One of the biggest changes in the NBA'st came in the form of a revamped mid-level exception system. The mid-level exception is a tool teams use to sign free agents without using cap space, and this is how it will work in free agency, which begins Friday:
- Teams operating above the salary cap, but willing to commit to remaining below the first apron (projected at $171 million in total salary) will receive the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which will allow them to sign a free agent or multiple free agents to contracts starting at a total of $12.4 million next season. This represents a significant jump from last season's full mid-level exception, which came in at $10.5 million, and notably, teams will be able to use this exception to absorb players in trades if they prefer not to use it in free agency moving forward.
- Teams operating below the salary cap will receive the cap room mid-level exception, which will allow them to sign a free agent or free agents to contracts starting at a total of $7.7 million next season. This is a major change from the previous collective bargaining agreement, in which the cap room mid-level exception was the smallest of the three mid-level exceptions.
- Teams operating between the first and second apron (projected at $182.5 million) will have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception, which will allow them to sign a free agent or free agents to contracts starting at a total of $5 million next season. In the past, this exception was bigger than the cap room mid-level exception, and it was available to any team in the NBA that wanted it. However, moving forward, any team that uses it must commit to remaining below the second apron for the duration of the season.
That's the complicated explanation. Here's the shorter one: the mid-level exception is how expensive, contending teams can sign good free agents to help bulk up their rosters. This is the first offseason in which the league's best teams will need to abide by these new, restricting rules.
As such, there are a few teams that probably won't have access to any mid-level exception. This includes the Warriors, Clippers and Suns. The Celtics (Grant Williams), Nuggets (Bruce Brown), Bucks (Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez), Mavericks (Kyrie Irving) and Heat (Max Strus and Gabe Vincent) may or may not have access depending on what they do with their own free agents. Contenders like the Lakers, Cavaliers and Grizzlies project to have the full mid-level exception available to them.
While bigger names might get more money, championships are frequently won and lost based on what teams do with their mid-level exceptions. The Nuggets just used theirs to land Brown a year ago, for instance, and one of these teams may use this signing to vault their way to the top of the title picture.
So let's take a look at six teams projected to have different versions of the mid-level exception available to them and attempt to figure out who the best possible fits on the board might be. We won't cover every team and we won't cover every free agent, but these are fits that make sense and could ultimately impact the championship picture.
1. Los Angeles Lakers: Bruce Brown
The Lakers and Nuggets have developed a bit of history when it comes to targeting each other's role players. The Lakers were reportedly interested in Jerami Grant after the 2020 Western Conference finals. They couldn't get him, but the Nuggets eventually nabbed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who started for the Lakers in that series. Denver signed DeAndre Jordan last offseason after a brief Lakers stint. They traded for Thomas Bryant at the deadline.
Now, according to The Denver Post's Mike Singer, The Lakers are interested in swiping Brown away from the Nuggets. They have the financial muscle to outbid Denver. The Nuggets can only offer Brown $7.8 million next season through his non-Bird rights. But the Lakers are roughly $71 million below the projected first apron. That gives them plenty of room to re-sign D'Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura while still pursuing a player for the mid-level exception.
Brown is a very appealing target, and his presence would seemingly right one of Rob Pelinka's greatest wrongs: he is the single closest skill set this free-agent market has to Alex Caruso. He's not quite as good as Caruso defensively, but he shares his versatility. He's better on offense and grew into a somewhat reliable 3-point shooter last season. They're both excellent connective passers and cutters. Brown can do more on the ball, and his ability to serve as a pick-and-roll screener would be essential to a Lakers team with limited shooting.
But perhaps most importantly, by signing Brown, the Lakers would be weakening their toughest Western Conference opponent. Right now, the Nuggets are the undisputed Western Conference favorites. They have no way of replacing Brown with a similarly gifted player. You could argue that Jarred Vanderbilt does many of the same things that Brown does, but at a lower price. You could argue that the Laker should prioritize shooting (a possibility with their bi-annual exception). But ultimately, weakening Denver is as important to them as strengthening their own roster. Brown checks both boxes. If he can be had for the mid-level exception, the Lakers are an excellent fit.
2. Denver Nuggets: Eric Gordon
Let's run with this scenario of Denver losing Brown. If they aren't outbid by the Lakers, they'll likely be outbid by someone else. In that scenario, Denver would hope to use its taxpayer mid-level exception on a perimeter player that can defend multiple positions and shoot 3-pointers. That describes the recently waived Eric Gordon.
Gordon is going to be pursued by just about every contender. His former agent, Rob Pelinka, runs the Lakers, so they make sense. But if they're using their mid-level exception on Brown, Denver can get a leg up financially with their own taxpayer version.
Gordon isn't quite the mover that Brown is. He's not as athletic, and he probably isn't going to serve as a pick-and-roll screener as often. But he's a far more dangerous shooter, and is comfortable from so far away from the rim that he'd provide meaningful spacing. He's defended LeBron James and Kevin Durant in playoff series, and with his strength and low center of gravity, the Nuggets could throw him on just about any matchup. That will especially be true on a roster with Aaron Gordon and Caldwell-Pope taking the hardest matchups. He isn't Brown and he's not a long-term solution, but Gordon would be the perfect band-aid for a Nuggets team just trying to find something to replace their key role player.
3. Milwaukee Bucks: Seth Curry
First thing's first: the Bucks are technically below the salary cap at this moment. However, that changes pretty quickly if they re-sign Middleton and Lopez. Right now, they have around $115 million in committed salary with just six players on the roster. That leaves roughly $67 million available to be spent on the rest of their roster.
Say they devote $50 million to those two free agents ($30 million for Middleton, $20 million for Lopez). They could then sign someone for the taxpayer mid-level exception of $5 million and fill out their remaining six slots with minimum salaries. Is that ideal from a depth perspective? Probably not, but remember, Milwaukee was prepared to devote virtually its entire payroll to five players when it almost landed Bogdan Bogdanovic in 2020, so as a point of organizational philosophy, it's feasible.
Milwaukee's primary weakness is, as it has alway been, half-court offense. The best way to improve a half-court offense on a budget is with a quick injection of shooting. Curry is the best shooter on the market this summer, but because of his age and injury-riddled season in Brooklyn, he's likely available at something of a discount. Milwaukee already has one knockdown shooter in Grayson Allen, but he can't create on the ball as well as Curry can, and frankly, having multiple elite shooters is rarely a bad thing.
The Bucks are as well-equipped to cover for Curry's defensive flaws as any team in the NBA. Almost anyone can survive in lineups with Middleton, Lopez, Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There's a reason Allen was on the floor to fail to take a last-second shot in Milwaukee's season-ending loss, after all. Curry is an improvement on Allen and could make him redundant enough for a midseason trade.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers: Harrison Barnes
Cleveland is in a fairly difficult position. They've spent the majority of their trade assets on Donovan Mitchell and now have very little on the wings. They have to find a viable small forward in the next two years, before Evan Mobley earns a market-rate contract and the Cavaliers are constricted by the rules currently limiting teams like the Suns, Warriors and Clippers. Oh, and small forward just happens to be the hardest position to fill in the NBA.
Fortunately for the Cavs, this happens to be a relatively deep forward class of free agents. Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, Cam Johnson, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton and even Max Strus are going to be out of Cleveland's price range. But after them? There are options of virtually every player archetype.
Want to lean defense? Go get Dillon Brooks. Prefer a shooter? Georges Niang is very available. Want to split the mid-level among multiple targets? You could probably afford two of Taurean Prince, Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig and Trey Lyles. Want to take a swing at a frustrating but high-upside player? Kelly Oubre Jr. is out there. They're also reportedly interested in Miles Bridges, who will miss the first 10 games of the season to serve a domestic violence suspension.
But the most balanced option, and likely Cleveland's dream target, would be Harrison Barnes. Though probably better-suited to playing power forward at this point, Barnes is a viable defender at either forward spot that has made roughly 38% of his career 3-pointers. That is what the Cavs are looking for, a role player who doesn't take anything off of the table on either end of the floor. He might get a bigger offer elsewhere, but if the Kings use their cap space to upgrade, he'd be a great fit for Cleveland.
5. Dallas Mavericks: Dillon Brooks
Cleveland needs balance at forward. Dallas? The Mavericks just need defense. The Mavericks have roughly $64 million below the first apron. Irving will eat up a big chunk of that figure. They could spend the rest of it on some of their own free agents like Christian Wood and Dwight Powell, but in all likelihood, they are letting those guys go and reshaping the roster around Irving and Luka Doncic.
Part of the problem for Brooks in Memphis last season was that opposing teams simply didn't guard Brooks from deep. He was a 32% 3-point shooter over the past two seasons, and was far worse in the first-round loss to the Lakers. But with Irving and Doncic, Dallas can afford to add shaky offensive players. If they could help Brooks rediscover his old shooting form? All the better. But they'd be adding him primarily because he earned Second-Team All-Defense honors a season ago. Dallas can't do better defensively.
Brooks has largely been linked to Houston thus far this offseason. Frankly, almost every free agent has been linked to the Rockets at some point or another. If the Rockets want to outbid the Mavericks, they can easily. If their offseason goes in another direction? This is the ideal landing spot for Brooks: a team that can highlight his defense and protect him on offense.
Remember, teams can use their mid-level exception on their own players if it makes sense. For the Kings, it just might. Sacramento is looking at around $36 million in cap space. Most of that is probably going to an upgrade over Barnes at forward, with Kuzma, Green and Grant as candidates. The rest will likely go to a renegotiation and extension with Domantas Sabonis, who is severely underpaid.
Their priority from their would likely be a third forward. They had a very good one last season in Lyles, who shined in the first-round playoff loss to Golden State. His market value is probably around $7-8 million per year. The Kings could give him that with their cap room mid-level exception.
Suddenly, Sacramento would have four high-level guards (De'Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk and Davion Mitchell), three forwards (Keegan Murray, Lyles and whomever they sign in free agency) and an All-Star center (Sabonis). All told, that's a pretty effective way to manage a salary cap. They'd need to find a backup center for the minimum, but otherwise, that team looks like an improvement on last year's No. 3 seed.