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5. Detroit Pistons
Cutting Andre Drummond’s player option from the books earmarks the Pistons for more than $30 million in space if they’re not attached to the cap holds of their own free agents.
Langston Galloway could throw a wrench in these projections, but he’s not due for a massive raise from his $7.3 million salary. Floating his hold won’t impact Detroit’s proximity to max money if Tony Snell declines his player option.
Hanging onto Derrick Rose past the trade deadline implies the Pistons are angling for a quick turnaround. That increases the odds of them using their cap space. It does only so much to buoy their appeal.
A willingness to spend matters in this summer’s cash-poor market. It would mean a whole lot more if there were a bunch of available timeline-proof standouts or wandering stars for Detroit to pay. There won’t be.
Besides, the Pistons’ outlook remains up in the air until Blake Griffin takes the floor again. He regained All-NBA flair last season but will close this year with just 18 appearances under his belt while dealing with left knee problems that began at the end of 2018-19. Detroit doesn’t have the surety or market appeal to outperform the league’s other max-space suitors.
4. Charlotte Hornets
Nothing’s more terrifying than a Charlotte Hornets team with max(ish) cap space—for Charlotte Hornets fans, that is.
This front-office regime seems more devoted to a thorough rebuild following Kemba Walker’s departure last summer. They didn’t make an impulsive move at the trade deadline, and buying out Marvin Williams suggests they’re not aiming for the ever unlikely mega-fast about-face.
Free agency will be the ultimate gauge of the Hornets’ stomach for a rebuild. They could get cute with an offer sheet for a sub-max restricted free agent—like Malik Beasley or Bogdan Bogdanovic—and wind up regretting it later.
Patience should be the mandate in Charlotte. Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington and this year’s first offer a starting point. The Hornets should not get caught up in outbidding rivals for any one free agent.
3. New York Knicks
New York’s cap situation is more fluid than anyone else’s in this tier. Picking up Bobby Portis’ team option and guaranteeing all of next year’s one-plus-one salaries would displace them from max-space territory and into mid-level-exception range.
That outcome is not out of the question. The Knicks may see value in kicking the can to 2021 free agency when superstars will crowd the market. Retaining the soon-to-be expirings already in place is a lot easier than brokering new ones.
But running it back is beyond unlikely. Declining Portis’ option alone—as they definitely should—makes the Knicks a cap-space team. From there, only one other departure separates them from the 25 percent max. A second would put them within range of a more veteran max (30 or 35 percent of the cap).
Whatever the Knicks decide to do, they don’t have much pull for free agents with actual options. They employ neither an entrenched superstar nor a prospect definitively on the path to becoming one. They’ve yet to even show they’re invested in developing unfinished products.
Rebranding themselves by not changing anything about the way they handle basketball operations is certainly a decision. New York will always hold a certain intrigue, but for now, that interest has nothing to do with the on-court product.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon knifed into the Hawks’ space but did nothing to torpedo it. They’ll be closer to $50 million in spending power than $45 million, depending on where this year’s draft pick sits.
Flinging a bulk of that money at one player shouldn’t be in the cards. Anthony Davis (player option) and Brandon Ingram (restricted) are the only two players it would make sense for them max out, and neither is likely to bolt his current digs.
Splitting up this money among a few impact acquisitions is the more palatable scenario. Brokering short-term overpays for two impact players is even acceptable.
Atlanta is not close to contention but tipped its interest in winning with the Capela deal. Whether that was the correct decision is a matter of course.
In the meantime, the Hawks have a defensive anchor up front to go along with Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and gobs of space. They’re a desirable destination by default.
1. Miami Heat
Why yes, the Heat did lop off the final year of James Johnson’s and Dion Waiters’ contracts without including a first-round pick or a young player aside from the injured Justise Winslow. Led by team president Pat Riley, their front office remains a logistical juggernaut.
Trimming so much money from next year’s ledger positions them for more than $30 million in room if they renounce all their own free agents. That cash flow mushrooms if Kelly Olynyk declines his player option.
Designs on dominating 2021 free agency could prevent the Heat from shelling out deals that leak past next season. Then again, Jimmy Butler’s salary and Bam Adebayo’s restricted-free-agent hold are the only eight-figure cap hits guaranteed to be on their books. They can sign someone like Danilo Gallinari to a multiyear contract without jeopardizing their inevitable superstar chase that summer.
Free agents will struggle to find a situation much better than what Miami offers: immediate contention and the potential opportunity to be part of a powerhouse by 2021-22.