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Ryan Knaus

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Free Agency Preview: Southeast

Thursday, May 31, 2018


Today’s column discusses the free-agency and personnel outlook for the five teams in the Southeast Division, focusing on the players whose immediate futures remain uncertain. There aren’t many teams with copious salary-cap space, which should result in a bevy of smaller deals, cap-clearing trades and clever use of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s detailed bylaws. For anyone interested in the nuances of the CBA, check out Larry Coon’s indispensable Salary Cap FAQ. My salary-cap space projections are based on ‘practical cap space’ from Spotrac. Check back soon for summaries of the other 25 teams around the league!

 

Charlotte Hornets

Draft Picks: 11, 55

Projected Cap Space: -$18.5 million

 

The Hornets have nearly $118 million in guaranteed contracts for the 2018-19 season, with Michael Carter-Williams as their only unrestricted free agent. Nicolas Batum will earn $24.0 million next year. Dwight Howard? He'll earn $23.8 million. Then we have Marvin Williams ($14.1m), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13.0m) and Cody Zeller ($13.5m). The glaring omission from that list is Kemba Walker, who is scheduled to earn less than all those guys at a relatively modest $12.0 million next season -- the final year of a cap-friendly extension he signed in 2014.

 

Kemba was a staple of trade rumors prior to the Feb. 8 trade deadline this season, but in the end it doesn't appear any deal was close to happening. Teammates publicly supported him, as did then-coach Steve Clifford, and even owner Michael Jordan made a rare public statement downplaying the possibility of a deal -- "I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities." In the end, Walker stayed put even though the high-priced Hornets' roster failed to make the playoffs.

 

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Already this offseason, the Hornets have replaced head coach Steve Clifford with James Borrego, and replaced GM Rich Cho with Mitch Kupchak. Kemba's name has already been floated in 'what-if' rumors prior to the NBA draft, but Kupchak did say there's "no master plan to blow up this team right now." What else could he say? The Hornets are locked into massive salaries for a team with an awkward mix of aging veterans and developing youth. They're paying the luxury tax despite failing to make the playoffs, and the lip-service being paid to the current roster isn't convincing. "My mentality is this is our group [of players] and we are moving forward with it," said incoming coach Borrego. "I'm excited about that current group as it stands right now. I think our biggest room for growth is the internal development piece." If the decision-makers in Charlotte do decide to shuffle the deck of players, beyond player development, trades are the only real option they have.

 

 

Atlanta Hawks

Draft Picks: 3, 19, 30, 34

Projected Cap Space: $29.1 million

 

The Hawks have a new head coach in Lloyd Pierce, formerly an assistant coach for the 76ers, who was known for player development and defensive game-planning. Despite that significant change, Atlanta should have a familiar look in 2018-19 since their young core is mostly under contract. Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, John Collins, DeAndre' Bembry and Miles Plumlee all have guaranteed deals next season. Given their relative affordability, though, the Hawks are positioned to make a splash in free agency with approximately $19-$29 million in cap space (depending upon what moves they make in the coming weeks).

 

Dewayne Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option which he'll assuredly decline. He'll turn 29 years old this summer and should be looking for a lucrative long-term deal, which should be easy to find after posting career-high averages across the board -- 10.0 points, 0.8 triples, 7.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.6 steals in 24.9 minutes. His viability as a 3-point shooter (35.5% from distance) is particularly important in today's NBA.

 

Fellow big man Mike Muscala will also likely decline his $5.0 million player option. Malcolm Delaney's season ended due to left ankle surgery in early March, but his 6-8 week timetable shouldn't prohibit teams from considering him. The Hawks can make Delaney a restricted FA with a $3.1 million qualifying offer, though it remains to be seen how much they value their 29-year-old backup guard. Taken at face value, the Hawks have the most free cap space to deploy this summer – and only a handful of teams (most notably the Lakers) can clear more space with roster moves. In short, the Hawks should be in the driver’s seat in free agency with so many teams strapped for cash this summer.

 


Miami Heat

Draft Picks: None (1st-round pick to Phoenix, 2nd-round pick to Houston)

Projected Cap Space: -$19.3 million

 

Dwyane Wade landed back in Miami after topsy-turvy stints with the Bulls and Cavaliers, and it's a foregone conclusion that he'll re-sign on a sweetheart deal with the Heat. Udonis Haslem will do the same if he doesn't opt to retire after 15 seasons with the same franchise. The only other unrestricted free agents are Wayne Ellington, whose 3-point shooting was crucial for Miami last season, and Luke Babbitt. Jordan Mickey has a $1.6 million team option and that's the extent of Miami's obvious personnel decisions.

 

The bigger question is...what will they do with Hassan Whiteside? The disgruntled center had public tiffs with coach Erik Spoelstra throughout the season, and this isn't a new development -- questions about his conditioning and effort have plagued him since at least 2016. During an exit interview last April, Spoelstra said that Whiteside's growth as a player was "staggering," adding that he "can become one of the greats." Fast forward to January 2018, and Spoelstra was explaining to the media why he continued to bench Whiteside down the stretch of games: "It’s just a habit for him of doing more, of getting more, of being more consistent with all of it ... And I won’t stop with my expectations for him and what this team needs from him."

 

Here's a brief timeline of Whiteside's backslide into the doghouse. He was benched twice in November for poor effort. He was routinely benched in the fourth quarter in January, and by February he was telling reporters, "It’s frustrating. It’s nothing I can really do about it." Then in April the lid came off, as he said self-referentially, "We got one of the best centers in the league. Why we matching up [with smaller opponents]? It’s bull—. It’s really bull—, man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center." When his minutes cratered in the playoffs vs. Philadelphia, he openly questioned Spoelstra's rotations. "I can understand if I was playing 30 minutes and I played bad," he said. "At least give me a chance."

 

After Miami was eliminated in the first round, team president Pat Riley conceded that Whiteside wasn't "mentally or physically" ready for the playoffs. "There's no doubt he was in a bad state in the playoffs," Riley said. "He's going to have to do something to change, because he's a hell of a player." Whiteside has since implied that he could make 3-pointers if only he were "allowed" to shoot them. Stemming from all this, in May it was reported that "numerous people inside the Heat" were offering "strong support" to trade Whiteside. No specific teams were linked to him, although the Bucks reportedly inquired about him prior to the trade deadline. Maybe he and Spoelstra can mend fences over the summer, but we certainly haven't seen the end of this drama.

 


Orlando Magic

Draft Picks: 6, 35, 41

Projected Cap Space: $15.0 million

 

The Magic are still paying down Bismack Biyombo's four-year, $72.0 million contract (through 2020) and they have a combined $70.5 million committed to six players -- none of whom are named Aaron Gordon. His fate in restricted free agency is the biggest test for Orlando's front office, since he could command a near-max offer from the few teams with sufficient cap space. You'd think they'd do anything to retain an explosive 22-year-old who flashed 3-point range and posted career numbers across the board last season. But given Orlando's recent history of bad personnel decisions, it's impossible to guess what they'll do here.

 

Mario Hezonja is another young talent coming off a career-best season with averages of 9.6 points (44.2% FGs, 81.9% FTs), 1.2 triples, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals. He was very impressive as a fill-in starter for 30 games and will have plenty of suitors in free agency -- unfortunately for Orlando, they lost the option to match offers when they declined the fourth year of his rookie deal. Khem Birch should be an easy player to keep on a $1.3 million deal, and it'll be interesting to see if they guarantee Shelvin Mack's $6.0m salary. Mack was a steady rotation player all season and the Magic are thin at PG since giving up on Elfrid Payton late in the season. Even if they gamble on a PG like Trae Young with the No. 6 pick in the draft, they may want Mack around as another veteran mentor. The only other free agents are Marreese Speights and Arron Afflalo, neither of whom are likely to be top priorities for Orlando.

 


Washington Wizards

Draft Picks: 15, 44

Projected Cap Space: -$23.8 million

 

Following a familiar pattern, the Wizards are another Eastern team with limited flexibility this offseason. They already have a guaranteed $108.5 million going to just six players in 2018-19 -- and things will only get tighter when John Wall's salary balloons to $37.8 million next summer.

 

Assuming Jason Smith and Jodie Meeks both decline player options ($5.4m and $3.4m, respectively), the Wizards will have limited cap space to fill a variety of supporting-cast roles. In addition to Smith and Meeks, unrestricted FAs include Tim Frazier, Mike Scott, Ramon Sessions and Ty Lawson. During his exit interview, John Wall said the Wizards need to add "a lot" over the summer, specifically "athletic bigs [and] scoring off the bench ... We don’t really have an athletic big. I mean, Ian [Mahinmi] is older. [Marcin Gortat] is older." With their salary-cap crunch and difficulty committing big money long-term (Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky are both restricted FAs next summer), it'll be hard for GM/president Ernie Grunfeld to fulfill Wall's wish list.

 

That concludes the Southeast Division free-agency overview...check back the next few weeks for my overviews of the other five Divisions. And in the meantime, enjoy the Finals!



Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for Rotoworld.com since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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