Three Teams With More on the Line Than You Realize

NBA lovers, buckle up. Better yet, turn those Twitter notification for Woj and Shams on and prepare for the best and most unpredictable free agency period in all of sports.

Even when the Warriors and Cavaliers were monopolizing nearly a half-decade of NBA Finals, this time of year was still a blast. Now, with Cleveland in the second year of post-LeBron wilderness (part two) and Golden State set to have a gap year of sorts without Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant (even if both re-sign), next year's Finals are truly wide-open in each conference for the first time in a long while.

But beyond the promise of a thrilling, competitive season for 2019-20, there's the fact that several contenders for the crown — including the champions in Toronto — will have at least one superstar or big-name player become an unrestricted free agent in a week. Unless more teams want to pay luxury tax than we assume, some top teams will look very different when games start in October.

Then, there are the four mega-market teams that have put aside lots of cap space to try to leap into contention: the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks and Nets. Of course, the Lakers will get the most attention of this quartet. But, unlike the other three, they won't have cap space for another max contract after bungling the details of the Anthony Davis trade.

I still think a lot of people are underrating how good the Clippers can be should they land Kawhi Leonard and another role player or two with cap space, but I covered that in March.

Perhaps the one team with a title chance next year that's immune from any free agency machinations and doesn't need an acquisition is the Denver Nuggets, who bring back their best 10 players from last year at a total cost that comes in under the luxury tax. Of course, that position of strength means the Nuggets might also be players in the trade market.

You can find plenty of content and cap breakdowns of teams I've alluded to or mentioned above in many places out there. But I want to focus on three teams at varying stages of competitiveness that aren't being discussed as free agency headliners yet this summer. In a couple years, we may look back at the next month as the reason these team did — or didn't — improve and/or contend.

Indiana Pacers

It's easy to forget since the Pacers were swept out of the playoffs by the ultra-dysfunctional Celtics in April, but Nate MacMillan's team was in third place in the East on Jan. 24 after 47 games played when Victor Oladipo suffered a season-ending quad injury. Once Oladipo returns in December or January this coming season, there's potential for Indiana to be a dark-horse contender, especially should Leonard leave Toronto and either Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris depart Philadelphia.

Also, the Pacers have all of Oladipo, Myles Turner, and newly-acquired T.J. Warren locked up through 2021, plus $33 million in cap space this summer to play with.

The downside of that cap space is that key contributors such as Thad Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, and Darren Collison are all unrestricted free agents. I probably don't even need to say this, but the small-market Pacers won't exactly be players for max-level free agents. If Indiana wants to make a next step into 50+ win contention, Kevin Pritchard and the front office will need to be very smart with cap space and who to re-sign with Bird rights.

Dallas Mavericks

The last time the Mavericks started a season without Dirk Nowitzki, Bill Clinton was only months into his second term and Michael Jordan hadn't yet won his final championship. The legend has retired after 21 seasons, but things started off so well in the Luka Doncic era that the Mavs moved their rebuilding timeline up at least a year, clearing out loads of cap space and trading for Kristaps Porzingis for the Knicks.

The Mavericks still have to sign Porzingis as a restricted free agent coming off of an ACL injury (and some questionable allegations/actions), but will have cap space left over to sign a big or mid-tier name to team with the two Europeans.

However, the Mavericks have struggled to attract big free agents in the last decade, and the ones they have seen come to town (Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, O.J. Mayo, among others) were all disappointments on varying levels. If Dallas strikes out on the cap space game again, marginal playoff appearances instead of true contention could be in store for the next few years of the Doncic/Porzingis era.

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers' situation this summer isn't all that different from the run-it-back scenario the Nuggets find themselves in. But there are some key differences.

For one, Jusuf Nurkic's broken leg means he's probably not back until the beginning of 2020 at the earliest. Enes Kanter, who filled in for the Bosnian, is an unrestricted free agent, as are important 3-and-D forward Al-Farouq Aminu and bench shooter Seth Curry.

Portland is capped out and approaching the luxury tax threshold but could still use full Bird rights on Aminu and limited Bird rights on Curry. Kanter is going to be almost impossible to resign, unless he wants to take below market value on a cap exception.

But the injuries to Golden State mean that the Blazers have to strike right here and right now, because this might be their best shot at a title. After all, Portland made the Conference Finals and had the Warriors on the ropes in two of the four games even without Nurkic and a hobbled Kanter dealing with a separated shoulder.

One good sign is that GM Neil Olshey was able to create a relatively deep team this past season with similar financial constraints after the Blazers were swept out of the playoffs in both 2017 and 2018. He'll need to pull something similar out of his hat for Portland to make the next step to the Finals.

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