Today’s column discusses the free-agency and personnel outlook for the five teams in the Northwest Division, focusing on players whose immediate futures are uncertain. There aren’t many teams with copious salary-cap space this summer, which should result in plenty of smaller deals, cap-clearing transactions and clever use of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s detailed bylaws. If you missed the previous five Division previews, you can check them out right here:
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Draft Picks: 20, 48
Salary Cap Projection: -$15.3m
The core roster is locked in place for the Wolves this season, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, Taj Gibson and Tyus Jones all inked. A major concern will be maintaining that core long-term while navigating the salary cap. KAT is due for a max extension offer this summer, and the Wolves must plan for possible unrestricted free agency for Butler and Teague next year. In addition to all that, they'll be dealing with ballooning payments to Wiggins, whose five-year, $148 million extension kicks in this year. It doesn’t help that Dieng will be paid $48.6m through 2021.
In short, the Wolves aren't in position to do much shopping in free agency this year, barring trades. Cole Aldrich's $6.9m deal is only partially guaranteed and he should be cut loose, but they'll need to decide how much Nemanja Bjelica is worth going forward. He's restricted but could get offer sheets out of the Wolves' comfort zone – he had an impressive stretch with Butler injured in March and finished with career-highs of 6.8 points and 4.1 boards on 46.1% shooting.
The other impending puzzle piece is Jamal Crawford's free agency, since he declined a $4.5m option to hit the open market. Even at 38 years old he provided necessary scoring and playmaking off Minnesota's bench, averaging 10.3 points, 2.3 assists, 1.3 triples and 0.5 steals in just 20.7 minutes per game. The low playing time helped him stay on the court, and he's now missed a mere five games in the past three seasons combined. That's simply remarkable given his age. Jimmy Butler has reportedly asked management to keep J-Craw in town, but Sean Deveney of the Sporting News writes that “Crawford is not expected to return to the team.”
If they lose Bjelica and/or Crawford, the Wolves will even more urgently need to acquire other 3-point shooters. Despite those two guys averaging 2.4 threes per game, the Wolves ranked dead last in triples attempted (22.4) and made (8.0) in the regular season. One final player worth mentioning is Derrick Rose. He'll be unrestricted this summer and Tom Thibodeau reportedly wants to bring him back after his solid showing in the postseason. Even if Rose does return, the Wolves have committed to keeping up-and-coming guard Tyus Jones on the court more often in 2018-19.
Draft Picks: 21, 52
Salary Cap Projection: $11.6m
Fresh off an impressive 48-win season highlighted by the emergence of ROY candidate Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz are well-positioned going into the offseason. Derrick Favors will be an unrestricted FA and it’s uncertain how much Utah might commit to retaining him, given his less-than-ideal fit alongside Rudy Gobert. Favors said he hopes to re-sign but acknowledged that doing so would require “certain sacrifices.” The 26-year-old big man started all 77 games last season but averaged a modest 28.0 minutes per game, and may eventually be consigned to a backup-center role if he sticks with the Jazz. If he were to sign with a team like Dallas or Chicago, however, Favors could man the starting C job full-time – it’s too early to tell which teams might pursue him.
Dante Exum and Raul Neto are Utah’s only restricted free agents, assuming they get qualifying offers, and it will be interesting to see how much attention Exum draws. The oft-injured guard fared well in the second round vs. Houston, averaging 8.3 points on 52.0% shooting, while playing admirable defense vs. James Harden. He averaged 10.1 personal fouls per 48 minutes in the series, which is ludicrous, but still displayed the two-way upside that led Utah to draft him No. 5 overall in 2014. For what it’s worth, GM Dennis Lindsey said the Jazz “hope to retain him,” adding, “Dante’s done his job … We don’t think he’s injury prone — things happen to young players.” Whether he stays in Utah should depend on the size of competing offers.
Utah’s other unavoidable roster decisions involve non-guaranteed contracts. Thabo Sefolosha ($5.2m), Jonas Jerebko ($4.2m), Ekpe Udoh ($3.3m), Royce O’Neale ($1.3m) and David Stockton ($1.5m) can all be waived – Utah needs to decide on Sefolosha, Jerebko and Udoh by July. Sefolosha is recovering from knee surgery and facing a five-game suspension for violating the anti-drug program, so it’s likely the Jazz will part ways with him. O’Neale proved to be a terrific two-way addition in his rookie season, and he’s the only player in this group that will definitely be returning – Lindsey hopes he embraces his role as a 3-and-D specialist.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Draft Picks: 53, 57
Salary Cap Projection: -$36.5m
LeBron James will continue to dominate the free-agent headlines until he chooses his next franchise, but Paul George is the biggest concern for OKC. The Rockets will reportedly pursue him to form part of a 'superteam', but cap limitations (and their tricky simultaneous pursuit of LeBron) could make that extremely difficult to pull off. The Lakers are frequently mentioned as a landing spot for PG-13 if he opts to leave the Thunder. He has roots in the area and L.A. has both a huge market and the financial flexibility to pair him with multiple non-Westbrook superstars.
George has remained vague about his plans but he did say in April, "I'm not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career. The decision I make will ultimately be to build something. So, this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I'm there for a duration." It's worth mentioning that George had had left knee surgery in May. It was an arthroscopic clean-up procedure, though, and he should be fine for training camp.
Carmelo Anthony also looms large over the Thunder offseason, as he could potentially exercise an early-termination clause in favor of free agency. OKC must be hoping he declines his $27.9m salary after a brutal 2017-18 campaign – Melo averaged 16.2 points on 40.4% FGs and 76.7% FTs, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists, all at or near career-lows. He said after a terrible postseason performance that a bench role was "out of the question," which leaves the prospect of a full year of his ill-fit alongside Westbrook and (potentially) George. Melo also reportedly forgot what time Game 5 started, which adds a bizarre coda to his season in OKC. As for which teams might pursue him if he opts for free agency? That remains an open question.
Draft Picks: 14, 43, 58
Salary Cap Projection: -$6.4m (via Spotrac)
The Nuggets' season ended one win shy of a playoff berth, but they can head into next season confident in their talented young core – assuming they can afford to keep it intact. Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Gary Harris alone are owed $59.1 million next year, and Denver needs to be sure they can give Nikola Jokic a max-salary deal when the time comes (he has a $1.6 million team option for 2018-19). The Nuggets are also dealing with the unrestricted free agency of Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Richard Jefferson and Devin Harris. Retaining super-sub Barton alone will cost a pretty penny.
Assuming both Wilson Chandler ($12.8m) and Darrell Arthur ($7.4m) opt into their player options, the Nuggets are in a financial bind. Kenneth Faried is also owed $13.7 million this summer and Adrian Wojnarowski reported in May that the Nuggets are still trying to trade him. It's a concept that Faried embraced last September, telling reporters, "If this team doesn’t want or respect me enough to play me ... then I understand that. There are 29 other [teams]. Maybe I go somewhere else and do what I need to do there." The problem is that no team appears eager to acquire an undersized big man without shooting range. One option could be using the stretch provision on Faried to reduce his cap hit – when asked about that approach, president Tim Connelly replied, "The salary cap is a puzzle ... We will explore all of those things."
Portland Trail Blazers
Draft Picks: 24
Salary Cap Projection: -$12.5m
Jusuf Nurkic's looming free agency is the biggest question mark for a team that finished third in the West yet got swept by New Orleans in the first round. The Blazers have an expensive roster that offers limited financial flexibility, as $92.7 million is owed to just five players – Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard.
Nurk stayed healthy last season, playing in 79 games, but his stats dipped in most categories at 14.3 points (10.5% FGs, 63.0% FTs), 9.0 boards, 1.4 blocks and 0.8 steals. He also committed more turnovers (2.3) than assists (1.8), but will Portland feel confident enough to proceed with Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard at the center spot? Caleb Swanigan can also earn some minutes in the middle, but with Ed Davis also heading to unrestricted free agency, they’ll need someone with the bulk to battle guys like Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins. For what it’s worth, Nurk said he “definitely” wants to re-sign with the Blazers, before adding, “My agent and people here figure out the rest. Or not.”
Beyond the questions in the frontcourt, Portland only has a few free-agency decisions to make. Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton are both restricted FAs who did enough last season to warrant interest from at least a few teams. Given the salary-cap crunch in Portland, it’s safe to assume they won’t be able (or willing) to match the type of offers Napier will receive from other teams. The Blazers also have non-guaranteed deals for Wade Baldwin, Jake Layman and Georgios Papagiannis, none of whom should matter in fantasy regardless of their whereabouts next season.
That concludes the Northwest Division free-agency overview! Refer to the beginning of this column for links to the other Divisions, and check Rotoworld’s news feed for updated news and rumors as we head into the free agency frenzy!