Seven big questions heading into NBA's crazy free agency

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Evaluating the NBA's marquee free agents (1:49)

As the NBA's free-agency period approaches, where will the biggest names land? (1:49)

Let's bounce around the free-agency questions big and small as we wait on Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the other massive dominoes.

What are the ripple effects of Boston closing in on Kemba Walker?

Boston potentially devoting most of its cap space to Walker would mark an intriguing rebound after the season from hell. It would leave Boston with precisely zero proven frontcourt players and limited means to get them. (Boston can in theory stay over the cap and maintain its full midlevel exception -- worth about $9 million -- but the pathways there are complex.)

• The Lakers' contorting their way into nearly max-level cap space could impact any star free agent -- including Walker. If the Lakers are hellbent on using all of their room on one player -- and it's debatable whether that is their best strategy if said player isn't Leonard -- they should at least glance at Walker. LeBron James needs another high-volume creator to soak up some ballhandling duty.

• Speaking of which: The league has projected the cap at $109 million, but several team executives think that could go up by about $500,000 once all the numbers are in -- a bump that would get the Lakers that much closer to legit max cap space.

• If Boston inks Walker, it will be interesting to see how Brad Stevens uses him. Walker ran about 56 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions in Charlotte, according to Second Spectrum. Irving averaged about 36, and everyone whined about him hogging Boston's offense. How useful is Walker in a more democratic system?

Walker should thrive screaming off handoffs the way Isaiah Thomas did. Charlotte nudged him into some off-ball action, and Walker is a capable gunner popping off screens. But his height is more of a limiting factor in those actions than when he has the ball.

I liked the idea of Boston throwing a big offer sheet at Malcolm Brogdon, and handing more off-the-bounce duty to Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. It's time to see what those dudes can do. Boston could have used the leftover space -- probably around $13 million -- and the $4.8 million room exception to fill the front line.

But Walker is really good. Chasing a restricted free agent -- Brogdon -- is a high-risk, low-reward game. Boston is going to play Brown, Tatum, and Hayward together a lot, meaning one of them will function as power forward. Depending on how free agency unfolds in Boston and elsewhere, this version of the Celtics has a chance to compete for the No. 4 seed in the East.

• If Boston signs Walker, Brogdon loses a suitor. The Bucks are bracing for a monster Brogdon offer sheet. They have a walkaway number somewhere, sources say. If Brogdon's 2019-20 salary reaches $20 million or more, it becomes very hard for the Bucks to retain Brogdon, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton, and stay below the luxury tax -- even if they dump Ersan Ilyasova or use the stretch provision to waive Jon Leuer.

It's unclear where such an offer might come from, though there are a few candidates: Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas, Indiana, and perhaps a couple of others. Some of those teams are worried about Brogdon reinjuring his foot, sources say.

• Dallas appears to be focusing on mid-tier free agents -- and not big fish -- league sources say.

• Sources continue to say Indiana has eyes for Ricky Rubio. The Pacers can probably get him at a lower salary than Brogdon, over fewer seasons. Every dollar matters to Indiana.

I don't love the fit of Rubio alongside Victor Oladipo and the Domantas Sabonis/Myles Turner pairing. The Pacers seem committed to starting Sabonis and Turner, sources say, which makes Thaddeus Young a goner.

The league at large is skeptical about the staying power of the Sabonis/Turner duo, and that skepticism grew louder when the Pacers drafted another center -- Goga Bitadze -- last week. (Sabonis is up for what would be a big extension this summer.) Teams call about Sabonis and Turner all the time; the Pacers rejected offers for Turner at the draft, sources say. Those calls will continue.

Indiana needs to maximize shooting around Oladipo, Sabonis, and Turner. Rubio is good, but he does not do that. He does fit the tough, selfless ethos the Pacers have cultivated under Nate McMillan.

• The Pacers hope to bring back Bojan Bogdanovic, sources say, and they will toggle between Sabonis/Turner lineups and smaller groups featuring T.J. Warren at power forward.

• You can see how Milwaukee might talk itself into playing hardball with Brogdon. They already have a point guard in Eric Bledsoe. They would have methods of replacing Brogdon.

But you'd better be damn sure those methods involve players good enough to compete at the highest level. There were times during the Eastern Conference finals when Brogdon was Milwaukee's second-best player. Giannis Antetokounmpo is up for a supermax extension next season. The long-term viability of the Bucks as contenders depends on Antetokounmpo signing that deal. The Bucks are title contenders; the luxury tax is generally the price of contention.

• Random Bucks note: Pending a vote of the board of governors next month, Marc Lasry will take over the role of Bucks governor -- i.e., ultimate decision-maker -- from Wes Edens, sources say. (Milwaukee's ownership agreement calls for Edens and Lasry to trade the role every five years.) No one is quite sure what impact the change might have -- if any.

• If Walker leaves, Charlotte is in for major pain -- and not the kind involving Damon Wayans. They knew a year ago that paying Walker would lock them into long-term mediocrity. If they had a limited appetite for that, why didn't they have more serious discussions about trading him? Was chasing a No. 7 or No. 8 seed -- again -- worth it?

The only bright side to Walker possibly leaving: Charlotte would not have to sacrifice draft picks to shed bad contracts and duck the luxury tax. They could comfortably re-sign Jeremy Lamb, now perhaps their (gulp) best player. (This is not a done deal, sources say.)

Keeping Lamb would not preclude a deep rebuild. Does Charlotte have the patience and acumen for that? The last attempt involved tanking for Anthony Davis; ending up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; blowing almost every subsequent high draft pick (save for Walker); and then microwaving the 40-plus win team they might now tear down.

That said, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington provide an interesting foundation. All of them have the potential to outperform expectations for their draft slots.

• Boston using its cap space on Walker would probably result in sighs of relief from the Orlando Magic, who need to retain Nikola Vucevic to remain competitive. Sacramento still looms as theoretical suitor for Vucevic, but he isn't an ideal fit for the turbo style the Kings adopted last season.

This is an important window of cap flexibility for Sacramento, with potential new deals for Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield (eligible for an extension this summer) kicking in before next summer's free agency. I'm not sure blowing the entire stack on a center is the right move with Barnes, Marvin Bagley, and Harry Giles all looking like key contributors over the next several seasons.

(As ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne noted Friday, the Kings have been a popular choice as the secret Al Horford team. Horford is great. The Kings committing a huge four-year deal to him feels shortsighted.)

Drafting Bagley over Luka Doncic tilted the Kings' roster toward big men. Barnes and Bagley need to play a lot at power forward and center, respectively. The team wants to see more of Bagley and Giles together. A big deal for Vucevic would clutter the frontcourt even more. Keep an eye on Dewayne Dedmon as a lower-cost placeholder. Lots of teams covet Dedmon -- enough that it should take more than the midlevel exception to get him.

• Some team should try to rescue Willie Cauley-Stein, though not at the salary range he wants.

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The Lakers' options to fill their roster in free agency

Bobby Marks breaks down how the Lakers can either sign a major free agent and fill out the rest of their roster or sign multiple lower-tier players.

Is Philly the most or least interesting team of the summer?

• Sixty percent of Philly's vaunted starting five is entering free agency, including two players -- Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris -- who figure to be among the most sought after once Durant and Leonard commit. Butler or Harris could end up connected with one of those players.

Timing is crucial. One hypothetical: What if Leonard has interest in Butler joining him with the LA Clippers, or Butler wants to wait and see if that option is available? And what if the Sixers lavish Butler with a full five-year max deal at 6:01 p.m. ET Sunday? Will Philly wait as Butler and Leonard take meetings? Players get picked off the board every hour.

Philly could have anywhere from no cap room to about $60 million. The playoffs laid bare how badly the Sixers needed Butler to run the offense in the half court. The simplest outcome is bringing him back on a max deal.

Harris is a trickier case. He was a fourth option -- and sometimes fifth. Does Harris want to sign up for that role? Should Philly really pay the max for it? It's tempting to suggest Philly try to coax Harris back on a five-year deal with an annual salary below the max -- and replace him with a cheaper option if he balks.

Once Utah used its cap space on Mike Conley, it became harder to see where Harris had a no-brainer competing max offer. Dallas has Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis close to Harris' spot on the positional spectrum. Indiana has Sabonis, Turner, and Warren. Perhaps New Orleans; the Pelicans have $30 million in room and interest in a stretch power forward.

Would New York make an exception to its "no fat long-term deals to consolation prizes" stance for Harris? Brooklyn makes for a snug fit, but only if Plans A and B fall apart. The Clippers traded Harris because they didn't view him as worthy of a max deal; are both sides willing to pretend that never happened?

But if Philly comes light and someone else does step up, replacing Harris wouldn't be that easy. The Sixers could have about $30 million in space with Butler still on the books, but that does not account for JJ Redick's cap hold. Redick is, like, kind of important.

Philly could justify paying a fourth option the max because Harris might not be a fourth option there forever. Things change fast in the NBA. It's not inevitable that Harris, Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons are all on the Sixers in two, or three, or whatever seasons. (Simmons is up for an extension, and that max deal could come fast once free agency starts, sources say.) They also gave up a lot to get Harris. It would hurt to lose him, even if the Sixers understand that what they traded for Harris is gone regardless.

• The Heat could draw Butler's interest in the sign-and-trade market, sources say. (Houston, of course, has very loudly entered that market. Scoff if you want, but the last time Daryl Morey boasted of his capped-out team having something "up its sleeve," he pulled out Chris Paul.)

Houston needs a lot to line up. Philly has to cooperate, and the Sixers have little incentive to do so. Butler could force their hand by threatening to bolt to another team, but for that gambit to work, Philly has to actually care about Butler bolting to another team. What if they prefer that to taking back whatever players and picks Houston might send out? Houston has searched out third-party homes for Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker, but why would such teams pay full freight when they know Houston has to make deals in the event they actually pull off the Butler acquisition? The Rockets have little leverage in those talks.

None of this even gets into base-year compensation, the perils of the hard cap that kicks in with any sign-and-trade, and whether dealing two or three good players for Butler actually makes Houston any better.

• As Shelburne and Windhorst noted, there have been whispers that Philly could loom as Horford's secret destination. The Sixers seem to like going extra big at every position; they do not like facing Horford in the playoffs. But they have no room for Horford unless Harris or Butler leaves.


What are the lessons of 2016?

The last time the league was awash in this much cap space, everyone went kind of nutso. Almost every four-year deal for a role player -- low-end starters and below -- ended up a disaster.

A few exceptions: Gordon, E'Twaun Moore, and Dwight Powell. Do they have anything in common? Eh. They were on the younger side; long-term deals carried them through their primes. Moore and Powell came relatively cheap -- about $8 million and $10 million per season, respectively. A mistake at that level doesn't kill you.

But most four-year deals from 2016 in that range ended in regret, too. Sitting out the market isn't a real alternative. You get no talent that way. The Bulls tried that until they got antsy and splurged on Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. (Whoops.)

But those were short deals, and perhaps that is the cautionary lesson of 2016: short and big is better than long and slightly less big.

The downside of short deals is that teams don't get full Bird rights on players coming off one- and two-year contracts. (Bird rights allow teams to go over the cap in re-signing their own players.) They get a more limited version, allowing only for small raises. With good players coming off low salaries, that raise is not enough and those limited Bird rights are useless; teams lose such players for nothing, or need cap room to re-sign them. (This is why Milwaukee is opening room now for Lopez.)

But if the player's previous salary is high enough, the limited version of Bird rights works.

Speaking of which ...

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The NBA's most under-the-radar free agents

Jay Harris breaks down the NBA's highest-performing and most cost-effective free agents this offseason.

What is Plan B for the Knicks and Clippers?

It is really hard to cycle through short-term deals to maintain cap space and build a team good enough that your cap space draws superstars. Stars want to see something sustainable. That is the main source of Brooklyn's appeal right now.

You need your young players to be good. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander checks that box. Landry Shamet looks solid. Montrezl Harrell is just 25. I'm not as high on Ivica Zubac (a restricted free agent) as some, but he should be helpful. Jerome Robinson and the guys L.A. drafted last week are unknowns.

That core is ... interesting? The Clippers have some valuable future first-round picks, but superstars don't really care about those things. If this summer's cap space doesn't net Leonard, it would be helpful to turn it into someone else who might matter to free agents in 2020 and 2021. Is there another Lou Williams or Joe Harris out there?

(That 2021 class could include Leonard again. Leonard at that point will have completed his 10th season, meaning that if he pops back into free agency in 2021, he would be eligible for the largest possible maximum contract. A one-plus-one or two-plus-one deal this summer in Toronto -- or elsewhere -- would put that timing in play, though a two-plus-one deal with the Raptors would keep Leonard in Toronto one season beyond the current contracts for Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka.)

The league is collectively down on New York's main second- and third-year players: Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., and Kevin Knox. (As I've said often on the Lowe Post, the league got too far down, too fast, on Smith -- even if I see all the warts. I'm interested to see how he develops. Knox has a very important sophomore year coming up.)

Allonzo Trier and Damyean Dotson are worth monitoring. That leaves RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. In a year, that duo could look like a killer combination. It could also look very raw.

The Knicks would like to put together a representative team next season. What is the point of doing that with mercenaries on one-year deals? It doesn't help lure the next class of free agents. Tanking again would be better.

The rumored one-year megadeal for DeMarcus Cousins would give New York the ammo to re-sign Cousins if he rediscovers peak form. The Knicks should at least think about D'Angelo Russell. He's just 23! Next year's free-agency class stinks. What are the Knicks saving their space for?

Beyond Russell, there might be decent mid-tier deals out there if they hunt the right players.


Who falls through the cracks?

There is a ton of cap room, but there is also a crazy number of free agents and not a whole lot that differentiates some of them. We are going to take stock on July 10 and say, Wait, wait: Why did Player X get $15 million when Player Y got only half of the taxpayer midlevel exception -- less than $3 million? Why did that guy get the minimum while that other guy got $4 million?

There are tiers. Stretchy power forwards are in short supply; Nikola Mirotic and Marcus Morris are going to get paid. (Morris is my favorite candidate for a "What the Hell Happened?" contract.) A few wing shooters stand above the rest, and will probably require cap room and salaries north of $10 or $12 million (and in some cases, well north of it): Terrence Ross, Redick, Lamb, Beverley, Bogdanovic, maybe Danny Green.

Beyond that? It's wild. What is the market for, say, Wesley Matthews? Garrett Temple? Avery Bradley? DeMarre Carroll? There is very little Carroll buzz. Would you rather have him for one of the baby midlevel exceptions -- $4.8 million for room teams, $5.5 million for tax teams -- or Morris at $15 million? If Utah could somehow snag Carroll as Jae Crowder's replacement for $4.8 million, the Jazz could hang onto Derrick Favors instead of waiving him to open cap space for a pricier stretch power forward.

(Utah and Favors -- whose $17.6 million deal for next season is non-guaranteed until July 6 -- have entered into a very delicate dance. Teams are waiting to see if Utah waives Favors. A team with room -- maybe Sacramento -- could claim him off waivers and land a good center on a nice one-year deal.)

Who wants Trey Lyles? Remember him? What about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson? Teams who wait out the initial frenzy are going to find lots of interesting buy-low candidates. Executives and agents expect a lot of players will end up splitting the various midlevel exceptions.

There is no science to this. If one team lusts for a particular fringe guy, they might go for him early with a deal in the $8 million range. Some team might love Noah Vonleh's upside and splurge. That shoves three or four other guys into the "sharing the midlevel" tier. There is a lot of Maxi Kleber buzz. There is minor Alex Caruso buzz. There are murmurs of a Luke Kornet market above the minimum. As always, there is zero Ed Davis buzz.

Go early, and a smart bet in the $8 million to $10 million range on a young player could net a value long-term contract. For those who don't covet anyone specific, waiting will probably have its rewards.

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Lowe: Blazers could look into trading for Love

Zach Lowe examines the possibility of the Blazers trading for Kevin Love, and Adrian Wojnarowski adds that the team has the assets to get an All-Star caliber player.

Who else can level up in the West?

• The Lakers are in star accumulation mode. Utah made its big move with Mike Conley. The Clippers want Leonard. Who's next?

The Blazers are the obvious candidate. They have two star guards in their primes. They own all of their future first-round picks and have quietly assembled tradable young talent: Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, and Nassir Little. They are one player away from being really good.

Could that player be Kevin Love? The Cavs have shown limited interest so far in serious Love discussions, sources say, but a divorce seems inevitable. After all, they extended Love in part to goose his trade value. Love is healthy. He's really good. His contract is not some uber-toxic albatross; it starts at $28.9 million this season, rises to $31 million over the next two, and then declines back to $28.9 million in 2022-23. Who knows how high the salary cap might be then?

The Cavs won't get great return for Love, but if they play their hand right, they should not have to attach an asset to move him. They might even get one.

You can build two- and three-team deals involving Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, one of those three young guys, and/or a protected first-round pick. Portland might prefer to hang onto all three of Collins, Simons, and Little -- and deal multiple picks instead. Collins is their starting center right now. They love Simons.

Some suitors wonder whether Love is more center than power forward now. For a team counting on Jusuf Nurkic's return next season, the answer matters.

For a team with Rudy Gobert barricading the back line, it might be a little less pressing. (Utah could in theory flip Favors, some additional salary, and a draft asset for Love, but its interest in taking on another big contract and sloughing away picks is probably limited after the Conley deal.)

• What about Denver? The Nuggets will improve with experience. They are a borderline lock to bring back Paul Millsap -- either on a longer deal at a lower annual salary, or failing that, by picking up his $30 million option for next season -- so they won't have any cap space. But if Bradley Beal ever became available, they could put together some interesting packages centered on Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr. and a draft asset. Acquiring Beal without giving up Jamal Murray would be a monster move.

• The Spurs seem like a team that should do something, but DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are not exactly brimming with trade value. San Antonio will be rightfully cautious trading any of their good young players with superior Western Conference teams loading up around them.


What are the Timberwolves up to?

Minnesota is up to something. Gersson Rosas, the Wolves' new president of basketball operations, is almost starting from scratch constructing a roster around Karl-Anthony Towns. (Towns is already meeting with free agents, JJ Redick told me this week on his podcast.) And, yes, the clock is ticking even though Towns' mega-extension kicks in just next season. That's the hard reality with stars in the NBA. Sorry.

Minnesota has sniffed around Russell, though the Nets have no interest in Jeff Teague on the other end of any sign and trade, sources say.

Can they sucker someone into taking Andrew Wiggins? One rival executive predicted to me this week that not only will Minnesota succeed at dealing Wiggins at some point, but that they will get at least net-neutral value for him. That would be a coup. Would the hopeless post-Walker Hornets deal Nicolas Batum for Wiggins? Would they include a second-round pick?

Batum's deal is two years shorter than Wiggins'. That alone has value for Minnesota. The Hornets could sell Wiggins -- and not unreasonably -- as a bouncy 24-year-old former No. 1 pick who might approach his potential in a new environment. They have to sell something.

What about Phoenix flipping Tyler Johnson -- on an expiring one-year deal -- and some flotsam for Wiggins? That would seem dumb. Phoenix already has young centerpiece players to sell hope. Wiggins would cripple their cap sheet going forward. Still: Never underestimate the Suns.

Answers are coming starting on Sunday.