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Where the NBA’s top free agents should go this offseason

This is who the Knicks, Pistons, Celtics, Heat, and Suns should sign.

Fred VanVleet, Montrezl Harrell, and Danilo Gallinari (from left the right)
Fred VanVleet, Montrezl Harrell, and Danilo Gallinari are three of the top NBA free agents in 2020.

Whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over or not, free agency will eventually begin. Teams will add and lose players from their current rosters. The business of basketball will go on.

Unfortunately, this year’s cycle won’t pick up where the last one left off; none of the league’s most significant needle-movers (except Anthony Davis, who has it pretty good in LA) will be unrestricted and it’s unlikely the favorite to win it all in 2021 will be decided by a free agent signing. However, that doesn’t mean the pool is entirely dry: a few quality players will make this year’s process as relevant as it always is fun. And even though cap space is a premium held mostly by a few teams that are not positioned to contend, the NBA’s dire economic climate promises to fluster a system that may be less predictable than it would’ve been.

Ownership groups flush with cash two months ago might be a bit more frugal today. We don’t know their spending limitations, nor can we foresee which players who’ve yet to compete in the playoffs will elevate/puncture their stock. Taking all that into account, here are five serviceable free agents matched up with with five different teams that would appreciate everything they have to offer.

Fred VanVleet - New York Knicks

The most likely scenario for New York’s offseason unfolds as so: They foolishly squander more assets than they should in a trade for Chris Paul, then immediately watch the soon-to-be 35-year-old shrivel away from the top of his positional standing, as an $85 million anvil dangles overhead for the next two years.

This would not be ideal. In truth the best route might be a patient one. Add future assets, slow-roll a legitimate rebuild and wait to strike when the time is right, i.e. once their reputation starts to pivot towards normalcy. But, assuming new Knicks president Leon Rose won’t be able to help himself, throwing a bag of cash at Fred VanVleet wouldn’t be the most reckless deviation from that plan.

VanVleet is 26. He oozes confidence, has a ring to back it up, and will be the most coveted point guard in this free agent class. VanVleet won’t turn the Knicks around because he is not Zeus. But this could be the type of signing that catalyzes the dawn of progress for an organization that could do so, so, so much worse. The Knicks can’t stop tripping over their own feet. VanVleet will, at the very least, tie their shoes.

Paul Millsap - Phoenix Suns

I tied Millsap to the Suns a few months back in this story about how Phoenix could be on the same rebuilding track that Denver was on before they signed the four-time all-star back in 2017. Millsap just turned 35, and obviously isn’t the same player now that he was back then. But his savvy defensive intangibles, offensive selflessness, and general veteran guile would be embraced by a Suns organization that desperately needs those qualities before it can leap to a higher level. Even though his timeline doesn’t match up with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, slotting him in as Phoenix’s starting power forward next year could do wonders for that team’s long-term mindset.

Montrezl Harrell - Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are about to embark on a serious rebuild, but, if possible, they would also like to be somewhat competitive as they carry it out. That’s not easy.

Only a few teams have more cap space than they will, and with Derrick Rose and Luke Kennard both in need of a ferocious pick-and-roll partner, Montrezl Harrell is the crisp fit that might allow them to have their cake and eat it too. He’s easy to root for and exceptional at what he does. Harrell also isn’t good enough to lead Detroit from the lottery to the middle class, where they’d inevitably rot in perpetual mediocrity.

Regardless of how their season ends, the Los Angeles Clippers will try to keep the 26-year-old around. He amplifies their rugged identity and is jelly to Lou Williams’ peanut butter. But the Pistons can offer more minutes as a full-time starter, along with more money than the Clippers would be willing to pay.

Blake Griffin and Christian Wood complicate the idea of bringing another expensive big man into the fold. But Wood’s caphold is low enough to appease any cap-related concern, and as it relates to any positional overlap, his outside shot and defensive versatility should let both thrive at the same time without stepping on each other’s toes.

Griffin, who has a $39 million player option in 2022 that he’ll almost definitely pick up, is a bit more complicated. His long-term health is a question mark, and investing serious money in him, Wood, and Harrell over the next two seasons might not be the wisest move in a league that minimizes the center position. Nobody would blink if the Pistons let as much of their cap space roll over another year. But unless they bottom out by dealing off some other pieces (like Rose and/or Kennard), adding Harrell wouldn’t be the dumbest signing. At the very least, he’d make watching that team 30 percent less painful than it’d otherwise be.

Danilo Gallinari - Miami Heat

The Heat almost acquired Gallo before the deadline but weren’t interested in locking themselves into a long-term extension that would hinder their ability to pursue other max stars (i.e. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, etc.) in 2021. But the Heat now have a bunch of cap space and more leverage in any negotiation with Gallo, assuming there aren’t any other serious suitors on a long-term deal. Both sides could agree to a front-loaded short-term pact and then go from there. It’s too dramatic to say they need each other, but this one makes a lot of sense.

Tristan Thompson - Boston Celtics

Few teams were willing to make a significant financial commitment at the center position before the league’s most essential revenue stream was suspended. No group of players will feel the plummeting salary cap more than them. Near the top of that list is Thompson, who may need to sign a cheap one-year deal with a contending team—like the Boston Celtics, that can actually use him in meaningful playoff moments next season—then re-enter free agency in 2021. Derrick Favors, Hassan Whiteside, and a couple other bigs may find themselves in a similar situation, assuming they test the market.

The Celtics are happy with Daniel Theis, have Robert Williams waiting in the wings, who knows what Enes Kanter will do with his $5 million player option, and Grant Williams is shaping up to be an essential small-ball five. That’s not a bad big man rotation next year, but Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo aren’t going anywhere. Boston may want to stock up with as many large bodies as it can, especially if the financial commitment isn’t much of a commitment.