Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Who They Are: Restricted free agents who have played well enough to catch the rest of the league’s attention and stand to benefit most from their limited availability. Incumbent teams have the right to match any offer they receive, and it usually takes aggressive overbids to make their returns a matter of debate.
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Rival teams will see an opening to steal Malcolm Brogdon if the Bucks are resigned to paying whatever it takes for Khris Middleton. Their wiggle room beneath the tax dictates outside overtures come in hot and heavy, but a max for Middleton leaves them with more than $50 million committed to him and Eric Bledsoe next year.
Matching a monster offer for Brogdon might become untenable. Something in the ballpark of $15 million to $17 million per year is workable, but what if he costs closer to $20 million? Or more?
Laugh it off, but Brogdon is turning enough heads for things to get weird. He has the wingspan to defend up to small forwards and is the ideal offensive complement for a team with primary ball-handlers already in tow.
Noticeably, more than half Brogdon’s made baskets come off assists, and he’s draining nearly 50 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. Stephen Curry is the only other player averaging as many points, assists and three-pointers per 36 minutes while matching Brogdon’s true shooting percentage.
Outside interest might not matter. The Bucks may be open to paying the tax or bringing back both Brogdon and Middleton and figuring out the rest later. Taking that stance won’t scare off anyone. Certain teams will have no qualms about temporarily tying up their cap space in Brogdon if it messes with Milwaukee’s books.
Teams to watch: Milwaukee, Chicago, Utah
Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
Kelly Oubre Jr. wouldn’t have made this cut a few weeks ago. He’s played himself into the conversation.
Since failing to score in double figures for three consecutive games at the beginning of January, he’s averaging 18.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 block. His three-point splits are still bumpy during this stretch, but he’s canning more than 54 percent of his two-pointers and getting to the line at a career-best clip. Phoenix’s defense is even having some nice moments when he plays beside Mikal Bridges and De’Anthony Melton.
Happier times, which include a recent surge of above-.500 basketball, have left Oubre smitten. He wants to stick with the Suns.
“I’m here, No. 3, small forward for the Phoenix Suns,” he said, per the Arizona Republic‘s Duane Rankin. “Trying to keep it that way for the rest of my career.”
Oubre’s return is anything but a given. Matching huge offers for him is difficult when they have a few other wings on the roster—Bridges, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren— and a hole at point guard.
Unloading other money helps, as does picking up a floor general in the draft, but the Suns have to be conscious of how much they’re spending to preserve a sub-25-win nucleus. They’ve already paid Warren, and Booker’s max extension kicks in next season.
All of this invites enemy courtship. Switchable wings are among the NBA’s most coveted assets, and Oubre’s offensive uptick will sway more than a few teams. That he’s just 23 only increases the likelihood he gets an above-market offer.
Teams to watch: Atlanta, Phoenix, Sacramento Kings
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
D’Angelo Russell is the riskiest inclusion of this exercise. On the one hand, 23-year-old All-Star point guards are hard to come by. On the other hand, this summer’s market isn’t teeming with cap-rich suitors looking to mortgage all of their buying power for one.
Orlando picked up Markelle Fultz at the trade deadline. Phoenix needs to renounce Oubre and pawn off additional money to give Brooklyn a real scare. Indiana doesn’t dabble in poaching restricted free agents.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have played the Kings out of Zach LaVine-ing another guard. The Knicks are liable to get stupid if they miss on all the A-listers, but they have Dennis Smith Jr. Do the Bulls dare try pairing Russell with LaVine in the backcourt?
This bodes well for the Nets. Russell’s career year will cost them, but he probably won’t have the leverage to take them for near-max money. Then again, he’s grown in almost every facet of the game. His finishing around the rim is spotty and he doesn’t get to the line nearly enough, but he’s elevated his table-setting and shot creation.
At this rate, Russell will join Stephen Curry and James Harden as just the third player in league history to average more than 20 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes. His leadership deserves a shoutout as well. The way he handled sitting in crunch time earlier this year was beyond professional.
It only takes one team to inflate the sum of his next contract. His cap hold will stand at nearly $21 million entering free agency. He’ll find an offer sheet valued at more per year if he’s deemed cornerstone material. That’s too much to gamble on a single breakout year.
Teams to watch: Brooklyn, Chicago, Utah