Summer 2018 Free Agency Forecast

By Darryl Howerton #21

The summer 2017 NBA free agency period is coming to a close with some teams filling all 15 guaranteed roster spots, while others are placing final bids on the remaining players still on the market: restricted free agents Nerlens Noel, Mason Plumlee, Nikola Mirotic, JaMychal Green, unrestricted free agent Tony Allen, among other role players.

That said, most franchises have turned their focus to the upcoming 2017-18 season with eyes set on the road ahead toward 2018 NBA free agency when some Hall-of-Fame names will dominate the unrestricted free agency market 11 months from now (see box below).

Probable List of Top 10 Unrestricted Free Agents 2018-19

Carmelo Anthony, Knicks DeMarcus Cousins, Pelicans
Kevin Durant, Warriors Paul George, Thunder
LeBron James, Cavaliers DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
Chris Paul, Rockets Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Dwyane Wade, Bulls Russell Westbrook, Thunder

While some of these 2018 unrestricted free agents appear to be locks to remain on their current team (Golden State’s Kevin Durant, for instance), others conjure up enough hope for teams to begin carving the necessary salary-cap space (Cleveland’s LeBron James, for instance).

With that in mind, we thought we would break down all 30 NBA teams to show you where each squad stands as 2018 NBA free-agency players, breaking down each organization into four defining characteristics (Max Shoppers, Home Enhancers and Salary Dumpers), depending on how their team’s salary structure measures up with an expected $102 million salary cap and $123 million luxury tax next summer.

Max Shoppers

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks surely will have enough cap space to sign a super-max player, but will any top player want to play in Atlanta after they’ve shipped out five former All-Stars the past two seasons? Right now, this team of prospects returns two starters: Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder (three if you count playoff starter Taurean Prince). The rest of the roster is just prospects and journeymen trying to prove their worth, as the Hawks rebuild for the distant future with cap room galore.


Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are doing pretty well in free agency by turning other people’s over-expenditures into Net gains. For instance, GM Sean Marks parlayed Brook Lopez’s inevitable final season as a Net into recent No. 2 draft pick D’Angelo Russell, as long as Marks agreed to take on Timofey Mozgov’s three-year albatross contract. The Nets then salary-dumped Andrew Nicholson and landed Allen Crabbe at the same expensive contract offer sheet they attempted to sign Crabbe at last summer. And by taking on DeMarre Carroll’s expensive contract, Marks got himself a much-needed 2018 first-round pick (likely in the 20s) from Toronto, which is huge considering the draft-pick cupboard was bare when he arrived in Brooklyn just over a year ago. Even as Marks works his magic producing prospects out of thin air, he also keeps open a $40 million credit line of salary-cap space for summer 2018, should Jeremy Lin opt out of his $12.5 million player option.


Chicago Bulls: The Bulls may creep closer to this season’s salary-cap line once they re-sign restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic. But whether Chicago GM Gar Forman signs Mirotic or not has little bearing on the spending freedom he has left himself for 2018 when unrestricted free agent Dwyane Wade’s $23 million comes off the books. Keep in mind, Forman’s two most expensive players not named Mirotic are centers Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio, who are slated to make $14.4 million and $8.5 million, respectively, in the 2018-19 season. In other words, Forman will be shopping with a virtually unused credit card, and may have as much as $45 million to spend next summer if he lets Mirotic sign elsewhere this season.


Indiana Pacers: Most people are mocking new Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard for the devastating low return he received in dealing All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City, but Pritchard may have his chance at a last laugh if he can re-sign Myles Turner to a junior-max contract and still have $50 million left over to fill out a unit that already rosters Victor Oladipo, T.J. Leaf, Domantas Sabonis and the Pacers’ 2018 first-round pick. If Pritchard lands a big enough standout to play alongside Turner, it will help some forget the loss of PG-13.


Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
The Lakers could potentially add All-Stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook next summer.

Los Angeles Lakers: In the Lakers’ dream scenario, GM Magic Johnson is able to recruit Paul George and another super-max player. Perhaps LeBron James? Maybe Russell Westbrook? Who knows? But in order for the Lakers to  add two stars, they need to get the requisite $66.3 million under an expected $102 million salary cap. A possibility is the team renouncing free agents Brook Lopez and Julius Randle next summer, while also unloading Luol Deng. If the Lakers are not able to recruit two super-max players, they still would have the cap capability of signing George, while also being able to re-sign Lopez and Randle, along with keeping Deng as well.


Sacramento Kings: The Kings should be able to clear $25-$30 million worth of cap room without even batting an eye in 2018. Should they need more money to pursue a super-max player, they are only one player dump move away from having the necessary space. That said, look for Sacramento to use the 2018-19 season as a year-long scouting session as they separate the prospects from the players on their youthful roster. If the Kings are unable to go the super-max player route, they may divvy up their cap space as they did this summer, giving $32.3 million worth of cap space to two players—George Hill (starting at $20 million in 2017-18) and Zach Randolph (starting at $12.3 million in 2017-18).


San Antonio Spurs: If LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Rudy Gay all use their player options—a likelihood since they are on bargain deals—and join Tony Parker this offseason as free agents, San Antonio can get way below the requisite $35.7 million it takes to sign a super-max player, while also being able to retain Parker. If, instead, the aforementioned trio re-ups for an additional bargain-rate season, GM R.C. Buford becomes a home enhancer, bringing most of the Spurs back to Gregg Popovich’s program for yet another year together.

Home Enhancers

Charlotte Hornets: GM Rich Cho’s brilliant move to acquire top 5 defender-rebounder Dwight Howard, not only helps bigs Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams reset into their normal forward positions, the acquisition also plugs naturally into their salary scheme. The 2018-19 Hornets would become a mirror image of the 2017-18 Hornets, without stepping over the luxury-tax line in either season as the ever-expanding chemistry just grows and grows in Charlotte, with the Zeller/Williams/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Nicolas Batum/Kemba Walker nucleus.


Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
The Mavericks are already getting their roster and salary cap in order for a quick transition after Dirk Nowitzki retires.

Dallas Mavericks: Everything hinges on restricted free agent Nerlens Noel, who still has not re-signed with Dallas. Assuming Noel inks an annual $15 million contract, the Mavericks remain budget-conscious until 2019, when Wesley Matthews’ contract comes off the books (it is doubtful Matthews will opt out of his $18.8 million contract in 2018-19). With that in mind, look for the Mavs to begin to make the transition to life without Dirk Nowitzki, who may be in his final season. Dallas’ cornerstones in the life after may be Dennis Smith, Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Noel.


Denver Nuggets: Let us assume the Nuggets re-sign restricted free agent Mason Plumlee at $8.5 million annually to plug up their 15th roster spot. Then, we will pretty much be locked in to Denver’s 2018 plans when Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris become restricted free agents and the Nuggets make it a priority to re-sign both, while perhaps letting others free agents walk (Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur, if either opts out of their $12.4 million and $7.5 million contracts, or unrestricted free agents Jameer Nelson and Will Barton). Oh, Denver may be able to afford a $10 million contract on one of these aforementioned free agents, but any more than that will likely send GM Tim Connelly’s payroll over the $123 million luxury-tax line.


Detroit Pistons: Coach/GM Stan Van Gundy was a salary dumper this summer, scaling down starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris and their two salaries into Avery Bradley. SVG will likely be able to pay Bradley $20 million annually next year when the new Pistons shooting guard becomes an unrestricted free agent. After that, the Detroit franchise becomes a home enhancer, with Van Gundy using his 2018 first-round pick and non-taxpayer mid-level exception to add further depth to Detroit’s future-minded playoff-prospective squad.


Los Angeles Clippers: With a team ensconced on the safe side of the luxury-tax line, Clippers management surprisingly finds itself in a great place even with the departure of 32-year-old point guard great Chris Paul. Their return haul in the Houston trade was phenomenal on a bang-for-buck, player-depth level, leaving L.A. in great shape next summer. Even if the Clippers pay unrestricted free agent DeAndre Jordan a super-max salary starting at $35.7 million, their luxury tax overage and penalties bill should be no less than $20 million. And should either Austin Rivers or Wesley Johnson opt out of their respective $12.7 million and $6.1 million deals, the Clippers can let them go and be tax free again in 2018-19.


Memphis Grizzlies: Granted, the Grit-’n-Grind Grizzlies made the 2017 Playoffs, maintaining their current decade rep as one of the seven best teams in basketball (.583 winning percentage ranks seventh in the 2010s). But Memphis is counting on an injury comeback from Chandler Parsons if it hopes to go beyond the first round, especially with the $79 million invested this season in the trio of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Parsons. Should a healthy Parsons become the player Memphis management and head coach David Fizdale think he is, then the Grizzlies will have no problem keeping this reloaded franchise on top, especially since it has finally begun its long-anticipated youth movement (Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are now Sacramento Kings, and Tony Allen is still an unrestricted free agent).


Miami Heat: Any drastic changes to this team are likely to come via trade and not free agency, with the Heat’s seven-man nucleus locked up for awhile (Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Justise Winslow). Unless Miami shakes things up and lands Kyrie Irving in a trade this summer, GM Pat Riley remains in between salary-cap and luxury-tax zone, using his non-taxpayer $8.2 million mid-level exception next summer to lure new talent to his organization.


Minnesota Timberwolves: If the T-Wolves retain restricted free agent Andrew Wiggins for a junior-max contract, they likely will be trimming second-stringers off the roster to make sure they stay under the luxury-tax line next summer. However, should head coach/team president Tom Thibodeau feel at any time this season that Wiggins is not worth the $25.5 million annual salary starting in 2018-19, and wishes to spend Minnesota’s max money elsewhere, Tibs might simply deal Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng for more affordable players.


Milwaukee Bucks: With restricted free agent Jabari Parker looking for a junior-max contract, the Bucks fall into line as a home enhancer, since they will not have any salary-cap room, even with centers Greg Monroe and Spencer Hawes coming off the books as the players’ budget resets at $90 million. Because of that, Milwaukee management may want to trade Greg Monroe during the season to get whatever picks they can land, especially if they truly believe prospect Thon Maker can play an expanded role at center alongside John Henson this season. On talent alone, Parker is worth the money, but his durability and affects from two ACL tears make him a financial risk.


New Orleans Pelicans: There are six months left in the DeMarcus Cousins experiment, and the Pelicans are hoping Boogie can help transform them into a 50-win club. If so, they will re-sign Cousins to a $30.6 middle-max contract at the end of the season, taking their guaranteed contracts just over the $123 million luxury-tax line, with nine other Pelicans on board and more needing to be signed. If not, GM Dell Demps will package Boogie with costly contracts belonging to either Omer Asik and/or E’Twaun Moore in February, as the organization looks to rebuild around Davis, Jrue Holiday and Solomon Hill.


Oklahoma City Thunder: In desperation to show the world how much they want to win and what they will spend for it, GM Sam Presti’s team could be big taxpayers in 2017-18. It is all for show because Oklahoma City knows the 2018 offseason is key to their present and future, with the Thunder needing to re-sign unrestricted free agents Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Should both return for respective $35.7 million and $30.6 million contracts starting in 2018-19, the Thunder can field a strong team and perhaps get under the luxury tax, provided fellow free agent and teammate Enes Kanter is not re-signed by OKC. With Kanter’s pending free agency in mind, do not be shocked if the Thunder’s backup center is involved in a trade this season, either for a standout on an expiring contract or a first-round draft pick.


Philadelphia 76ers: With a $41 million base and two potential lottery picks in hand, the 2018-19 Sixers can retain restricted free agent Joel Embiid for a junior-max contract next summer and Robert Covington for whatever they choose to pay him ($15 million annually?), while still having a comfortable $30 million cushion to re-sign other 76ers—such as J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson, etc.—without going over the $123 million luxury-tax line.


Phoenix Suns: The Suns will likely play the role of home enhancer next summer, building up its current roster structure before they become big spenders in in 2019 when several eight-figure fixtures come off the books. Until then, look for the Suns to re-sign restricted free agent T.J. Warren to its locker room of young talent, as they add two more first-round picks from the 2018 NBA Draft to the team next July.


Utah Jazz: Rather than dip below the salary cap by $15 million, the Jazz are more likely to re-sign most of their own free agents next summer, while staying under the $123 luxuy-tax line (Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, Joe Johnson and/or Raul Neto).

 

Salary Dumpers

Boston Celtics: With as many as three first-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft—including two potential top-5 selections—GM Danny Ainge must budget wisely, especially knowing unrestricted free agent Isaiah Thomas and restricted free agent Marcus Smart are seeking $30-plus million and $20-ish million annually, with the rest of the team already structured on a $96.5 million budget. Ainge should be able to enhance his team with the first-rounders’ pre-slotted contracts along with one max deal to one of his own guards, sending Boston over the luxury-tax line. Expect Ainge to trade either Thomas or Smart—smart money is on Smart—during the 2017-18 season, so that he gets something in return, rather than inevitably cut a valuable asset.


Cleveland Cavaliers: Running up luxury-tax bills for three straight seasons to propel your team to three straight Finals runs(one of them ending with a parade) can get costly in Year 3, as Cleveland found out in 2016-17 when it had to pay a repeater tax (an additional dollar-per-dollar fine for every dollar the Cavs were spending over the luxury-tax line). All told, that bill added up to a $59.54 million in luxury-tax penalties for the $22.26 million they were over the line, tallying an $81.8 million luxury tax overage and penalty total. Even though the rumor mill has Kyrie Irving being traded any day now and LeBron James leaving the Cleveland for the second time in 2018 , just know the Cavs will be subtracting dollars from the bottom line in whatever future moves they make. The tab just has gotten too high.


Golden State Warriors: The Warriors are in the same place the Cavs were a couple years ago—starting to absorb costly luxury-tax penalty hits. The Dubs face stiff penalties following this 2017-18 season when they likely pay $13.5 in luxury-tax overage and another $37.5 million in penalties for a $51 million luxury tax and overage penalty (LTOP) bill. It is not too far off the overage and penalties they faced during the 2015-16 season. That said, upcoming LTOP costs will escalate a lot faster and further in 2018-19 when the Warriors start paying the more punitive repeater tax—the additional dollar-per-dollar costs for being over the luxury-tax line in at least three of the past four seasons—as the Cavs are paying now. If Golden State keeps its roster constructed in 2018-19 as it is for 2017-18, the Dubs will pay as much as $123.75 million in LTOP two Julys from now. That is one sure way to wipe out any 2018-19 profit margin, even if the Warriors were to win the 2019 NBA Championship. On the flipside, the quickest way to save $90 million in LTOP fees would be to trade Klay Thompson, who is up for a middle-max contract in 2019, before the 2018-19 season, say, for a first-round draft pick. It is not hard to think about the future, especially when you are being threatened with a nine-figure penalty for being stuck in the present.


Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
The Rockets could possibly make the banana boat quartet a reality with James Harden manning the speedboat.

Houston Rockets: The Rockets’ roster is still fluid, with Carmelo Anthony rumors swirling every week. So, going with what we know right now, one has to assume more than half of Houston’s 2018-19 $102 million salary cap will be taken up by James Harden ($30.4 million in 2018-19) and unrestricted free agent Chris Paul. You can rest assured GM Daryl Morey will do everything he can to unload Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon’s combined $34 million in 2018-19 (and beyond). What Morey does with 2018 unrestricted free agent Trevor Ariza and restricted free agent Clint Capela depends a lot on who else is coming to Houston. Melo? Wade? LeBron? All three with Paul/Harden and the banana boat, too?


New York Knicks: The Knicks will have no financial freedom in 2018 if they trade Carmelo Anthony for players signed beyond this upcoming season. You can blame fired GM Phil Jackson for tying up $36.1 million in 2018-19 in Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas. Or blame fill-in GM Steve Mills for overpaying Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ron Baker $20.8 million starting next season. Or blame current GM Scott Perry if he trades Melo for $26 million worth of players you don’t like in annual multi-year contracts. If that happens, the Knicks will be over the salary cap once their first-round pick from the 2018 NBA Draft signs on the dotted line.


Orlando Magic: As presently constructed, the Magic cannot afford to keep arguably its two best players in restricted free agents Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, especially if either signs an offer sheet for $20-plus million annually. For a lottery-bound squad like Orlando, the Magic just has too many high-priced players as it is: Bismack Biyombo, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross all make eight figures annually, while four other Magic men make $5-plus million annually. That alone makes it nearly impossible to bring both the 21-year-old Gordon and 23-year-old Payton back when the current roster runs an $88 million tab next summer before they’ve signed. Now if new Magic GM John Hammond can unload Biyombo’s $51 million over the next three seasons, then Orlando might be in position to retain Gordon and Payton.


Portland Trail Blazers: By unloading Allen Crabbe and the remaining $56 million over three seasons of his deal to Brooklyn, GM Neil Olshey did half of the heavy lifting in bringing Portland back to the left side of the luxury-tax line. One more sizable contract needs to be shed—Evan Turner’s $54 million over three years would do the trick—if the Blazers intend on re-signing restricted free agent Jusuf Nurkic to a $20-plus million contract next summer, while continuing to stay under the luxury tax in the years to come.


Toronto Raptors: By re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka at contracts that start at a combined $49 million this season, GM Masai Ujiri will tip-toe over the luxury-tax line this summer, giving the franchise ample time over the course of the season to rein in future costs. Ujiri’s biggest decision, geared with 2018 in mind, will be to determine the team’s center of the future. Is it Jonas Valanciunas, who makes $32 million the next two seasons, or Luke Nogueira, who will be seeking an extension next summer? The fate of restricted free agent Norman Powell may also coincide with that center decision when it comes to future budget costs.


Washington Wizards: With Otto Porter signing a junior-max contract this summer and John Wall receiving a super-max extension beginning in 2019-20, GM Ernie Grunfeld now begins the task of scaling down all remaining contracts to keep future luxury-tax penalties at a minimum. First player on the trading block: Backup center Ian Mahinmi and the remaining $48 million over three seasons on his contract.

 

Salaries and draft pick information were obtained from Spotrac, Basketball Insiders and Real GM.