The 1 Free Agent Your NBA Team Can’t Afford to Lose

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Denver Nuggets

Paul Millsap is a must-keep for Denver, but his $30 million team option nullifies his candidacy. He’ll only reach the open market if the Nuggets let him, which they won’t do without the intention of re-signing him to a longer-term deal. 

Everyone else after him is less than a footnote. Trey Lyles (restricted) finished the season outside the rotation and made just three appearances in the playoffs. The Isaiah Thomas experiment went bust and isn’t worth rebooting unless Jamal Murray or Monte Morris is traded. And Denver made its intentions with Tyler Lydon clear by declining his team option at the end of October.

Reeling in outside help, preferably on the perimeter, is the Nuggets’ bigger concern. They will have access to the non-taxpayer’s mid-level exception ($9.2 million) if they scrimp their spending and can jimmy up some extra breathing room by declining Millsap’s team option and re-signing him at a cheaper price point.

Do they funnel that money into a singular acquisition? Divvy it up among multiple smaller-time pieces? Are they even willing to get into new players for more than a year with Murray, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Juan Hernangomez all scheduled for restricted free agency next summer?


Sacramento Kings

Willie Cauley-Stein is the only Kings free agent worth bouncing around in this space, and his case lost luster as the season trudged on.

Sacramento’s front-line carousel is part of the equation. Neither Marvin Bagley III nor Harry Giles is a true center. But their offensive chemistry noticeably improved later in the year, and they look like the 4-5 of the future. Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica don’t play Cauley-Stein’s position, but their relevance at the power forward spot creates a logjam that will lead to more time at the 5 for both Bagley and Giles.

Cauley-Stein’s midseason plateau comes into play too. He started off as a Most Improved Player candidate, and his rosier shot profile held the entire year. But that tear ended up screeching to a halt.

“The lob is Cauley-Stein’s friend, but he lacks a defined post move and he doesn’t have a counterattack when his initial move is stymied,” NBC Sports’ James Ham wrote. “In addition, he shot just 31 percent on 200 shot attempts from three-to-10 feet away from the basket. Cauley-Stein also stumbled at the free-throw line for long stretches during the season, finishing with a career-worst 55.1 percent from the charity stripe.”

Unaddressed defensive struggles seal the deal. Cauley-Stein is too long and springy to be a non-factor around the rim. He doesn’t block a ton of shots, and opponents converted 66.5 percent of their opportunities at the basket against him—the worst mark of his career.

That leakiness is compounded by overstated switchability. He was dubbed an all-over defender entering the NBA and has yet to make good on that reputation. His outside closeouts are uninspiring, and he doesn’t do much to dissuade dribble drives in space. The Kings will live if he leaves.


Utah Jazz

Utah doesn’t want for control over its roster. Derrick Favors, Kyle Korver, Raul Neto, Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale all have partially or non-guaranteed salaries for 2019-20, and the team’s short list of actual free agents is populated by backups (Thabo Sefolosha, Ekpe Udoh).

Ricky Rubio’s future looms as the toughest call, and that doesn’t say much. The Jazz need to get Donovan Mitchell a backcourt running mate who can create his own shots off the dribble or consistently knock down standstill jumpers while he runs the offense. Rubio doesn’t fit either bill.

The Jazz’s most pressing priority is determining how much cap space they need. They have access to between $16 and $20 million in wiggle room, but they’ll need to waive Favors, whose salary guarantees on July 6, to enter the max-contract discussion.

Worrying about Rubio’s next deal isn’t part of that equation. He’ll be there if the Jazz have to dig deep into their bag of contingencies, but their best-case offseason doesn’t include bringing him back as a starter.

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