The NBA’s 2020 free agency period starts at 6 p.m. ET on Friday, less than 48 hours after the draft, and a scant 32 days before the start of the next season. Pretty much the only thing that anyone seems certain about is that it’s going to be a friggin’ madhouse.
Who will try to swing big deals? Which players are about to enter new tax brackets? Which teams are mere hours away from decisions they’ll come to regret for years to come? I have no earthly idea. But here are a few things I’ll be keeping an eye on as we try to keep our heads on a swivel.
What will Giannis Antetokounmpo do?
Having the ability to guarantee yourself a quarter of a billion dollars with the stroke of a pen and opting not to seems utterly inconceivable to us mere mortals. Giannis is mortal, but his back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards and Defensive Player of the Year trophy establish that he’s a few parsecs away from “mere.” That résumé—combined with the $100 million Antetokounmpo already banked with his 2016 rookie-scale extension, and the fact that he’s somehow still a month shy of his 26th birthday—affords him a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to prioritizing what comes next in his career.
Giannis has said he doesn’t intend to request a trade after a pair of disappointing postseason exits. Nor do the Bucks, in turn, intend to try to deal him before he can reach free agency, preferring instead to make one more for-all-the-marbles run at convincing the franchise’s best player in several generations to stick around through his prime.
GM Jon Horst kicked off that run late Monday night, swinging a pair of trades to import Jrue Holiday from New Orleans and Bogdan Bogdanovic from Sacramento—two backcourt playmakers who can reliably puncture half-court defenses, carve up pick-and-roll coverages, and knock down jumpers to make Milwaukee a more versatile and dangerous offensive team come the playoffs. Many assumed at the time that everyone was on the same page—that Holiday was willing to consider an extension and Bogdanovic was eager to sign a multiyear deal to play with Giannis, and that Horst had agreed to move five future first-round picks and promising young wing Donte DiVincenzo because Antetokounmpo had signaled his intent to stick around. That assumption took a major hit on Wednesday, when Sam Amick of The Athletic reported that Bogdanovic had never actually agreed to sign with the Bucks, and that he fully intends to enter restricted free agency—and court other offers—on Friday.
As I wrote on draft night, it’s possible that the Bogdanovic issue is just a blip on the radar—an attempt by Milwaukee to skirt punishment for a blatant case of tampering, a push by Bogdanovic and his agent to use their leverage for a richer payday—and that all parties still really are on the same page, and that Giannis has signaled his intent to stay. If he did, the gambit’s already a winner. If he didn’t, though—if this is a push to attempt to convince Giannis to stay, rather than one made because he has already said he will—then at least some teams will still do whatever’s necessary to give themselves a chance to make a bid for his services should he hit the market next offseason.
As a starting point, that means ensuring that they either have a Giannis-sized maximum salary slot—somewhere between $33.7 million and $36 million, depending on where the salary cap winds up falling—available before free agency opens in 2021, or that they can easily create that much space with a quick roster move.
That means some of the most likely suitors for Giannis’s services might not make many, or even any, big moves this offseason. For a team like Dallas, coming off its best season in a half-decade led by Luka Doncic, that could mean holding off on hunting big-ticket help beyond the draft-night machinations that imported stout defensive guard Josh Richardson and intriguing rookie prospects Josh Green, Tyrell Terry, and Tyler Bey, keeping its powder dry for the chance to open up a max slot in 2021. (Unless, of course, the Mavs see an opportunity to bridge short-term and long-term goals with someone like Victor Oladipo, who has only one year left on his deal and who could prove a snug fit next to Luka—if he’s healthy and ready to move past his ongoing passive-aggressive relationship with the Pacers, that is.) Maybe Miami and Toronto can offer enough short-term dough to keep key veterans like Goran Dragic and Serge Ibaka around for one more run. Once suitors start throwing around multiyear deals, though, things could get dicey.
The Raptors want to retain Fred VanVleet as part of a core that would surround Antetokounmpo as the new King in the North, but if guard-needy teams with real cap space—Detroit, New York, or Atlanta—start kicking up the bidding on the lone top-flight point guard on the free-agent market, Masai Ujiri might have a tough call to make. Needing to keep the books clear for Giannis could also lead to some interesting (and perhaps tense) negotiations with players eligible for rookie-scale extensions, like rising Miami star Bam Adebayo, who will surely ask for the max after his breakout season, but whom the Heat cannot max out yet without cutting into their Giannis space.
While the Heat, Raptors, and Mavs have been the teams most frequently connected to a prospective Giannis chase, they won’t be alone if Antetokounmpo chooses to leave the supermax on the table. Chances to make bids for generational superstars don’t come around very often; I wouldn’t bet against a team (or teams) we don’t necessarily expect trying to move heaven and Earth to get into position to seize this one.
How will flat cap and tax figures impact contenders’ spending?
Under normal circumstances, the NBA’s salary cap and luxury tax figures would be set by a formula based on how much basketball-related income (BRI) the league is projected to make in the year ahead. But under the extremely abnormal circumstances of a season interrupted by a pandemic, which brought BRI in way under those initial projections, the league and players union agreed to carry over this season’s figures—a $109.1 million salary cap, a $132.6 million luxury tax line, a $138.9 million “apron” that serves as the hard cap teams cannot exceed—to avoid throwing the entire economy of the sport into upheaval.
The luxury tax line staying put is kind of a bummer for high-priced contenders who could’ve used a few million bucks of wiggle room. But with the apron staying static, there’s less room to maneuver, meaning that every significant addition will probably require some subtraction—possibly of rotation-caliber players in their own right. Might that have a chilling effect on the kinds of moves teams are willing to consider?
On the flip side: The amended CBA also includes a provision that will reduce teams’ luxury tax bills come the end of the 2020-21 season if BRI falls short of projections. That’s a pretty big deal for teams already in position to pay the tax—as of right now, the Warriors, 76ers, Celtics, and Nets. I wonder if that might embolden some governors and front offices to think big.
If you’ve got a chance to add a player who you think will get you closer to meaningful championship contention, and you know it’s going to carry you over the tax line, but you also know that your tax payment will get reduced in proportion to what will almost assuredly be a big drop in BRI, maybe that makes it feel less painful to spend into the tax. Maybe that makes it easier to justify using every arrow in your quiver—like, for example, the $17.2 million exception Golden State is holding from the Andre Iguodala trade—rather than worrying about the steep penalties associated with leaping into higher tax brackets. It seems kind of counterintuitive to expect teams to spend more liberally at a time when revenues are plummeting. But if you truly believe that expense boosts your odds of winning it all, you’ve got to at least consider it, right?
Who’s most likely to get overpaid?
I’m guessing we won’t see a ton of exorbitantly splashy deals, given the leaguewide lack of cap space after the free-spending summer of 2019, the relative paucity of big-name talent available, the lure of potentially starry 2021 free-agent class, and the financial crunch from the coronavirus. If I had to pick one name to watch, though … well, my apologies to Davis Bertans.
It’s not indefensible to pony up for the Latvian sharpshooter. He’s a 6-foot-10 forward who draws opposing big men out to the perimeter, possesses a lightning-quick release, and feels zero hesitation about letting it fly right in the mug of an onrushing defender; only seven players attempted more 3s against “tight” or “very tight” coverage last season, according to NBA.com’s shot defense data, and among those who attempted more, only JJ Redick hit them at a higher clip.
That’d be valuable enough if Betrans drilled only a league-average amount of his long balls, but he does quite a bit better than that, finishing sixth in the NBA in 3-point accuracy in each of the past two seasons. He maintained that level of marksmanship even after ratcheting up his volume of shots with the Wizards: The only players who’ve ever both fired and made triples as often as Bertans did in Washington last season are Stephen Curry and Duncan Robinson. And it’s not like this was just a contract-year blip. Nearly everything in Bertans’s advanced statistical profile has stayed pretty steady year over year; he just took more 3s. Chances are, if you let him take that many 3s for your team, he’ll hit a bunch, and help your offense a whole lot in the process.
The issue isn’t that Bertans shouldn’t get paid—it is how many teams might be vying for the chance to pay him. The Wizards have made no bones about how badly they want to bring him back to pair with Bradley Beal and a hopefully healthy John Wall.It remains to be seen whether landing Deni Avdija with the ninth pick in the draft changes that calculus; the guess here is that, even with Avdija joining 2019 draftee Rui Hachimura as “blend players” in the frontcourt, the Wiz will still prize Bertans’s gravity and floor spacing more than anything else this offseason. They hold Bertans’ Bird rights, enabling them to go over the cap to retain him even if other suitors make big offers. And, from the sound of it, they will: NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes reported that the Hawks, Knicks, and Suns (three of the only teams with significant cap space this offseason) all plan to pursue Bertans, and that multiple teams without cap room are lining up sign-and-trade offers for the 28-year-old forward. If somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the league’s teams decide that Davis Bertans is the one and only cure for their ailing offenses, then whatever he’s “worth” is immaterial; he’s going to get more than that, and maybe a lot more.
Who else might start a bidding war?
Christian Wood was the hottest name hitting the market back in the spring, after averaging 22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on scorching .654 true shooting over his final 15 appearances once Pistons coach Dwane Casey started playing him starters’ minutes. It’s been eight months since we saw him on the court, but absence has only made teams’ hearts grow fonder, because 6-foot-10 25-year-olds who can stroke the 3, attack off the bounce, screen-and-dive, clean the glass, and protect the rim don’t hit the market all that often. Wood made the $1.6 million minimum in Detroit last season; as he enters his prime with a skill set that could fit on just about any team, from rebuilders to playoff hopefuls, it’s a good bet he’ll make six or seven times that—at least—next season.
Other players who figure to have a bunch of suitors as soon as free agency opens:
- Danilo Gallinari, a plug-and-play playoff-caliber stretch 4 who’d fit in well all over the place
- Serge Ibaka, who should have an enviable choice between a big one-year deal to stay in Toronto before reentering the market next offseason or a lucrative multiyear deal elsewhere
- Joe Harris, precisely the sort of low-usage, high-efficiency, catch-and-shoot 3-point option and nonstop off-ball gravitational force that every team with a dominant ball handler could use
- Fred VanVleet, the best point guard available in a market where the teams with the most money to spend could all use a point guard
Which free agent’s market seems hardest to peg?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but: How the hell much should you pay Montrezl Harrell?
For the first four and a half months of last season, Harrell looked to be sitting pretty as he headed into unrestricted free agency. He’d averaged career highs in minutes, points, and rebounds per game, put up elite advanced statistical marks among bench players, carved out a defined role as a fourth-quarter mainstay for a Clippers team with championship aspirations, and established himself as a deserving favorite for a Sixth Man of the Year award that he’d wind up winning. And then, the coronavirus hit.
After the NBA’s hiatus and a family emergency that caused him to exit the Orlando bubble, Harrell spent more than five months away from live action, and had to try to get up to speed in the heat of the playoffs. He struggled mightily, averaging just 10.5 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game during a ghastly postseason, posting far and away the worst net rating on the team; the Nuggets came back from a 3-1 deficit to upset the Clips in Round 2 largely because Nikola Jokic annihilated Harrell every time the two shared the court (and because of Doc Rivers’s insistence on continuing to run Harrell out there, come hell or high water).
All regular season, Harrell provided the combination of interior scoring, hustle, and snarl that helped make the Clippers look like bona fide contenders. But in the bubble, with the chips down and the team in dire need of precisely that sort of spark, Harrell couldn’t provide it. More than that, he saw his greatest weaknesses—his lack of size as a center, his inability to anchor defensively against bigger 5s, his limited effectiveness as an offensive player against defenders who can neutralize his quickness off the bounce—laid bare under the bright lights.
A couple of months into the season, Harrell might have been looking at a multiyear deal worth $20 million (or more) per season, even in a market in which only a handful of teams have meaningful cap space. Now, though? After the bubble, though? Jovan Buha of The Athletic reported in September that “multiple league sources” estimated Harrell’s value at “somewhere between $8 million to $12 million [per year], depending on the team, his role and the length of contract.” That would be a dramatic drop-off, but few teams have big money to spend, and few playoff teams might be eager to reorganize their balance sheets to make room for a player who might not be a viable postseason option.
Are restricted free agents going to get extra screwed this year?
Restricted free agency is always a gamble, for all parties involved. The player’s incumbent team controls everything, whether by signing its RFA-to-be to an extension before the start of the season or by invoking the right of first refusal to match whatever offer sheet another team might present their player. That effect tends to depress the market for most RFAs; you might remember Eric Bledsoe lamenting this a while back, with his iconic “hair salon” tweet, followed by his eventual shipment to Milwaukee.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that RFAs can’t get paid, though. Players who have established themselves as All-Stars over the course of their rookie contracts will still get top-dollar offers—Kristaps Porzingis and D’Angelo Russell both got max deals last summer, and Brandon Ingram seems like a sure bet to get one to stay in New Orleans this week. Others who haven’t quite reached that level can still secure sizable multiyear deals, sometimes in sign-and-trade deals with new teams, like Russell, Terry Rozier, and Malcolm Brogdon did last summer.
It remains to be seen, though, how RFAs on lower tiers of production will fare in a market light on cap space. The Bulls have already decided not to extend a qualifying offer to Kris Dunn, who’s been a disappointment overall since being drafted fifth in 2016 but who displayed tangible value last season as a near-All-Defense-caliber backcourt defender; could other teams follow suit with their iffy RFAs, preferring to cut them loose into an unrestricted pool where they might have a harder time finding lucrative deals? Or might they go the other way, preferring to hold on to their restricted prospects ahead of a several-season stretch in which league revenues will likely continue to lag? That could be a recipe for an even tougher brand of hardball—one that could see middle-class RFAs who have demonstrated some on-court chops but haven’t yet broken out as stars locked into lower average annual values than their talents might fetch on the open market.
There are quality players available: Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, Grizzlies chaos agent De’Anthony Melton, and Wolves guards Malik Beasley and Jordan McLaughlin, among others. But the combination of RFA rules and the state of financial play league-wide might leave them feeling an even tighter squeeze than normal.
How many rookie extensions are we likely to see?
Members of the 2017 draft class are eligible for extensions of their rookie-scale contracts before the start of the new season. Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are no-brainers to get full-freight maxes. It sounds like De’Aaron Fox is, too.
Adebayo would join them, if not for the matter of keeping a Giannis slot open; one suspects that, if Antetokounmpo decides to sign the supermax right away, Pat Riley will be on the phone with Bam’s representation about two seconds later. The same could be true for OG Anunoby in Toronto, though his extension—which could also be impacted by negotiations to keep VanVleet—would come in quite a bit lower than the max.
Beyond them, though, the outlook’s murky.
A few candidates might not have produced enough to this point in their careers for their incumbent teams to feel compelled to pay up now—players like Justin Jackson, T.J. Leaf, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., D.J. Wilson, Terrance Ferguson, Tony Bradley, and Malik Monk. (Though, as an avowed Frankie Smokes fan, I’d love to see the Knicks decide to keep the French ball hawk around.) Jonathan Isaac’s not among them; he looked like a Most Improved Player and All-Defensive Team candidate for the Magic last season. But after an ankle injury that torpedoed his rookie season and a pair of knee injuries—including a torn ACL that’s expected to cost him all of the 2020-21 campaign—you wonder how much Orlando’s willing to offer him, and how hard a bargain a 23-year-old staring down another lengthy rehab stint will be willing to drive.
Other players might have to wait to see how the rest of free agency shakes out before getting clarity on where they stand. Players like Jarrett Allen, Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, and Lauri Markkanen, could get big-dollar deals to cement themselves as core pieces of their teams’ respective futures. They could also absolutely find themselves on the move to new destinations as their current employers decide to zag in their team-building strategies—Allen’s Nets, Kuzma’s Lakers, and Collins’s Hawks toward trading for more established veteran help for playoff pushes, and Markkanen’s Bulls in a new direction under a new head of basketball operations.
We know the Clippers value Luke Kennard’s combination of lights-out shooting and crafty playmaking—they wouldn’t have targeted him in a three-team draft-night deal with Detroit if they didn’t—but do they value it enough to hand him eight figures a year without having actually seen how he looks on the court next to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? Lonzo Ball’s in a fascinating spot: seemingly a perfect fit next to Zion Williamson on a team that wants to push the pace and hunt lobs, but also a point guard who’s not really a primary half-court initiator or off-the-bounce creator on a team that’s now coached by Stan Van Gundy and features both Eric Bledsoe and George Hill. How much is he worth to David Griffin as he pilots the Pelicans toward a competitive horizon that, as yet, remains unclear? Also fascinating: the guy who went one spot before him. Markelle Fultz played 33 games over two years in Philadelphia in which he played like he was being haunted by a chain-rattling Jacob Marley, and he played one season in Orlando in which he looked like an actual NBA player with a chance to be pretty good. What’s the going rate for a mystery like that? I’d wager that a guard-starved Magic franchise, despite selecting Cole Anthony in Wednesday’s draft, will pay whatever it is; I’m less sure about New Orleans meeting a premium asking price for Lonzo.
For those players and others—guys like Josh Hart and Zach Collins—an awful lot’s going to come down to negotiation, to whether teams see them as dependable role players for the long term or assets to be protected for later flipping, and whether the young dudes who feel like they’re getting squeezed a few million a season are willing to bet on themselves for a shot at something bigger in a year’s time, and pray that they come out on the other side more like Jimmy Butler and less like Nerlens Noel.
Oh, and the Spurs are probably going to give Derrick White something like $68 million over four years. Everyone will go, “Yeah, that seems right.”
How will teams build out their rosters?
No real contender has any significant cap space to spend; they’re largely limited to exceptions and minimum slots. In a shortened season with a truncated ramp-up and limited time to get newcomers up to speed, might they prefer to run it back with their own free agents as much as possible, and try to reap the benefits of continuity—which helped a team like the Nuggets thrive in the bubble and make a deep playoff run—rather than taking a big swing for a new addition?
Teams might be cautious in managing the back ends of their rosters, too. Given the massive uncertainty of how the new season structure will impact players physically—the ones that have been off for eight months and the ones that have been off for six weeks alike—will teams choose to target established veterans (who are more expensive and offer less long-term possibility, but might be better equipped to help you make it through this season unscathed) over taking flyers on cheap young developmental projects? If so, might there be some opportunities for bad teams to get better shots at potential helpers, like the Pistons did in landing Christian Wood last season? And might older prospects—the sort of upperclassmen who often go undrafted—become even more attractive as execs and coaches seek high-floor players who might be more capable of stepping in on a moment’s notice?
Which vets might be most likely to take the minimum to chase a ring?
Well, it sounds like Dwight Howard’s not super interested in going that route again. So cross him off the list. As for everyone else:
Bigs: I have no idea what DeMarcus Cousins has left to give after everything he’s gone through these past couple of years, but it’d be great if he wasn’t done just yet. Marc Gasol can probably get more than the minimum, provided he decides not to just go back to Spain, but if he stays stateside, good teams should inquire. Joakim Noah looked fairly spry in limited minutes for the Clips, too—maybe another go-round for him?
Wings: Carmelo Anthony should stay in Portland, all things being equal, but if he’s open to heading elsewhere, he showed enough last season to be worth a look. Kyle Korver can only do so much on the defensive end at age 39, but he can still stroke it and would make sense on just about every contending team. Courtney Lee might not quite be ready to drop down to a minimum, and his rep as a 3-and-D wing might be a bit out of date, but he might be a good fit. Wesley Matthews, whether with the Bucks or the Lakers. Maybe Jared Dudley, if he’s not ready to start what promises to be a lengthy career as a color commentator or studio analyst.
Guards: If Rajon Rondo’s in line to get a bunch of money from the Hawks or the Clippers, then the pickings here are pretty slim. Maybe D.J. Augustin? Not many long-in-the-tooth PGs who seem like great fits.
Who are the most intriguing teams over the next few weeks?
The teams I’m keeping an eye on, rapid-fire-style:
- What are the Hawks up to? In a vacuum, drafting Onyeka Okongwu is eminently reasonable; he was broadly considered the best defensive big man in the draft (possibly its best overall) and the Hawks have finished in the bottom five in points allowed per possession in each of the last three seasons. The context is curious, though. Atlanta is nine months removed from trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon, two other defense-first centers, and it still features Collins, one of the NBA’s most productive young big men—20.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on a .609 effective field goal percentage over the last two seasons—who is now extension eligible (and looking for a massive payday). With an ascendant All-Star in Trae Young, a ton of young wings to develop and sort out, a league-high $43.5 million in cap space available, and a clear desire to make the playoffs, it seems like something bigger is brewing; they’ve been connected to veterans Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari, and Rajon Rondo, and will likely wind up in many more conversations over the next few days. Just how big a swing are they thinking?
- What’s next for the Knicks? Like Atlanta, New York has a ton of cash to splash if new boss Leon Rose desires—potentially as much as $41 million, if they shed all of their non-guaranteed deals. Unlike Atlanta, the Knicks don’t have any present-tense All-Stars on the roster, have a glaring need for a viable long-term answer at the point, and have scarcely any wing players who profile as serviceable defenders. Given those realities, will Rose decide to take a slow-and-steady approach to building the roster, renting out cap space for draft capital to try to amass more talent around RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and 2020 draftees Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley? Or will he try to make an immediate impact by going all in for a player like VanVleet? Which path Rose, Worldwide Wes, and Co. choose now will go a long way toward determining whether the Knicks finally start to climb out of the hole they’ve been in for most of the last two decades, or dig a bit deeper and nestle for another few years in the NBA’s mantle.
- Where will Oklahoma City go from here? Sam Presti’s spin on the Process now includes control over more than a dozen first-round picks between now and 2026, plus fascinating Serbian project Aleksej Pokusevski (whom my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks described as “a 7-foot, 200-pound guard who plays with the confidence of someone who has read all of the glowing internet scouting reports about him”) and French guard Theo Maledon. After even more frenzied trade activity, it also features Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, Steven Adams (who you’d expect to be on the move next, now that Horford’s in town), Kelly Oubre Jr. (reportedly already on the market with a first-round asking price), Luguentz Dort, and Darius Bazley—a group that’s a guard or two short of being good, but is already interesting, in both the “might be friskier than you’d anticipate on most nights” and “might have the ammunition to make some awfully intriguing deals.” I guess what I’m saying is: Sam Presti, Close the Loop on the Thunder’s Past and Future and Trade for James Harden, Coward.
- When will the roster-balancing move come in New Orleans? The Pelicans’ guard rotation now includes Lonzo Ball, Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, JJ Redick, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Kira Lewis. That’s an awfully crowded backcourt, especially for a team with major questions about who’ll partner with Zion Williamson up front in the years to come. Whether David Griffin finds the long-term answer now, or just looks at smaller moves that might help him get closer, expect more tweaks sooner rather than later.
- When do the Rockets blow it up? Since the end of last season, Houston has lost Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, seen Russell Westbrook and James Harden both request trades, moved Robert Covington for luxury tax relief and a pair of protected 2021 first-rounders, and made us all feel ancient by drafting Kenyon Martin Jr. Maybe new GM Rafael Stone will use that breathing room under the hard cap line by spending Houston’s mid-level exception to meaningfully improve the 2020-21 roster. Maybe Houston really is willing to head into the season with Harden and Westbrook both fuming rather than granting them the exits they want. Maybe, in six months’ time, we’ll all look back at this and laugh as the Rockets kumbaya their way to the top of the West. It seems at least as likely, though, that we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for Tilman Fertitta’s “culture” to finally set in on a team suddenly denuded of all top-flight talent.