Ryan Knaus

Offseason Beat

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Free Agency Preview: Central

Friday, June 8, 2018

Today’s column discusses the free-agency and personnel outlook for the five teams in the Central Division, focusing on the players whose immediate futures are uncertain. There aren’t many teams with copious salary-cap space, which should result in plenty of smaller deals, cap-clearing trades and clever use of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s detailed bylaws. If you missed the Southeast Division preview, check it out here, while you can find the Atlantic Division right here.


Chicago Bulls

Draft Picks: 7, 22

Projected Cap Space: $41.5 million


The Bulls' payroll for 2018-19 is oddly top-loaded, to say the least. They'll pay a combined $34.1 million to three big men – Robin Lopez, Omer Asik and Cristiano Felicio – who were all out of the rotation at some point last season. RoLo will either be traded or stuck in the same placeholder role at center, which eventually gave way to a late-season shutdown, and the only intriguing guy here is Felicio. The Bulls committed to Felicio with a four-year, $32 million deal last summer only to watch him disappoint in 2017-18, and he'll need a strong offseason to revive hopes that he can help fantasy owners.


The rest of the picture is brighter, with low-salary guys like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant all under guaranteed contracts. As you can see above, Chicago has a ton of cap space (roughly $40+ million) during an offseason when most teams are up against the luxury tax – potentially giving them a lucrative advantage when luring free agents. They'll have the ability to match offers for restricted free agents Zach LaVine, David Nwaba and Noah Vonleh.


It's likely that LaVine will stay with the Bulls but executive VP John Paxson said in April that they’ll let the market dictate his value – LaVine’s camp feels he’s a max or near-max contract, but he’s coming off ACL surgery and Paxson said “I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple of years … We obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future, but he has the opportunity to explore things.” With only a handful of teams having max-level money available, Chicago could be in the driver’s seat here. The Bulls showed plenty of faith in Nwaba as a defender and opportunistic scorer, but it remains to be seen if they'll even give Vonleh a qualifying offer. Chicago also gets the No. 7 pick in the draft, adding to their young core of talent and cheap contracts for the foreseeable future.


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Cleveland Cavaliers

Draft Picks: 8

Projected Cap Space: -$38.5 million


LeBron James will inevitably opt out of his $35.6 million player option, setting the stage for an LBJ-dominated free agency bonanza. His season hasn't even ended yet, but already the rumor-mill is working hard to fabricate narratives about where he'll sign. Here's a sampling:


Marc Stein of the New York Times reports that Chris Paul has "already begun his recruitment of James to Houston.”


Subsequently, ESPN’s Chris Haynes stated that Houston is “not a realistic option” to land LBJ.


Lakers writer Mark Heisler of the Orange County Register dubbed the Lakers "consensus favorites in the LeBron Derby" because they have two max-contract slots available. The pipe-dream scenario in L.A. is landing both LeBron and Paul George.


Miami Herald columnist Barry Jackson reports that there is “absolutely no expectation inside the Heat that James will return [to Miami].”


ESPN's Adam Reisinger wrote about "the most likely options" for LeBron this summer, which he feels include the Cavaliers, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Spurs.


Fox Sports analyst Chris Broussard writes that it would be a "no-brainer" for LeBron to stay in the East and join the 76ers. He was reportedly told "by people close to LeBron" that he would prefer to play off-ball more often, and Broussard posits Ben Simmons as the perfect player to achieve that goal. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Speaking of which...


For some reason, Antoine Walker has opined that LeBron should join the Celtics because "Kevin Durant joined the best. The best team in the Eastern Conference right now would be the Boston Celtics." We all know LeBron takes his career advice from the Shimmy King.


Other than King James' Decision Pt. 2, the Cavs' roster may not have much turnover. Jeff Green and Jose Calderon will be unrestricted free agents, and Rodney Hood could be restricted if the Cavs make him a $3.4 million qualifying offer. His value is sinking after another injury-plagued season in which he played 60 regular-season games, and he fell out of the Cavs' postseason rotation before a strong Game 3 of the Finals. He'll be a risky fantasy option no matter where he lands. Of course, Cleveland is limited by the sky-high cost of their existing roster and whatever they do will hinge almost entirely on LeBron.



Detroit Pistons

Draft Picks: 42

Projected Cap Space: -$16.9 million


Detroit's offseason has already been tumultuous due to the departure of coach/president Stan Van Gundy. The front office is still being rebuilt but the team is proceeding with their head coach search -- Dwane Casey is reportedly a prime target since Michigan coach John Beilein dropped out, but they're also linked to Ime Udoka, Jason Kidd, Juwan Howard and Kenny Smith.


The player personnel side of things is far calmer, with team pillars Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson under guaranteed deals through at least 2019-20. The Pistons can also decide whether to fully guarantee deals for Reggie Bullock ($2.5 million), Eric Moreland ($1.8m) and Dwight Buycks ($1.6m). Bullock’s season ended in early April due to a knee injury, but Stan Van Gundy downplayed it at the time and there have been no reports of surgeries or ongoing concerns.


The only players headed to unrestricted free agency are Anthony Tolliver (a pet favorite of SVG's), Jameer Nelson and James Ennis. With so much money committed to their top three players, plus a combined $23.0 million going to Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway and Ish Smith, Detroit doesn't have much flexibility on paper.



Indiana Pacers

Draft Picks: 23, 50

Projected Cap Space: $8.1 million


Fresh off a surprising 48-win season, led by Most Improved frontrunner Victor Oladipo, the Pacers have some interesting decisions to make this summer. Thaddeus Young could decline his $13.7 million player option in favor of free agency, where he’d seek a hefty multi-year deal heading into his age-30 season. For what it's worth, he did talk in an exit interview as though he plans to be back, saying, "I think the sky is the limit for us ... now that we all know each other and have played together for a year and have our chemistry down? Next year, it should be 10 times easier." Head coach Nate McMillan doubled-down by saying in early April that Young “wants to be [in Indiana]”


Cory Joseph quickly picked up his $7.9 million player option, a number he was unlikely to reach in free agency due to the lack of teams with cap space. Indiana can (and likely will) save $6.0 million by declining to guarantee Al Jefferson's $10.0 million salary by January, but they'll certainly guarantee deals for Darren Collison ($10.0m) and Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5m). They also hold reasonable team options for Lance Stephenson ($4.3m) and Joseph Young ($1.6m). That leaves just two unrestricted free agents –  Glenn Robinson III and Trevor Booker, whom they scooped up after Philly waived him in February.



Milwaukee Bucks

Draft Picks: 17

Projected Cap Space: -$2.4 million


The Bucks' season ended in disappointment with a loss to Boston in the playoffs, but they're still an up-and-coming team with plenty of cause for optimism. New coach Mike Budenholzer inherits a roster that features Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, John Henson, Tony Snell, Thon Maker, D.J. Wilson and Matthew Dellavedova -- all of those guys are under guaranteed deals.


Malcolm Brogdon will obviously have his $1.5 million salary full-guaranteed, and it's likely the Bucks will also guarantee Tyler Zeller ($1.9m). Given their depth at PG with Bledsoe, Brogdon and Dellavedova, they might opt to let Brandon Jennings leave as a free agent. The biggest decision is how much they'll commit to Jabari Parker, who heads into restricted free agency. Multiple knee surgeries have derailed Parker's career but he's still just 23 years old with tantalizing potential. How much cash Milwaukee will commit depends on their confidence in his health, first and foremost, but Antetokounmpo wasn't shy about sharing his perspective. "Jabari ain’t going nowhere. He’s going to be here and he’s going to be ready for next season."


That concludes the Central Division free-agency overview...check back the next few weeks for my overviews of the other 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 since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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