5 teams that could steal the Cavs’ favorite free-agent target

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Free agency begins Friday at 6 p.m., and the Cavs are optimistic they can upgrade a roster that won 51 games last season.

Their best resource — a non-taxable mid-level exception worth $12.4 million — is nothing to scoff at, but other teams around the league have deeper pockets and, in some cases, better roles to offer. Also, Cleveland’s biggest need — quality wings — may be the most common wish list in NBA circles, so they’ll have competition for their preferred target.

Hours before teams can agree on deals, cleveland.com asks: Which teams can snag the Cavs’ favorite free agents?

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1. Houston Rockets

Houston’s best deal for free agents is the bag of money it can offer them.

The Rockets have the most cap space — about $60 million — of any team and healthy motivation to use it, given that general manager Rafael Stone has presided over two straight 60-loss seasons.

That makes Houston the enemy of any team trying to make affordable deals this summer. The Rockets have been linked to 76ers guard James Harden, Raptors guard Fred Van Vleet, Lakers guard Austin Reaves, Bucks center Brooke Lopez and Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks to name a few. Even if Houston doesn’t steal those players with big offers, it can at least drive their price up.

Brooks is the important name for Cleveland there, not because the Cavs want him, but because they want a player like him. If Houston is prepared to bid for Brooks, why wouldn’t they do the same for players like Kyle Kuzma, Max Strus and Grant Williams, all of whom fit Cleveland’s needs on the wing?

Win cases in these negotiations and the Cavs are much more competitive than Houston. But the Rockets can close that gap with bags of money, which might be hard to argue against.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Can Victor Wembanyama — plus a few extra bucks — turn the Spurs into a warmer landing spot?

The Spurs need at least $25 million to reach the league’s salary floor, and their competitive landscape changed instantly when they drafted Victor Wembanyama first. So they could be another big spender that disrupts Cleveland’s offseason plans.

The position to watch here is center, which sounds odd considering Wembanyama is 7-foot-4. But at 209 pounds, he’ll have to play with a beefier big man who can defend the league’s stronger big men until Wembanyama adds weight.

Cleveland’s biggest need is wings, but that market could dry up quickly. And the Knicks made it clear the Cavs need more size during April’s playoff series. If Cleveland and San Antonio bid for the same big man, San Antonio has more money and can sell a brighter future around a potentially transcendent prospect.

3. Indiana Pacers

Free agents who want more shots can enjoy playing next to Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, who is known for his unselfish play.

The Pacers enter free agency $18 million under the league’s salary floor, and expect to have about $32 million in cap space overall. They’ve also built a roster similar to Cleveland’s, with most of the talent concentrated at guard and center.

With that in mind, Indiana will likely present the Cavs with another bidding opponent in the wing market. Once again, Cleveland can push a better roster and at least equal playing time for a quality wing. And the Pacers, like the Rockets and Spurs, can offer more money.

A wildcard factor: Both Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland (rightly) boasted usage rates above 25% last season. No Pacer — not even rising star Tyrese Haliburton — controlled possessions as often, which could appeal to a free agent who prioritizes on-ball options.

4. Detroit Pistons

Cade Cunningham (left) and Jaden Ivey (right) headline one of the league’s most exciting young cores, but will veterans have enough patience to let them make mistakes?

Lather, rinse: The Pistons have an exciting young core and could open up about $30 million in cap space this summer. The Cavs have a proven core, but can only offer the non-taxable mid-level exception.

The question worth asking here, and with many of these young teams having cap space, is whether a veteran feels comfortable being below a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings in the pecking order. Even if Detroit signs a player with a proven resume, his needs are not as important as Cade Cunningham’s, Jaden Ivey’s or Ausar Thompson’s in Detroit’s eyes.

The same goes for Cavs stars Mitchell, Garland and Evan Mobley, but they have earned their place in Cleveland’s hierarchy. Not hard to imagine a recognized veteran getting frustrated with growing pains he deems correctable, especially if the fix puts the ball in his hands.

5. Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James and Los Angeles form a tough free-agent pitch to beat.

Finally a team that Cleveland can compete with financially. Assuming the Lakers keep core pieces like Reaves, Rui Hachimura and D’Angelo Russell, their top free agent offer would also be $12.4 million MLE.

Small hiccup: Los Angeles’ MLE comes with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Manhattan Beach. The Lakers have long coaxed free agents to join their roster with LA’s lifestyle as part of the pitch. And James has long attracted prolific role players who know the type of shots and big scenes he can open up for them.

The Cavs’ leg up here is possibly game time. Cleveland struggled to fill out a seven-man rotation during its playoff series against New York, and second-round pick Emoni Bates likely won’t be ready to contribute this season. The Lakers, on the other hand, had nine guys play at least 100 minutes during their playoff run.

Although fringe rotation players like Troy Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV are about to be free agents, the Lakers have 2022 second-round pick Max Christie, 2023 first-rounder Jalen Hood-Schifino and 2023 second-rounder Maxwell Lewis waiting in the wings. The barrier to entry is higher in Los Angeles’ rotation.

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