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The NBA Free Agents With the Most at Stake Inside the Bubble

There’s never been a free agency like the one we’ll see this fall. Here’s a look at the most intriguing free agents looking to showcase their skills in the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As much as I’d prefer skipping this disclaimer about the NBA’s 2020 free-agency class and get to the fun, Fred VanVleet–lovin’ stuff, we have to acknowledge the uncertainty of next year’s salary cap. Not even Larry Coon’s “NBA Salary Cap FAQ”—a 127-question, 72,920-word exhaustive CBA dissertation—can predict the impact of this season’s unprecedented stop and restart. The salary cap is determined by the previous season’s revenue; we still have no idea what that will be. The only certainties are that the NBA has lost a significant amount of money already and is desperately trying to recoup as much as possible in a fanless, mid-pandemic restart. Whatever’s raked in from late July to mid-October won’t nearly make up for the losses.

In January, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported a salary cap projection of $115 million for next season (higher than 2019-20’s $109.1 million). It’s unclear if that number will remain the same or what will happen to free agents expecting large paydays, but we do know that money will still be available to some degree, and that the teams with cap space will still be looking to (relatively) spend it. Here are the four most important* unrestricted free agents to watch for in the bubble and four more intriguing names to keep an eye on:

(*Excluding Anthony Davis and players with options like Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozan, who would be ill-advised to not take the guaranteed money in this climate. Hayward is set to make $34.2 million next season, and DeRozan can opt in for $27.7 million after a remarkably unflattering year with the Spurs.)

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

I doubt the Clippers expected Harrell to become an essential member of their offense when they traded for him in 2017. He averaged 15 minutes per game in two seasons with the Rockets, which was enough to be labeled a certified “energy guy,” but not much more. Harrell is undersized at 6-foot-7, and the moment called for bigs with oversized, taffy limbs, not tweeners. (Even the word “tweener” is now out of date.) Harrell turned into a fan favorite in Los Angeles because of his efficiency—not just his scoring, though he has shot 61.4 percent over his career, but in how effectively he does particular things. Trez can catch anything: a lob that’s almost certainly beyond his reach, a full-court pass recklessly flung his way, or an errant ball destined to fly out of bounds, making him trusty in transition. But it’s the half court where Harrell does his best party trick, a pick-and-roll with Lou Williams that is reason enough to keep the two together next season.

Harrell has the second-best odds to win Sixth Man of the Year (plus-210) this year, topping Williams (plus-420), who won the award three times, including the past two years. It’d be a shame to split up the pair, but Los Angeles already has 10 players to pay next season, including two superstars. If Harrell explodes in the postseason—and maybe even pushes the Clippers to their first Western Conference finals—he may become too expensive to retain. That shouldn’t be the mindset for the Clippers, though, whose roster is mostly locked in for next season. Without Harrell, there’s no running it back.

In 2018, Harrell signed a two-year, $12 million deal, one of the biggest bargains in the league. Whatever the Clippers can pay him, they should, but don’t expect Harrell to take a discount any longer.

Fred VanVleet, Raptors

In October, which feels like a decade ago, VanVleet said on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid that he wanted to re-sign in Toronto. “This organization knows how I feel about this place,” VanVleet said. “So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.” (He also said that he told the Larry O’Brien trophy “like, psychically, telepathically, ‘All right brother, I’ll see you in June.’” Though the championship will actually be in October now, I love a player who can communicate psychically and telepathically.) It’s hard to believe this is only VanVleet’s fourth season in the league. He went undrafted out of Wichita State in 2016-17, became a mercurial backup in Toronto who slowly turned to a solid backup, then became a key defensive option and an NBA champion, and is someone who, I maintain to this day, should’ve gotten more love for Finals MVP.

Toronto is in a refreshingly freeing position entering free agency. Its core members are locked up: Pascal Siakam signed a four-year, $129.9 million max deal, and Kyle Lowry inked a one-year, $30.5 million extension to stay through 2021. (I’m still in awe of this deal. A one-year extension for a 34-year-old, especially for a franchise legend, is future flexibility most front offices couldn’t get.) Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will become free agents, but a young supporting cast is made up of players on team-friendly deals, leaving plenty of money on the books for VanVleet.

If Toronto isn’t willing to pony up, there are a handful of teams in need of a guard with VanVleet’s skill set. New York is perpetually searching, Detroit needs more than Derrick Rose, and even Atlanta’s been suggested with VanVleet playing off-ball.

Danilo Gallinari, Thunder

It’s hard to tell what continuity Oklahoma City is looking for, if any, after shedding its old identity last summer. The hodgepodge post-Clippers-trade roster wound up securing a playoff spot ahead of the Rockets and Blazers instead of treading water or tanking the season as some might have expected. The team isn’t exactly young (Chris Paul is 35 years old) nor old (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is 21), yet it’s easier to theorize OKC having a younger team in mind for the long haul considering its 15 draft picks over the next seven years. That makes Gallo’s place on the team confusing: He’s on the verge of turning 32 with a long injury history—in the past five seasons, since missing the entire 2013-14 season, he’s averaged 52.8 games—but he’s coming off two prolific shooting years. The Thunder can afford to retain him, but another team closer to a championship might choose to ignore his age, injury history, and slippery defense, and pay big for the immediate offensive help.

Joe Harris, Nets

“In an ideal world,” Harris said back in April, “I would play my whole career in Brooklyn. I came in with Sean Marks, even the ownership.” When Kyrie Irving said in January that Brooklyn needs better “pieces” to complement him, Kevin Durant, and a handful of other Nets, he didn’t include Harris’s name. But the team should make re-signing Harris a priority, even as they reportedly search for a third star. The most valuable role-player type in 2020 is a 3-point shooter who can’t miss. Harris is more than just someone who can spot up and maximize on a few dribbles or less—he’s an apt defender who can also score inside the arc. Find a shooter whose numbers aren’t a season-long fluke, and keep him. (Harris has dropped from last season’s league-high 47.4 percent 3-point shooting to 41.2 percent this season, still good for 15th in the league.)

Again, Brooklyn is one of the teams that will have to wait to fully know where it stands financially this offseason. But there’s no question it’s willing to spend. “We’re going to be a tax team,” Marks said in January. “We are married to that. There’s a limited amount of times and ways you can continue to add to your team. You better do it now. You’re gearing up for a run.” Championship teams need to nail the role players, not just the stars (or whomever Brooklyn wants to be its third). Harris is one of those pieces who demands little and makes everything else work.

Other Free Agents to Watch

  • Paul Millsap, Nuggets: It took time for Millsap to click with the Nuggets because of injury and fit. His defense and floor spacing is crucial for the team, but the 35-year-old won’t yield offers anywhere near the $30 million on his contract for 2019-20. His appraisal has dipped significantly, so he could be one of the fall’s best bargains for a contender.
  • Aron Baynes, Suns: Baynes was valued in Boston as a sturdy defender, but Phoenix expanded his role to unpredictable lengths. (Isn’t that what Brad Stevens is known for?) He’s averaging four 3-point attempts this season compared to an average 0.2 per game in the previous seven, and is connecting on 35.1 percent of them. At 33, Baynes will be one of the most attractive veteran big men on the market and could benefit from a strong finish in the seeding games.
  • Goran Dragic, Heat: Miami outgrew its need for Dragic in a primary role in the past two years. Injuries played a part, but an influx of young talented guards moved him to the bench for all but one start in 2019-20. He’s been rejuvenated as a sixth man, averaging 16.1 points and 5.1 assists and captaining Miami’s second unit. A report in March said Dragic’s party “anticipates” a bloated one-year deal from the Heat this offseason, though that number might shrink substantially now, causing him to look elsewhere.
  • Serge Ibaka, Raptors: Ibaka’s next contract may be affected most by the sliced salary cap. He’s almost 31, in the middle of the best shooting season of his career (39.8 percent from 3 and averaging 16 points a game), and deserves credit for reimagining his role after Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Still, he shouldn’t be the player Toronto splurges on to keep. Ibaka’s defense has declined and his presence on the floor doesn’t make the Raptors substantially better. Under normal circumstances, it seemed probable that another team would offer more than the Raptors were willing to pay; with less money floating around, a hometown discount is easier to accept.