NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land a Superstar During 2017 Offseason

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NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land a Superstar During 2017 Offseason

Post by 112288 on Wed Jun 14, 2017 9:45 pm

NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land a Superstar During 2017 Offseason
NBA Teams Best Positioned to Land a Superstar During 2017 Offseason

Bleacher Report

Dan Favale > June 14, 2017

Among the many repercussions that will result from the Golden State Warriors running roughshod over the rest of the NBA, not one is more tantalizing than the possible mass relocation of superstars who aren't fortunate enough to call Silicon Valley home.

Big names will look for better situations in which to ply their trade knowing the margin for error within the league's compacted competitive landscape is wafer-thin. The issue: those circumstances will be hard to find.

Few squads are in position to promise an immediate or imminent crack at the Warriors. Some of the ones that are won't accelerate their standing. Who wants to exhaust all their resources and tighten their title window when dethroning the reigning champions is an unprecedented long shot?

Certain rebuilding teams that have the flexibility to add more than one star will subscribe to the same viewpoint. Waiting out Golden State's window as their budding cores marinate into something more is the safer, if more sensible, course of action.

But a select few teams won't give a darn tootin'. They have the means and the motive to go hunting for a superstar before next season. And so, they'll do just that.

These offseason aggressors—heroes, really—will be handpicked according to salary-cap outlook, the quality of trade assets they'll actually consider moving, their appeal to free agents and the odds they'll try to make a glitzy splash. The stars they pursue will be in addition to who they already employ; we're not rewarding the Los Angeles Clippers because they might re-sign Chris Paul.

And now, we speculate.

Honorable Mentions

10. Phoenix Suns

Cap Situation: Super Flexible

Notable Trade Assets: Dragan Bender; Eric Bledsoe; Tyson Chandler; Marquese Chriss; Jared Dudley; Brandon Knight; No. 4 pick; 2018 first-round pick; Miami Heat's 2018 first-round pick (top-seven protected); Heat's 2021 first-round pick (unprotected)

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

The Phoenix Suns can get max(ish) cap space if they make a concerted effort to cut salary, but they're more of a threat on the trade market.

Devin Booker profiles as their only untouchable commodity, so they can piece together competitive offers for all the usual auction-block suspects. And with so many enticing future first-round picks in the chamber, they're even better suited to lock in on a range of stars not considered officially available—think DeAndre Jordan, Kristaps Porzingis, Russell Westbrook, Hassan Whiteside, etc.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers

Cap Situation: Yikes

Notable Trade Assets: Channing Frye (expiring), Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

Will the Cleveland Cavaliers break up the band after bowing out of the NBA Finals in five games?

Unless a rival team wants an unprotected first-round pick in 2021 or later, when it believes Cleveland's title window will be firmly shut, it'll take Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love to put the Cavaliers in the superstar discussion. Normally, this would be a no-go. But LeBron James is gearing up for Season No. 15. Everything has to be on the table.

8. Houston Rockets

Cap Situation: Sneaky flexibile

Notable Trade Assets: Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Sam Dekker, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, 2019 first-round pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Free Agency

Surely general manager Daryl Morey won't bust up the Houston Rockets to make a swanky addition one season after they finished with the league's third-best record?

Actually, never mind.

"We are used to long odds," Morey told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe. "If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve."

James Harden and Patrick Beverley rank as the Rockets' lone untouchables. They don't have the pieces to broker a blockbuster trade, but they also don't have a bad contract on the books. Dealing one or two sizable pacts puts them in line to chisel out superstar money in free agency—an all-in play, it seems, Morey will entertain.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

Cap Situation: Clear path to near-max money

Notable Trade Assets: Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, No. 7 pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

The Minnesota Timberwolves' capacity to acquire a superstar has been compromised quite a bit over the past year.

Sure, they can dredge up more than $20 million in cap space by renouncing the rights to Shabazz Muhammad (restricted) and Brandon Rush. Offload Ricky Rubio, as Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler said they're dying to do, and they have a straightforward path to $30-plus million in wiggle room.

But Minnesota isn't a choice free-agency destination to begin with, and it's arguably less appealing now after this year's squad folded in the face of (admittedly unfair) postseason expectations. Head coach and president Tom Thibodeau is adjusting his offseason scope to zero in on more realistic options—Derrick Rose for instance, according to ESPN.com's Ian Begley.

Striking a trade is a way around those pesky sales pitches the Timberwolves don't yet have the clout to win. And they have plenty of assets, starting with the seventh overall pick in this year's draft—the actual player, since they owe a lottery-protected selection to the Atlanta Hawks in 2018. But their best package this summer doesn't compare to what they could offer last June.

You remember last June, don't you? When the trajectory of the No. 5 pick, Kris Dunn, was more of a mystery? When Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins weren't extension-eligible? When LaVine wasn't working his way back from an ACL injury? When Rubio was more talented odd man out than player Thibs seems prepared to junk?

Now that LaVine and Wiggins are closing in on max or near-max paydays, the Timberwolves won't hash out a blockbuster trade without dangling this year's first-round choice. But that's still a pretty good place to be. Attach the pick to one or two rookie-scale assets, and they'll have the pieces to convince the Chicago Bulls to rethink their "Jimmy Butler is staying put" stance.

6. Miami Heat

Cap Situation: Instant access to max money

Notable Trade Assets: Wayne Ellington (non-guaranteed), Rodney McGruder, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, No. 14 pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Free Agency

Miami Heat president Pat Riley began the offseason, at his year-end presser, distancing himself from the approach of summers past.

The Heat, he told reporters, would not get caught up in chasing "whales." They would focus on their own free agents, the co-authors of this past season's best feel-good story—James Johnson, Willie Reed, Dion Waiters, maybe even Luke Babbitt.

So much for that.

Sources told Lowe that Miami is "loading up now to pursue" Gordon Hayward, the second-best flight risk of the summer, behind only Chris Paul. On top of this, Lowe's colleague Marc Stein heard "whispers" the Utah Jazz fear the Heat's affinity for their All-Star forward about as much as the Boston Celtics' interest.

Riley won't have trouble getting a sit-down with Hayward and other star free agents. This isn't 2015, when Miami didn't have stacks of cap space and Riley was pitching LaMarcus Aldridge on delaying his decision another year. The Heat will enjoy more than $30 million in room after wiping Chris Bosh's deal from the ledger. Waive Wayne Ellington, and that number vaults past $35 million—enough to sign any max-level free agent.

This is the extent of their reach, though. They don't have the combination of expendable salaries and prospects to land a star via trade. Dealing for a headliner will cost Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside, two of the players who justify attempts to build for the present.

Cap space alone is enough to push the Heat higher if signing Hayward or Paul Millsap didn't mean they'd be unable to retain Johnson and Waiters. Miami's depth and pluckiness is what will appeal to outsiders, and poaching star power is exponentially more difficult when it comes at the expense of a primary selling point.

5. Los Angeles Lakers

Cap Situation: Fringe-star money

Notable Trade Assets: Corey Brewer (expiring), Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russel, No. 2 pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

Could the Los Angeles Lakers be higher? Yes. Could they be lower or left off this list entirely? Also yes.

Blame Paul George's apparent love for the Lakers, per USA Today's Sam Amick. And then blame team president Magic Johnson for preemptively pandering to it.

"I don't think we're going to be a major player this year," Johnson said about this summer's free-agency plans, per the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli. "I'm looking forward to next summer."

Waiting for George to hit the open market next summer (player option) is most definitely the smart play. Relinquishing primo assets for a star is reckless when you can sign him outright, without giving up anything, in one year's time.

Except, the Lakers cannot just stand pat. Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus was told by an NBA executive that they need a Paul George magnet—a "player who would make defecting more desirable."

Such a player might already be on the roster. Johnson has deemed Brandon Ingram an untouchable talent, and D'Angelo Russell has these nights when you see the silhouette of a superstar. Perhaps Los Angeles drafts the requisite appealing force at No. 2, in Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson.

Get word that George is looking for a more established running mate, and the Lakers must go to work. Ditching Tarik Black's non-guaranteed deal gives them more than $20 million to spend on a free agent if Nick Young opts out, and they'll carve out much more if they attach a pot-sweetener to Luol Deng or Timofey Mozgov.

Signing a stud free agent this summer renders that last step non-negotiable before next July. The Lakers need to afford George's max deal and cannot foot the bill for him, another star now, Deng and Mozgov. Jumping through those hoops increases the scant likelihood of a trade for George.

The Indiana Pacers don't have leverage if he's going to leave—a position of weakness that, as Pincus noted, might coax them into accepting a package assembled around Jordan Clarkson rather than Ingram, Russell or the No. 2 pick.

4. Denver Nuggets

Cap Situation: Easy access to max money

Notable Trade Assets: Will Barton, Malik Beasley, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, No. 13 pick, 2018 first-round pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

Every avenue that leads toward another superstar is open to the Denver Nuggets.

One of their many young guys—namely Gary Harris and Jamal Murray—could burst next to Nikola Jokic. They could parlay their assortment of desirable assets into a premier name on the chopping block; from prospects and picks to impact players on team-friendly deals, they have everything a seller looks for in a buyer.

And yes, they have cap space. Tons of it. Renouncing the rights to Danilo Gallinari leaves them just shy of $35 million in room—one baby move away from maxing out even the most expensive free agents.

Poaching stars with cap space is the preferred method of addition. The collateral damage is solely financial and therefore minimal. But superstars have never flocked to Denver when switching locales by their own hand. Though Paul George doesn't speak for all big names, the fact that he "warned" the Nuggets not to trade for him, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t Silver Screen & Roll), is a red flag.

Sticking to blockbuster swaps is generally the safer play. Targeting stars like Butler or Kyrie Irving who cannot explore free agency allows the Nuggets to push all their chips to the center of table with peace of mind. And that's if they even need it.

Jokic's keen passing sense is its own seductress. Every non-big should want to play with him. The Nuggets can revisit talks for George and bet on their incumbent megastud, along with maintained financial flexibility, showing him the light.

And just so we're clear, there isn't a player within reason out of the Nuggets' reach. A package including some combination of Harris, Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, future picks and Wilson Chandler or Kenneth Faried for salary-matching purposes will pique the attention of any team on the fence about moving a star whose timeline no longer perfectly aligns with its own.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Cap Situation: It's complicated

Notable Trade Assets: LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green, No. 29 pick

Most Likely Superstar Route: Free Agency

Because we're all friends, here's a confession: The San Antonio Spurs shouldn't be this high. Not when they'll technically begin the summer without cap space.

Pau Gasol changes the complexion of their books if he declines his player option, but a soon-to-be 37-year-old isn't turning down $16.2 million. If he does, the NBA will have no choice other than to fine San Antonio for practicing dark magic.

Alas, the Spurs are here anyway. They're the Spurs. And because they're the Spurs, they have Chris Paul's eye, according to Stein—so much so that every member of the Clippers' front office and coaching staff won't sleep a wink until their point guard officially agrees to return.

Signing Paul, as previously outlined, will likely cost San Antonio two of Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Tony Parker, in addition to most, or all, of their own free agents. Personnel purges this extensive aren't the Spurs' style, but the fit is too natural to treat this scenario as anything other than plausible.

Aldridge (player option) and Gasol will be free agents in 2018. San Antonio needn't harp over moving two players it'll (probably) pass on paying market value in one year's time. Plus, the Warriors' deconstruction of the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals proves that powerhouses intent on contending now must up the ante. Pairing Kawhi Leonard with Paul—and preferably Green—forms a two-way terror even the reigning champs cannot view as afterthoughts.

Fleshing out the supporting cast will be an issue. The Spurs will need to lean on their kiddies (Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, Dejounte Murray) if they don't want to jeopardize their ability to sign LeBron James flexibility in 2018.

Then again, if they sign Paul, the NBA might as well book one-way tickets to San Antonio for Vince Carter, Kyle Korver, Zach Randolph and a bunch of other quality ring-chaser options.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

Cap Situation: Ridiculous proximity to two max-contract slots

Notable Trade Assets: Justin Anderson, Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, No. 3 pick, 2018 first-round pick, Lakers' 2018 first-round pick (unprotected), Sacramento Kings' 2019 first-round pick (unprotected)

Most Likely Superstar Route: Trade

Squads knee-deep in rebuilding projects aren't usually threats to acquire a tenured superstar. And the Philadelphia 76ers' hands are no doubt tied when their two most important players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, have tallied 31 career appearances between them.

Still, the Sixers have so many possibilities at their disposal. Cap space, picks, prospects, in-house projects who could make the leap into stardom on a whim—everything. They're the yoked-up version of the Nuggets.

Similar to Denver, free agency should be Philly's best building block. Renouncing the rights to Sergio Rodriguez and waiving Gerald Henderson opens up more than $50 million in spending power, and there is mutual interest between the Sixers and North Philly native Kyle Lowry, according to Philly.com's Keith Pompey.

Unless two stars are jumping ship in unison, though, an offseason coup isn't in the cards. Big wigs don't turn away winning situations for franchises in limbo, even if they appear to be on the come-up. It's hard to see Lowry or another All-Star syncing up with the Sixers on their own.

Orchestrating a blockbuster trade remains Philly's best option, and general manager Bryan Colangelo is unafraid to risk everything for a proven cornerstone. The Sixers made a "significant" offer for George at February's deadline despite his imminent free agency because they "believed they could sell" him on a long-term stay "by enticing him to play with their promising core players," according to Liberty Ballers' Kyle Neubeck.

Dangling any first-round pick in their possession, including this year's No. 3 selection, gives the Sixers an inside track on acquiring whatever All-NBA talents are up for grabs. And their interest in George, however preliminary, is nothing if not proof they're prepared to wield the brunt of their resources.

1. Boston Celtics

Cap Situation: Easy access to max money

Notable Trade Assets: Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, No. 1 pick, 2018 first-round pick, Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick (unprotected), Los Angeles Clippers' 2019 first-round pick (lottery protected), Memphis Grizzlies 2019 first-round pick (top-eight protected)

Most Likely Superstar Route: Free Agency

Obviously.

No other team comes close to matching the Celtics' curb appeal. They own the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. They have a clear path to $30 million in cap space that doesn't include them cutting ties with Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Al Horford or Isaiah Thomas.

Most importantly: They're already the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, with or without another star.

The Celtics are unlikely to consolidate their picks, prospects and cheaply priced trade chips into Butler or George. They understand the uniqueness of their situation, and team president Danny Ainge won't get into a bidding war for players who, while ideal fits, don't guarantee an end to the Cavaliers' reign.

Yet, for Boston, this assumed reluctance changes nothing.

There isn't another destination that offers free agents more upside. The Spurs would supersede everyone if they didn't need to gut their roster for cap space, but they do, so they don't. And we know this set of circumstances will call to marquee contributors. Horford has said the Celtics' assets were a "selling point" in free agency last summer, per Mass Live's Tom Westerholm.

It's no wonder why sources told Bleacher Report's Jordan Schultz that Boston is "slightly favored" to sign Hayward. If he's leaving the Jazz, it needs to be for an irrefutably better landing spot, and the Celtics won 53 games without him.

That their head honcho, Brad Stevens, also happened to coach Hayward at Butler is a convenient bonus—or, perhaps, enough to pencil this in as a done deal.

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