Zach Lowe: Biggest questions in another wild NBA offseason

The NBA has been spinning out of control since the Finals, and we’ve only now reached the main event: the kickoff of what should be a wild free agency period, even with a flattened cap that squeezed available room around the league.

The NBA knew the cap would skyrocket thanks to its mammoth new national TV deal. Teams at first expected multiple spikes: a huge one last summer, as Kevin Durant hit free agency, and at least one more big jump this summer. Teams splurged a year ago expecting to maintain at least some wiggle room.

Whoops. The cap indeed leapt from $ 70 million in 2015-16 to $ 94 million in the just-concluded season, but it will nudge up only another $ 5 million now. Almost all of the anticipated jump ended up contained within a single offseason — lucky for the Warriors, but not so much for 29 other teams.

Let’s sift through some of the big questions that will define the next week — and perhaps the next few years.

Can Boston pull off the Gordon Hayward/Paul George double?

Boston is on the clock. Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley enter free agency a year from now, meaning their trade value declines every day. Future picks become little less valuable as they become actual young players, and those young players can become a little less valuable as their cheapo rookie deals tick toward expiration.

So much of this offseason, for so many teams, hinges on what Boston can pull off now.

Start here: Dismiss the possibility of Boston signing Hayward, acquiring George, and then somehow signing George to an extension — regardless of how they order the moves. They just can’t open the room to do both without trading Al Horford.

If Boston trades for George, they will do so knowing he could be a rental. That limits the price they are willing to pay. Despite reports to the contrary, Boston has not included any of the following in its offers to the Pacers, per league sources: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, the 2018 Nets pick, and the Lakers-Kings pick Boston snared from Philly in the Markelle Fultz blockbuster.

My best guess on Boston’s standing George offer: Jae Crowder, Smart and Indiana’s choice of protected first-round picks Boston owns from the Clippers and Grizzlies. That doesn’t meet Indiana’s goal of nabbing a top-10 pick or an equivalent talent. The Celtics will be reluctant to bid any higher given the risk of George bolting to the Lakers in a year.

Boston may have to trade Smart anyway to free up max-level cap space for Hayward. The deflated cap killed them. If both Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic come over, there is no way for Boston to pry open Hayward-sized space — about $ 29.7 million — without dealing a Smart-sized salary. Even stashing Yabusele, waiving Jordan Mickey, and dumping both Demetrius Jackson and Terry Rozier — Boston’s Roddy Beaubois! — would leave them a hair short, depending on where precisely the cap falls.

Snaring George before free agency would complicate Boston’s pursuit of Hayward, since they might add something like $ 5 million of 2017-18 salary to their books. That would require dealing Avery Bradley into someone’s cap space, or in exchange for a player making about $ 3 million.

Losing Crowder, Smart and Bradley — plus Kelly Olynyk, a cap casualty — would hurt. It would chip away at Boston’s depth. But don’t overthink this. Boston would be acquiring two All-Star starters in place of two departed starters, and they’re ready to rely on Brown, Rozier and Zizic for real minutes off the bench. They’d be in dire need of big men, but these are sacrifices you make to hunt LeBron. You can’t have everything, or pay everyone. And they’d still have Tatum, the Nets pick and the Lakers-Kings pick.

This is all very doable, depending on how brave Indiana is about going into the season with George. (Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald reported Indiana is asking for both the Nets and Lakers/Kings picks, which is not going to happen.) Boston can always add one of its own picks to sweeten the deal. If they yield on either the Nets or Lakers/Kings pick, George will be a Celtic.

Utah is worried about Hayward, and they should be. The constant injuries to Rodney Hood, George Hill, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks — plus Dante Exum‘s scattershot development — have the roster around Hayward and Rudy Gobert looking more rickety than it did a year ago. Utah has $ 16 million in cap space to take in a starting point guard replacement for Hill ahead of July 1, and they are looking.

Hayward is less than a 50-50 bet to stay, with Boston and Miami in pursuit. (It wouldn’t shock me if a secret fourth team scheduled a last-minute meeting with him, either.) Utah’s hammer, a five-year deal, doesn’t even amount to much of an edge; Hayward can sign a three-year deal with any suitor, nearly match what he’d earn with the Jazz over that time, and re-enter free agency after 10 years of service — at which point players become eligible for a larger max contract. The same math applies to Blake Griffin, who appears to be a legitimate flight risk for the Clippers.

Heat fans have big dreams of snaring both Hayward and Griffin, but that doesn’t appear feasible while keeping Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic.

The Heat also have to earmark money for James Johnson or Dion Waiters. (The bet here is on Johnson.) Tyler Johnson is a key trade piece to watch, this summer and going forward, as the Heat seek flexibility. His salary jumps to $ 19 million in 2018-19 thanks to terms of Brooklyn’s offer sheet from last summer, and the one-year prohibition on the Nets trading for him expires soon. Brooklyn has more than enough cap room to fit Johnson. It also has a stocked, guard-heavy roster light on bigs in the wake of the D’Angelo Russell deal.

Utah isn’t out of this yet. Hayward loves Quin Snyder, and leaving the only franchise he has ever known might prove too wrenching when it comes time to make that final call. If Hayward does leave for Boston, perhaps the Jazz could salvage something in a sign-and-trade — a scenario that would allow Boston to stay over the cap, and keep Smart and Olynyk.

Boston faces more varied competition for George. The Wizards would likely sign-and-trade Otto Porter, with one protected pick attached, to rent George, according to league sources.

Cleveland would swap Love for George straight up, sources say, but as our Marc Stein and Chris Haynes reported over the weekend, that doesn’t interest the Pacers. Cleveland has recruited a third team for Love — the Nuggets — who might supply a combination of picks, young players, and expiring contracts Indiana finds appealing.

Those talks could be revived, sources say. They present a thorny dilemma for Denver. The Nuggets have made Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray untouchable, and they are out of surplus future first-round picks, though they still have their own. That leaves Gary Harris and some intriguing, but unproven, young guys: Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Trey Lyles, Will Barton (not so young at 26) and Tyler Lydon.

You’d assume the Pacers would want Harris and a lightly protected Nuggets pick. Harris is eligible for an extension now, and most executives expect him to command about $ 20 million per year — only $ 4 million less than Love’s average salary. Love is better than Harris, and he’s under contract for at least two more years; he has a $ 25.5 million player option for the third year, 2019-20, and given his age and injury history, it’s not crazy to imagine Love picking it up — and for the Nuggets to be fine with that. Very few player options hit that sweet spot. (I’d still wager on Love cashing in on a long-term deal at that point.)

But Harris is six years younger than Love, at a position where talent — and especially two-way talent — is scarce. This is not an easy choice, given the defensive limitations of a ground-bound Love-Jokic frontline and the gap between that version of Denver and the Warriors.

If the Nuggets yank Harris out, it’s hard to find a deal that satisfies the Pacers unless Denver throws in two picks. If Denver bows out, it’s hard to find a realistic third team for Cleveland. Perhaps Phoenix would leap for Love, though they have scheduled meetings with power forwards — Griffin and Millsap — they could just sign without dealing away any assets. (To be clear, they are underdogs for both.) The Wizards could veer from George to Love, but they don’t appear interested for now — and feel queasy about facilitating a LeBron-George partnership.

The Cavs will keep trying for George, hoping whatever they wrangle beats the Lakers’ reported offer of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and two low first-round picks — perhaps Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.

The Lakers telegraphed plans to lure two max-level stars next summer by dumping Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic deal, and attaching Russell as the sweetener. Perhaps they thought they would have a harder time unloading Mozgov later, after teams had spent all their cap space, or that Russell’s value would suffer losing minutes to Lonzo Ball.

We’ve seen this movie before: the lottery Lakers whiff on stars. Some haven’t even bothered to sit down with them, an unthinkable indignity for the league’s glamour franchise. George was supposed to be the first star that guaranteed a second, but in trading Russell, the Lakers forfeited the one interesting chip between the two assets they’re hell-bent on keeping — Ball and Brandon Ingram — and the ones Indiana doesn’t want (yet).

Maybe the Pacers had zippo interest in Russell. He has a reputation as a knucklehead gunner, though the pearl-clutching over the behavior of a 21-year-old with a million-dollar lifestyle in sunny L.A. seems a little ridiculous. Maybe swallowing Mozgov was a condition of any Russell deal, and a no-go for the Pacers. Maybe Russell’s agent, who also represents George, wanted Russell in another mega-market.

Maybe Indiana is playing this perfectly, and L.A. will yield on Ingram if they sense Boston or Cleveland might pounce. Maybe the Lakers have full confidence that George and Superstar X are coming in a year, a double dip that would have almost certainly required jettisoning Russell (along with Randle and Clarkson) anyway.

If they’re wrong, the Lakers are engaged in a delicate dance. Without George, they will be bad again, with little to sell beyond a vague and fading allure. With George in exchange for Randle and Clarkson, they would still top out as mediocre.

Meanwhile, George is intrigued by the idea of playing with Hayward, sources close to him have told ESPN.com. If Boston adds one more asset, they can disrupt L.A.’s best-laid plans.

How tight does the cap get and who keeps their powder dry?

The cap room bonanza of the past two offseasons warped the timing of free agency strategies. Teams splurged on non-stars at the stroke of midnight July 1 to beat rivals flush with cap space. The theory was simple: The cap was rising so fast, and so high, that overpaying would do minimal long-term damage.

When the aggressive tack worked, it got you Al-Farouq Aminu on what turned out to be a tidy $ 8 million-per-year deal below this season’s midlevel exception. When it failed, you ended up with Mozgov earning six times Nene Hilario’s salary.

There is still enough money, and enough desperation, that some teams will act early. But more should wait if they can’t ink their first non-superstar choice, and find Nene-style bargains sitting untouched a week into the derby. We could see more deals that look a little crazy — in both the cheap and expensive directions.

The league hasn’t released a new official projection for the 2018-19 cap, but most executives expect another small uptick. If teams with room this summer spend most of it, next summer could be really tight. Having cap space might mean something again.

If annual raises on max deals outpace year-to-year growth in the cap, keeping teams together will get expensive — fast. Hard choices await.

Teams have already realized. It will be fascinating to see how many try to keep their powder dry. Paul Millsap will be a test case. A year ago, it was almost unanimous among executives that someone would lavish Millsap a four-year max deal. People once muttered the same about Serge Ibaka and even Danilo Gallinari, but the market for both has cooled to the $ 20 million range, sources say.

Look at some of the potential Millsap suitors: Denver had a deal in place for Millsap a year ago, contingent on Atlanta re-signing Al Horford (whoops!), and they have max space for Millsap now. But they also need to look ahead a year, when Harris and Jokic could be due big paydays; if the Nuggets spend now, it will be harder to spend later. (Side note: Jokic’s next contract could kick in for either 2018-19 or 2019-20, depending on how the Nuggets handle their team option on him for the 2018-19 season. They face the same complex dilemma with Jokic that Houston navigated three years ago with Chandler Parsons.)

The Wolves will spend now, since it will be very hard for them to carve out room once Andrew Wiggins‘ new deal starts. The Suns and Knicks could spend themselves out of max-level free agency next summer, depending on a bunch of variables. If things break right for them, Miami and Utah will be capped-out next July. If they lose out on this summer’s stars, they could roll their cap space over.

Even the Kings, flush with almost infinite cap space if they renounce all three of Ben McLemore (done already), Rudy Gay, and Darren Collison, could still approach $ 90 million in payroll ahead of next July’s free agency if they overpay Millsap (or some other pricey vet) now.

The Lakers are biding their time. The Sixers have told agents they will seek one-year deals this summer to preserve future space — and possibly use some of their current room to extend Robert Covington. The one-year gambit will be a hard sell for high-profile guys. J.J. Redick didn’t wait this long to sign a one-year deal at age 33.

A potentially cramped cap environment next summer factors into Boston’s pursuit of Hayward and George; Isaiah Thomas enters free agency in a year, and Boston may be hoping a lack of space — plus an over-saturation of point guards — deflates his market below the max.

A return of the tank?

One reason teams might keep their powder dry: to tank for a year while the Warriors and Cavs destroy everyone! Chicago is set up to tank after the Jimmy Butler trade, and the Pacers could be, too, if they flip George — and let Jeff Teague walk. (Our Ian Begley reported Wednesday that the Knicks, post-triangle, have renewed interest in Teague.)

Atlanta’s new GM, Travis Schlenk, seems willing to lose Millsap — outright, or via sign-and-trade — if the bidding gets too frothy. Do that, and the Hawks could fall into a top-five pick.

The Kings have seven first-round picks from the past two drafts on their roster. That might be some kind of record. They are primed to tank in a year in which they own their pick. (The Kings owe their 2019 pick to either Boston or Philly.) They also have an owner dying to host playoff games in their gleaming new arena. There have been reports of Sacto planning to toss huge money at Millsap, Gallinari, and other win-now veterans instead of just playing the kiddos.

Overspend on multi-year deals, and the Kings could find themselves short of max-level room next summer. Perhaps there is a middle way: sign a couple of mid-priced character vets who teach winning habits without sabotaging the tank or soaking up too much future cap room.

Another method of tanking tied to the tighter cap environment: Teams with room could use it to take unwanted contracts — plus draft picks — from rivals who spent big last summer, and feel buyer’s remorse as they approach the tax. The Pistons, Hornets, Bucks, Raptors and Blazers come to mind as money-shedders.

Barring a massive offer sheet, I’d expect Milwaukee to re-sign Tony Snell for something in the $ 10-12 million range — a move that would nudge them right up against the tax. Milwaukee could waive Spencer Hawes with the stretch provision, but even then, they still might dangle John Henson and Mirza Teletovic.

Where do all the point guards go?

Boy, things change in a week. The Sixers and Nets may have taken themselves out of the $ 20 million point guard market in acquiring Fultz and Russell. Chris Paul plays for the Rockets. The Bulls added Kris Dunn to their army of misfit point guards.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans need Jrue Holiday; if he bolts, they will have only about $ 13 million to replace him. The Kings drafted De’Aaron Fox, though they might still spend big on a veteran mentor if they want to chase the No. 8 seed (stop laughing). The other free agents had better hope so, because without the Kings, Sixers, and Nets to goose the market as stalking horses, there may not be a ready $ 25 million-plus offer to leverage with their incumbent teams.

The Knicks and Mavs, obvious point guard suitors, can open only about $ 20 million of room without moving money. There are some wild-card teams who could invigorate the market. The Pacers face a void if Teague leaves. The Nuggets have been focused on power forwards, but if they can’t land a pricey one, they could always pivot to point guard. (They might also be ready to give Jamal Murray more reps there.) The Spurs loom.

The Jazz may nab a point — perhaps even Ricky Rubio via trade — before their $ 16 million of remaining 2016-17 cap space vaporizes on July 1. Failing that, they could become a big-money suitor if George Hill and Hayward leave.

If Minnesota flips Rubio into someone’s cap space, they’ll go big-game hunting. Lowry would fit nicely there.

There is room for some fun, poker-style negotiating. Incumbent teams could play hard ball, daring their stars to find better offers elsewhere. Toronto would feel much more comfortable with Lowry on a four-year, $ 100 million deal than on a five-year contract approaching $ 200 million. Why not open the bidding close to that first amount? Who is beating it?

But that risks annoying players and agents, who might search for capped-out teams willing to back up the Brinks truck in a sign-and-trade.

It’s quiet … too quiet

It feels like we should be hearing more about:

• Toronto. Facing onerous tax payments ahead of arguably the most important offseason in franchise history, with the Kazoos sniffing around their GM. Something has to give here. Lowry and Ibaka have the same agent, and it was widely assumed the Raptors would pony up to re-sign Ibaka after dealing for him at the trade deadline.

• Portland, staring at tax hell for a team that finished at .500.

• Detroit, approaching the tax for a team that didn’t even do that. Does Brooklyn, heavy on guards in the wake of the Lopez/Russell deal, really want to hand Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a max offer sheet? If not — if it prefers Porter — who should Detroit fear?

• Golden State, juggling four stars and a sixth man, Andre Iguodala, who might want a three-year deal as he enters his twilight. A deal that long would overlap with the first year of Klay Thompson‘s next mega-deal, adding to the Warriors’ (potentially) unprecedented tax burden.

• Oklahoma City. The Thunder have zero cap flexibility, two interesting free agents (Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson) who would rocket them way into the tax, and an MVP with a year left on his contract. Buckle up.

• Memphis. Four major outgoing free agents, and not enough money for all of them. The Grizzlies are crossing their fingers JaMychal Green‘s market is cooler than expected.

• Orlando. The Magic have aimed big in recent years. They have shockingly little cap room — about $ 13 million — for a team that didn’t even win 30 games.

Enjoy the fireworks, everyone!

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