Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2022 NBA Free Agents | Bleacher Report

Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2022 NBA Free Agents | Bleacher Report

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Homecomings will define 2022 NBA free agency.

    Or, to invent a term that better reflects what’s likely ahead, homestayings.

    Just a handful of clubs have cap space, and few project to be winning operations next season. That means each of the top five potential free agents will almost certainly get the most cash and the best chance at success by sticking with their current teams.

    The smart money is on Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Deandre Ayton staying right where they are.

    In a way, that makes selecting dark-horse destinations easier. Virtually all of the 29 teams the free agent in question doesn’t play for meet the “unlikely but just barely plausible” criteria.

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on his podcast with The Hoop Collective that the Portland Trail Blazers had “popped up” as a possible landing spot for Zach LaVine.

    Our own Sean Highkin was dead-on accurate when he examined the likelihood of the Blazers landing LaVine and concluded Portland’s “serious pursuit of LaVine is extremely unlikely and bordering on completely unrealistic.”

    Perfect. That makes the Blazers a dark-horse destination: technically possible but realistically far-fetched.

    The case for Portland pulling this off goes something like this: It’s trying to fast-track its rebuild around Damian Lillard, and it has the ability to clear enough cash to hand LaVine a four-year max. You could also toss in the appeal of the Pacific Northwest to the Seattle product.

    Practically speaking, it’s hard to imagine the Blazers making all the sacrifices it’d take to ink LaVine. For starters, they’d have to renounce their rights to restricted free agent Anfernee Simons, whom GM Joe Cronin called “a core piece.” Portland would also need to cut ties with Jusuf Nurkic and Josh Hart.

    We’ve seen teams strip rosters down to accumulate stars (Los Angeles Lakers, anyone?), and even if that strategy may be falling out of favor, the desperation to construct a winner during the end of Lillard’s prime could create enough urgency to take that risk.

    LaVine and Lillard would be a formidable duo, and you could make the case that the Blazers, even with the lack of depth that would come with adding LaVine, would be a more competitive team than the others (Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs) with enough room to sign him.

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    It would take a truly spectacular alternative for Bradley Beal to pass on the chance to sign a five-year, $242 million deal to stay with the Washington Wizards. One way or the other, he’s going to sign that deal. However, the team writing the checks doesn’t necessarily have to be the Wizards.

    Memphis Grizzlies, anyone?

    The only way a Beal-to-Memphis move could work is via sign-and-trade. Beal would have to make it clear to the Wizards that he’s ready to walk away and the team should engage with the Grizzlies in order to avoid losing the three-time All-Star for nothing. In this hypothetical, Washington isn’t going to cite the leaguewide lack of cap space and call Beal’s bluff.

    Memphis has no shortage of movable, mid-priced deals to throw into a trade, not to mention all of its own future first-rounders. If the choice for Washington is watching Beal walk away or getting back Steven Adams, Dillon Brooks, Ziaire Williams and some draft capital, well…stranger things have happened.

    From Beal’s perspective, this would be about getting out of a go-nowhere situation in Washington and linking up with a Grizzlies squad that looks likely to contend for the duration of his prime. If anything, Memphis would be the hesitant party, given Beal’s last two injury-plagued seasons and the exorbitant price tag on his new deal. The Grizzlies might be in the championship mix without him.

    Paying a super-duper max for a guy whose 2020-21 All-NBA nod will probably be his last isn’t exactly in keeping with the risk-averse, small-market ethos. Then again, the Grizzlies are already close to being title threats, and another scoring star alongside Ja Morant could put them over the top.

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    James Harden’s physical decline is now undeniable, and it’s coming in conjunction with a rise in frustration from his teammates. And after another conspicuous playoff flop, even Daryl Morey, perhaps the biggest Harden believer out there, has to be questioning whether it’s worth extending his association with the former MVP.

    Morey gave up Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two future first-round picks to bring Harden aboard. But given what’s transpired since, the Philadelphia 76ers’ top executive might now view a massive extension as throwing good money after bad.

    If I have a dime to spend in free agency, let alone $270 million over five years, I’m not using it on a player who forced his way off of two teams in two seasons and is now having his dedication questioned by a coach who saw his work habits up close.

    That said, the Miami Heat specialize in career rehab.

    Players who land in Miami and embrace the militaristic conditioning requirements that define the organization invariably wind up in the best shape of their lives and, usually, perform better than expected. Getting Harden to the Heat is the hard part; the easy part is acknowledging he needs the services they provide.

    Miami and the Philadelphia 76ers would have to work out a sign-and-trade deal that includes Kyle Lowry, plus another $10-15 million in salary. There’d also be the small matter of the Heat convincing themselves they need what Harden brings (headaches included)—a tough sell for a squad that just finished first in the East.

    Pat Riley loves stars, though, and Harden used to be one. Maybe he could regain that status.

    If the Sixers aren’t keen on committing big money to Harden and don’t want to risk the chance of him leaving for nothing, which he could do by declining his player option or picking it up in order to hit unrestricted free agency in 2023, they could be motivated to work something out.

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Like Harden, Kyrie Irving has some image rehabilitation to do.

    He left the Brooklyn Nets hanging for most of the 2021-22 season by refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the latest entry in a pattern of behavior that has long demonstrated Irving’s commitment to his team is less than total.

    “We’re looking for guys that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, play team basketball, and be available,” Brooklyn GM Sean Marks told reporters on May 11. “That goes not only for Kyrie but everybody here.”

    Even if most signs point to Irving returning to Brooklyn, which could happen without a new deal if he picks up his player option, it may not be a stone-cold lock that the seven-time All-Star guard will be back at Barclays next year.

    If Irving were to leave the Nets, a sign-and-trade would be the most likely route. That opens up the field of options considerably, except for the fact that any team adding him would almost have to view itself as being one elite scorer away from winning a ring. Irving is a high-stakes add who appeals most to the risk-tolerant contender set.

    The Los Angeles Lakers fit that bill, but constructing a return package Brooklyn would want is almost impossible. By comparison, the L.A. Clippers could easily put something together. They’ve got Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris Sr. and Norman Powell all making between $11 and $17 million. Combine a couple of those players with a pick or two, and a deal might be feasible.

    Good luck to any team trying to stop Irving, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Detroit Pistons are a little too on-the-nose to be a dark-horse destination for Deandre Ayton. They feel more like the most realistic landing spot for the Phoenix Suns center…if he winds up going anywhere.

    Let’s go with the San Antonio Spurs, an organization with nearly as much cap space but many more tradeable assets in the event room needs to be cleared for a max offer sheet. San Antonio’s deeper talent pool would also make a sign-and-trade easier if the Suns, for some inexplicable reason, decide they don’t want to simply match whatever offer sheet comes Ayton’s way.

    Jakob Poeltl could headline a return package including Devin Vassell, Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott, Zach Collins and/or any number of other mid-priced rotation pieces.

    Though Poeltl is among the game’s better rim-protectors, Ayton has already proved his brand of mobile defense holds up on a playoff stage. His elite touch around the rim, lob-catching prowess and reliable mid-range game would also give the Spurs offensive elements Poeltl can’t replicate.

    If Ayton were hypothetically steamed enough about not getting his max rookie extension prior to the 2021-22 season, he could broadcast to Suns management that he’s getting out of town ASAP one way or the other. That’s hard to imagine, but If Phoenix burned a bridge this past October, it could trigger sign-and-trade talks. 

    The optics would be terrible for the Suns if they let the 2018 No. 1 overall pick depart because of thriftiness, but getting back several useful assets would help with damage control. 

    Both Detroit and San Antonio should have the will to target Ayton, but the Spurs are the team with the most plausible way to get the star center.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.