Free agency could start as soon as a few days after the Nov. 18 draft, and it’s going to be chaotic. There aren’t many teams with cap space, which is partially a result of the lack of superstars on the market. Teams weren’t desperately dumping salary before February’s trade deadline in order to position themselves to sign on a No. 2 or No. 3 option.
While there will not be Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo pitch meetings to track, there should be a lot of player movement. Tons of players signed short-term contracts last summer, and free agents will be incentivized to sign quickly, before the teams with money spend all of it.
If you’d like a deep dive on the players available, here is a list. And here are 14 questions about this year’s free agency:
1. Can anybody pry VanVleet or Harris away?
Fred VanVleet and Joe Harris are crucial parts of their respective teams. They’ve both said on the record they prefer to re-sign, and if nothing crazy happens that should be the outcome.
But how crazy would another team have to get to make the Toronto Raptors or Brooklyn Nets flinch? The New York Knicks have had a point guard problem for eternity; to solve it, maybe they’d be willing to offer VanVleet a bit more than they would otherwise, especially if they’re also trying to scare off the Detroit Pistons. If the Atlanta Hawks are trying to make a playoff push, then Harris would fit in beautifully. Given that VanVleet can guard bigger players, he could even work there, too, starting next to Trae Young and running the second unit.
The Raptors don’t have much wiggle room if they want to enter next year’s free agency with a max slot and try to lure Antetokounmpo. The Nets are looking at a hefty luxury-tax bill, so they need to be careful, too. Let’s see if anybody goes nuts.
2. How much more can Bogdanovic do?
Bogdan Bogdanovic turned 28 in August, but that doesn’t mean he’s done developing. The Sacramento Kings guard has never had a usage rate higher than 22.1 percent in his three seasons, and there is evidence he can handle a larger playmaking role.
It’s not obvious, however, just how much larger that role can be, though the upside almost certainly stops short of “lead playmaker.” Executives have had plenty of time to watch the tape of him filling in for an injured De’Aaron Fox at point guard and come to their own conclusions.
This is an important question even for Sacramento, as the new front office, led by Monte McNair, figures out how to proceed. Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent, so the Kings can keep him if they want to. But what if he finds an offer sheet that pays him $70-80 million for the next four years? And what if a suitor without cap space offers them draft picks in a sign-and-trade in order to pay him something similar? Is there any chance they don’t trade Buddy Hield?
3. Who’s sold on Wood?
There is no free agent more interesting than the 25-year-old who went undrafted in 2015 and, until this year, had yet to finish a season having made more appearances in NBA games than G League games. Christian Wood had a world of upside the entire time he was bouncing around, and he was quietly productive as a bench player before a 13-game stretch in which he was so much more than that.
Typically, if you’re going to make a multi-year investment in a player, a team would like to look at a larger sample size. Wood wasn’t even a lock to make the Pistons’ roster in training camp, but when the hiatus hit he was easily their most important player.
In theory, he could fit on all of the rebuilding teams. Who wouldn’t want a 6-foot-10 big who can stretch the floor, catch lobs, block shots and move his feet? Players with such a limited track record in a featured role don’t typically inspire bidding wars, but players this young and talented are almost never unrestricted free agents.
4. Is Bertans a lock stay in D.C.?
The Wizards wouldn’t have kept Davis Bertans at the trade deadline without having confidence they could re-sign him. Publicly they have been consistent with their intention to try to take a step forward next season, when John Wall returns from injury, and show Bradley Beal that he can win in Washington. Bertans’ absurd and accurate 3-point shooting can definitely help if that’s the goal.
I just wonder what series of events could possibly get in the way. Obviously, if Beal were to request a trade tomorrow, that would change things. Is that it, or is there another suitor that could mess this whole plan up?
5. Who can play the sign-and-trade game?
When he finally became an unrestricted free agent in 2019, Jimmy Butler got exactly what he wanted: A max contract with the Miami Heat. It didn’t matter that Miami didn’t enter the offseason with cap space; it worked out a sign-and-trade that sent Josh Richardson to the Philadelphia 76ers.
For several free agents, this will be the only path to change teams, play for a winner and make more than the mid-level exception. Danilo Gallinari and Tristan Thompson likely fit in this category. This isn’t always easy, though, and even the Butler arrangement hit a snag before it was completed.
6. How much will CBA minutiae affect everything?
A lot! I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the NBA didn’t make as much money as it projected last season, and everybody’s waiting to find out exactly where the salary cap and luxury-tax levels are set. Teams that stay under the “apron” — which is about $6 million above the tax threshold — have a larger mid-level exception to offer, can receive players in sign-and-trade transactions and can use a bi-annual exception.
Since there are so few teams with significant space, players who usually wouldn’t take the midlevel will have to consider it. Contending teams that can offer the non-taxpayer MLE will have an advantage over those that can’t.
7. What is the Clippers’ plan?
The Clippers could look into sign-and-trades involving Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris. If they can’t work something out, they have to retain them, right? A win-now team that is bereft of draft picks shouldn’t be in the business of letting good players walk.
“We’re going to really need to be on our game when it comes time to (sort out) our roster,” owner Steve Ballmer said recently. “Given that we don’t have a lot of picks going forward, how we sort of work in margins and really find and develop talent and how we use our exceptions and our veteran minimums, there’s a lot of work.”
JaMychal Green might be able to get a raise if he opts out of his $5 million player option. Los Angeles has his Bird rights, but its other moves could affect his interest in re-signing. If Harrell or Morris wind up elsewhere, Green would be in line for more minutes.
8. Will Miami surprise us?
The Heat’s offseason could be simple: Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder return on one-year deals, they don’t reach an extension with Bam Adebayo and they maintain their 2021 cap space.
Miami has options, though. It can create around $21 million in space by renouncing all of its free agents, and there’s no better recruiting tool than the Finals run it just had. If it renounces Dragic, other contenders would jump at the chance to get him.
9. Who is opting out?
It was a bit surprising when Al Horford turned down his $30.1 million player option last offseason, but unrestricted free agency worked out extremely well for him. This time around, it will be much harder for veterans to pull something like that off.
If you’re in DeMar DeRozan’s position, you’re probably not declining a $27.7 million option without some assurance that a long-term deal is out there. Would the Hawks go after him? I doubt it, but maybe they’d think about Gordon Hayward, who has a $32.4 million option. Sign-and-trades are possible in these scenarios, too, but simply opting in is much more likely.
Some other notable wings with player options: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($8.5 million), Tim Hardaway Jr. ($19 million) and Evan Fournier ($17 million). My guess is that Caldwell-Pope opts out and re-signs with the Lakers, and Hardaway and Fournier opt-in.
10. How serious is Atlanta?
Everybody’s saying the Hawks are going for it, but what exactly does that look like? It probably doesn’t mean trying to get a 32-year-old Gallinari, but Harris makes sense and the Hayward idea is at least intriguing.
Atlanta’s big problem is defense, though. With that in mind, Justin Holiday and Derrick Jones Jr. could slide right in. Caldwell-Pope is a potential fit, too, if he doesn’t immediately re-up in Los Angeles.
There is also the question of how committed the Hawks are to John Collins. If they extend his contract, then they would have little use for someone like Wood or, say, Jerami Grant. If they trade Collins, then it’s an entirely different story.
11. With a new front office, has New York learned from last year?
Encouraging news! The Knicks are reportedly open to using their cap space to take on salary in exchange for draft picks, which is what they should’ve done last summer when they realized they weren’t getting Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But New York is also reportedly interested in signing Carmelo Anthony and trading for Chris Paul, so it’s not clear that it is taking the long view here.
In fairness, the Marcus Morris signing was perfect, since the Knicks turned him into a first-round pick a few months after signing him. And the strategy of targeting a mix of young-ish players and veterans on short-term deals wasn’t crazy. They got the wrong guys, though, and they need to start building something.
12. Can Charlotte add to its core?
Charlotte needs talent any way it can get it, and the front office can afford to outbid some of its competition in an effort to sign one of the top-tier guys. The front office should look at this as a rare opportunity to make a meaningful move in free agency.
There are variables here, though, and their roster could look significantly different by the time they are making offers. The Hornets could move Terry Rozier if they’re not sold on him and Devonte’ Graham as their long-term backcourt. They’re rumored to be trying to trade up in the draft for James Wiseman. Whatever they do on these fronts will affect how they use their space. Harrell is a logical target now, but won’t be if they get Wiseman.
13. What is happening in Detroit?
The Pistons looked like a typical tanking team toward the end of the regular season, but their situation is more complicated than that. Blake Griffin’s injury put the franchise in an awkward position, and Dwane Casey didn’t come to Detroit to oversee a long-term rebuilding project.
It would hurt to lose Wood after his big breakout, but if he gets too expensive, re-signing him would cut into the Pistons’ cap room, which they’d presumably like to use on another starter-quality player. In a meeting with that kind of player, though, what will they tell him about the direction of the team? So much rides on whether or not Griffin can return to form.
14. Where will the bigs go?
Let’s say the Lakers decide they want to use their MLE to sign a new starting center. Would Thompson take a discount to reunite with LeBron James? Serge Ibaka probably wouldn’t, right? Is Marc Gasol an option? Aron Baynes? Derrick Favors?
Every offseason, it is getting more difficult for non-star bigs to get paid. Paul Millsap is probably an MLE guy at this point, and there is a looooong list of traditional centers and stretch 5s competing for a relatively small amount of rotation spots, including Harry Giles, Nerlens Noel, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green, Mason Plumlee, Hassan Whiteside, Meyers Leonard, Alex Len, Cheick Diallo, DeMarcus Cousins, Markieff Morris, Willie Cauley-Stein and Chris Boucher.
If this is what the market looks like every year, how much will the San Antonio Spurs be willing to commit to restricted free agent Jakob Poeltl? The same goes for the Phoenix Suns and Dario Saric. Enes Kanter had an inconsistent role with the Boston Celtics, but he’s probably better off picking up his $5 million option than looking elsewhere. JaVale McGee is in the same situation with a $4.2 million option.
More offseason questions: On the title picture and on the trade market.