Welcome to the first installment of Rotoworld’s division-by-division free agency preview. We begin with the Northwest division, exploring the team needs and free agent situations of the Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Nuggets and Timberwolves.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Team Needs: OKC’s roster pivoted with the trade that sent Serge Ibaka to the Magic in exchange for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and No. 11 pick Domantas Sabonis. The arrival of Oladipo makes it less urgent that they retain Dion Waiters, who could receive an unpalatably huge offer from another team this summer. Thunder GM Sam Presti said the team intends to keep Ilyasova, who joins Nick Collison and Mitch McGary as the clearest options at PF. Durant could play extensive minutes at PF if he sticks around, but either way the Thunder are likely to pick up another PF via trade or free agency. OKC could also use another swingman — Morrow is expected to be retained but it’s not a lock, potentially leaving them with only Kyle Singler and Josh Huestis behind Durant at SF.
FA Outlook: Kevin Durant is the pre-eminent unrestricted free agent this summer. Every team in the league would love to sign him, but only a handful have a realistic chance — so far, he’s only scheduled meetings with the Thunder, Spurs and Warriors. OKC seems like the favorite to retain Durant, who is reportedly “fine with Ibaka heading elsewhere in his prime.” The Thunder were up 3-1 against a historically good team in the Western Conference Finals, and can make the argument that they’ll be even better with Oladipo in tow and another year of familiarity under coach Billy Donovan. If he does stick around, the Thunder could pay Durant a whopping $153 million over five seasons…or he could sign a one-year deal, maximizing his flexibility while earning an even bigger payday next summer.
The Thunder are unlikely to make any big moves in free agency until Durant makes his decision. They’ll be in an awkward spot if another team quickly swoops in with a big offer sheet for RFA Dion Waiters, though the acquisition of Oladipo eases the pressure to retain their mercurial backup SG. If Waiters and Randy Foye both head elsewhere, and the Thunder aren’t sold on Cameron Payne serving as a full-time backup PG, they could re-stock with a veteran free agent like Ronnie Price, Raymond Felton or Norris Cole. In the end, the franchise’s success in free agency will be answered by one question — is Kevin Durant still wearing their jersey?
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Portland Trail Blazers
Free Agents: Meyers Leonard (restricted), Moe Harkless (restricted), Allen Crabbe (restricted), Gerald Henderson (unrestricted), Chris Kaman (unrestricted), Brian Roberts (unrestricted), Cliff Alexander (non-guaranteed), Luis Montero (non-guaranteed)
Team Needs: Player development will be crucial for the Blazers’ young roster, mitigating the need to solve all of their problems via free agency or trades. For instance, they might have enough faith in Leonard and Noah Vonleh to avoid splurging on a veteran power forward in free agency. Adding interior defenders and rebounders should be at the top of Neil Olshey’s to-do list — Hassan Whiteside would fit the bill nicely, but it will be very hard to pry him away from the Heat and other suitors. Portland could also use a big, physical guard to support Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, giving them more size to combat the league’s bigger backcourts.
FA Outlook: The Blazers were a nice surprise last season, compiling a 44-38 record despite losing four veteran starters last summer. Their core remains intact but they’ll need to match contract offers to retain key rotation players Meyers Leonard, Moe Harkless and Allen Crabbe. Portland has cap space, but between retaining those RFAs and planning for a huge pay-raise for C.J. McCollum next summer, it could be difficult for them to splurge on a big-name free agent. For an up-and-coming team with young, developing talent, continuity should be prioritized over splashy FA signings. Expect them to bulk up their frontcourt without making headlines.
Team Needs: The Jazz filled their most glaring need prior to free agency, when they dealt the No. 12 pick (which became Taurean Prince) in a three-team deal that brought George Hill to Utah. That’s a clear-cut win for the franchise, even if they don’t extend Hill beyond this season — he’s set to become an unrestricted FA next summer. With Hill running the show, the Jazz can develop Dante Exum and Trey Burke at their own pace, which is great in reality if not ideal for fantasy purposes. Trey Lyles is a very promising young PF, who should capably assume Trevor Booker‘s minutes if he signs elsewhere, and the tandem of Jeff Withey and Tibor Pleiss should be enough to spell Rudy Gobert at center. With Rodney Hood and Alec Burks both healthy, the clearest need for depth is behind Gordon Hayward at SF.
FA Outlook: The Jazz will have more than $20 million to deploy in free agency, should they choose to use it. Utah’s PG spot went from being a weakness to a strength with the addition of George Hill, who is versatile enough to play off-ball alongside Exum or Burke. Shelvin Mack was a pleasant surprise last year and they can retain him for a reasonable $2.4 million, giving them even more backcourt depth. Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks can all handle the ball for stretches, so playmakers aren’t likely to be a priority for the Jazz this summer. GM Dennis Lindsey will likely focus on adding veterans, depth at SF and PF, and shooters at any position. Given their solid starting unit and the expected development of their young players, Utah may not make waves in free agency, opting instead to pad their bench with rotation-ready players.
Free Agents: D.J. Augustin (unrestricted), Darrell Arthur (unrestricted), Mike Miller (unrestricted), Joffrey Lauvergne (non-guaranteed), JaKarr Sampson (non-guaranteed), Axel Toupane (non-guaranteed)
Team Needs: The return of a healthy Wilson Chandler will be huge for Denver, after he missed the entire 2015-16 season due to hip surgery. Chandler is owed $23.2 million over the next two seasons, with a $12.8 million player option in 2018-19, so his return to form is a big ‘team need’ for Denver. The 29-year-old forward has had plenty of time to recover, and could be a sneaky late-round pick in standard drafts even if he’s coming off the bench. Defense-oriented players should be a priority for the Nuggets, who allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions last season (7th-most in the league). They also ranked 20th in offensive efficiency, so in addition to player development they could use an influx of talent at both ends of the court (the addition of Jamal Murray with the No. 7 pick alleviates some of Denver’s offensive woes, adding a terrific shooter to space the court and balance out Mudiay’s inefficiency). Positionally, they need a backup for Mudiay, and their PF personnel should get a long look this summer.
FA Outlook: JaKarr Sampson basically walked into a starting job with Denver last season, due primarily to the injury-related absence of both Gallinari and Chandler, but also due to the Nuggets’ need for defensive-minded players. Denver is likely to keep him at a mere $980k next season, and they should also retain Joffrey Lauvergne at $1.7 million. Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic have the center spot locked down, but Kenneth Faried isn’t the long-term answer at PF and could find himself on the trade block. Denver could also float Gallinari or Will Barton in trade talks, especially since Barton has an extremely appealing contract (owed $7.1 million over the next two seasons combined). The Nuggets have enough cap space to compete for star players, but if they make a splash it’s likely to be via trades, with their sights set on another year of development/improvement prior to the FA bonanza of 2017.
Team Needs: The Wolves scored a generational talent last season in Karl-Anthony Towns, and they also fared well in the 2016 draft, acquiring NBA-ready point guard Kris Dunn with the No. 5 pick. Tom Thibodeau suggested that Dunn and Ricky Rubio could share the court this season, but Rubio has already been mentioned in trade rumors and may not be in Minnesota much longer. Regardless of Rubio’s status, the Wolves may want to fill out their backcourt. Zach LaVine is the only true SG on the roster, and it’s uncertain whether Tyus Jones (who shot 35.9 percent as a rookie) will be ready to assume a spot in the rotation. Minnesota also needs more support behind KAT and Gorgui Dieng in the frontcourt. Nemanja Bjelica has promise at PF, but Kevin Garnett can’t play more than a handful of minutes, Adreian Payne was ineffective in limited action last year, Greg Smith is a free agent, and Nikola Pekovic just can’t stay healthy. Another priority is 3-point shooting — the Wolves were just 33.8% from downtown last year, 25th in the league. The need for perimeter shooting is even more pressing if Rubio sticks around.
FA Outlook: Thibodeau has been in hot pursuit of Jimmy Butler via trades, but the Bulls now appear likely to keep their All-Star swingman. Free agent Joakim Noah has also been linked to the Wolves and seems like a nice fit, giving the Wolves a veteran big man to anchor the second unit. The Wolves were the fourth-worst defensive team last season, allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions, and even Tom Thibodeau‘s vaunted defensive schemes may not change the tide without an influx of defensive talent. With nearly $30 million in cap space, the Wolves can afford to be aggressive in pursuit of defensive-minded players and 3-point shooters to fill out the rotation. Chasing a star player like Nicolas Batum doesn’t seem likely, given the presence of Andrew Wiggins, but guys like Kent Bazemore, Evan Fournier, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes and Luol Deng could make sense.