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The Five Most Intriguing Free Agents During the NBA’s Transaction Window

With multiple players bowing out of Orlando, the NBA has granted teams a mini free agency period before the restart. Who are the most attractive names on the market that could make a postseason impact?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the NBA to shape-shift. The league had to shut down in March, tweak the collective bargaining agreement, create a new schedule, treat positive tests as speed bumps on the road to Orlando, and ultimately form a contingency plan for those positive tests, too. Enter the NBA transaction window.

With players like Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza already opting out of the Orlando restart due to personal reasons, and more likely to follow in the next week or so (teams are treating July 1 as the deadline), the NBA is opening up a week-long free agency window starting Wednesday, during which teams can sign new players. Tyler Johnson has already reportedly agreed to sign with the Nets, Anthony Tolliver is getting his 10-day deal extended to provide a veteran presence to the young Grizzlies, and J.R. Smith is considered a “leading candidate” to sign with the Lakers. Yes, you read that right: J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters will likely be on the same team, inside a bubble, trying to help LeBron win a title for the next three-plus months.

For a number of free agents, this is an opportunity to not just get paid but perhaps set up a deal for next season. The NBA is allowing teams up to 17 roster spots in Orlando, including two two-way contracts, and seven of the 22 teams (Grizzlies, Kings, Spurs, Nuggets, Suns, Thunder, and Blazers) hold open roster spots without having to make a move. Here are some of the most intriguing names on the market:

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas’s career arc over the past few years has gotten quite dark. Ever since the Celtics traded him in 2017, he has struggled to find his footing elsewhere due to injuries and poor fits. In Washington this season, there were flashes: 12.2 points per game and 41.3 percent shooting from 3, but it wasn’t enough for the Clippers to keep him when they landed him in a three-team deal at the deadline for Marcus Morris. Thomas himself said he was surprised that the Clippers waived him, but with Lou Williams already on board and Landry Shamet providing enough insurance, there would have been little room for Thomas to help.

Now? All bets are off. Having too much guard depth isn’t possible in this current scenario, especially for teams with title aspirations. With Johnson off the board to Brooklyn, Thomas is a compelling option for teams to consider. If playoff experience is valued, Thomas certainly stands out more than some of the other players on this list. Not so much when it comes to height or defense.

Iman Shumpert

Shumpert has never once averaged double-digit points per game since entering the NBA in 2011, but he’s been able to forge a nine-season career for himself, including as a role player on the Cavs’ 2017 championship team. A 3-and-D wing (in theory), Shumpert’s Basketball-Reference page doesn’t provide any illuminating clues for why he could be of great value to a playoff team (his 3-point shooting, for example, has dipped to 33 percent over the last three years), so it’s safe to say what he can bring is more intangible. Perhaps defense, given his length. Or something else altogether.

I’ll say this: I remember when Shumpert was with the 2018-19 Kings, and the team swung through L.A. to play the Lakers. They lost the game, but you could tell Shumpert had developed a camaraderie with at least some of the Kings players. This may have been just a one-night glimpse, but it coincides with all the nice things Kings players had to say about Shumpert when he was traded to Houston. Maybe there’s a team that needs that. Maybe it’s the Kings!

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins hasn’t played a game in nearly a year, but he was in the news this week. Cousins is reportedly weighing the possibility of joining a playoff team for the Orlando restart. The big man has suffered untimely injuries the last few seasons after tearing his Achilles with the Pelicans in 2018. Just like he tried and failed to maximize his one-year deal with the Warriors last season, a one-year deal with the Lakers this season was supposed to vault him to his next contract. Instead, he got hurt again (this time a torn ACL), but remained with the Lakers for rehab even after they waived him in February to make room for Markieff Morris.

On Tuesday morning, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that, though Cousins had received interest from a handful of teams, he will not be coming back to play the rest of the season, choosing to focus on his rehab instead. Just a few hours later, however, Cousins’ agent told the Los Angeles Times that he had not ruled out signing with a team that would give him a chance to not just continue rehab, but to play. The delay has certainly allowed Cousins to get as healthy as possible and likely gives him a shot at contributing at least a handful of minutes to a team in need of a big man (as you can see by this list, and the fact that the Clippers are signing Joakim Noah through the season, there are not a lot of options). I imagine whether a team is a title contender and can offer up a good chunk of change might be what either moves or doesn’t move the needle for Cousins.

Jamal Crawford

A nostalgic choice if there ever was one. It’s not exactly clear why the 40-year-old Crawford remained a free agent this season. In November, Crawford himself said he was working to get back in the league and hopefully land a deal to get his comeback Melo moment, referring to Carmelo Anthony’s signing with the Blazers.

I have no doubt that Crawford, despite his age, could still help a team in spurts. I mean, he scored 51 points in his most recent NBA game, which was just last year. Maybe this is a half-hearted attempt to predict the unpredictable, but with some level of rustiness being natural for most players and teams that have been sidelined, someone with the off-the-dribble shot-making skills that Crawford has could be a boon for a playoff team in Orlando. Even if it is only one flash off the bench that helps a team win a single playoff game, the move might be worth it.

Trey Burke

Burke belongs on this list if only because he played 25 games this season and averaged 13 minutes a game. There’s a reason why the Sixers ended up waiving Burke at the trade deadline to make room for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III—he wasn’t good enough this season to stick—but that doesn’t mean some team won’t talk themselves into giving the former lottery pick another shot. At best, Burke is a third guard who can come off the bench and catch fire. In theory, he would have been perfect for the Sixers, a team in dire need of an on-ball creator that can also shoot. But Burke shot less than 50 percent from the field during his time in Philly and averaged only a nick over two assists.

Honorable mentions: Tim Frazier (theoretical shooter!), C.J. Miles (veteran presence?), Joe Johnson (both!), Allen Crabbe (why not?)