NBA Free Agency Primer: Finding Your Next Team

The NBA landscape may undergo a seismic shift over the coming days and weeks. Many players will switch teams, leaving heartbroken fans in their wake. But other fans will be faced with a dilemma: stay loyal to their current team, or jump ship just like their favorite player. As player empowerment has become one of the dominant narratives surrounding the league, let’s take it one step further and give the same power to the fans. Of course, just like players, not every fan can be a free agent. There might not be any formal contracts, but some fans have a psychological and emotional bond that might as well be legally binding. If you’re a fourth generation Knicks fan, you’re probably stuck on what may continue to be a sinking ship. But for the fans who might find themselves on the open market this summer, we are here to help make sure that you choose your next team wisely.

When players make their free agent decisions, they’ll consider the championship readiness of the team, the players they would get to play with, the weather and size of the market, and naturally how much money they’re being offered. For a fan trying to find their new favorite team, the criteria are different. Sadly, no team will be offering you any money to root for them (although if New Orleans hadn’t won the Zion lottery, they might have had to consider it). No companies will be lining up with endorsement deals, so your exposure and marketability shouldn’t be top off mind. And unless you’re really committing to the bit, you won’t be moving to your new team’s city, making the weather is irrelevant.

The one common factor that is tricky to navigate for both players and fans alike is whether your new team is a contender. Everyone can understand a player not wanting to align themselves with a bad team, but the better team they pick, the more backlash and scrutiny they’ll receive (see: Durant, Kevin). Fans might have an even tougher standard to hold themselves too, as few want to be seen as climbing on an already full bandwagon. So if you find yourself in the market for a new team this summer, allow us to play matchmaker. All you need is a little self-reflection, and to figure out what’s really important to you and your fandom.

You Don’t Care If the Bandwagon Is Full, You Just Want to Win

Potential Teams: Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors

As could be expected, free agency will have a massive impact on this tier of teams.  If Kawhi leaves, the Raptors bandwagon will look like when the final bell rings at school on the day before summer vacation.  The Bucks, 76ers, and Warriors should all be in better shape to handle any exits, assuming they’re able to retain at least some of their free agent star power.  On the flip side, the Nets, Clippers, and Knicks are not even a part of this discussion unless their big game free agent hunting is successful.  The one team we haven’t mentioned yet?  The Lakers, who already have two superstars on their roster and could possibly add a third before the week is over.  So yeah, if you don’t mind that the bandwagon will be like the 6 train in New York City during rush hour, the LeBrons are the easy pick here.

Our Recommendation: Los Angeles Lakers

You Pride Yourself on Buying Low and Selling High

Potential Teams: Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors (if KD leaves), Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors (if Kawhi leaves)

The problem with elbowing your way on to a full bandwagon is that it can really only go downhill from there.  It’s like buying a stock at its absolute peak – sure, it might still go up slightly, but the downside greatly outweighs the upside.  Fortunately for the savvy stock traders, there are several NBA teams experiencing a temporary dip that might obscure their true value.  The Celtics were a dumpster fire last season, but will enter next year with a core of Kemba, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward.  The narrative around Houston is that everyone hates each other, but this still looks a lot like the team that almost beat Golden State two years ago.  As for the Warriors, regardless of free agency they won’t have KD or Klay for most or all of next season.  But they still have that Steph Curry guy, and he’s pretty good.  The Kawhi-less Raptors would have the bleakest outlook of these four teams, unless you believe Pascal Siakim can become Giannis-lite (still, it would be fun to spend all of next season reminding people that you’re cheering for the reigning champs).  With all that said, assuming you can stomach Harden’s foul-centric game, Houston offers the most immediate upside (but fair warning, you might be looking for a new team again next offseason if the infighting continues…).

Our Recommendation: Houston Rockets. Proceed with caution.

You’re Tired of the Big Market Teams Always Having the Upper Hand

Potential Teams: Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz

Four of potentially the best dozen NBA teams currently get very little national media attention.  That is unlikely to change, unless one of these teams establishes themselves as a true contender.  But guess what?  That is very likely to happen!  Unless we get the three-star, super team Lakers, the chase for the NBA title should be wide open next season.  Why couldn’t one of these teams break away from the crowd and make a serious run?  After last season it would have been fair to say that each of these teams needed at least one big move to ascend into the NBA’s elite.  The Jazz already made their move, trading for Mike Conley earlier in the offseason.  But for the Nuggets, their move might come in the form of redshirt rookie Michael Porter Jr., who was once a star high school recruit, and may finally be healthy.  Free agency could definitely change the outlook of these teams, but for now go with the Nuggets.  If you need any more convincing, you’d be able to brag to your friends that you have a lower body fat percentage than the superstar of your favourite team!

Our Recommendation: Denver Nuggets

You’re a Sucker for Legacy (And Stuck in 2014)

Potential Teams: Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs

If you were an NBA fan that had been in a coma for five years, you might wake up assuming that the Spurs, Heat, and Thunder were all still really good teams.  You would be wrong.  All three teams are stuck in the good, but not good enough, tier of teams.  Of the three, Oklahoma City appears closest to contention since they have Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but a quick look at their bloated cap sheet shows that they have new avenues to meaningfully improve their team.  The Spurs seem stuck in between the past (Popovich, Aldridge, DeRozan) and the future (Murray, White), and offer few reasons to get excited.  Currently, the Heat’s roster is easily the worst of the bunch… but there will always be South Beach, with its nice weather and state tax laws, so here’s betting that Miami will look a lot different in a few years’ time.

Our Recommendation: Miami Heat

You like to Be Ahead of the Curve

Potential Teams: Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans

We all have that one friend who got an Instagram account before everyone else, and loves to remind you of that fact now that it’s become a cultural staple.  Lucky for you, you can get your revenge and apply that same approach to your fandom.  None of these teams is going to win the championship next year.  In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if none of them made the playoffs.  But in two or three years?  Watch out.

Recent NBA history suggests that for a team to become a true contender they need a superstar-level talent.  The Mavericks seem to have that in Luka, and unless every draft analyst was wrong, the Pelicans should be all set with Zion as well.  The Hawks think they’ve found their superstar in Trae Young, but we’re not so sure.  And as impressive as Chicago’s collection of nice, young talent is, no one projects to be a consistent All-Star level player.  Given that, this really comes down to Dallas and New Orleans. Without having seen Zion in an NBA game, it’s tough to say if he’ll end up being better than Luka (who set a very high bar last season). Looking past their two superstars, it is a battle between New Orleans’ remarkable cache of future picks and Dallas’ potential second superstar, Kristaps Porzingis. Given his recent health woes, betting on Porzingis is maybe not the smartest move… but if you’re right you might find yourself cheering for the NBA’s next dynasty. Even if it’s only a 1% chance, that feels like a chance worth taking.

Our Recommendation: Dallas Mavericks

You’d Rather Be on an Island Than Part of a Crowd

Potential Teams: Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings

This is basically the more obscure version of the previous category.  Unless you live in one of these cities, none of your friends are fans of any of these teams.  Sure, they might think Karl-Anthony Towns is pretty good and DeAaron Fox is fun to watch on League Pass, but that’s it.  So here’s your chance to become the resident NBA hipster of your friend group.  All four teams offer some amount of upside, although if Vucevic leaves Orlando in free agency it will be tough to find many silver linings.  Minnesota has Towns, but that’s about it (and can you imagine having to defend Andrew Wiggins’ max contract?).  The Kings have some exciting pieces, but they’re only a year removed from being the laughingstock of the entire league; plus, after their success last season, they might no longer be hipster material.  That means all roads lead to Memphis, which finally has a semi-promising future thanks to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr..  Just try to forget the first rounder that they owe to Boston…

Our Recommendation: Memphis Grizzlies (but make other plans for the next two drafts)

You’re a Masochist

Potential Teams: Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks (if they strike out in free agency), Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards

Don’t do it.  There’s no good reason to choose one of these teams, you have 24 other options.  Why would you subject yourself to this?!  But if you insist, let’s break it down.  The post-Kemba Hornets have the bleakest outlook in the entire league.  The Wizards have Bradley Beal (but probably not for long…) and the worst contract in the league in John Wall’s supermax.  The Pistons have just enough talent to fight for the 8th seed and get swept in the first round, which is the definition of being stuck in NBA purgatory.  And the Knicks and the Suns are in a heated battle for the worst ownership in the NBA, and third place isn’t exactly close.  So… believe it or not, that leaves us with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Hope you enjoy the next few years cheering for Sexton, Garland, and, above all else, ping pong balls.

Our (Begrudging) Recommendation: Cleveland Cavaliers

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