The first round will be over soon, and that will leave only eight teams in the playoffs. For the other 22, the focus will be entirely on the draft and free agency. That means it’s time to start thinking about what’s going to happen on July 1. Here’s a look at the most interesting storylines heading into free agency, from the value of
Dion Waiters to the possibility of
Otto Porter being a max player.
Like a draft prospect with a strong NCAA Tournament, most years there is at least one free-agent-to-be who shines under the bright lights of the postseason and solidifies his standing in the league.
JaVale McGee ,
Golden State Warriors : One of the best stories in the NBA right now, McGee was productive in a limited role for the Warriors during the regular season and ignited runs almost every time he hit the court against the
Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs. Golden State signed the center to a non-guaranteed minimum contract last summer; he has obviously earned a raise and some security. There are still questions, however, about how he’ll function on a team where he’s not such a perfect fit. The Warriors might want to bring him back, but they also have to deal with the fact that big man
Zaza Pachulia and
David West will be free agents again, too.
Houston Rockets : How brilliant does Houston look for using its $2.9 million room exception on Nene last July? He shot 28-for-33 (84.8 percent) against the
Oklahoma City Thunder , and it has been clear all season that he works well as a screen setter and finisher in Mike D’Antoni’s system. He will turn 35 in September, though, which means he might want to get his last long-term deal now.
Joe Ingles ,
Utah Jazz (restricted): Keeping Ingles won’t be the Jazz’s top priority (more on that soon), but he has evolved into a vital part of the team. Few players combine his size, shooting, passing and defensive versatility, making him one of the league’s most underrated role players before the playoffs started. After all the damage he has done to the
Los Angeles Clippers , it’s unlikely Utah will be able to re-sign the 29-year-old on the cheap.
Franchises at the crossroads
NBA players don’t have many opportunities throughout their careers to choose where they work; when superstars hit the open market, their decisions can drastically alter the course of franchises.
Chris Paul ,
Blake Griffin , J.J. Redick, Clippers: It’s difficult to disentangle these three players — if even one of them leaves, the Clippers will not be the same. They don’t have potential replacements waiting in the wings, and they have been defined by their core four (these three and
DeAndre Jordan ) for the last four years. If this group breaks up, then there should be a documentary about it one day, if only for the section about their 2015 playoff collapse against the Rockets. If it stays together, then president and coach Doc Rivers will continue to be challenged every offseason in terms of making sure the rest of the rotation gives the Clippers a chance to compete.
Gordon Hayward ,
George Hill , Jazz: Regardless of whether Utah gets past the Clippers, it has an awesome thing going. The Jazz have a nice mix of emerging stars and proven veterans, with some promising prospects on the fringes of their rotation. They are also as vulnerable as any team going into the offseason with their No. 1 option and their starting point guard hitting free agency. Giving Hayward a maximum contract is a no-brainer, but HIll’s situation is murkier. After trading a lottery pick for Hill and then seeing him fit as well as they hoped, watching him walk would be almost as awful as losing Hayward.
Kyle Lowry ,
Serge Ibaka ,
Toronto Raptors : In the last four years, Toronto has gone from one of the league’s laughingstocks to a fringe contender and a place where guys actually want to play. Most of this progress, however, could be undone quickly if Lowry decides he’d like to go elsewhere. If the Raptors can finish off the
Milwaukee Bucks and put up a good fight against the
Cleveland Cavaliers , it will be easy for the front office to justify giving Lowry a max deal and Ibaka at least something close to it. If they can’t, then things could get interesting. It’s also worth noting that forwards
Patrick Patterson and
P.J. Tucker will hit free agency, too.
Big names in weird places
You don’t have to be a true franchise player to have the power to change the fortunes of an organization; you can merely be the sort of player whose arrival or departure signifies a shift in direction.
Paul Millsap ,
Atlanta Hawks : Atlanta tested the trade market for Millsap this season, then pulled back and declared that it was completely committed to trying to re-sign him. This makes sense if the Hawks want to stay competitive, but is this partnership really doing much for either side? Millsap is 32 years old, and Atlanta is several pieces away from contention. Maybe he’ll stick around, but you have to think he’ll hear some intriguing offers from teams that could give him a better chance to win big, and soon.
Jrue Holiday ,
New Orleans Pelicans : New Orleans wants Holiday to be a part of a Big 3 with
Anthony Davis and
DeMarcus Cousins . This could be appealing to him, especially if its offer is in the neighborhood of a max contract. It’s unclear, though, whether that kind of arrangement would be better than the allure of a fresh start. Holiday has spent four years with the Pelicans, and they have only won more than 34 games once: when they snuck into the playoffs in 2015 and were swept by the Warriors.
Derrick Rose ,
New York Knicks : It seems nuts that New York would even consider bringing Rose back, but president Phil Jackson did not exactly close the door on that possibility when meeting with the media at the end of the season. Rose proved with the Knicks that he has some explosion left and can get into the paint better than most players at his position, but his game has serious limitations, especially on the defensive end. Nobody knows what his market will look like.
Wait, he could get the max?
“Max player” doesn’t mean the same thing it used to; once the domain of only superstars, now promising young players routinely get maximum offer sheets as soon as they hit restricted free agency for the first time.
Washington Wizards (restricted): The 23-year-old Porter isn’t a star, but he had an amazing season for Washington, averaging 13.4 points while shooting 51.6 percent and 43.4 percent from 3-point range. Every team wants shooters, and every team wants tall, long and quick defenders who can play both forward spots. It’d be surprising if he didn’t get a max offer sheet.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ,
Detroit Pistons (restricted): This streaky shooter isn’t as much of a sure thing as Porter, but Caldwell-Pope did shoot 37.2 percent from 3-point range before the All-Star break. His best attribute is his ability to defend both point guards and shooting guards, and there is potential for him to become more of a playmaker. His role in Detroit’s offense has changed a few times, though, and he still hasn’t truly broken out. The
Brooklyn Nets have already been linked to him, and giving him an enormous offer sheet would put the Pistons in a tough position.
Nerlens Noel ,
Dallas Mavericks (restricted): Dallas didn’t trade a fake first-round pick for Noel just to keep him for a couple of months. Considering the contracts that
Timofey Mozgov and
Bismack Biyombo got last summer, it’s not a stretch to imagine Noel getting the max or something close to it in restricted free agency. Despite the league’s big-man boom, players who can protect the rim, defend smaller players and finish alley-oops are highly valued.
Chicago deserves its own category
Chicago Bulls make no sense, and there is no telling what they will look like next season; they could bring back a similar group or trade star
Jimmy Butler and start from scratch.
Dwyane Wade (player option), Bulls: The future Hall of Famer has a complicated decision to make. He could exercise his $23.8 million player option and play for his hometown team again, or he could test the uncertain waters of free agency. How attached is he to the idea of finishing his career in Chicago? How badly does he want to win another title? He has given few hints on the subject.
Rajon Rondo (only $3 million of his $13.4 million 2017-18 salary is guaranteed), Bulls: How do you even begin to evaluate Rondo’s tenure in Chicago? He got benched, had an Instagram incident and seemed like an awful fit throughout the regular season. Then, in the playoffs, he helped the Bulls take a 2-0 lead against the No. 1 seeded
Boston Celtics , and when he got hurt, they looked like a completely different and much worse team. It’s up to the front office to decide what to do with him, and then it’s up to the rest of the league to figure out what, if anything, those couple of playoff performances mean.
Nikola Mirotic , Bulls (restricted): Once thought to be a part of Chicago’s core, Mirotic was in trade rumors at the deadline. His confidence waxes and wanes, as does his 3-point shooting accuracy, but the Bulls have needed to play him in order to have some semblance of floor spacing. If Chicago lets him go, then any team signing him would be making a bet that it could get the best out of him more often than the Bulls did.
There are some free agents who are in a weird spot where they could receive generous offers at the start of free agency but could just as easily find themselves without a contract when the market is essentially dried up — don’t try guessing what’s going to happen with these guys.
Andre Roberson , Thunder (restricted): A spectacular defender on and off the ball, Roberson will likely make First-Team All-Defense this season. It’s tough to properly assess his value, though, because he’s such an offensive liability. Perhaps if he makes the shift to playing power forward full time, it will be easier to justify paying a premium for his excellent defense. He is much more effective guarding stretch 4s than traditional big men, though.
Miami Heat (player option): A free agent last summer, your new favorite writer missed out on the league’s spending spree despite mostly positive contributions for the Thunder in the playoffs. Waiters went to Miami on a cheapo deal, played the best basketball of his life and now has a choice between staying in that situation for $3 million or trying to get more. He is still polarizing because of his shot selection, but much less so than he used to be.
James Johnson , Heat: Like Waiters, Johnson outperformed his $4 million deal with Miami and is now in line for a raise. The question is whether potential employers believe that he will be able to stay in the amazing condition he was in with the Heat. Johnson had always showed flashes of the multidimensional game that was so crucial to Miami this season, but his career year was the result of him getting in the best shape of his life. There aren’t a lot of players who can do the things Johnson did this year — he played some center, ran pick-and-rolls and guarded every position, sort of like a budget version of
Giannis Antetokounmpo .
Nick Young ,
Los Angeles Lakers (player option): After the worst season of his career under Byron Scott, Swaggy P renamed himself Uncle P and quickly won over new coach Luke Walton. Young earned praise for his defense for the first time in a long time, averaged 18.3 points per 36 minutes and had a career-high 58.8 percent true shooting percentage. There’s an argument he should make upwards of $12 million per season but I’m not sure if he has totally refurbished his reputation.
Potential Tyler Johnsons
Tyler Johnson got a $50 million offer sheet last summer, stunning casual fans who weren’t familiar with the up-and-coming combo guard’s work as a Heat reserve.
Justin Holiday , Knicks: He averaged only 20 minutes for a 31-win team, so a bidding war for his services would probably shock people. Plenty of teams could use his perimeter defense, though, and his 35.5 percent 3-point shooting is just good enough that one of them could make a bet on coaching him up to 40 percent.
DeWayne Dedmon ,
San Antonio Spurs (player option): San Antonio got a big bargain when it signed him with the room exception last summer, and the 27-year-old rim protector would be making a terrible financial decision if he decided not to exercise his right to become a free agent again. He might not be well-known, but he was such a big part of the Spurs being the best defensive team in the league that he unseated
Pau Gasol as a starter.
Tim Hardaway Jr. , Hawks (restricted): As an Atlanta player development success story, he could follow in the footsteps of
DeMarre Carroll and
Kent Bazemore by signing a lucrative, long-term deal years after being essentially discarded. He has improved significantly as a defender since joining the Hawks, and this season has started to make more plays instead of being exclusively a spot-up shooter. He has become a starting wing for Atlanta, and starting-caliber wings generally get paid.
JaMychal Green ,
Memphis Grizzlies (restricted): Did you know he shot 50.1 percent and 38.2 percent from deep this season? Green’s range was crucial in giving
Mike Conley space to make plays, and his versatile defense kept Memphis connected. He’s far from a household name, but he’s the kind of role player that helps in a number of ways and takes very little off the table.
Patty Mills , Spurs: Perhaps the best backup point guard in the league, there’s a chance some team will commit to him as a starter this summer. He just keeps getting better as a shooter, and while he isn’t exactly a typical point guard, that is becoming less and less important in a league where wings are often serving as primary playmakers. The most obvious potential destination for him is Philadelphia because of his relationship with coach Brett Brown and the fact that
Ben Simmons is expected to initiate the offense.
Tony Snell , Bucks: I thought about putting him in the “playoff heroes” category because of how well he has played against the Raptors — in the first five games of the series, he has defended
DeMar DeRozan admirably while averaging 11.6 points on 52.5 percent shooting, including 53.3 percent from deep. In a much bigger role than he ever had with the Bulls, Snell had a true shooting percentage of 60.3 percent with the Bucks in the regular season. Again, everybody wants 3-and-D guys like him.
Known entities with uncertain futures
Just because you know what you’re getting with somebody on the court doesn’t mean you know what his priorities are — there are a few established players who will be in interesting positions this offseason.
Andre Iguodala , Warriors: An essential part of Golden State’s excellence on both ends, Iguodala put together perhaps his most impressive season in the Bay Area this year. He is 33 years old and could be on the verge of signing the last long-term deal of his career. How much will the Warriors be willing to pay him, and how badly does he want to stay with them? Sacrificing minutes to stabilize the second unit was one thing; sacrificing money is another thing entirely.
Greg Monroe , Bucks (player option): The big man made significant strides on defense and turned into one of the league’s best reserves this season. He could stay in that role and make $17.9 million next season, or he could try to find a situation where he could start. If he doesn’t mind playing just 22.5 minutes per game, then it seems like he’s actually in a good spot. This is a strange thing to type after Milwaukee seemed desperate to trade him for so long.
Taj Gibson , Thunder: Everybody loves Gibson, who spent the first seven-and-a-half seasons in Chicago before being traded to Oklahoma City. He said he’d love to stay in OKC, but let’s not forget this is the first time he has ever been a free agent. Gibson has been underpaid and in a smaller role than he deserves for the vast majority of his career, so it’s time for him to go wherever he’s valued.