interesting moments. He’s a good athlete with a great motor, and he never stops working for rebounds. He’s also limited offensively and plays the position anyone with a pulse knows the Wolves should try to upgrade this summer if they can (power forward).

    Could he come back to this club? Sure. Should he? That’s debatable. But his free agency still wins out here by default, since it feels slightly more important than Ed Davis’ free agency, Josh Okogie’s extension-eligiblity and Minnesota’s upcoming search for bargain-bin veterans.

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    If someone told you before the season that a top-two pick would make a leap at point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, you’d probably assume Lonzo Ball would be scouting Crescent City real estate right now.

    But he isn’t the floor general making major noise for this franchise. While Ball has engineered his best season to date, Zion Williamson is the one doing serious damage as the Pels’ jumbo playmaker. With Point Zion running the show and Brandon Ingram next in line for offensive opportunities, Ball might be getting squeezed out of the Big Easy.

    “Why would Pelicans president of basketball operations David Griffin let [Ball] get away, and why was he so widely known to be available heading into the deadline?” Sam Amick of The Athletic wrote. “Because the potential price point here might be too rich for their blood.”

    Ball’s vision, improved outside shot (3.0 threes at a 37.3 percent clip) and defensive potential should make him highly coveted this offseason. Amick mentioned five potential suitors—including the Clippers, Warriors and Knicks—and there might be more.

    That’s good news for Ball’s bank account, but it could put the Pelicans in a predicament. They probably aren’t eager to walk away from a 23-year-old on the rise, but ponying up major cash is tricky when Ingram already has a max contract, Williamson will get one next summer and Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe are owed a combined $35.2 million in 2021-22.

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    Mike Stobe/Associated Press

    The New York Knicks have learned in recent years that having cap space and a major market to sell isn’t always enough to land an elite player. But New York’s sales pitch has a new wrinkle that could capture the attention of marquee talents: the chance to actually win.

    With head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm and Julius Randle perhaps headed to All-NBA honors, the Knicks look legitimately good. Not just better than you think. Not simply above expectations. Like good good, as in a .569 winning percentage, a top-10 net rating and the league’s second-best record since April 1 (.765).

    The basketball world has taken notice, and the Knicks could soon be on the radar of stars.

    “I say within the next 12 months, a star slash superstar player demands a trade to New York,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective podcast (h/t Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk). “And I don’t know who it’s going to be. … Let’s just put it this way: League executives certainly have some guesses.”

    Knicks fans, feel free to double over with excitement.

    But could this club have a chance to accelerate that timeline and actually sign a star this summer? That seems unlikely, if for no other reason than the severe shortage of available elites.

    It’s up to the Knicks, then, to decide whether to spend on second-tier targets or hope Windhorst proves prescient and a top-shelf hooper does force his way to the Empire State sooner than later.

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is extension-eligible this offseason. Based on his production to this point and potential going forward, the Thunder should probably throw max money (or something close to it) his way.

    Regardless of what happens, though, he’s currently on course to be their second-highest paid player in 2021-22 with a $5.5 million salary. OKC only has $46.4 million guaranteed on next season’s payroll, and $27 million of that is headed to Al Horford.

    The Thunder have as much buying power as anyone, but with both eyes firmly on the future (and that mountain of incoming draft picks), will they actually put it to use? They should, though only a small section of the free-agent class should hold much appeal in the Sooner State.

    Oklahoma City could make a furious push for a restricted free agent. Since so much of this roster is unsettled, and Gilgeous-Alexander’s game fits with anyone, the Thunder can afford to be choosy.

    But once an offer sheet is signed, it will tie up their cap space, so they need to make a priority list among Lonzo Ball, John Collins, Gary Trent Jr., Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    As the 2018 No. 6 overall pick with a career 6.3-points-per-game scoring average, Mo Bamba might be precariously close to drawing the dreaded bust label. But one could argue his statistical shortcomings are hardly reflective of his skill level.

    Instead, the Orlando Magic have shown frustrating indifference about his development.

    When he landed in Disney’s backyard, he was buried behind All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. And once Orlando finally moved on from Vooch at the trade deadline, it brought back Wendell Carter Jr., a center whom the Chicago Bulls drafted one spot behind Bamba.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean the Magic are out on Bamba, but they obviously wanted to give themselves some options on the interior. Since both Bamba and Carter are eligible for extensions this offseason, the Magic might already need to choose between the two.

    They could keep both and head into next season hoping one rises above the other before both hit restricted free agency in 2022. But if they believe in either one’s future, this might be a chance to buy low on what becomes a team-friendly extension.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia 76ers could use another perimeter shot-creator. Six-time All-Star—and Philadelphia native—Kyle Lowry could need a new home with unrestricted free agency awaiting him.

    Might this be a match made in hoops heaven? The Sixers seem eager to find out.

    While they fell short of getting him at the trade deadline, they “still plan on pursuing him by way of a possible sign-and-trade” this offseason, per Sam Amick of The Athletic.

    Only the Toronto Raptors know what they’d seek in return, but it’d have to be a ton not to pique the Sixers’ interest. Their second-ranked defense is championship-ready, but their 14th-ranked offense might still be one weapon away.

    Lowry would be a fascinating way of attacking the issue.

    The 35-year-old is still pumping in 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 2.8 threes per game, and he could conjure up some two-man magic with both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Lowry would give this offense another gravitational force on opposing defenses, which would give Embiid more room to operate, the shooters extra breathing room and wider attack lanes for Simmons and Tobias Harris.

    But it comes down to compensation and cap management. As much as the Sixers need the offensive lift, they can’t completely neglect their budget while acquiring someone with as much as NBA mileage as Lowry has logged. They would also need to pull off some cap gymnastics, since they couldn’t do this deal while being over the tax apron.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    In the NBA, there’s often a literal price of success. After busting out in a major way this season, the Phoenix Suns could soon be on the hook for it.

    Of the four most critical contributors to this breakout, only Devin Booker has a long-term commitment to this club. Mikal Bridges, who has a statistical case for Most Improved Player consideration, and Deandre Ayton, whose big strides don’t always show up in the box score, are both extension-eligible this offseason. Chris Paul, a stealth MVP candidate, could have reasons to seriously consider declining his $44.2 million player option for 2021-22.

    “With [Jrue] Holiday off the market, all eyes are now on Paul,” John Hollinger of The Athletic wrote. “If he doesn’t sign an extension between now and the start of free agency, he immediately becomes the top free-agent target for any win-now team in search of a point guard.”

    Phoenix surely wants to keep all three, but none will be easily priced.

    Bridges is a three-and-D ace, but how much better can he get? Ayton has arguably played his best basketball by sinking back into a complementary role, but does stardom still await 2018’s top pick? Paul is cruising at high altitude now, but how much longer can he keep this up?

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The Portland Trail Blazers have Norman Powell in their future plans. And yes, we can say that without having direct knowledge of the front office’s intentions.

    How? Because the Blazers traded for him—giving up the highly intriguing Gary Trent Jr. in the exchange—knowing Powell needed a new deal this offseason. And not just any deal, but a potential budget-buster since he’s powering through a perfectly timed breakout season.

    “Powell is going to get capital-P paid; executives expect a $20 million annual salary,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported.

    Have the Blazers already factored that into their budget? Are they comfortable committing more than $70 million of next season’s payroll to just Powell, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?

    And what happens if a suitor wants to go even higher? That might be hard to imagine now, but Powell’s scoring punch and improved shooting touch could really stand out in this market.

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Not even three years have passed since the Sacramento Kings selected Marvin Bagley III with the second overall pick of the 2018 draft. That’s a prominent position in any year, but it meant drafting Bagley over Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and Mitchell Robinson, among others.

    On a related note, the executive responsible for that selection, Vlade Divac, lasted only two more seasons with the franchise before stepping down in August 2020.

    Bagley’s career has been one disappointment after the next. Injuries have been a constant issue, defense has been a major concern, and it still isn’t clear if he should play power forward or center. Oh, and his father publicly requested that he be traded away from the team, which only adds to the uneasiness of this situation.

    So, what happens next?

    Well, he is extension-eligible this offseason, though NBC Sports Bay Area’s James Ham said that “certainly” isn’t coming and “it would be shocking” for Bagley to still be in Sacramento next season. The Kings can’t be eager to cut bait given their initial investment, but this might have gotten so out of hand that it’s time to take the loss and move on without him.

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Before honing in on Lonnie Walker IV, we’ll note the Spurs theoretically have bigger decisions to make this summer. With DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all ticketed for free agency, San Antonio could presumably spend a ton of coin in-house.

    But it seems like the slow-burn into a post-Kawhi Leonard rebuild is finally ready to boil over. If the Spurs are ready to prioritize youth over everything, then a possible extension with Walker means more to this franchise’s future than new pacts with the aforementioned vets.

    The Spurs struck early with Dejounte Murray and Derrick White in recent years, and both extensions look like excellent value buys. The same could happen with Walker.

    Both this season and last, he logged nearly 10 minutes more per night than the previous year, and his scoring soared right along with it. He’s a bouncy athlete who doubles as a long-distance shooting threat (career 37.6 percent from three), and while he’s still rounding out the rest of his game, the timing could be right to buy his stock before it spikes.

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The story of the Toronto Raptors franchise will always include a chapter on Kyle Lowry. Maybe several.

    Few players have ingrained themselves more to their organizations in this era, which is impressive considering he spent the first six seasons of his 15-year career south of the border. But his toughness set a tone in Toronto, and his leadership proved invaluable both in the team’s championship run and navigating the Kawhi Leonard-less roads since.

    Still, even the greatest tales have an ending, and perhaps Lowry and the Raptors have taken this as far as it will go. With free agency looming, his name bounced around ahead of the trade deadline, and Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri admitted, “We didn’t know which way it was going to go,” per ESPN’s Tim Bontemps.

    With Toronto headed toward its first losing season since 2012-13, there could be some retooling in order this summer.

    Is it possible Lowry returns? Definitely. He’s still a top player at his position, and Toronto could see a path to being more competitive next season.

    But it seems just as likely (if not more so) that he’ll leave the Raptors behind and head south to find a squad with better chances of contending.

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Mike Conley’s contract will expire this offseason, but he told The Athletic’s Tony Jones that he hopes it isn’t the end of his run with the Utah Jazz: 

    “We love it here. I don’t think I can go anywhere else that plays the way we play. We’ll see this offseason because when that time comes there will definitely be a lot of chatter. But, from where I sit right now, this team is so unique, in the way we play. And everyone has bought into what we want to do on both ends of the floor.”

    If the campaign closed today, the Jazz would have their fifth-highest winning percentage ever and best for a season that didn’t feature Karl Malone and John Stockton. Many factors go into this success, but having Conley back to being himself after an injury-riddled 2019-20 campaign is among the biggest.

    He defends the way that head coach Quin Snyder demands, and the fact Conley plays on or off the ball makes him an ideal backcourt fit with Donovan Mitchell. Conley sure seems like a keeper, but the fact he’ll turn 34 in mic-October could make it tricky for the Jazz to calculate the right length and value for his next contract.

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    The Washington Wizards are apparently using their closing stretch to send a public service announcement on the importance of running through the tape.

    A punchline for a good chunk of this season, Washington suddenly resembles the proverbial unstoppable force. The Wizards are a ridiculous 13-3 since April 7 and have the Association’s third-best net rating during that stretch (plus-7.1).

    While organizations shouldn’t determine their decisions on a good month, Washington was already committed to being as competitive as possible. That’s why it traded for Russell Westbrook before the season and continually ignored trade calls for Bradley Beal.

    It seems like a safe bet that this mindset will stick, so the Wizards will have interesting offseason calls to make on the likes of Robin Lopez, Ish Smith, Alex Len and Raul Neto. Maybe it’s cheating to group them together, but they all handle similar workloads, fill niche roles on offense and will become free agents this summer.

    Bringing the entire quartet back doesn’t seem like the most creative way to fill out a roster, and the Wizards might want to save one or two of these spots for additional youth in case a rebuild becomes inevitable sooner than later. But if they’re going to keep pursuing the playoffs behind the Beal-Westbrook backcourt, they’ll want to keep a few of these steady, unspectacular vets around.

                    

    All stats current through May 3 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.



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