We still don’t know yet when NBA free agency will tip off, but with the league’s governors reportedly angling to start the 2020-21 season on December 22—scarcely one month after the draft, and just under two and a half months removed from the final game of last season—it seems like the answer’s going to be “a lot sooner than everyone anticipated.” Some teams have had eight months to evaluate the available talent; some might just now be clambering to get their big boards lined up and their contingency plans in place. No matter how prepared they are, though, it’s a good bet that we’re about to see the most chaotic burst of offseason activity since the post-lockout transactional scramble of 2011.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely already familiar with the most coveted prizes on the market: Anthony Davis (though his opt-out will all but surely land him right back with the champion Lakers), Brandon Ingram (who’s going to get the max from someone, likely the incumbent Pelicans), Fred VanVleet (whose repeated bets on himself are about to pay off handsomely), and even household-names-in-basketball-nerds’-homes-only like Joe Harris and Christian Wood. But while every team would love to shop at the top of the market—even one as comparatively depressed as the 2020 edition—you need more than just name brands to succeed in the NBA. Plucking winners from the fringes of the free-agent class can be the difference between having the depth for a long postseason run and petering out early.
To help set the table for this offseason’s mad dash, let’s take a look at some comparatively lower-wattage players whom smart teams might target, starting with the other sweet-shooting guard in Sacramento ...
Shooting guard | Restricted free agent | Age: 28
2019-20 with Kings: 15.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists in 29 minutes per game; 44% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 74.1% FT
The Kings entered last season needing to find some clarity on which members of its young core were actually long-term building blocks. De’Aaron Fox is a definite: After bouncing back from a nasty ankle sprain to average 23 points and 6.9 assists per game over his final 35 appearances, he’s eligible for an extension of his rookie contract, and according to James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area, he “will ask for and likely get whatever the maximum is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement”—a five-year deal worth more than $150 million.
But after a 14th straight year missing the postseason and another front-office shake-up, who’ll play next to Fox remains unclear. Buddy Hield got his contract extension—from, it’s worth noting, the old regime—but he also got benched, and still sounds pretty unhappy about the state of affairs in Sacramento. Now, new general manager Monte McNair has to decide what to do with Bogdanovic, who’s four months older than Hield, replaced him in the starting lineup midway through last season, and is in line for a substantial raise himself.
Bogdanovic isn’t quite Hield’s equal as a pure scorer or long-distance gunner, but he’s still a high-volume marksman, ranking 30th in the NBA in made 3-pointers since he entered the league in 2017. Last season, he was one of just 10 NBA players to attempt nine long balls per 36 minutes and hit at least 37 percent of them. The Serbian swingman also profiles as a much more creative passer than Hield, a somewhat steadier table-setter (posting a higher assist rate and a lower turnover percentage last season), and a (slightly) more dependable perimeter defender.
Opponents outscored Sacramento by 3.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions last season when Bogdanovic and Fox shared the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, which doesn’t sound great … until you see that the Kings got blitzed by seven points-per-100 in Fox-Hield minutes. (Small-ball lineups featuring all three were a slight net negative, scoring like gangbusters but getting flame-broiled defensively.) If Sacramento can’t play the trio together, and if Hield’s not cool with coming off the bench, then it’s got only one starting spot for two starting-caliber off-guards—the one it’s already paid, or the one it’s about to have to.
The dice-roll nature of restricted free agency, which requires interested suitors to tie up their cap space for two days while the player’s current employer decides whether or not to retain them, and a leaguewide shortage of cap space could combine to create a chilly market for Bogdanovic, and make it easier for Sacramento to keep him at a number it can live with. It takes only one team to make holding on to Bogdanovic too rich for Sacramento’s blood, though. If one thinks there’s a chance he could be a bona fide star in the NBA like he is for Serbia in international play—say, the Bucks, who reportedly have interest (though that’d likely have to be a sign-and-trade deal), or the Hornets, who reportedly kicked the tires on Bogdanovic at February’s trade deadline and are one of the only teams with significant cap space—then the first big choice of McNair’s tenure might become an awfully tough one.
Center | Unrestricted free agent | Age: 29
2019-20 with Cavaliers: 12 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists in 30.2 minutes per game; 51.2% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 61.5% FT
You’d be forgiven if you haven’t thought much about Thompson in non-canoodling contexts lately. Cleveland’s gone 38-109 since LeBron James’s second exit and the Cavaliers were one of the eight teams that didn’t make it into the bubble. But as the nine-year vet hits the open market for the first time in his career, it’ll be interesting to see how teams value the Klutch client in a league where mobile, multifaceted big men now carry the day.
As he was during Cleveland’s championship years, Thompson remains a force on the boards, with the Cavs rebounding at an elite rate with him on the court and like a league-average team when he sits. That’s especially true on the offensive end, where he collected 13.2 percent of Cleveland’s missed field-goal attempts last season—a 95th percentile mark among big men, according to Cleaning the Glass—and finished tied for 16th in the NBA in total second-chance points scored. He still gets teammates open, ranking ninth in the league in screen assists per game, and can still act as an interior deterrent, holding opponents to 56.7 percent shooting at the rim—a respectable 44th out of 247 players to defend at least 100 up-close attempts, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
The challenge facing potential suitors—including Cleveland GM Koby Altman, who has said there’s “mutual interest” in bringing Thompson back despite a crowded frontcourt rotation—is considering Thompson’s recent play in context and trying to transpose it to a different one. His usage and assist rates have climbed on Cavs teams that needed more players to soak up possessions post-LeBron, but as his role has increased, his shooting efficiency and overall on-court value have declined. Might he look like the fire of old if plugged in to a more limited role in a better environment surrounded by superior talent?
It’s worth noting that teams facing the Cavs have shot more frequently and more efficiently at the cup with Thompson on the court than off of it over the past two seasons; it’s also worth noting that Cleveland’s perimeter defense, featuring heavy doses of Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson, and Darius Garland, hasn’t exactly been stellar at stalling dribble penetration and making his job any easier. Similarly: Thompson’s effectiveness as the roll man in the screen game absolutely cratered last season. But how much of that might be due to him losing some explosiveness as he nears age 30, and how much of it might stem from playing primarily with young shoot-first guards who struggle to set him up to score? And how much might it be worth to teams—whether Cleveland, where Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. are stumping for his return to help lead a young roster, or others who might be looking for more physicality and toughness up front after falling short in the postseason—to find out?
Shooting guard | UFA | Age: 28
2019-20 with Cavs/Jazz: 15.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists in 24 minutes per game; 45.4% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 83.6% FT
Through five NBA seasons, Clarkson profiled as something of an empty-calories bucket-getter—a dude with enough quickness and shake to get to his own shot whenever he wanted, but who didn’t make them often enough to make up for his shortcomings, and who seemed destined to continue putting up 20 on teams of little consequence. And then he went to Utah, and suddenly the bugs started to seem more like features.
The Jazz, whose offense under Quin Snyder often operates on precise machine logic, benefited from the arrival of someone willing to subvert all order with a little bit of chaos. Utah went 26-16 after Clarkson’s arrival, outscoring opponents by 3.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with him on the court and torching defenses at a rate of efficiency just a tick below the league-best Mavericks.
Clarkson’s successful stint in Salt Lake City effectively cemented his optimal role as an instant-offense, high-usage, and pretty high-efficiency sixth man. He was one of just 19 players last season to score more than 30 points per 100 possessions while also posting a true shooting percentage above .570, according to Stathead’s database. He steps onto the floor ready to attack; out of 244 players to log at least 100 drives to the basket last season, Clarkson ranked alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James in points scored via drive per 36 minutes, according to Second Spectrum.
He can efficiently get buckets one-on-one, in the screen game, or as an off-ball threat. Clarkson hit 96 catch-and-shoot triples last season and knocked them down at a 40.2 percent clip, both career highs, which helped make it more palatable for Snyder to not only play him as a third guard behind Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, but also alongside them. Utah destroyed opponents in Conley-Clarkson minutes, scored well with most Mitchell-Clarkson lineups, and posted a healthy net rating (albeit in limited duty) with the three guards sharing the court.
Defense remains an issue—the Jazz gave up 3.1 more points-per-100 with Clarkson on the floor than off of it against the Nuggets in their seven-game first-round playoff series, though they were still a net positive in his minutes—but there’s still a lot you can do a lot with an athletic 6-foot-4 guard who can score on or off the ball. Provided, of course, his jumper holds up: It’s worth noting that Clarkson posted career-best percentages at the rim, from floater range, and beyond the arc last season. Some shooting regression would limit his effectiveness, but his creativity and offensive dynamism will draw interest—including from the Jazz, who might have more financial leeway now that software billionaire Ryan Smith has bought the team. In a market light on bona fide scorers, though, it’ll be interesting to see whether other suitors enter the fold and make Clarkson—who’s coming off a four-year, $50 million deal and entering the open market for the first time—an offer worth pulling up stakes to take.
Center | UFA | Age: 33
2019-20 with Suns: 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 22.2 minutes per game; 48% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 74.7% FT
After a scorching first month of the season that saw him provide a floor-spacing spark to the pleasantly surprising Suns, Baynes tailed off a bit, thanks partly to a move to the bench following Deandre Ayton’s (very effective) return from suspension, partly to nagging hip injuries that cost him 22 games pre-hiatus, and partly to contracting COVID-19 and thus missing the entirety of the Suns’ Cinderella run in the bubble. But everything that made the Aussie bruiser such a valuable piece early in the season is still there, and that could make him an enticing target for a bunch of teams in the market for a high-end backup big man.
Suitors will have justifiable concerns about Baynes’s age (he’ll be 34 by opening night) and health (he’s missed 31 games in each of the last two seasons). When playing, though, he provides a tidy inside-out package that can help just about any team. He’s become a credible 3-point threat from the 5 spot, shooting 34.9 percent over the last two seasons on 2.5 attempts per game. He wasn’t an elite paint protector last season—he allowed 61.1 percent shooting at the basket and blocked the fifth-lowest percentage of opponents’ 2-point attempts among centers to log at least 500 minutes—but Suns opponents did shoot less frequently and less successfully at the rim with him on the court than when he was off of it, continuing a trend that followed him from San Antonio, Detroit, and Boston to the desert.
He’s also a hell of a screener, whether he’s creating space for a teammate to grab a rebound (tied for 13th in box outs per game last season, with the Suns grabbing a higher share of available boards with him on the court) or sealing off a would-be help defender (with what some might argue is a moving screen, but alas) to escort a ball handler to the rim for a layup:
Does it show up on the stat sheet? No.— SunOfficial Aron Baynes Fan Club (@BaynesFanClub) January 13, 2020
Did Aron Baynes perfectly seal off his man to give Kelly Oubre a clear path for the easy two?
You bet your arse he did. pic.twitter.com/Ktja1t9uI6
Baynes’s willingness to do the dirty work, ability to muscle up against more physically imposing big men, and capacity to invert the offense by spreading the floor and opening up the paint seems like a combination that virtually every contender would want. With a rolled-back odometer and a slightly cleaner medical history, he might be in line for eight figures a year. As it stands, though, he might only command something like the taxpayer mid-level exception (just over $5.7 million last season). If that’s the case, he will likely have more than a few bidders.
Small forward | UFA | Age: 23
2019-20 with Grizzlies: 9 points, 3 rebounds, 1.6 assists in 17.3 minutes per game; 44% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 70% FT
I’ll be honest: I have no idea what to make of Jackson.
The fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft washed out of Phoenix, losing his spot on the wing to 2018 draftee Mikal Bridges, and falling out of favor entirely after multiple off-court incidents. After the Suns sent Jackson to the Grizzlies with De’Anthony Melton to carve out the cap space to sign Ricky Rubio, he had to climb the ladder in Memphis all the way up from the bottom rung. To his credit, he did it, starting in the G League, proving he could produce there, and earning a call-up only after injuries had battered the Grizzlies’ rotation.
Jackson didn’t leap off the page once he got his second chance, but he did contribute, averaging 10.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.1 steals in 20.7 minutes per game over his final 17 appearances before the hiatus. His jumper remains a work in progress, but Jackson’s willingness to fire from deep and ability to slash to the hoop paid dividends in Memphis: The Grizz outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions in his minutes.
And then the league shut down for four months, and Jackson barely played for Memphis in the bubble, and now we’re left with a great big shrug emoji. He’s not a great 3-point shooter, but he’s a willing one (nearly nine attempts per 100 possessions with the Grizz) who shot 38.2 percent from deep in the G League. He’s not a great ball handler, but he can run a pick-and-roll and the fast break. He’s not a great defender, but at 6-foot-8 and 207 pounds, he’s got the size to guard multiple positions, and a knack for using his quickness and 6-foot-10 wingspan to create turnovers. And he’s still less than four years removed from being a top-five pick.
Twenty-two games of decent rotation play for an injury-plagued team probably isn’t enough to earn a significant multiyear commitment. After how things fell apart in Phoenix, he’ll probably have to accept another cheap prove-it deal before he gets a longer look. But if he can turn the flashes he showed in Memphis into sustained production, he could wind up being a really nice buy-low option for teams in need of an injection of athleticism and adrenaline on the wing.