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Top Free Agent Decisions: The Southwest

With free agency right around the corner, Basketball Insiders looks at four of the biggest decisions the Southwest Division teams must make.

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This month, Basketball Insiders ranked the biggest free agents at each position ahead of the offseason’s most important period. We’re literal hours away now from free agency opening up on July 1 and there are plenty of high-level decisions and contracts to be handled. Although our team has already looked at players that might be available, there’s another crucial perspective to consider — that of the NBA front offices.

Cap space is tighter than ever, so franchises cannot afford to put a foot wrong in today’s free agent market. Between letting proven assets walk away or overspending for their services, general managers are in a difficult position. Earlier this week, Matt John tackled the Northwest, Shane Rhodes grabbed the Pacific, the weaker Atlantic was handled, Spencer Davies touched on the Central and we’re finishing up with the loaded Southwest.

There are plenty of roster-altering choices to be made in this division — Rajon Rondo and Trevor Ariza come to mind — but these spots are saved for the heaviest of hitters. With all those caveats out of the way, here are four names to focus on once the calendar flips to July.

Chris Paul – Houston Rockets – $24,599,495 (Last Season’s Salary)

Paul’s blockbuster trade down south officially kicked off free agency last year, a potentially risky one-season move that hoped to elevate the Rockets into title contender territory. Needless to say, the trade was an undeniable success; Houston won 65 games and nearly eliminated the Golden State Warriors despite a nagging injury to Paul himself. Paul averaged 18.6 points and 7.9 assists over 58 games, his lowest total played since 2009-10. Of course, the Rockets were an outstanding 50-8 with him on the floor in the regular season, making it money well-spent in the end. Now, however, comes the slightly trickier part — agreeing on a new deal.

The future Hall of Fame point guard is understandably looking for a max contract, but Houston and general manager Daryl Morey will need to weigh their options. Obviously, they’re still looking to bring LeBron James to town — although his opting out on Friday made that a bit tougher — and they’ll need to retain another name on this list, but it starts and ends with keeping Paul. The chances of Paul, 33, leaving seem pretty low, but weirder things have happened. After going all-in on Paul, the Rockets need to keep this well-balanced core together, even if it runs out of steam sometime down the line.

Clint Capela* – Houston Rockets – $2,334,528

Naturally, the next stop on the list is here. Clint Capela, to put it gently, is about to get paid. The 6-foot-10 big man had a career year in 2017-18, pulling down 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. At 24 years old, the rim-protecting center is entering restricted free agency as a key cog in this powerful Rockets starting lineup. Although Houston would like to save money wherever possible, it may not be up to them as the Phoenix Suns are reportedly interested in tossing Capela a near-max deal.

Capela, who finished as the runner-up for Most Improved Player earlier this week, is in an ideal scenario and it seems unlikely that he’ll depart Houston this summer. With so much star power in the backcourt already, the Rockets have found a young, defensive-minded asset that’ll block shots and catch alley-oops. He may not fit into the modern unicorn trend for centers these days, but Houston currently jacks up the most three-point attempts per game in the entire league — so somebody needs to clean up those misses.

Bottom line: Franchises will do their due diligence on Capela, but he seems destined for a return to Houston — even if the Suns make things a bit more difficult.

DeMarcus Cousins – New Orleans Pelicans – $18,063,850

DeMarcus Cousins is a dominant four-time All-Star in the prime of his career — but one who’s unfortunately still recovering from a torn Achilles he suffered in January. Healthy and on the open market, Cousins, 27, was undoubtedly worth a max contract as one of the NBA’s best centers. Before the injury, the eight-year veteran was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 2.2 three-pointers per game — a steady force for an inconsistent Pelicans side.

When he went down, Cousins and the Pelicans had begun to surge in the Western Conference playoff race — but can you commit a long-term future to that? As of now, the Pelicans have a pretty bloated payroll with about $85 million put toward Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore for 2018-19 alone. Due to Bird Rights, New Orleans can go over the cap to keep Cousins — but if he goes, they won’t have the money to replace him with a name as noteworthy.

Ultimately, if the Pelicans decide they don’t want to pony up for a near-max Cousins, another franchise almost certainly will.

Tyreke Evans – Memphis Grizzlies – $3,290,000

The curious case of Tyreke Evans has been well-discussed over the last year, so this will be brief. After signing a one-year deal to prove that he could stay healthy, Evans soared back onto the NBA scene by averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 39.9 percent from three-point range. By all accounts, given Memphis’ nightmare-worthy season across the board, Evans was one of the franchise’s brightest silver linings. With the campaign in the dumpster, the Grizzlies were expected to deal Evans before he hit unrestricted free agency this summer — but then they didn’t.

Evans played in just six games after January as the Grizzlies committed to bottoming out. Still, there’s reason to believe that Memphis is the right fit for the 28-year-old scorer. Sure, it made sense to deal him with Mike Conley Jr. on the shelf and Marc Gasol working through a frustrating season — but now? Evans would be a fine complimentary piece next to their healthy stars, along with the budding Dillon Brooks and newcomer Jaren Jackson Jr. The Grizzlies can only give Evans the non-taxpayer mid-level exception and he’ll likely be worth more than that on the open market.

Does he fit into the new blueprint in Memphis? If so, Evans could play an important role in the Grizzlies’ bounce-back attempt.

In totality, the Southwest Division will bring loads of firepower to the free agency discussion next week. While all four players could stay put with their current teams, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a few lured away by big money offers. Whether they’re superstars coming off of career-altering injuries or up-and-comers set to sign their first major contract, the division will bring some much-needed intrigue to the proceedings. With the Rockets pushing all their chips to the middle and the Pelicans and Grizzlies trying to decide on a new direction, make sure you stay up to date on these pending free agents.

*Restricted free agent

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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